Now that fashion revivals happen every two months, trapping us all in a continuous time loop of baggy-pantsed misunderstanding, slathered in Day-Glo and superfluous pockets, it shocks the conscience that any stylistic minutia is overlooked at all. In some cases the omission is a blessing. The year or so that urban hipsters wore cowboy hats and affected Southern accents was a season of hootenanny hell that need never be given another thought unless some ex-member of Nashville Pussy runs for high office. But there was ephemera that, if one is inclined (as we are) to look backward with nerd-tinted glasses, merits revisiting.
What was “moth culture,” and why does it matter? The first part of the question is easy. It was a late-’90s/early-aughts trend, a smooshing together of “mod” and “goth,” employed by a microsection of post-punk/post-hardcore post-teens in hot spots of indie rock counterculture like New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Diego. Places where youth—disgruntled with the slovenliness of grunge and indie, too self-conscious to embrace either the faerie cosplay or S&M leather of goth, and too scrawny to pull off the varsity thuggishness of hardcore—looked instead to the cool Britannia of Britpop and the dissolute used-car salesmanship of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, and decided (either collectively or as individuals) that the look that best expressed the out-of-time contrarianism of their respective/collective souls was “preppy vampire.” And, briefly, before the Strokes/Libertines ushered in a ’70s rocker aesthetic aggressive in its heteronormative absence of glam, garage/dance punk revivals established the hoodie/suit-jacket combo as the height of “dressing up,” and Arctic Monkeys put the final nail in the tight-pants-and-filigree coffin by, in their 2007 single “Brianstorm,” offering up “top marks for not trying,” hundreds of, perhaps even a thousand, kids went mod + goth. Their beltwear was complex, their conservatism of dress was unsubtly transgressed with an unmistakable hint of kink, and all their haircuts were improbably black.
“Identification of, or as, a moth seems to me primarily about the look,” Jim Sclavunos, former frontperson for the Vanity Set and longtime member of the Bad Seeds, says. “To my thinking, the basic components of the look are a cool, detached, slightly distracted air with the occasional wry smile, sharp sharkskin/dark ’60s-era cut suits and hair, all filtered through style echoes of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the Jam and Pulp and Kraftwerk, Reservoir Dogs and Twin Peaks and Ed Wood, Louise Brooks and Bettie Page and the Brat Pack. There’s a touch of cartoon beatnik in the look, too, and possibly also the mixing-bowl haircut Lloyd sports in Dumb and Dumber, but that might be going too far.”
As to “why does it matter?” That’s easy too. It doesn’t. Or, rather, it doesn’t need to. Since when does “mattering” matter? This isn’t the U.N. It’s a rock mag. What about “great hair” do you not understand?
Within the niche history of rock ’n’ roll subculture fashions, the basic ingredients of moth are longtime favorites. Moth’s gothic aspects drew from “amphetamine goth”: a subculture within a subculture, where goth’s aristocratic transgressiveness was tamped down (or subverted, if you prefer) from all-black pageantry into almost-all-black dinner theater; cheap suits for the men and Edward Gorey school dresses and mother’s pearls for the ladies. The look had been making inroads into batcave culture since goth rock’s inception in the ’80s, and continued into the early ’90s. First, through the “popularity” of Nick Cave. Concurrently, or soon after, the look expanded, as Australian-to-NYC transplant JG Thirlwell went deeper into sounding like a murderous Looney Tunes conductor, NY misanthropic mainstays Swans became something akin to a big band themselves, and New York garage ruffians like the Chrome Cranks realized that Bettie Page lookalikes preferred their prospective James Deans to own a couple button-down shirts. Concurrent to this, D.C.’s Nation of Ulysses were subverting their own scene’s “Revolution Summer” ascetic aesthetic with a full-on embrace of dandyism, albeit one couched in a “Kick Out the Jams, Motherfucker” revolutionary hoo-ha rhetoric. As Gang Gang Dance’s Brian DeGraw points out, the Washington kids were less gothically inclined than their NYC/West Coast peers, but the latter two regions more than made up for it, sometimes eschewing white belts entirely for being too close to a color. Regardless, by the mid-’90s, Stateside hepcats and noiseniks had fully embraced the aesthetics of noir sleaze.
Moth’s “mod” aspects have even deeper roots, with even the punkiest punks agreeing that the Who at least started out pretty good.
If amphetamine goth was initially a subduing of goth rock’s glam roots, by the mid-’90s it ironically served to add glam to the assiduously prosaic look that was drooping over so much indie rock and hardcore. Whether it was Ted Leo’s early band Chisel reminding everyone just how tite maximum R&B could look, Nation of Ulysses and Slant 6 making “the kids are alright” into a manifesto, or just a bunch of coastal hardcore brats deciding en masse that cleaning up nice for funerals was a lifestyle that could be extended to other rituals (such as DIY shows or going to the bar), the stage was set for moth culture to explode. Or, you know, slink around in the background like an undead lothario on uppers.
