The New York City punk band Show Me the Body teetered over the edge of a dodgy roof in Chinatown. It was a blindingly bright summer afternoon, and frontman Julian Cashwan Pratt, 22, had just had his hair cut nearly to the skin in a makeshift art gallery/barber shop one floor below us. The band passed around a joint — fleetly rolled by drummer Noah Cohen-Corbett, 20, on top of a Bernie Sanders-stickered laptop — and kicked around music video ideas. Pratt was thinking it’d be cool to walk into the John Varvatos store, the high-end men’s retailer built on the bones of the former punk sanctuary CBGB, “and, like, puke all over all the clothes.” A consensus was quickly reached: if fake vomit is going to be used, black food coloring would be best.
A few blocks from here there’s a little-known small business called Imperial Ballroom. It’s usually a dance studio where stern Ukrainians teach Chinese retirees the waltz. A few days later, Show Me the Body played a record release party there for their wondrous, intense full-length debut, Body War, and effectively cross-checked the unsuspecting Imperial Ballroom into the boards.
Body War is a thorny, bizarre document. For one, the raucousness is built around Pratt’s harshly distorted banjo riffs. There are samples of the band’s own demos, manipulated until they sound like bleeping emergency sirens. There are effect pedals, abused to the point of sacrifice. “Some of the best shit comes from fucking machines up,” said bassist Harlan Steed, 21. “When shit sounds like it’s breaking, I’m usually very excited.”
There are moments of gorgeous clarity within the cacophony, too, like when the band slows everything down and Pratt speaks directly. Songs like these feel influenced equally by Show Me the Body’s pals in the N.Y.C. rap crew Ratking — both groups are part of the collective Letter Racer — and crackle-voiced troubadours like Archy Marshall. At his best, Pratt can sound like he’s reluctantly working his mouth around some heretofore unsayable ache. Grow out in the East/ Learn to eat and fight, he sings on “Metallic Taste.” Read/ And sight death stares that keep me up at night.
“We have to find discordance within harmony,” Pratt said, sidling up to a mission statement. “Find the horror within the pop song. Find the terror within the shit that everyone will feel.” Or, if you prefer succinctness: “If it sounds right I should wanna both fight to it and fuck to it.”
Pratt and Steed first started screwing around together as stoned freshmen in music class at Manhattan’s Elisabeth Irwin, a pioneering progressive high school (former students include Angela Davis and Robert De Niro). Early on they called themselves U-Lock Justice, a cheeky term for bicycle vigilantism. Show Me the Body has allusions to redress, too: it’s a loose translation of habeas corpus, the legal recourse under which one can report unlawful imprisonment.
As Show Me the Body, they’ve attained both an aura of mystery and a passionate following: they don’t talk to press much and generally avoid the city’s traditional venues, choosing instead to pack bridge underpasses and alleys with sweaty kids who get to feel like they’re something between extended crew-members and fans.
“If it sounds right I should wanna both fight to it <i>and</i> fuck to it.” —Julian Cashwan Pratt
Back on the roof, joint stubbed out, Cohen-Corbett announced, “Yo, let’s hit the dim sum spot.” We trekked down the roof ladder and out to Joe’s Shanghai, where a sprawl of tourists was waiting to sample the goods. Our own chances didn’t look good. But then a grinning waiter spotted Pratt and clapped him on the back; minutes later we had a prime table in the clamoring dining room and three bamboo steamers of soup dumplings.
Pratt, by way of explanation, talked of a cousin’s super-rich girlfriend’s dad who was head of all the produce that came into New York. “Super fucked-up dude, goes to South America with mad guns and shit. Anyway, her mom used to come in here and give everyone a red New Year’s envelope.” Chopsticks in hand, Pratt explained that he recruited Cohen-Corbett, a native of Western Massachusetts, during an ill-begotten stint at Hampshire College. “I got there and I realized all I wanna do is write poetry,” Pratt recalled. Mouth full, he told a story.
“The first time we played this track ‘Space Faithful,’ me and Harlan thought we were on acid: we both got this grip in the back of our skull. A year later I was talking to some girl and she showed me this Emily Dickinson quote: ‘I know poetry is happening when I feel the skin being ripped off the back of my skull.’” He finished chewing and smiled. “I think it’s Emily Dickinson.”
Show Me the Body is one of those bands that truly feels like they could have only come from here, from this city. The gawky-cool clothes, ill-fitting black jeans and freebie Sherwin Williams T-shirts. Spare talk of buddies crashing at Martha Plimpton’s loft, tour managers jetting off to London with the daughters of pop stars. Cutting the line at the dope dumpling spot because you quasi-know the gun-running one-time produce king of Manhattan. Just down the road is a little park where Pratt used to take early-morning “pay what you can” kung fu lessons.
Shruggingly, they embody the idea that this is New York and there are possibilities everywhere, if you know where to look. One day, the band promises, they’ll record a whole album’s worth of vocals through the speakers of an MTA conductor. “Everybody in New York’s got something to sell,” Pratt said, sounding endearingly, precociously, like a curmudgeon. “I feel like we got something to build. I’m hyped for that. I’m down to fight for it.”