The look on Model/Actriz’s Cole Haden’s face lets me know immediately that I have butchered the pronunciation of “dionysian.”
“We know what word you’re saying, it doesn’t matter,” he deadpans. Now, there are some words that only seem to exist in album reviews and there’s always going to be some second-hand cringe when someone tries to say it aloud. But in all fairness, Model/Actriz has opened up a lexicon for which we haven’t had much practice over the past decade – “dionysian,” “bacchanalian,” “debaucherous,” “saturnalian,” whatever you prefer to properly hyperbolize the orgiastic sensuality of their debut Dogsbody.
It’s easy enough to let Haden speak for himself – “Frothed milk, honey butter in my fortified cherry reduction/Over cakes, après-dîner/Cheers to engraved, heirloom, crystalline stemware,” “A throb bright red pours through my eyelids/I tug at threads, getting frayed but I’m lucid/Oh bitch, I might enter into my pure mode,” “And the cicadas’ song under your exhales/And your breath dissolves in the violet air” – if the lyrics on Dogsbody were any more purple or horned-up, Prince might materialize from the beyond and body-swap with Haden.
Even in the brief amount of time since Dogsbody’s release in February, an origin story has coalesced around a collection of dutifully repeated high and lowbrow reference points: Laurie Anderson and Lady Gaga, Berklee and Cats. The whole thing might have been dismissed as theater kid pretension if it wasn’t in the service of some of the most physically engrossing music released in 2023. “I’ve been told it gives people panic attacks at the gym or it’s the perfect gym soundtrack,” Haden boasts.
From one angle, Dogsbody is completely out of step with the communal warmth, personal disclosure and musical centrism that has, understandably, dominated the Big Indie discourse after the onset of COVID. This can also explain how Model/Actriz has managed to find an audience looking for the exact opposite of all that. Depending on who you ask, Dogsbody carries the lineage of fishnet-era Trent Reznor, or the scum in the margins of Meet Me in the Bathroom, or whatever is passing as “indie sleaze” these days. Or, they can be seen as a good ol’ fashioned buzz band, and by “ol’ fashioned,” I mean “2011” – emerging from seeming obscurity to a chorus of hype emanating from New York writers with breathless dispatches about their sweaty, sexualized performances; signed to True Panther Sounds, a label once built on Urban Outfitters staples like Girls, Tanlines and Tobias Jesso Jr.
And much like the bands of that era, they read their own press. Every now and then, they find something that truly gets under their skin – “stop comparing us to canceled bands,” bassist Aaron Shapiro pleads, and it’s fair to assume the RIYLs helped connect Dogsbody with an audience looking to fill the void left by (un)said artists. Conversely, Haden sees Model/Actriz’s pop POV challenging a genre that often verges homoerotic, but not explicitly gay. “In pop music, there’s such an obvious representation of queer ideas and identity that post-punk does not have,” he states.
For the most part, Model/Actriz have a sense of humor about a narrative that has gotten away from them. For all of the attempts to project a gutter-dwelling authenticity onto the band, no one is actually from New York City. “I’m a proud Delawarean,” Haden brags, having grown up near the oceanside resort towns of Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach that were reinvented as a mid-Atlantic Provincetown throughout the ‘90s. Amidst the reminiscences of Grotto’s Pizza, Shapiro interrupts to give a shout to the excellent Sixers blog Rights to Ricky Sanchez.
But if their wastrel, libertine image is a direct result of taking Cole at his own word, to paraphrase a colleague of mine from New York, “they look like they practice six hours a day.” The core of the band met up at Berklee College of Music in Boston, linking up within the vibrant, DIY house show scene flourishing amongst the more traditionalist students who are angling to be the next Charlie Puth or John Petrucci.
When I reach the quartet in the midst of their first “legitimate” west coast tour, they’re presumably out of their element in a blandly decorated guest room in Portland – “a Solange on SNL-type beat,” according to Haden. But in the time since the release of Dogsbody, this has been their unglamorous reality, staying at interchangeable AirBnBs and doing the grunt work of sustaining a debut that was seven years in the making. As guitarist Jack Wetmore put it after a successful show in Oakland, “that was the first show where people are resonating with the music and we don’t have a bunch of homeys in the crowd.”
