Meet three indie acts infiltrating colleges -- I Am the World Trade Center, Mr. Lif, and Sparta find a home for their cutting-edge sounds: dorm rooms
Credit: Illustration by Ward Sutton

With all the Ikea furniture, ramen-based cuisine, and kegs of flat beer, it’s a bit of a stretch to attribute anything such as good taste to your average college student. Still, amid the dorm-room ruckus, above the bubbling bong water, and hanging in the airwaves between the poorly read PSAs and dead silence of campus radio, there are signs of youth’s redemption: The kids are never too busy cramming (not!) to dig for new and interesting music.

The average 17- to 22-year-old is so squarely at the crossroads of teen fan and discerning grown-up that once they’ve found a band or artist of merit, they’ll follow that sound to the end of the earth — or senior year at least. Hence, folks like the Pixies and R.E.M. end up with a faithful fan base to help catapult them into the mainstream.

Of course, not all college finds and faves are that fresh (G. Love & Special Sauce, anyone?), but when more than a few campuses are in consensus, it’s usually worth a listen. Here, three up-and-comers who warrant further study.

I Am the World Trade Center

No matter what hole-in-the-wall pit stop the duo made during their summer tour, Dan Geller and Amy Dykes dreaded the inevitable question: ”So, what’s your band’s name?”

”I would tell someone at a convenience store and…they would look at me like, How could you?” recalls I Am the World Trade Center singer Dykes, 28, ”and I always say, ‘But we’ve had the name since 1999!”’

The Athens, Ga.-based pair (who, unlike the White Stripes, admit to being a couple since ’97) named themselves IATWTC after a grandiose moment inspired by the view of the towers from their building during a stint living in Brooklyn. After Sept. 11 — and a lot of media attention — the band abridged its name to I Am the World and debated a complete name overhaul for months until they took their cue from the world’s other most unfortunately named band. ”Once Anthrax made their decision to keep their name,” recalls IATWTC’s 29-year-old musical maestro, Geller, ”it made it easier to stick with ours.” Geller says they even approached Anthrax about IATWTC opening for the metal band. ”[Anthrax’s manager] thought it would have been too much. Of course it would have been. But hey, if we got to open up for Anthrax, that would have been great.”

Nearly a year later, with the release of their second album ”The Tight Connection,” on Kindercore, the threatening and infuriated e-mails have subsided just as interest in retro electro-pop has increased. College audiences are particularly plugged in to IATWTC. Since its July 23 debut, ”Connection” has peaked at No. 5 on college radio charts and, according to SoundScan, already outsold the band’s 2001 debut ”Out of the Loop.”

Like ”Out of the Loop,” ”Connection” was built on Geller’s quirky, computer-composed kerplunks, Dykes’ untrained dulcet tones, and British influences like the Stone Roses and New Order. ”Right now you have the Hives, the Strokes, the Pattern, the Vines, and a million more bands coming out as ‘the whatevers’ with shag haircuts and ’60s garage sound. But IATWTC is just nice crossover indie pop,” says Angelo De Ieso, music director of Portland State University’s KPSU, explaining the band’s appeal. ”And [all the publicity], positive or negative, has had a big impact.”

Though Geller agrees that people are more interested in the music now than a year ago, he has ambivalent feelings about the tragedy-laden exposure. ”People know our name now…. But it’s always going to be an issue.” That said, Geller wouldn’t give up his band’s controversial cognomen even for a major-label deal and the promise of mainstream success. ”If someone came up and said, ‘We’ll give you a million dollars if you change your name,’ then that would be selling out. It would be stupid to change now.”

Mr. Lif

Like many college-bound hip-hop lovers, Jeffrey Haynes arrived at Colgate University in the early ’90s and sought out like-hooded heads at the campus radio station. Soon, as a DJ for Colgate’s WRCU, he was spinning underground classics from Jeru the Damaja, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and Black Moon. He quickly graduated to writing his own rhymes. And now, almost a decade later, the turntables have turned. Haynes (a.k.a. Mr. Lif) is one of alt-hip-hop’s hottest commodities, with campus DJs nationwide spinning his tunes.

”It’s an honor that they’re playing my stuff,” says the Boston-bred rapper, 27, who released LPs on the Beastie Boys’ now-defunct Grand Royal before joining indie label Definitive Jux in 2000. ”Hip-hop has become such a party culture, but college radio has always been dedicated to playing more cerebral stuff. I hope they’ll feel like I’m right up their alley.”

