Juan Wauters and Matt Volz almost met Howard Stern once. Sitting on a park bench in Jackson Heights, watching a pick-up volleyball game, the singer and artist-in-residence of The Beets recount the moment with starry-eyed nostalgia, as a tale of what might have been.
Wauters: It was a really weird moment.
Volz: It was so fucking bizarre. We saw Ronnie. Ronnie’s his limo driver.
JW: I saw him, and Matt was coming to meet me in Central Park, and I said “You gotta come, Ronnie’s outside a building, with a limo, and that means Howard’s coming down . . .” Matt was just a couple blocks away, and it turns out that Howard was where he lives, we looked it up and he lives there. We didn’t try to go to his house! It wasn’t like that, it was just by chance.
MV: And just a couple minutes of waiting, we see Howard walking out! I was like, holy shit, I never get starstruck or nervous, but…
JW: It felt like forever.
MV: My body couldn’t move. I was like what the fuck.
JW: I was like “You gotta talk to him,” Matt’s like “No, you talk.” Matt couldn’t say a word.
MV: We were trying to give him a piece of artwork! But he’s kind of a germaphobe, so he doesn’t take shit.
The Beets have long made their admiration for Howard known—they listen avidly in their tour van, and they talk about the wack-packers the way some people talk about baseball players. Juan Wauters even cites Howard as a strong influence on his songwriting: “He studies human experience, he’s always talking about people and their moral issues. He’s got his own—as I do, and as everyone should—his own code of morality. It’s very down to the core of uh, what’s good for humankind. Nothing to do with the law or anything, or god.”
October 15 will mark the band’s first release since 2011’s Let The Poison Out (whose title references a Stern saying)—a 7” entitled “Silver Nickels and Golden Dimes,” consisting of two songs Howard Stern wrote in his rock ’n’ roll adolescence. I met up with The Beets the other day in Jackson Heights to talk about the release, The Ramones, the borough of Queens, and the band’s biggest goal: to appear on The Howard Stern Show.
I arrived early and waited around on the corner of 75th and Roosevelt, watching an old woman wave a cardboard sign for one of those shops that buys gold. I listened to an ice cream truck play its jingle on loop for half an hour, and resolved never again to purchase ice cream from a truck. Chie Morie, The Beets' drummer who also plays in What Next?, pulled up right on time on her bicycle. Fifteen minutes later, a white van pulled up across the street. Chie gestured toward it and said “that’s them.” We hopped in and rode around for a while, looking for parking—there had been a parade earlier in the day, and a lot of the streets were blocked off. It wasn’t too long before Juan and Matt were teaching me about Bronies, which they’d heard about on Howard. Bronies, for those who don’t know, are grown men who honestly enjoy My Little Pony, the TV show and line of toys. Some of them say it’s just quality entertainment, but others enjoy the show on a sexual level—those who masturbate to the show are referred to as Cloppers. This past year, there was a convention called Bronycon—with 4,000 attendees.
“This has to be an elaborate joke,” I said. It sounded like it was organized in the depths of 4chan, and the joke was on the rest of us.
“No!” said Matt, “This is true! We heard it on Howard and then we met a real Brony in North Carolina—he was wearing a pin of Rainbow Dash, and I asked him, and he said that was his favorite My Little Pony.”
Matt parked the van, and after deliberating over the legality of his parking job, we all got out and started walking. The first stop on our tour of Jackson Heights was to be a bakery called La Gran Uruguaya, where Matt likes to sit and draw sometimes. When we got there he ordered four chocolate men. Jose Garcia, The Beets’ bassist since the beginning, wouldn’t be meeting us—he’d been temporarily replaced in the group’s performing line-up by another Juan who they call Tall Juan, a smiley, affable guy from Buenos Aires who’d learned all the songs and filled in for the last few shows. Juan Wauters told me later that “(Jose) is our really good friend but he fucked up and we had to let him go. So I’m dealing with feelings of anger and sadness, you know? We have our friend Juan who’s been giving us a hand now, and maybe in the coming months The Beets morph into a new lineup with him. It’s hard to say what will happen, but The Beets is an institution by now.”
