At the dawn of the new millennium, karaoke crept out of the dimly-lit beer-soaked dens of New York’s Koreatown and found newly authentic utterance among the burgeoning hipster classes of the metropolis. From 1999 to 2010 and beyond, genre bands, room-rocking DJs, eccentric and outlandish hosts legions of karaoke fanatics and even dedicated nouveau-karaoke bars got the city singing night after night every week from the Lower East Side to Bushwick.
Things really kicked off around the start of the aughts, when a new generation of New Yorkers injected a free-for-all aesthetic into the staid karaoke formula. Colin Schiller and Jason Gersch were roommates living cheaply in a railroad apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, working as superintendents for their building. A small local bar called the Blue Lounge featured a karaoke night hosted by a six-foot-four (seven feet in platforms) drag queen named Barbie, which was short for “Barbecue.” When Barbie dropped out of the night, Gersch took over as DJ under the name DJ Flim Flam and Schiller became the host under the name Colin the King of Karaoke. After doggedly promoting their tiny, but notoriously wild, karaoke night, they managed to convince the owners of one of the East Village’s hottest rock clubs—Lit Lounge—to let them host a night in the basement once a week.
At the same time, the Lower East Side was going through its first rock ‘n’ roll renaissance in over a decade with bands like The Strokes and Interpol gaining national attention and a number of rock clubs opening up. A few visionary musicians seized on the zeitgeist to start live punk rock and heavy metal karaoke at Arlene’s Grocery. Thus New York’s golden era of karaoke began.
Colin Schiller | Co-founder and Host, Kings of Karaoke: “I’ve played in bands my whole life. I’ve done van, RV and tour bus tours; festival tours. But the stuff that went on in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn during those karaoke nights was way crazier.”
Jason Gersch | Co-founder and DJ, Kings of Karaoke: “It was just chaos. Anarchy. We wanted to be close to doing a punk rock show. We wanted to play heavy music and all that stuff—to go against the idea of what karaoke was back then, which was cheesy as hell. Back then if your phone could take a picture it was fuzzy. There was a freedom that no-one was going to see this except for the people in the room. There’d be no repercussions tomorrow. Now if you went out and did what we did back then, the next day you’d probably lose your fucking job.”
Colin Schiller: “It was part dance party and part punk rock show. I remember there was a time at Lit where—I don’t know what someone was singing, it could have been The Dead Milkmen or something—but people were just fucking nuts. Lit was small and it had a low ceiling and had a sewage pipe and people would hang from it. I remember one night people were crowd surfing and they were all drinking Red Stripe and people were just smashing the bottles everywhere. It was like a real punk show. But it wasn’t. It was karaoke.”
Jason Gersch: “In a place like Lit you’re really descending into a new realm. It’s this weird dungeon place. You can just really fucking forget what’s going on up above and just kind of go crazy.”
Not far from Lit, the rock club Arlene’s Grocery decided that the venue needed a karaoke night of its own.
Robert Kemp | Bass Player and Founder, Punk Rock and Heavy Metal Karaoke: “They were asking bands that looked like The Strokes to do it, but they wouldn’t because they were focused on getting a record deal and we didn’t have that ambition. I was a music journalist at Time Out New York and I had these two buds I played with. We didn’t really look like cool guys. But we rehearsed for a month and a half and we had about 20 songs the first night. It was very successful. [A few months later] we added Heavy Metal Karaoke as well. It was much different from regular karaoke in that it’s much louder and more frenzied. If you don’t like ‘Sweet Caroline’—which I don’t—you’re not going to hear it at our fucking show. And we were louder than most of the bands in the Lower East Side.
Meanwhile, across the Williamsburg Bridge, in Brooklyn, a different kind of karaoke party was starting up.
Chris Goldteeth | Founder and Host, Karaoke Killed the Cat: “It occurred to me that if you could just start a party and use karaoke as the backbone to it, you might actually be able to break through some of that too-cool-for-school exclusiveness of the fashion parties I was going to. Bushwick at that time was a little quieter and it started out very small. The beauty of being in a place where there’s not that many people watching was we could really get away with anything we wanted. The show started to grow in notoriety because we would just do crazy shit and not get in trouble for it. I remember being behind the bar and just breathing fire—putting Bacardi 151 in my mouth and spitting it all over the place and lighting it on fire. We would do these challenges where we’d lay on the bar foot to foot and do sit-up contests after taking a shot of Tabasco each. Do the shot of Tabasco sauce, try to sing the same song as a duet all while you’re doing sit-ups on top of the bar. Which is disgusting. But it left and impression. I had a dominatrix come and tie me up and tried to host a show tied up. It wasn’t always stuff that was quite that crazy, but it did build into the general spirit of anything goes here, we’re down for it all.”
