Interview: The Beets
The spirit of the Ramones seeps into a Queens trio.
Mon Apr 18 2011
Jose Garcia sits outside the Jackson Heights house where he grew up and currently lives in slacker's paradise, his basement apartment situated just beneath his parents and dog. With surgical attention, the bespectacled bassist laces a pair of the white knockoff Keds favored by both himself and Juan Wauters, his best friend and coconspirator in what might prove to be New York's coolest band: the Beets.
Before long, Wauters, the singer and guitarist, rolls up in the group's 1985 Volvo, leaking a Stones song onto the quiet street. He wears sunglasses and a makeshift ascot and is accompanied by Chie Mori, the Beets' drummer of two weeks' tenure. In decades past, the boxy station wagon no doubt ferried suburban children between Little League games and math tutors. Now, it is piloted through the streets of Queens by this nutter with a Cheshire-cat grin, who has taped a portrait of the band's idol, Howard Stern, to its window. Ostensibly, the Volvo has come down in the world—yet one senses that if the car could speak, it would proclaim its current life to be an absolute blast.
Later, pulling up to his Astoria apartment, Wauters blithely bumps a neighbor's car, grabs the hardcover edition of Stern's Private Parts that he lugs about like a screwball's bible and cheerfully darts inside. He hops across the kitchen floor while putting on a sock and turns on Stern's show. A recent issue of Mad magazine lies on the floor.
Stylistically speaking, the Beets do not immediately evoke the Ramones. Their two albums, including this year's ravishing, ramshackle Stay Home, straddle the border of folk and punk, with sluggish songs voiced at times in group sing-along. "It's kind of cheesy," Wauters confesses, "but my dream is for kids to sing Beets songs around a bonfire." Nonetheless, the essence of the Ramones pulsates through this group's every movement. Wauters, who emigrated from Uruguay when he was 18, speaks as if he were taught English by Joey Ramone himself, claiming that in his teens he devoted 90 percent of his listening to Ramones records. "They're the most South American rock band," he reasons. "Street kids doing street music, talking about their feelings and girls. And in Queens, you just feel the Ramones. They weren't city boys—they were neighborhood kids."
Wauters and Garcia met seven years ago in a community-college art class. They are not sure precisely when their hanging out developed into the Beets, but at some recent point they found themselves releasing records on the chic Brooklyn label Captured Tracks. While various musicians have shuffled through their ranks, the pair's constant cohort has been a silent member: Matthew Volz, who draws their vivid, faux-naive record sleeves and stage banners, which typically involve bloody imagery and Queens shout-outs.
Mori, a Japanese native who plays a fierce stand-up kit in the Velvet Underground model, is this young band's seventh drummer. (Before stumbling into clich, note that the famous Spinal Tap scene references a mere four.) What, exactly, befell her predecessors? "Well, the first drummer was late for practice," Garcia says. "Right?"
"No, 'cause we're always late," Wauters counters. "We just didn't like her style."
"Then there was Ben, who quit," Garcia offers.
"And then Jacob's friend," Wauters adds. "He couldn't do a show, so we asked Jacob. He had never played drums before, and only had two days."
"But he was coming to shows, so he knew the songs," Garcia explains.
"Then there was Melissa. Wait, why'd we kick her out?"
"She was late," Garcia says. "And then Scott, who left to tour with some other band."
"Chie's just learning," Wauters concludes, "but she's a natural."
Though creatures of Queens, demographic trends draw the Beets to Brooklyn rock clubs nearly every week. (They grow restless unless playing constantly.) Before people knew them, Garcia and Wauters would split following their set, so that they didn't have to watch their fellow bands. Now, they deign to stick around, but mainly out of propriety. They seem spiritually aloof from their contemporaries: cartoons marooned in a world of live actors.
"I wouldn't want our fans to just be people who go see other bands," Wauters explains. "I want them to be like Howard Stern's fans—really passionate and sincere."
"People who go to all the shows and really get it," adds Garcia.
"I don't know if it'll happen," Wauters says. "We would have to change the mentality of everybody. The Ramones were always outcasts, ya know? Maybe we're supposed to be outcasts our whole life."