If the guys in Anthrax thought their name meant trouble in the wake of 9-11, just imagine Amy Dykes and Dan Gellar’s concerns. In 1999, long before a pair of hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers, the electro-pop couple dubbed themselves I Am the World Trade Center as a nod to both their New York roots and their namesake’s two-become-one symbolism. That moniker had far different implications after al Qaeda’s strikes, however, and Dykes and Gellar have spent much of the past two and a half years fending off accusations that they’re capitalizing on the terrorist attacks.
“People have every right to assume that we’re a new band, so it’s imperative that they know the real story,” concedes Gellar via cell phone as he and Dykes drive through Arizona on a 10-week tour previewing their upcoming third album, The Cover Up. “If I hadn’t heard of us before, I’d have questioned our name too. But once people hear we’ve been doing this for a while, they usually get over it quicker. I guess I just thought by now time would heal the wound, but it’s obviously not going to.”
Still, it’s a shame that an unintentionally incendiary reference might keep people from checking out the Athens, Ga.-based duo. Formed five years ago, when Dykes and Gellar lived in Brooklyn, IATWTC made a promising splash in the summer of 2001 with the lo-fi laptop-pop of Out of the Loop. But it wasn’t until the release of 2002’s sublime Tight Connection that they truly made an impression: With Dykes indulging her inner Debbie Harry over Gellar’s sample-stacked beats, that album’s lush, disco-lite reveries provided ’80s fanatics with a refreshing, irony-free alternative to Electroclash’s pan flash. Finally, as their music began receiving as much attention as their 9-11 controversy, things seemed to look up for the duo.
When it came time to begin work on their third album last year, however, Dykes and Gellar found themselves in yet another precarious situation. Their label, Kindercore, the indie-pop imprint Gellar co-founded with Ryan Lewis in 1996, had entered into an ill-fated business partnership with the Telegraph Company in 2001. Eighteen months later, the Telegraph Company ousted Gellar and Lewis from their own label, and the two responded with a reported $350,000 lawsuit. IATWTC had little choice but to find a new label, ultimately signing with Gammon Records. As Gellar diplomatically puts it, “It just wouldn’t have been a stable time to put a record out on Kindercore.”
Unfortunately, the search for a new label was far from their biggest concern in 2003: Dykes and Gellar’s own romantic relationship ground to a halt after six years, making IATWTC’s future tenuous at best. But instead of calling it quits musically as well, they opted to continue in the footsteps of acts like Quasi, Sleater-Kinney and the White Stripes, allowing the breakup to inform and inspire their music.
The result is The Cover Up (due May 18), a collection of caustic, she-said-he-said songs with all the voyeuristic thrills expected from an album born out of heartbreak. Throughout, the exes have axes to grind, fingers to point and dirty laundry to air. Her: “I want you to say, ‘I- sorry’/I want you to fall apart.” Him: “You force me to feel/But you can’t face the final ending.” But it’s not just the intra-band drama that makes this IATWTC’s finest effort: As if emboldened by the lyrical vitriol, Gellar has replaced his lighter, “Heart of Glass”-era Blondie beats with a far more propulsive, early ’90s dance-pop that marries the Pet Shop Boys and Ace of Base.
Live, however, the album’s tension never materializes. Clearly on better terms than when they wrote the songs, Dykes and Gellar might as well be singing “Walking On Sunshine” for all the hurt they seem to portray when performing songs like “Deny It” and “Great Escape.” In fact, the more brutally scathing the song’s sentiment, the more fun they appear to have on stage, as if they’re letting the audience in on an inside joke.
“It’s been cathartic and healthy, I think, doing these songs that are pretty biting at some points,” Gellar says, laughing. “Our relationship is sort of in a nebulous position right now anyway, so it’s probably gonna go either way on this tour. But we’re having a really good time. Besides, seeing us is always about having fun, and we’re definitely not gonna let a bunch of breakup songs stop that from happening.”
I Am the World Trade Center performs at the Lager House (1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit) on Tuesday, April 13, with Paper Lions. Call 313-961-4668 for info.Jimmy Draper is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected].