TMoldy Peaches’ founding members recall their sense of clothing. “I bought my bunny suit at a sale outside a costume shop that had burned down,” says Kimya Dawson of the outfit she wore on the cover of their only studio album in 2001. “Technically, it was a snowman suit that had a bunch of smoke stains on it.”
“I remember putting on my Robin Hood outfit and thinking, ‘Perfect!'” says Adam Green. “It’s funny, the Strokes decided they were going to dress like they did for their shows all the time, which is how they stopped with their cool clothes. But we did too. We did just that our version of it.”
Dressed as such, and releasing cute-but-not songs that sounded like they were recorded in a dumpster, the Moldy Peaches stood out from their cool leather-jacketed peers in New York’s ’00s indie rock explosion: “A couple of misfits who felt not accepted in the world,” says Dawson.
Dawson had grown up in a day care center where her parents worked, a self-described “black weirdo” whose costumes were her armor. “I had a superhero identity,” she says. “The world felt safer to me if I could create these fantasy characters.” She was 20 when she met outgoing 13-year-old Green in a record store in Mount Kisco, a town 45 minutes north of Manhattan, and they began writing songs that used childlike simplicity (and crudeness) to convey a complex inner world. Years later, they moved to New York City, assembled a group, and released a self-titled debut that encapsulated teenage outsiderdom, with its video game and cartoon references, social awkwardness, happy energy, playground-like rhymes, stoner nonsense, and—on the song Nothing Came Out – alienation from “skinny pretty girls who like to talk about bands”.
The Moldy Peaches are “older and moldier” they say now and have reformed for their first official headline shows in 20 years. Their cult album continues to be “passed from dressing room to dressing room,” says Green. “It’s been a high school record all along.” But they have returned, like some other New York bands from the early 00s, after the latest release of the band Meet me in the bathroom documentary (based on Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 book of the same name). When Dawson and Green performed at the premiere in LA last October, they were offered shows within a week.
In the documentary, these rabbit and Robin Hood costumes are shown in shaky, grainy clips of the pair on stage. Dawson and Green were surprised to find images of them opening the film. Dawson hoped viewers wouldn’t interpret that as Moldy Peaches laying the groundwork for a movement that gave the world the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and LCD Soundsystem. The anti-folk scene they belonged to, a loose collective of outsider musicians who had gathered in a place called SideWalk Caféhad begun a decade before the peaches arrived.
The cafe, which closed in 2019, was featured in the film. We see a young Paul Banks from Interpol performing there, as well as Karen O, who lived across the street. But “it should have had more of a role,” says Dawson. “It was the central part of music in New York City,” agrees Green.
“I was in early recovery from alcohol (addiction),” Dawson continues, “and this was a place where you could do your own thing without being judged.” She felt embraced by “creative geniuses,” incl Jeffrey Lewis, Rick Shapiro, Regina Spektor, Spektor’s husband Jack Dishel and Toby Goodshank (both of whom are in Moldy Peaches) and Prewar Yardsale. “It became this accelerated petri dish for new art and ideas,” says Green. “We created our own class of anti-people.”
Being friends with the Strokes helped them graduate. The Moldy Peaches were signed to their UK label, Rough Trade, and supported them on tour when NYC fever broke out on this side of the Atlantic. “It was total chaos,” says Dawson. “At the Liverpool fair we met the Libertines and they gave us their demo,” says Green. “We understood that New York was part of a zeitgeist and we got caught up in this whirlwind.”
Their album came out first in the UK but when it was released in the US it coincided with 9/11. In the aftermath, they went on tour with the Strokes and had to cut a song from their set list. “We played NYC’s Like a Graveyard for the first date of the US tour,” says Dawson. It was a song written long before the attacks and yet the lyrics about “all tombstones are skyscrapers” sat uncomfortably. “When we finished, people were quiet,” she says. “We didn’t play that song again for 20 years.”
The Moldy Peaches broke up in 2002, when Green was 21. From the outside it looked like it was over before it started, but by then their songs were 10 years old. “It felt like we all needed to do our own thing,” says Dawson. “There’s a big age difference between Adam and I. He wanted to be part of rock’n’roll, and I’d already been sober for a couple of years.” It was terrifying for Dawson, “the eternal babysitter,” to stand by like his peers partied hard or even lost their way – original band member Aaron Wilkinson died of an overdose in 2003.
“There were some dark times,” Green says, and Dawson admits, “I had a lot of concerns for a lot of people.”
Both musicians went on to have fruitful careers: Dawson has released eight punk, lo-fi solo albums, including one of Children’s (2008’s Alphabutt), while Green has released 11, made visual art and directed 2011’s The Wrong Ferarri, a bizarre scrub film that he wrote while high on ketamine. “We definitely went in opposite directions,” he notes.
The Moldy Peaches’ big break actually came years after their split, when Dawson was hired for the soundtrack to 2007’s smash romantic comedy Juno. Anyone Else But You got a second wind as the de facto odd-couple love song; a version sung by the film’s stars, Elliot Page and Michael Cera, charted on the Billboard Hot 100 and was even covered by Carla Bruni – then the first lady of France – on French TV. Green was initially surprised that so many people could relate to their quirky universe, most of which was recorded when he was still a teenager. “It’s a bit smellier and rougher and more inaccessible than, say, the world of (Stroke’s debut album) Is This It?, which is very easy to like,” he says.
But that’s exactly why it has such universality: it’s a quintessential teenage album, tacky and crammed with the kinds of hyper-specific lyrics so common in pop music today, but with deep feelings that cut through the details. Often they would sing different lines over each other, introspection going toe to toe with ego, or trying to make you laugh during poignant, painful moments, like when the phone goes off in Nothing Came Out. It’s a wolf in rabbit’s clothing. “We showed contradictory ideas rubbing up against each other to disarm people,” says Green. “Some parts of the lyrics are tender and the others are quite psychedelic and brutal.”
They’re sensitive to how these lyrics might be perceived today, and for their 20th anniversary reissue in 2018, they edited out an ableist statement on NYC’s Like a Graveyard. “We weren’t deliberately trying to hurt any marginalized communities, it was just a different time,” says Dawson. Another of their songs – and one of their best – is a happy singalong called Who’s Got the Crack, with the couplet: “I like it when my hair is poofy / I like it when you slip me a roofie”. “There were jokes about things that wouldn’t be joked about now, and that doesn’t make it OK. But I think we could still write awesome songs. I can be pretty rough without being offensive.”
“I don’t know what it would be like to start Moldy Peaches now,” says Green. They existed in an unselfconscious era, before the internet, where they “were allowed to tour and not feel like we were under surveillance” and where social media hadn’t vaporized individualism into a “traditional” and more unified mass. They didn’t think about how they would be perceived at the time, but there weren’t many visible black female punks in music back then, and Dawson says now that countless people tell her she gave them “permission to be a weird kid”.
Singing her teenage self again, back on stage in a few weeks, will be like “emotional time travel,” Green says. And while those DIY costumes may be a bit upgraded—there’s talk of 3D printing and vehicular clothing—their songs have stood the test of time. “They feel very similar to me,” says Dawson, “they’re special little gems that I love. The only difference is I don’t give a damn what some indie boy thinks of me.” She laughs. “Now I’m like, God, those guys are so sneaky.”