A candid conversation over a few beers on how Deli Girls and the Brooklyn scene is thriving in spite of a lack of usable venues, and how the band has become an anchor amidst hard times.
Both Deli Girls members–producer Tommi Kelly and vocalist Danny Orlowski–are wearing matching tracksuits as we shoot the shit at Danny’s kitchen table. We’ve known each other for a few years now, coming up in parallel through Brooklyn’s DIY and experimental scenes. Without prompting for a formal interview, the reminiscing has already begun, as we discuss the ebbs and flows of past parties, venues, scene politics. In an otherwise rocky scene, Deli Girls’ shows have become a consistent through line of high-quality live performance, whipping crowds of ever-skeptical Brooklyn showgoers into a frothing, moshing mass. It’s punk without guitars, as Kelly’s angular electronic productions, distorted and thumping, provide backdrop for Orlowski’s agonized screaming. Even as the world is crashing down, and you feel like you’re drowning in debt (see Orlowski’s »They put numbers in my name/and I can’t even fucking pay«) they’ve carved out a space to be radically queer, experimental, and fight back.
The project began in 2014, when Orlowski and Kelly had a short-lived mixlr radio show with friends, where they’d all collaborate and play around with making tracks. »It was everyone just being really creative,« says Kelly of that proto-Deli Girls era. Now, they’ve spread their wings beyond DIY to institutions like MoMA PS1, and are about to take on their first European tour, which will bring them to Vienna on Friday, where they will perform at the Common Contact birthday party.
What were the first few Deli Girls shows like? Where were they?
T: It’s weird thinking back to that time, because everything has like a two-year cycle. There’ll be some DIY space, some scene that’ll crop up for about 2 years, then it’ll burn out. When we were starting out, it was in one of those lulls. It was all the backrooms of bars, similar venues like that. Really weird, one-off, odd places to have a show.
D: Really horrible bars, you would never go to otherwise, but you’d have to go there. Some basement, some weird room they have in the back…
T: …with their amp, their terrible lighting… their terrible mural. I really think there was a solid two years of that.
How did the project develop from you guys having a radio show and making tracks as friends to a full-fledged live set?
D: We started being a band because we had a show, and I feel like that’s pretty accurate for the rest of our career. We play shows pretty consistently, so that ends up being the practice and show all the time. But that’s kind of always been part of our way of doing things. It used to be pretty much improv of different riffs, then evolved to being actual songs.
T: The songs develop in those shows for sure. That’s where a lot of the work and changing happens, and that stuff is based directly on where the show is, what the crowd is, what the situation is. The set – we have songs and stuff like that, but there are differences in every set. A lot of that has to with everything else that’s going on. I think that’s one of the things that’s made recording more challenging than some of the other things we’ve worked on, because a lot of time we’re recording at the beginning with material, that material develops and grows over time, and by the time we’re doing a next recording it has a completely different feel with it. But also, I think that’s why people get into our music, they hear the recordings and come to shows.
How does the feedback from those live shows influence the development of the music?
T: Part of that is the way the music developed into songs from things that were improv loops. Personally, I’ve just been making more music that reflects the stuff that I’m into. Stuff that I grew up with, the sounds that play back in my head. It’s some really particular qualities of Trackr, some video game MIDI soundtracks, they use parts. It’s hard for me to put my finger on but it’s always been there. Shit that I like to get hype to. Loading music. And, always, whatever the Trent Reznor influence is. And that’s been there forever, he did the soundtrack for Quake, and the sound design, which is just as good as the soundtrack.
D: We’ve definitely gotten dancier as a result of the shows.
Both of you are fully employed, which is more than can be said for a lot of people in this DIY, experimental scene. How do you balance work life and art life? Do you even see them as opposed?
T: I think having a job makes your off-time a lot more valuable. I was working doing these ridiculous cryptocurrency animations for months, for this company, doing like 10-hour days and so I would just do all this stupid shit and be in this world of deceit, and money, really stupid tech people, buzzwords. But doing that, look at the internet, make these insane animations, and come home, really wanting to do something because your day was just that all day. But that ended up being really good, because I was making my real time a lot more valuable. And actually, making money to do the things that I wanted to do. And I think that’s a big difference between the me today and me four years ago, realizing that putting in the hours, then putting in the extra hours, you actually have enough money to do the stuff that you need to do. Whereas if you’re just scraping by, you spend so much time dealing with the fact that you’re broke, that you can’t actually do shit. Just getting over that hump a little bit, and I think that’s been the case since we’ve been a band.
D: It’s not like either of us have a choice. Neither of us have family that can foot the bill. Some people are really good at hustling, more power to them. I’m just not good at that, so I need to have a job.
T: Office jobs are great for artists. There’s just so much bullshit that goes on, you gotta be a creative problem solver. It’s better that you take their money than some drone. You’ll actually do something with it.
I’m starting to believe the most important thing about making art isn’t a finished product, it’s how it allows you travel and meet people from all walks of life. I know recently you’ve been able to travel to Mexico City for shows – I’m curious if you see it the same way.
D: Music’s like the most important social thing I’ve ever done. I get to meet so many cool people I would not get to meet for any other reason. Traveling’s also a big part of that. Mexico’s cool because we’re starting to make some friends there, and the scene there is really admirable.
T: The last several times I’ve traveled, they’ve all had some context with music. Everything has a completely different vibe. You’re not just finding shit to do, things are happening to do because you’re there to do something. I definitely like traveling aimlessly, but it’s totally different, I prefer having a reason to be somewhere because it’s a better way to get to know a place. We’re about to go to Europe and I have no idea what to expect. Complete strangers have been really nice and cool about a bunch of stuff – like setting up the Vienna show and linking us to other promoters.
To some extent, we’re all making music and art to represent how we want the world to be – how we imagine the world could be. What does that imagined Deli Girls world look like?
D: I can’t really speak on an imagined world, but what’s pretty idyllic about the way things actually some of those big, family-style shows, with like us, Machine Girl, Channel63, Kill Alters, Dreamcrusher… That scene is always one of my favorites to play for. It’s a place where people feel relatively safe. Where people can dance, and mosh, and be silly, and not worry about things like going too far. Wherever you are, something could happen, but it’s a really nice environment. There is noise kids, club kids, punk kids, in-between. It’s a nice intersection.
T: I hope, or feel like, people who come to our shows are people who like and want to be around a lot of different people. Those family shows and the shows where all the subcultures go out to mix with each other – New York can be such a siloed place for that stuff sometimes – when that’s all set down for a moment and all these people come together, they’re definitely the most fun shows, the most interesting ones, I think people are booking more shows like that, that have just some appeal. I think that does require people to want to go out and be with all kinds of different people. The younger generation is less subculturally defined in that way.
D: A lot of those young people are starting to make things, and it’s definitely like, do that. Please do some new shit.