As the alt-Karaoke scene heated up, something of an arms race of outlandishness began.
Chris Goldteeth: “We ended up landing upstairs at Pianos. They’d never had a karaoke night and they were right around the corner from Arlene’s Grocery and I think wanted to kind of get in on that action. Inevitably all of those bands are super good. It’s just a different beast than what we’ve been doing. I was always impressed with them rather than seeing them as competition.”
Colin Schiller: “I was very competitive. We kind of had karaoke feuds with some of the other guys.”
Chris Goldteeth: “When we were doing Karaoke Killed the Cat we were getting compared to [Kings of Karaoke] a lot: ‘Oh, Colin runs this super crazy karaoke night, Chris runs this super crazy karaoke night.’ And I remember that his gag at that point was that he would sing a song and then strip down naked.”
Colin Schiller: “I was known for getting naked.”
Chris Goldteeth: “Everyone was like you should check out his show, so I did and went and got up on stage and sort of challenged him for supremacy. So I was doing my thing singing a song and I saw him go backstage to strip off his clothes so then I took off all my clothes on stage and was just waiting for him naked when he came back out. There was a little bit of a surprise but there was also a little bit of ‘Ok, cool, we’re vibrating in the same way.'”
Colin Schiller: “I remember being naked. I might have sang ‘Wicked Game’ by Chris Isaak. But there were all of these really short girls and they were pouring beer over me while I was naked, singing the song. That’s my recollection of the night. I don’t remember if [Chris] got naked. That definitely could have happened. I do have a sort of recollection of him in his underwear.”
The boundaries of performative karaoke stretched to near breaking.
Chris Goldteeth: “We did a pretty crazy birthday party for me once where we brought baby pools up there and filled a bunch of baby pools. Did competitive apple bobbing. People just covered us in melted ice cream in these baby pools, which was disgusting. There was a photographer there who ran a blog called Last Night’s Party. So that ended up on his site and the photos are just like ‘What the hell is this thing?'”
Jason Gersch: [Kings of Karaoke also moved into Brooklyn, starting with a party at a bar called Stinger [Club].] “We had to go to the bulletin board on Bedford Avenue and post posters. There was no Facebook. [We] drew arrows from the train to Stinger bar so people could follow it. It wasn’t all Brooklyn transplant hipster kids. The Greenpoint parties had a lot of Polish people; there were a lot of local South Williamsburg people; we had some renegade Hasids who would sneak out—one even bought us a set of wireless mics for the party.”
Colin Schiller: “We had all these Polish metal guys who were always requesting Judas Priest. They were metal dudes but they were super nice. It was like they didn’t get the memo. Because they dressed the whole part with all the leather but with the biggest smile on their faces. I remember when I first realized that there was something interesting going on someone was singing ‘Dancing With Myself’ and I turned around and there was this big really tough looking dude just fucking ’80s dancing so hard.”
Jason Gersch: “The rule at Stinger was that you got naked you got a free shot, but if you had sex on the bar you got a free bottle. Sometimes that would happen. It was very gonzo. It would get kind of seedy, also—people would be fucking over there, people would be smoking crack in the bathroom. It would get pretty insane. There were plenty of times we were a little scared.”
Robert Kemp: “One time there was a guy who got up on stage [at Arlene’s] and he said ‘I’m gonna be shipped out to Iraq next week,’ and then he did ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath. Assuming he was not bullshitting, that was fairly poignant.”
Colin Schiller: “I remember one time this guy came into Lit and he just kept unplugging the TV. We had never seen the guy before and I went up to him and was like ‘Hey man, that’s not cool.’ And he kept doing it and I just lost my shit. So I picked up the TV and I smashed it. I don’t even know what I thought I was going to accomplish by doing that. We just didn’t let people come in and fuck with the night.”