In Model/Actriz’s view, that is the kind of world that Dogsbody inhabits – not the seedy underworld of New York and certainly not the interchangeable crash pads, but rather a physical space that they’ve been dying to revisit as much as everyone else. “We were all stuck inside and we wanted to make a dance record,” drummer Ruben Rudlauer explains. “We’re trying to have as much fun with themes of loneliness and darkness and coming of age as one can, and so when people see the fun inside the panic, that feels really good.”
SPIN: Model/Actriz has already established a reputation as a live act that creates an intimate, physical connection with the crowd, but is there a different approach or conversation when you’re playing to a room outside of New York that might be less familiar with the band?
Cole Haden: We do have an ethos where we try to perform with the same intention every time. Not that the crowd needs to be convinced, but we always put in the energy to at least extend a hand to an audience, to feel invited to join in with what we’re doing. And sometimes that hand is waiting for its companion a little longer during shows like that. Sometimes it is grasped earlier on where people are familiar with us. For shows where it’s the hardest to do that, we always have the pillar that we want to impress ourselves and challenge ourselves to perform better than we have before.
As far as “challenging” yourselves, where are the places where you’re taking more risks on stage?
Aaron Shapiro: I guess a big one is recognizing that this tour is in support of a work and putting that at the forefront. There are songs that are easier or less emotionally taxing that we play every time, or we have been for a year. And there are ones that are more taxing but we owe it to people who paid to see the show for the album to see those songs; so we play “Maria” and the quieter numbers that aren’t as immediate and the crowd is not gonna fuck shit up to. There’s a safe way to play these songs that we don’t have a lot of interest in doing, but knowing that you’re gonna mess up a bit if you want to do it well and dealing with it…no one wants to go off stage feeling like it was mid.
Haden: With “Maria” and “Sun In,” circling back to the preshow conversation, we do talk about the setlist every night in a way that hearkens back to the emotional arc of what we want to do. The songs we’ve recently incorporated into the set that we haven’t played as often, their success hinges on our forethought in preparing the audience for those moments. And preparing ourselves to play songs that require a level of conviction and ushering and shepherding the crowd emotionally, so that by the time the songs hit they feel right. They don’t feel abruptly pivoting emotionally from the otherwise celebratory, wet with passion, party-type atmosphere. Because there are songs that are upbeat but not party songs.
Speaking of having your own work revealed to you through its reception, have you been reading your own press?
Shapiro: [Excited] Hell yeah, brother.
Haden: [Flatly] Yes, we have.
A lot of it has tried to place Model/Actriz into a lineage of “real New York” bands or at least present it as part of a greater movement.
Wetmore: I don’t want to feel responsible for that.
Ruben Radlauer: None of us are from New York or claiming to be.
Shapiro: We! Don’t! Know! Those! Bands! All those bands y’all talk about, we don’t know them [laughs]
What was the first Model/Actriz song you wrote together?
Haden: “Heavy Breather,” we recorded it in an apartment into a laptop and the first show was in a basement, we had three songs. There’s footage of our first show ever on YouTube.
Radlauer: Half the show is completely improvised.
Wetmore: We didn’t have enough songs.
Cole, what about the first song you wrote before Model/Actriz?
Haden: Oh God, I didn’t start making music really until I was 16. I did a lot of visual art and my first collection of songs…Grimes’ Visions had just come out and I wanted to do something like that, it was very bedroom pop, experimental electronic music in GarageBand and Logic. I don’t know if any of it exists on…what was that platform, before SoundCloud, where you have rankings in your hometown…ReverbNation, that’s where I thought it was happenin’.
How do you feel about those early songs and shows existing for anyone to find?
Haden: Own your cringe!
What’s been the most meaningful response you’ve gotten to Dogsbody?
Shapiro: When you see someone who talks about how they appreciate it but that it’s really hard to listen to for them and they’re not referring to it in an abrasive way…I appreciate that sentiment.
Haden: I do read on Twitter what people write about it and as a gay person working in a genre that’s not very outwardly gay, the album is very gay. And when people from the queer community are relating to it, that makes me feel proud of the thing that we made. It feels like it’s doing its job. I want to add to the canon of albums in this grouping, this isn’t the kind of music that I normally listen to in my headphones, but someone who might not otherwise have an access point to relate themselves into it, then, there are times where I hope it could be that for somebody.