100 Gecs Shook the Underground. Can the Duo Explode … With Rock Music?

LOS ANGELES — Laura Les and Dylan Brady, the experimental pop duo known as 100 gecs, wanted to set off fireworks indoors.

And if this were a few years ago, back when the pair were quickly becoming the internet underground’s favorite musical pranksters, they probably would have just done it, pooling cash to hoard semi-legal explosives and gleefully wrecking the basement of whichever friend of theirs cared the least. In its anarchic “Jackass” ethos, few things could be so gecs-y.

But at the end of last year, with an upcoming major-label album to market — and all the corporate guardrails that entails — 100 gecs were being forced to blow stuff up a bit more by the book. Fortunately for Les, 28, and Brady, 29, the other thing that comes with a fat recording contract — besides a boatload of commercial expectations, various handlers and more rules — is resources.

The fireworks, after all, were not just for mayhem but a music video — the one expected to help propel the band’s new single, “Hollywood Baby,” into a mainstream crossover success.

So one evening last December, in the parking lot of a Van Nuys soundstage, a small crew and an old-school pyrotechnics expert made 100 gecs’ absurd vision into an insurable reality, erecting a perfectly dumpy two-room house with no roof, which at least made it look like the fireworks were being ignited inside.

When a tiny fireball hit Les, clad in a thrifted Limp Bizkit T-shirt, directly in the eye, the crucial thing was that it had been captured on camera.

“There’s our short-form content,” Brady cracked, his chronic deadpan delivery only ever disrupted by boyish enthusiasm.

That night’s elaborately D.I.Y. setup — like the souped-up pop-punk of “Hollywood Baby” — was 100 gecs with a budget and plenty of good will to burn.

Since the group’s debut, “1000 gecs,” blew minds, made memes and topped critics’ year-end lists in 2019 with its playfully futuristic genre-mashing, Les and Brady have been on the steepest of career trajectories, their sold-out shows growing exponentially as Atlantic Records positioned itself behind whatever the duo wanted to do next.

“It was definitely a ‘stop you dead in your tracks, you have to pay attention’ moment,” Craig Kallman, the industry veteran who signed the band to Atlantic, said of 100 gecs’ viral rise.

Saddled almost immediately with the weight of its own Spotify-branded subgenre (and accompanying playlist) called hyperpop — for its synthetic, sugary mix of Top 40 bombast, emo sincerity-in-snottiness and rap swagger — 100 gecs were stamped as disruptive innovators, the instant cult favorites who weren’t expected to remain anyone’s secret for very long.

Bridging the blown-out bass of the SoundCloud era and the looming everything-at-once cacophony of TikTok, 100 gecs had the kind of auspicious, stars-aligning arrival that led those in the group’s expanding universe to invoke the paradigm-shifting breakthroughs of Nine Inch Nails, for whom 100 gecs opened on tour last year, and Nirvana.

Kallman, anticipating what is supposed to happen now, called back to “that transition from ‘Bleach’ to ‘Nevermind,’” anointing “Hollywood Baby,” with its arena-ready chorus, a “real linchpin song to kick the door open.”

Yet in a rare balancing act, rapturous hype for 100 gecs is still just as likely to come from below as from the ambitious benefactors above.

Jesse Taconelli, 25, a manager for acts like quinn and Jane Remover who have been grouped into the broader hyperpop sphere, said: “The influence that gecs has is incredible and supernaturally powerful in this scene,” which encompasses a loose, mutating network of SoundCloud pages, Discord chats, message boards and other unwieldy corners of social media.

“They’re the Nirvana of that, the Stones of that,” he said. “But in the internet age, with an internet-y sound, and when you get credited with creating a wave like that, it becomes difficult to follow up.”

After various delays and some stopgap releases, 100 gecs took about four years. But where the band landed for its sophomore LP, “10,000 gecs,” out March 17, is amusing in a way only Les and Brady could muster: They made an alt-rock album.

Instead of leaping deeper into the digital glitchiness that defined its name, 100 gecs found a fresher palette in the analog, including rawer vocals, raging guitar riffs and pummeling live percussion, courtesy of the journeyman rock session drummer Josh Freese (Guns N’ Roses, Weezer, A Perfect Circle). Though still wobbly enough to be recognizably gecs, the bones are sturdier.

“It’s funny to think, are people going to call ‘Hollywood Baby’ hyperpop?” Les wondered, noting that many of the duo’s earlier conventions — “goofier snares,” pitched-up nightcore vocals, supersaw synths — are minimized or absent.

“It could’ve been easier,” she shrugged, a pile of discarded ideas, a global pandemic and two headlining tours later. “We could’ve made an album in the style of the last one quickly. The songs would’ve been pretty OK. It was just boring.”

While the band had previously nodded at maligned sounds like ska and nu-metal, cutting them with Auto-Tune, trap drums and E.D.M., “10,000 gecs” largely lingers in the crevices where the Warped Tour met the Family Values Tour, on the alternative edges of MTV’s turn-of-the-century “TRL” empire. In just 10 songs across less than 30 minutes, the album recalls Korn and Sum 41, Primus and Cypress Hill, even incorporating the ignominious rap-rock calling card of D.J. scratches over distortion.

And although it is a truism of the pop-music present that a generation raised on the all-you-can-absorb buffet of piracy and streaming playlists has defeated the dogma of genre walls, 100 gecs are more pro-genre than post-genre, drawing from musical tropes with a superfan’s precision and depth of reference, à la the filmmaker Jordan Peele.

None of it, Brady and Les insist, is ironic. “It would be so condescending to be like, we are going to pull from terrible genres,” Les said.