That alley better be mighty dark: Lif’s latest, ”I Phantom” (due Sept. 17), opens with gunplay and climaxes with nuclear holocaust (”Thugs, executives, and cops with tasers/Trees are dust, skyscrapers are vapors”), all accompanied by apocalyptic drums and spastic synths.

In fact, college radio might be the only outlet for Lif’s jagged-edged expression. While commercial radio clings to bling-bling, college rap charts feature a more thoughtful, diverse set of artists with Def Jux currently at the top of the indie-hop heap. In August, three of the label’s artists (RJD2, El-P, and Mr. Lif) had releases among the top 10 on CMJ’s hip-hop chart.

”Everything that I’ve heard from Def Jux has been right on the money,” says Andrew Bryant, music director at Wake Forest’s WAKE-FM, which regularly spins Lif. ”They’re doing stuff that is, by far, more creative than the average Puff Daddy or bloated Busta Rhymes track…. These people are a lot more attuned to what we’re going through.”

Lif’s rhymes range from the personal and the abstract to more precise visions that reflect his radical politics: ”It’s easy to control the scared so they keep us in fear/With their favorite middle eastern demon named Bin Laden this year/Bush disguises blood lust as patriotism/Convincing the living to love ‘Operation Let’s Get ‘Em’,” he raps on ”Home of the Brave,” from his June 11 EP, ”Emergency Rations.”

”It’s important to keep a dialogue going and to keep on viewing things with a critical eye,” says Lif. ”Whenever I perform, I have conversations with people about how they feel. In interviews, we talk about the topics that are raised. That gets printed and the dialogue continues. Then there are the chat rooms at various hip-hop sites. I just want to keep on presenting topics. People don’t have to agree with them, as long as it presents a forum to discuss the state of affairs in our lives.” It seems people are ready to talk back.

”He’s trying to school people instead of saying the same thing,” says Mike Onley, a DJ at Wilkes University’s WCLH, who spins ”Home of the Brave” during his hip-hop show. ”People have to be exposed to this stuff and college kids are ready to hear it.” Loud and clear.


When on-the-verge aggro-rockers At the Drive-In broke up in 2001 — after six years of relentless touring, sweat-drenching live shows, and pressure-piling hype — guitarist Jim Ward went on a well-deserved three-month sabbatical. It only took a few weeks in the kitchen for him to start getting restless. ”I was just doing housework, doing the dishes,” says the 26-year-old El Paso, Tex., native. ”You forget how boring regular life is. You’re so used to doing something you love.” Luckily, two of his former bandmates — guitarist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar — were equally driven to resume rocking, and together with bassist Matt Miller, they sparked Sparta, just one of two new bands to form from the remains of At the Drive-In (Omar Rodriguez and Cedric Bixler are currently recording with their jazz-rock hybrid the Mars Volta).

Drawing on material many of them had been working on individually during Drive-In downtime, the quartet found themselves at Hinojos’ mother’s home turning out demos for the songs that would eventually make up ”Wiretap Scars,” their DreamWorks debut. ”We took over the living room for a week,” says Ward. ”It was totally like being in a high school band, but [with] really good gear.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the cuts culled from those sessions retain the tunefully spastic post-punk sound of Ward’s former outfit: ”It does have a very At the Drive-In sound,” says Jessica Filipi, music director at WNRN in Charlottesville, Va., which quickly put the band in rotation. ”We’re getting a lot of calls [asking], ‘Is this new At the Drive-In?’ A lot of people are still confused.”

Such puzzlement likely stems from the suddenness of ATDI’s split; the group’s fanbase was just beginning to swell when they unexpectedly went on ”hiatus” in March 2001. Ward has already grown weary of the comparisons between Sparta and his beloved alma mater. ”You definitely get tired of it,” he says. ”I’d rather talk about the band I’m in now. But I understand that’s where we come from, and it’s a totally legitimate question. I’ll always be proud of [At the Drive-In]. I’ve seen enough success to last me for the rest of my life.”

That doesn’t mean he’s ready to go back to doing chores just yet, with Sparta setting off this fall for its biggest U.S. tour to date, an itinerary that includes many college-area stops. It’s fitting for a group whose lead singer considers himself a student of the road, his most recent education coming from Charles Romalotti’s punk-rock novel ”Salad Days”: ”It’s about a young punk learning how to network,” Ward says. ”I’ve never [had to do] that before…. I’m still learning. The older you get, the less you know.” Sounds like a lecture straight from Rock & Roll 101.