Like everything about The Beets, their light show is DIY to a nearly militant degree. It consists of maybe 8 lamps (the stripped-down, utilitarian kind you see at construction sites), fixed to the band’s mike stands and placed on the floor below them. The house lights go off, and as the band plays, the lightbulbs flicker on and off, rhythmically illuminating their faces and instruments. The effect is epileptic—it’s too slow to cause the stop-motion effect of a strobelight, but too quick to let you focus on any one element. It gets hard to watch, and I tend to close my eyes after 10 minutes of it. But it complements the band’s signature delivery perfectly, as they slam out a minimalist accompaniment and sing many of the songs in unison, keeping the attention on the songs and not on the singers.
Also illuminated by their homegrown lighting setup are three banners, draped between stands that look like speaker stands from a PA. One is an American flag. Another says “THE BEETS sell soul to a soulless people who have sold their souls. LATINS GOING PLATINUM.” “Meanwhile, back in Queens…” says the third. The former was designed, they say, by Betsy Ross, and the latter two were designed by Matt Volz, who also draws the group’s album art and T-shirts. During shows, he crouches behind the banners with a little panel of switches, flicking the lightbulbs on and off.
Juan, Matt, Chie and I sat at La Gran Uruguaya for about an hour, talking about movies, music, touring, etc. When Chie first toured with the band, the guys invented a character named Jimmy from Seattle, who was obsessed with the band’s first drummer—he was pissed that they replaced him, and he had vague but sinister plans to do something about it. He was texting Juan the whole way across the country. What Chie didn’t know, though, was that Juan had changed Matt’s number in his phone to say “Jimmy.” Matt was the author of all the threatening texts.
The conversation turned to a new coffee shop in town—by the accounts of both Matt and Juan, it's just your run-of-the-mill coffee place. Juan hated it, whereas Matt was sort of ambivalent. One problem with it, one that they could both agree upon, was about the picture in the bathroom by the sink. It was a framed portrait of a bearded man, with his beard accentuated by real, glued-on hair, suspiciously pubic in texture. The coffee shop bathroom was added to our itinerary.
We left the bakery and walked aimlessly around the neighborhood, Juan giving us all a little history lesson. Jackson Heights was initially designed to be a garden city, a concept for sustainable living developed in the late 1800s. Each of the buildings designed in this style is centered around a large plot of green space, originally intended for the residents to use to grow food. As a result, the historical district of Jackson Heights manages to feel both urban and lush, almost utopian.
“This is THE neighborhood,” said Juan, pointing over a gate into one of the gardens.
Juan showed us the church where Scrabble was invented, on the corner of 81st and 35th Ave. As a monument to the invention, the street sign has been altered to include the little offset numbers that denote points on Scrabble tiles. Chie hurried across the street to get a picture with her phone. A van was trying to make a right turn, and honked at her to get out of the way. Still looking at her picture, she gave the driver a very nonchalant middle finger as she crossed the street back to us.
The first time I met Juan Wauters was outside of Glasslands before The Beets’ show there in June. He was fidgeting and drinking water from a glass Coke bottle. He told me he’d been reading about The Ramones—they never drank before shows, and they consistently delivered an awesome, tightly-controlled performance. He wanted to replicate that kind of consistency, so to get ready for his set, he was doing pushups on the curb. Or rather, getting in and out of pushup position as we talked. This kind of giddy, fidgety energy was something I expected from the guy who wrote “Doing As I Do” and “Now I Live,” the frontman for a band whose three full-lengths each include a track entitled “Eat No Dick.” What surprised me was the sobriety element—The Beets’ music seems tailor-made for drunken yelling. But insofar as drunken yelling is even a part of the picture, it’s the crowd’s job.
Later, on that park bench in Jackson Heights, I asked Juan what kind of music gets him going, as a songwriter. “The Ramones,” he said. “The Ramones and The Beatles.” He also finds inspiration in Brazilian music from the ’60s. “They had Samba, this street music, drums that go on for like hours in a repetitive pattern with dancing and chanting. But then they picked up songwriting, the idea of individual songs, and put it in that form, and this whole movement of songwriters came through that.”
SH: Which artists are you listening to from that world?