By the mid-aughts, alt-karaoke had staked out a large swath of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn and crossed over to the New York nightlife mainstream. The original punk and heavy metal band left Arlene’s Grocery over creative and financial differences and was replaced by a broader-based house band with a less niche repertoire. Soon, the New York karaoke scene had outgrown the city itself.
Robert Kemp: “The owner [of Arlene’s Grocery] at the time didn’t like to pay musicians and we said ‘Listen, you make a lot of money off of us. We would like to have a guarantee.’ For a lot of that five years we had been passing the hat. And my guitar player’s wife said it was like being married to a stripper—all of the ones that just spilled out of his wallet. We made a guess as to what would be fair and would not put a dent into what they’d be making and we proposed that to them, they accepted, and it turns out we were very overconfident in the sense that we thought they can’t find anybody to replace us. And they did.”
Paul McGilloway | Guitar Player, Arlene’s Grocery Karaoke Band 2004 to 2017: “It wasn’t something that was planned. I’m Irish and I came to New York in 2001 and I was a songwriter and guitar player and you kind of take the work where you can get it. I had a Celtic rock band and we’d play all over New York. I had already worked for the guys that owned Arlene’s Grocery at another bar and they asked us would we be interested in doing the show and we took it over. I don’t know who it was originally who did it, but what they did was a very different thing. It was punk. We found ourselves pretty fast as the number one biggest party in the city on a Monday night and a crowd of people would queue up to get in. It was complete mayhem from nudity to people… just going wild.”
Chris Goldteeth: “We started touring the show around. We had done shows in LA, shows in San Francisco, went to Iceland. It was super difficult as an American to go to Iceland and then call out everybody’s names, which are very hard to pronounce. I think it was a success but it was a hard night. People party really hard in Iceland.”
Paul McGilloway: “We became the ‘Saturday Night Live’ afterparty band in 2012 and 2013. We were in Red Bank, New Jersey, for four or five years in residency there. We got awards for being the best karaoke band in New Jersey. We, time and time again, got accolades from New York, Time Out. We got voted one of the top 12 things to do by CNN.”
By 2009, downtown Manhattan’s first dedicated alt-karaoke cocktail bar, Baby Grand, had been opened as a higher-end seven-days-a-week alternative to both the status-quo Koreatown joints and the wild one-off party nights scattered around town.
Raylene Gorum | Co-founder, Baby Grand: “[My husband and I] had a longtime karaoke habit. We were spending our nights in the 2000s going out a lot, and going out on weeknights and staying up way too late. I went to Karaoke Killed the Cat and Arlene’s. A lot of our patrons went. There was a lot of crossover there. There’s a place that doesn’t exist anymore, Village Karaoke. It was on Third Avenue before all the development happened and it was a total hole in the wall where you could just rent a room and BYOB. There was just one attendant and holes in the wall punched out because people would get pretty crazy. In 2004, when Bush was re-elected, all of New York was basically depressed. So we took all our friends to this little hole in the wall karaoke place, got a bottle of Rebel Yell and sung our hearts out all night. We kind of ended up using karaoke as cheap therapy after that. We found there were a lot of others like us out there, and we wanted to redesign the experience to something with nice cocktails, a supportive crowd and just a little bit of a different vibe.
As we were coming up Yelp and all of that was coming up as well. We were making something so niche and trying to play to a particular audience. One of our main desires was to avoid the bachelorette crowd and then somehow Google listed us as number one for bachelorette parties. And then Google called us to sell us ads and I’d say ‘How do I un-list myself?’ and they told me that I was the first person to ever ask that.”
Paul McGilloway: “We were giving people a chance who had never sung in a live band before and who maybe had aspirations when they were in college or school. Here they were with a real band, no bouncing ball and they were getting an opportunity to see if they were going to float or sink in front of a full audience.”
Raylene Gorum: “We’d have these really good synergy moments where there’s a design office upstairs and they’d come down pretty regularly and just be singing at happy hour time. One of our regulars was down there singing Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ on his own and maybe thinking it’s not a keeper and then in walk five beautiful black women who join in without missing a beat in the chorus.”
Jason Gersch: “One of our regulars wrote a thesis on the social dynamics of the karaoke room. It was amazing.”