Untapped Cities talked to songwriter and guitarist Todd Goldstein, of New York’s indie rock band ARMS, about how place influences him, the airplane hangar he’d like to build, and how a burned-down bar in Brooklyn is his favorite place in the city.
UC: How does New York City influence your music?
TG: I’ve been living in New York for about ten years now (a fact which, no matter how many times I say it, still feels insane), but I think I’ve only recently been able to acknowledged the city’s influence on my music. It’s less in the stylistic sense—I don’t think of my music as being particularly beholden to the storied lineage of “New York rock” (a little too clean-cut) or the more recently ubiquitous Brooklyn indie-rock thing (I always feel a little too song/lyrics-forward in the old-fashioned sense)—than in the lyrical content. You always read about New York as being a “city of strangers,” millions of people bumping into each other but having serious difficulty finding connection; people wracked with floating anxiety, constantly concerned with getting ahead, justifying themselves through work. It’s a hard place to slow down and just exist; it’s a hard place to have a relationship, a harder place to make music. And whaddayaknow? That’s what all my songs have been about for the last decade.
UC: What song of yours best reflects New York and why?
TG: I always think of “Shitty Little Disco” from the Kids Aflame album as my New York song. It was one of the first couple of songs I wrote after I moved here in 2004, one of those early-20s lonely-in-a-crowd stories inspired by my own experience. It also has that whole reverby, melancholy dance-rock vibe, which was the style at the time.
UC: What songs of other artists you like best reflect your city and why?
TG: Oh that’s a hard one. I’ve been listening to Sparks’ “Angst In My Pants” a lot recently. It’s a manic disco tune about how anxiety strikes when you least expect it. A very New York-at-the-moment sentiment, even though they’re from LA and the song came out in the early ’80s.
UC: If your band designed a building or public space, what would you do?
TG: I just want my own private empty airplane hangar to hang out in. Maybe put a roll-top desk in the middle. I would enjoy that.
UC: What’s an Untapped City Secret for New York?
TG: I’m not sure how ‘untapped’ or ‘secret’ this is, but there is a bar tucked into the end of Broadway in south Williamsburg called Donna that a friend of mine opened a few years ago that is one of the most beautiful, classy interior spaces I’ve ever seen. Unbelievably artful cocktails too, like magically delicious. They had an awful electrical fire a few months ago had to shutter the place so they could rebuild… once they’re up and running again, though… I’ll be there.
ARMS crafts lyrics-forward, slightly disjointed indie rock with melancholy tenor vocals sliding over arpeggiated guitar riffs, all undergirded by urgent, tight drumming. ARMS is a band that exists somewhere between the individual and the collaborative, as busy musicians strive to juggle competing interests and come together to create something cohesive in New York’s competitive, fast-paced crucible of creative energy. There’s an ambivalence to the music: about collaboration, about compromise, about its very existence, as if the musicians are fighting to do their own thing and yet are helpless to resist the narrative they’re creating together.
However, it seems like ARMS can’t help but exist: it’s the project that songwriter and guitarist Todd Goldstein keeps coming back to in the wake of other creative pursuits including the now-defunct Harlem Shakes. With Goldstein at its nucleus, ARMS has included other musicians for both brief and extended collaborations on its two albums and two EPs released since 2009. After a relatively long hiatus following the release of 2011’s Summer Skills, ARMS released EP2 last September, which is the result of an extended collaboration with drummer Tlacael Esparza.
Untapped Cities’ music series “Listen” highlights artists both big and small who we think you should know about, and explores how they influence and are influenced by their urban environments.