“What was interesting at the time was seeing the scene really split into stylistic purists who were either Tim Yohannan [the founder of Maximum Rocknroll] types who felt like punk had to sound a very specific way to count, or Youth Crew kids who obviously were uncomfortable with anything weird or arty,” Peter Rojas, cofounder of Gizmodo, Engadget, and RCRD LBL, says, “and the experimenters who loved Antioch Arrow [one of the first San Diego artsy punk bands to embrace goth] and other stuff that was push- ing what hardcore even was.”
“Honestly I can’t remember who I first heard it from,” Sclavunos says, “although I was introduced to the term at that bar/club on First Avenue near East 2nd Street, sandwiched between Lucky Cheng’s and Lucien, that used to host the Vampyros Lesbos nights. I’m afraid I can’t recall the name of the bar, but I was watching a cool little early electroclash-style band at one of Lary 7 and Joe Frivaldi’s soirees in the basement—I believe the band was called Crainium and they were from D.C., but that’s all I can remember about them. In any case, the forgotten individual described this half-remembered band to me as being ‘moths.’ That was the first time I heard the term.”
“That show that Jim is referring to was in the basement of a place called Bar 16,” says ex–Crainium bassist DeGraw. “It was when we became a two-piece—just myself and Jim Loman—and moved to NYC....By that time we were much more into Suicide and I think our style was a lot less mod-influenced, but still I can see why he would be affected by the presence of all the D.C. kids there with their short black bangs and suits and ties, etc.”
For a few bleak moments, while researching, it seemed entirely possible that moth culture was...completely made up. Nobody except Sclavunos and the author had heard of it. Even amongst its chief practitioners at the time, the term was met with head scratches, at best followed by a bemused exclamation of “Ohhhh yeahhhh...moth. RIGHT. Were we moth? I always thought we were more *insert slightly more well-known cultural blip here* than moth.”
“I think probably the black helmet hair and some of my other stylistic traits in those days, for me personally, can be traced to my affection for bands like Cupid Car Club [ex–Nation of Ulysses] and Slant 6,” says DeGraw. “I basically moved to D.C. because of those groups, and in my first and only year of art school I remember members of both of those bands showing up to an opening at the school and I was just blown away by their style and presence. It’s so distinct in my memory...this image of Ian [Svenonius] leading this pack of the coolest-looking people I had ever seen all decked out in faux fur coats and scarves and sharp, clean, thrifted polyester...lots of vintage white dress shoes and of course the ever-present white belts...loads of dyed black hair.
“But yeah, I’ve never heard the term ‘moth’ at all. I remember being called a Spock rocker and a white belt but never a moth.”
And who were the moth bands, even as they may deny it? Popular choices include the aforementioned Crainium, Calla, the Spells (a sadly forgotten NYC garage goth outfit made up of Nicole Barrick, a visual artist who art-designed records for her brother’s band, the extremely moth-y Jonathan Fire*Eater; Marissa Pool, who is now in the Austin band Suspirians; and Leni Zumas, who, nearly 25 years after the Spells’ breakup, would gain success as the author of Red Clocks, the best-selling novel about the wild sci-fi premise of abortion becoming illegal in America), Sclavunos’ the Vanity Set, Portraits of Past (who later became Vue), Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds, the Make-Up, and the VSS (the West Coast synth punkers whose Dave Clifford says, “Early punk rock shared quite a lot in its fashion and attitude with mod culture, so the two really blended together. And the Townsend/Moon hairstyle just seemed cooler than the spiky Sid Vicious look”).
“But like myself,” Sclavunos makes clear, “I don’t think any of these artists would have identified themselves then or now as moths, and were probably not even aware of the term. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s derogatory, but it is mildly derisive.”
Moth is “something I thought was just made up and goofy. I don’t think it’s a real thing, as rooted in any kind of intention by the artists,” claims no less an astute observer of subcultural mores than jj Skolnik, former Maximum Rocknroll columnist, current Bandcamp Daily editor, and one of the party-scene models on the iconic, fashionable anti-fashion cover of Q and Not U’s classic dance-punk revival trailblazer, No Kill No Beep Beep. Skolnik was there, in moth culture’s supposed epicenter, witness in real time to the Eastern Seaboard pipeline of earnest and aggressively subdued Washington, D.C., post-hardcore and sullen NYC cokehead glam, so they would know!
So if Skolnik is, as they so often are, correct, so what? The nice thing about the ’90s, the early aughts, and fashion itself is that something doesn’t need to have been “real” to be wonderful. What was grunge fashion but the invention of a Sub Pop receptionist? If it was all dressed-down flannel, how come Kurt consistently wore stripes and cardigans like he was the love child of a sexy librarian and Johnny Marr? If the “indie sleeze” of the early 2000s was as codified, in its vertical stripes and American Apparel, as its revival on Instagram would have one believe, how come the Killers got away with dressing like lawn jockeys and the Kings of Leon’s best fit was the time all those birds shat on them? Doesn’t negate any of these scenes. Truth is fluid, especially when memory, hard drugs, and fashion are involved.
