If the U.S. Census Bureau concerned itself with indie-rock trends, its data would no doubt show the vast majority of bands formed in Brooklyn in the early 2000s have since broken up.
The attrition was inevitable, as turn-of-the-century New York was a city of fleeting musical pleasures. This, after all, was the age of disco beats, geometric guitar riffs, and the sudden widespread rediscovery of two prickly English bands most people hadn’t thought about in years: Joy Division and Gang of Four.
Somehow, amid all the black clothes and retro posturing, Long Island native Michael Pace got together with three friends to form Oxford Collapse. The year was 2002, and the four musicians were in London, where they were spending a semester abroad.
“There were no instruments where we were,” Pace says by phone, midway through a recent tour of North America. “So, we each kind of planted a seed for the band.”
At the time, Pace and his fellow students were “going nuts and wanting a musical release.” None of them had ever been in a group that had amounted to much, and frustration was high. When they got back to New York, where they all attended college, they quickly grabbed drums and guitars and began writing songs.
“In the beginning it was about making noise and just having fun and letting loose,” Pace, who became lead singer and guitarist, says. “I guess things haven’t changed, actually.”
Perhaps not, though six years later, Oxford Collapse is signed to Sub Pop, the legendary Seattle label responsible for launching some of the most respected and influential artists of the last two decades. Now a trio, the band has released four albums, the most recent of which, “BITS,” has brought comparisons to such alt-rock luminaries as REM, Husker Du, and Pavement.
It took some time, but Oxford Collapse has developed a comfortable, broken-in sound that is at once familiar and strikingly original. Like the Hold Steady, the trio takes its cues from a period in rock history that was more about substance than style. Its finest songs recall the left-of-the-dial college-rock s, when scruffy dudes traversed the country in Econoline vans, winning fans one town at a time.
As Pace tells it, the decision to make the kind of music the band now makes came after its second guitarist quit and moved back to Sweden. Up to that point, Oxford Collapse had dabbled in dance rhythms and flirted with the post-punk styles so popular at the time. Down a member, the group took stock and reconsidered its direction.
“We revaluated what we were doing and figured out we were much happier making music we wanted to make and would listen to,” Pace says. In 2004, the trio signed to local Kanine Records and released its debut, “Some Wilderness.” Though the band hadn’t yet shaken its angular tendencies, the album captured the raw enthusiasm the three musicians felt at the time.
“I think there’s a charm to the first record, in that it was our first time in a studio and for a couple of days and ejaculating all these ideas onto tape and literally cramming as much as we could within the timeframe we were working with,” Pace says.
Prior to the recording of the group’s 2005 follow-up, “A Good Ground,” bassist Adam Rizer joined the fold, replacing Mike Henry and, alongside Pace and founding drummer Dan Fetherston, cementing the current lineup.
“With the second record, I’m really proud of it, because we learned about editing ourselves,” Pace says. “Not every song tends to be five minutes long and have six parts. We realized that brevity is a good thing.”
“You figure out what works well, how you work together,” he adds. “You just grow and mature, playing with the same people. There’s a definite progression. Our friend Scott from the band Frightened Rabbits said no band’s first record should be their best. We subscribe to that idea—that you’re finding yourself as you go along and you get more comfortable with the people you’re playing with.”
On the strength of its first two albums, Oxford Collapse landed a deal with Sub Pop. Pace jokes that he received an email from “the bloated corpse of Kurt Cobain,” but in truth, he has nothing but reverence for Nirvana’s onetime imprint.
“I’d made a list of labels to look into,” Pace says. “Sub Pop wasn’t on it, just because they were a huge and iconic figure in the industry. We figured it wasn’t something that would be realistic. We were definitely flattered.”
For some groups, the prospect of gaining national exposure would have been daunting, but Oxford Collapse had already written half of what would become its third album, 2006’s “Remember the Night Parties.” Besides, Pace says, the band has always felt more pressure from itself than the outside world.
With its cover photo of a kid jump-kicking an inflatable Noid—the 1980s Domino’s Pizza mascot—as he flings himself into a backyard swimming pool, “Remember the Night Parties” is the antithesis of urban cool. Built on shouted, warbling vocals and the dirty jangle of Pace’s guitar, the songs conjure fuzzy suburban memories: basement foosball, high school keggers, wood paneling, ratty black Chucks, and MTV’s Minutes.”
Released earlier in 2008, “BITS” takes a similar tact, though its songs feel looser and more spontaneous. Despite the gruffer sound, Pace says the album actually took longer to record than its predecessor.
“In the past, we'd gone in for ten days and mixed and emerged with a finished record,” he says. “With this we wanted to do something different. We called on friends of ours: ‘Let's take a couple of months to work on this. Let's try different things, try different ways, get other people involved.’”
The collaboration mostly entailed “outsourcing” the task of writing lyrics and melodies. In terms of the music, the band initiated half of the tracks on high-bias cassettes—the cheapo store-bought kind once used to make mix tapes. Pace says the low-tech approach helped promote the “nuanced and layered” sound he was after.
It might also explain the band’s continued knack for recreating the spirit of a bygone American underground. While Pace insists Oxford Collapse doesn’t try to copy any of the bands to which it’s often compared, he understands why fans and critics throw around the names they do.
“It's this idea of making these loud, fun, interesting pop songs—that essentially what we're trying to do,” he says. “We're not getting by on our looks or anything.”
“I feel like, for us, it was about living the experience of doing it ourselves and, at the beginning, kind of putting out records ourselves and booking tours ourselves and doing it the way bands on the SST label or Twin/Tone were doing it before there was this universal consciousness due to the Internet,” he adds. “I think we're doing it the old-fashioned way.”