JW: I like Jorge Ben, he’s my favorite one. But there are also some really famous ones. Gilberto Gil, Val Costa. I saw Gilberto Gil last year, he’s fucking wild, he’s still doing it. But I think Jorge Ben is the best. It’s like, thinking of music as a song is a very “pop” idea. And also, the tradition of songwriting is really important for American culture. You know, the cowboys going around with the guitar and singing to the cows and shit. That’s American, little tales, a story through a song.
SH: Do you see yourself as part of that tradition, you know, “The American Songwriter?”
JW: Yeah, of course, I’m very proud of that heritage of mine. Telling the tales.
Juan came here from Uruguay about 10 years ago, at the age of 18. “I had a couple years when I was alone, I didn’t know anyone here, so music was very important to me,” he said. Walking around Jackson Heights, he stopped on the sidewalk and chatted in Spanish with an old guy he used to hang out with in his first couple of years here, at a candy store where they called him “El Diente.” He started writing songs around that time, perhaps as a way in to the culture of his new homeland. You can still hear his accent, in both his speaking and his singing, but that’s the only thing about him that indicates he wasn’t born in Queens. And if the accent places him somewhere else, the music—the mix of folksy jangle and punk-rock “slam,” the do-it-yourself presentation, the individualist attitude running through the lyrics—speaks to a new set of roots, and in so doing, comes across as distinctly American. There is nothing more American than a new set of roots.
In that sense, The Beets’ home borough of Queens might be the definition of American. As we watched a high-stakes volleyball game unfold from the park bench, Juan and Matt continued to sing the praises of Jackson Heights.
MV: I think Jackson Heights has the most languages spoken, block for block, I think in the country.
JW: Most cosmopolitan ZIP code in the country.
MV: Different dialects and shit like that. And I guess the Ramones thing has something to do with it, The Ramones, Paul Simon, all the people who came from here. It’s like Juan said, he’s carrying on a tradition.
JW: The Ramones couldn’t have existed in Brooklyn. The Ramones couldn’t have existed in Manhattan. They had to be from Queens, they are really Queens guys. The whole thing is very Queens.
MV: If we were from some town in New Jersey, we’d be like . . .
JW: Luckily, we’re here. We don’t have to be representing New Jersey.
MV. We got lucky there.
JW: There’s a lot of great things to be proud of from here, I mean, to me, it’s the best borough. The Ramones are from here, Howard Stern is from here.
MV: Paul Simon, LL Cool J, Run DMC . . .
CM: And Scrabble!
JW: Yeah it’s like, really hardcore.
SH: Has Howard heard your 7” yet?
JW: I don’t know if Howard heard it yet . . . He must have heard it! We want to try to get on the show. We love Howard, and we think he’d like what we do. We’re not looking to get on the show to gain fans, because we’re not about that, it’s more about being a part of something we appreciate. Like you got to play a song with The Beatles—I would be done! What else could I do? My career is over then.
MV: Is there even anyone else like that, you’d want to meet?
JW: I’m not looking to meet anyone. Just Howard. I mean I like the Stones, but I don’t want to hang out with Mick Jagger or Keith Richards.
MV: It’s not even like, to hang out, it’s just to let him know, hey . . .
JW: Yeah! That I’d die for this guy!
As we made our way to the coffee shop with the pube-bearded portrait, Juan and Matt told me a little bit about the resident weirdos of Jackson Heights. There’s one guy who wears a shirt with his own face screenprinted on it, and around where his belly button is, a rubber tongue protrudes from the shirt. I asked if they’d ever talked to this guy: “He doesn’t look like he wants to talk to you,” Juan said. There’s a section of 37th Ave referred to as Vaseline Alley, for reasons you could guess. There’s also the drag queen who catcalls all the neighborhood men from her bicycle every day. I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing or meeting any of these people before getting on the train back to Brooklyn, but I did see the pube-bearded portrait, and probably won’t be visiting that coffee shop again.
SH: A hypothetical: Say you were gonna be on worldwide TV for 2 and a half minutes, and then you were gonna disappear entirely, what song would you play?
JW: I’d play “Watching TV,” because we’re on TV.
CM: Yeah, that’s a good one.