Luckily, as this moth reporter was about to, in order to defend his real estate within this magazine, descend further into “what is goth mod truth anyway?” rationalizations, social media came to the rescue. An Instagram post wishing a happy birthday to a friend of a friend called said friend of a friend “the original moth.” Vindication chimed in this reporter’s ears, and it sounded like a Farfisa organ and a thousand angel-driven Vespas. Upon calling this rare, self-described moth, I realized that not only had I found a surviving moth, but I had found the moth who originated the title.
Truth is fluid, especially when memory, hard drugs, and fashion are involved.
“I’m just as much into Ike and Tina as I am Suicide, right? So to me, it’s just a mix of all the good stuff,” says Gregg Foreman, former frontperson of the Delta 72, former member of Cat Power, and lifelong collaborator with a coterie of stylish blackened hepcats too long to list in full. “If you look at someone like John Cooper Clarke or the Birthday Party, Rowland S. Howard—they all have this style that sort of like...they look kind of like jazz, like they wear it. They’re wearing suits and pointy boots and the boots are sort of mod, you know, like these periwinkle things. And then the suits are kind of like this smart soul thing. But it’s in black, you know? So yeah, as far as I know I kind of came up with the term. As a joke, but not like a joke.
“For me, it was because my parents were, you know, mod-type people,” Foreman continues. “They were into Motown and Stax Records and the Small Faces and all this kind of stuff. And then when I was a teenager, I was into, you know, the Cure and Suicide and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Fall, all these kind of bands. And so I kind of just made up a term called ‘moth’ being one part mod, one part goth. And, you know, it sort of stuck.”
As Foreman went on, so did the rush of validation. By his telling, regardless of the naysayers I’d encountered, moth was a real enough thing that even Sam Knee, the author of A Scene in Between, the cult-classic document of ’80s U.K. DIY fashion, had considered a book on the look/sound. According to Foreman, his and Knee’s interpretation of the style was far more encompassing than the limited hardcore offshoot I’d considered. To their mind, moth culture didn’t start with Foreman inventing the term in, approximately, 1994. It included not just bands like the Delta 72 and their immediate forebears (bands Foreman says were “looking back to move forward”), and not just Ian Svenonius or Slant 6’s Myra Power, but also the artists who came a decade before—from the “ferocious gothic mod gangsters” of Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard et al., to the “classically witchy archetype” of Lydia Lunch, to the aristocratic dissolution of punk poet John Cooper Clarke (whom Foreman considers, along with Suicide’s Alan Vega, the “ground zero” or “moth-father” of the look).
“I remember I did a record with Vega,” recalls Foreman, “and I went to his house and I was walking to the bathroom, and he grabbed my arm and he looked up at me and he said, ‘I love the way you look.’ And I was like—I didn’t say it but I was like, ‘Wow, yeah, I look like you did in 1982.’”
Moth culture, if we absolutely must attribute import to it, matters most as a lovely footnote. Its influence is sadly limited to the sensual-core trash-goth band Bambara, and...that’s it, really. But, in the same way that the oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom attempted to reestablish Jonathan Fire*Eater’s place in the canon as essential forerunners to urban hipsters catching up with Middle America in realizing that guitar rock was pretty fun after all, moth is a part of rock ’n’ roll’s secret histories; the arguably inessential (but gloriously so) threads that run concurrent to the popular narratives of one of America’s most beloved, ever-shrinking, but still-kicking youth cultures. Even in the garish, pocket-laden 1990s, some kids didn’t want to dress like shit. They wanted to pretend they were grown-ups, like Robert Mitchum or Lestat; they wanted to wear suits without having to be in ska bands; they wanted to skip the dying young and get right to the beautiful-corpse part; and they wanted to be real fancy.
“Jon Spencer said to me once,” Foreman says, “I was wearing an Einstürzende Neubauten shirt or something and he’s like, ‘You gonna wear that on stage?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ And he’s like, ‘You want to look like you’re in the band or you want to look like you work in the record shop?’
“You know, it’s like, point taken.”
As far as youthful lessons go, you could do worse. Life is too short for half measures. It’s not like if you skimp on the “show” part of showbiz, the “business” end will retreat out of politeness. Affectation becomes habit, if you’re lucky. The Easter Bunny may not exist, but we still look to Jesus for lifestyle tips. Red pills are for dorks; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds still played shows in the Matrix (presumably). Regardless of whose version of the ’90s/early aughts one chooses to believe, moth culture, in one way or another, was positively unreal.