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Unknown bands are getting slots on late-night TV

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Time Out New York / Issue 666 : Jul 3–8, 2008

Radio on the TV

More and more unknown bands are getting slots on late-night TV. Are they ready?

By Jay Ruttenberg

White Rabbits were en route to Cleveland last year when pianist Stephen Patterson received a call inviting the young Brooklyn septet to perform on The Late Show with David Letterman. “I completely freaked out,” Patterson says. “I pulled off at a highway rest stop and we just ran around the van, calling our moms and dads.”

Becoming elated over such news is more or less obligatory. Nellie McKay remembers “jumping in the air and doing a kind of flippery arm motion” upon being informed of her first Letterman booking; Spoon frontman Britt Daniel says he was “absolutely shocked” when told that Saturday Night Live had scheduled his band. But at the time of their Late Show invitation, White Rabbits were without a label apparatus, press clippings or even fans. “We got back in the van, drove to Cleveland and played a show for five people,” Patterson says. When the day of the taping arrived, the musicians—whose vehicle had been stolen near their Bushwick home—hired a “man with a van” to drive them to the Ed Sullivan Theater. While waiting in the green room, they received another call, this time from their landlord. Their rent was overdue.

White Rabbits—whose performance was zealous and youthful—were selected by Letterman for the same cloudy reasoning that has drawn people to songs for centuries: “There was just something about the band that I gravitated to,” explains Late Show music-segment producer Sheryl Zelikson. Nevertheless, their appearance was indicative of trends from the past few years, during which indie rock’s stock has swelled, mainstream radio has collapsed and the sight of low-profile acts on network programs has become increasingly commonplace. In some ways, today’s climate seems like a return to earlier transitional eras that saw punks like Fear on SNL (1981) or Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show (a bit earlier). “When we got the White Stripes on Letterman in 2001, it seemed like a wildly bizarre thing,” says Chloë Walsh, co-owner of Press Here Publicity. “But bookers have become really open to taking chances. Bands will have a few reviews and a lot of blog coverage, and the next logical step is to get a TV show.”

Watching wide-eyed young rock groups shake hands with iconic talk-show hosts is reliably heartwarming, and a performance from an unusual rookie is always more compelling than one from old-guard bromides. Yet playing on television is no easy task, requiring a set of skills that may elude callow acts. Even the mighty Vampire Weekend recently interrupted its golden year with a comparatively tepid SNL set. “There’s no warm-up period,” says Spoon’s Daniel, whose band had been around for nearly a decade before its 2002 network debut, on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. “It’s just, like, bang! Three minutes and you’re done.”

Indeed, the leap from rock clubs to television is monumental, a modern-day equivalent of vaudeville stars being forced to adapt their act to film. Unlike albums—which so often benefit from a musician’s greenness—truly memorable TV spots tend to emanate from more experienced hands, such as Beck playing alongside puppets on SNL or the White Stripes performing among Conan O’Brien’s audience. Such appearances “are not just about promoting records,” says Steve Martin, president of the publicity company Nasty Little Man. “They become part of an artist’s career.”

Perhaps no contemporary act understands this better than one of Martin’s clients, Beastie Boys, who have elevated the quickie TV appearance to an art. A best-of reel would include their SNL appearance backing Elvis Costello and a Letterman clip shot on camcorders by the host and Paul Shaffer. The band’s masterpiece, however, is a 2004 Late Show feat in which the trio emerged rapping from a subway station and, in one extended shot, continued along 53rd Street, winding through the theater’s backstage area and finally bounding onstage. Adam Yauch says that even his friends wrongly assumed they were lip-synching or had used alternate takes. “If there is an opportunity to do something interesting, we’ll try it,” he says. “Live TV is great—there’s no turning back. If you mess up, that’s it.”

Such complex performances, however, may be best left to the pros. “Going on television is probably the most unnatural experience a young band will face,” claims Jim Pitt, the longtime music-talent executive at Conan. If you’re untested, “it’s a huge mistake to try something crazy to get attention. Because if you can’t put your song across well, it really doesn’t matter what else you do.”

Then again, sometimes the best advice comes from amateurs. “My mom,” Daniel notes, “says you should always look into the camera.”

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Reminds me of when Elvis Costello first appeared on SNL in the USA, he was a replacement act for The Sex Pistols, and when he came on, he, and the Attractions, started playing one number, then Elvis told them to stop, and then they started to do another song, which pissed off the producers at SNL because then it threw their timings out and Elvis was barred from the show for many years

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