“Genres that have no worth,” Brady mocked, recalling the tortured metaphors for collision that followed the release of “1000 gecs.” “Meme music made in a computer blender — that’s not how I think about it,” he said. “It’s just music that we like.”

Les acknowledged a debt to viral detritus — “Crazy Frog” and “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” are frequent gecs touchstones — and called the musician and comedian Neil Cicierega an “Internet Jesus” for his YouTube mash-ups.

“But there’s a lot of good craft built in there,” Les said. “We like playing with the different connotations that people do have with things — whether good or bad or silly or meme-y. But we’re pulling from them because we think they’re cool.”

Pointing to the skank-ready new songs “Frog on the Floor” and “I Got My Tooth Removed,” Brady added, “People have been telling me that ska is bad my whole life.”

In multiple interviews that spanned a year of writing, recording, tweaking, backtracking, touring, writing and recording some more and ultimately letting go, Les and Brady could be gloomy (or just hung over), vaguely optimistic (or just hung over) and often cagey, but were always adamant that they were almost where they needed to be.

“It’s getting better, but I wish it was getting more done,” Les said last spring, after a night of studio trial and error that lasted until 7 a.m. “This is a very spaghetti-at-the-wall process,” she said. “Then we whittle.”

Like comedians who would rather die than explain their jokes, the two gecs — both of whom produce and sing — could sound more like platitudinal politicians while discussing their process than the mischievous jesters of their public personas. But their dedication to the project and solace in one another shone through.

“There’s differences in making music when there’s that much more pressure,” Les said. “But we figure out how we can make every day be fun.”

The pair first met as teenagers in suburban St. Louis, where Brady was honing a sample-based production style and Les was struggling as a fuzzed-out singer-songwriter. At first, Brady hoped to recruit Les as a vocalist for a group he envisioned as “Nine Inch Nails meets Death Grips meets Beastie Boys,” but it never happened. (“This is the album that we made instead of doing that band,” Les said of “10,000 gecs.”)

When Brady moved to Los Angeles and Les to Chicago, the pair stayed in touch, bonding over their shared passions for the composer John Zorn’s Naked City and the experimental production of Oneohtrix Point Never and Sophie, but also the rap of Sicko Mobb and Lil Durk.

In 2016, after a week together in Les’s apartment, the pair quietly released a five-song EP as 100 gecs, and continued to work remotely afterward, sending one another tracks and building an increasingly adventurous sound. Some of the group’s first shows, in early 2019 and 2020, took the form of virtual D.J. sets at mock music festivals — Fire Festival and Coalchella — in the world of Minecraft.

Across the physical distance, the pair’s creative connection proved to be pure, uncomplicated and near-psychic. “It feels even more natural and easy than working by myself,” Brady said.

Early on, Brady had also dabbled in the SoundCloud rap world, channeling the Auto-Tune wails of Travis Scott, and was managed by Cody Verdecias, a young A&R executive and former musician. Verdecias, who took on 100 gecs, hoped to elevate alternative music on a mass scale, and he found success in recent years with the hardcore band Turnstile, one of 21st-century rock’s greatest grass roots success stories.

“I strive with our A&R team to be pioneering and championing things that are fresh and new,” Kallman said, crediting Verdecias with helping him see 100 gecs’ potential. “They just felt like a band that was going to have great cultural significance, build a scene and a loyal, dedicated following.”

In Brady’s tiny, windowless studio last year, Verdecias said he had successfully been keeping Atlantic at bay as Les and Brady toiled. “I told the label today, big tracks coming!” Verdecias said. “That’s like my main job.” Even he hadn’t heard most of what was to come.

“I like to think that after this album, they can become the 10-year album band,” Verdecias teased.

Brady, noncommittal, noted that Led Zeppelin once “did like four albums in two years.”

“Yeah, but they only wrote half the songs,” Les countered.

“Who else wrote them?”

“They’re like, old blues songs.”

“They got it done either way,” Brady said.

Four months later, when the time finally came to play the album for Atlantic, 100 gecs went all out, renting the venue Irving Plaza in Manhattan for the afternoon and rolling out a literal red carpet for the expectant suits. At an earsplitting volume befitting the album’s mosh-ready roar, “10,000 gecs” blared from an empty stage toward rows of seats, strobe lights flashing offbeat. Controlling the proceedings from above, Les and Brady headbanged in the balcony.

Ultimately pleased with the finished product, the label targeted a release date still another eight months away — enough time to press vinyl LPs and prepare a proper marketing rollout.

“We’re not scared of squandering anything,” Les said in December, as “10,000 gecs” became a palpable reality. “‘Oh, you had momentum’ — whatever.”

“The album wasn’t done, so,” Brady added, “what were we supposed to do?”

Time, it turned out, had been the ultimate luxury. Making harebrained music on their computers was one thing, befitting the lives of long-distance friends with day jobs and managed expectations. But working through the right guitar tones, the perfect live drum sound and the best of 200 vocal takes was a new privilege.

“It’s not like I’m getting off work and having to do it in the evening,” Les, who moved to Los Angeles in 2020 to pursue 100 gecs full-time, said. “It’s much easier to make something when you’re not worried about paying rent.”

Still, the duo insisted that their own expectations were more modest than those of their biggest boosters: release the album, start another, “do the tour, maybe sell some T-shirts,” Brady said.

“Nirvana? That was a complex situation,” Les had offered earlier. “There’s a reason Kurt Cobain’s suicide note is pretty crazy.”

“There’s definitely growing pains, but neither of us are trying to make every dollar we can,” she said. “Making music is such a fun thing. If it wasn’t fun, we’d just stop doing it.”

For now, though, Les added, “If I had the choice of doing this and doing anything else, I would be doing this.”

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