Everybody Wants a Piece of The Dare
Depending on who you ask, the best party in New York City is happening in the most unlikely of spots: the dank Lower East Side dive Home Sweet Home, where a taxidermy coyote guards the bottles behind the bar and a disco ball slowly spins above a cramped dancefloor. Like some other formerly-chill neighborhood venues across downtown NYC, Home Sweet is in the midst of a post-pandemic second act as a scenester watering hole, with a line to get in that can stretch far up Chrystie Street. But only on Thursday nights, when Harrison Patrick Smith—better known as The Dare, which is what he calls his one-man electroclash act—is DJing.
One night this spring, Smith, 27, finished a cigarette and walked down Home Sweet Home’s basement steps. It was close to midnight, and he was about to play his free semi-weekly party, Freakquencies. But first he had to make it through a gauntlet of fans. A blonde girl leaning against the bar waylaid him to flirt as a few guys in leather jackets looked on enviously over their Modelos.
“Things have leveled up super quickly,” Smith tells me earlier that evening, over martinis at Fanelli Cafe, another venue that has been popping off among young people with cool outfits. As recently as December, he was a fill-in teacher at a private school in the West Village, getting pranked by sixth graders by day and DJing until 3:00 am at night. Now, he gets clocked by twentysomethings just about every time he comes into Manhattan from the East Williamsburg apartment he shares with two roommates. That leveling-up has just hit a new peak: Republic Records, home to Taylor Swift and Drake, has signed The Dare to a record deal, following a bidding war that drew in several major labels.
I ask him what it was like to be pursued by record execs. “It was really crazy,” Smith says. “I went to a lot of lunches. I think I went to every single Keith McNally restaurant, twice.”
Later that night, as Smith makes his way through the crowd at the bar, a couple people raise point-and-shoot digital cameras to snap his photo. It’s a moment straight out of 2008 New York City, when the “indie sleaze” scene—centered around punk-y rock bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, electrocash acts like Fischerspooner, and DJs like The Misshapes—was fueling wild nights in clubs in downtown Manhattan and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (The photographer The Cobrasnake captured the scene’s boozy ambiance with his voyeuristic digital snapshots.) Which helps explain Smith’s leap from schoolteacher to New York City next-big-thing. A&Rs want the same thing the aspiring It girls and guys at Home Sweet Home are after: a taste of pre-streaming, pre-algorithmic gritty glamor.
Smith is the leading figure in the indie sleaze revival, a movement that has polarized the internet, but more importantly, fueled a new wave of downtown personalities and parties. What started as a fashion micro-trend—“a messy amalgam of ’90s grunge and ’80s opulence with a slightly erotic undertone,” as Vogue put it—now seems more like a reflection of modern anxieties and ambitions. The aesthetic flourishes of this aughts redux are secondary to the sharp tinge of nostalgia young people feel for the subcultures and communities that defined life in the very recent—but spiritually distant—past.
But indie sleaze would, of course, be nothing without a soundtrack. Its anthem arrived last August, when The Dare released “Girls,” a raunchy, self-explanatory two-minute banger with acid synths, a funky bassline, and a bawdy chorus—“I like the girls that do drugs / Girls with cigarettes in the back of the club / Girls that hate cops and buy guns”—that Smith delivers with a curled upper lip. It’s horny and depraved like Peaches, with the subtextual humor of punk-ish early LCD Soundsystem—puerile yet naughtily compelling, sort of like indie sleaze itself.
Not everyone got the appeal, or understood that Smith might be in on the joke. One Twitter user called The Dare a “Dimes Square psy-op.” Smith doesn’t really care. “I’m in the club while you’re online,” a lyric from The Dare’s second single “Good Time,” has become his mantra, and a rallying cry of sorts for Dare fans who are downing shots at Home Sweet and shouting along about tall girls, small girls, girls with dicks and call girls. For those in this nightlife scene, “Girls” was a watershed. “Everything has felt a bit different since it dropped. It really feels like a scene defining moment,” wrote the guys behind the Perfectly Imperfect newsletter, which chronicles the shifting tastes of the downtown class.
“Harrison brings a fresh new approach to an older style of music that wasn’t seen as cool anymore, and he did it possibly before people were ready for it, which is why I think it works,” says Dustin Payseur of the Brooklyn indie rock mainstay Beach Fossils. “It’s the 20 year cycle of the downtown scene: 1980s New York with Liquid Liquid, 2000s New York with The Rapture, 2020s New York with The Dare.”
By the end of the year, The Dare was making waves outside of the downtown club circuit. Celine designer Hedi Slimane, an indie fashion icon whose work brought Alphabet City-rocker style to the Parisian runways two decades ago, invited Smith to DJ the brand’s party in Los Angeles following a fashion show called “The Age of Indieness.” (Smith went on in between indie sleaze touchstones The Strokes and Interpol.) The New York Times described “Girls” as “epically silly and epically debauched”—and put it on its best songs of 2022 list. In January, Smith sat next to Nick Cave in the front row in Milan at a Gucci runway show full of molto-sleazy sequin-covered matchstick jeans and gauzy, scoop-neck T-shirts. Charli XCX, one of Smith’s favorite artists, is a fan.
“Honestly, the strange thing about ‘Girls’ is that it hasn't really exploded in a viral sense,” Smith tells me. “Compared to any viral hit, it doesn't have anywhere near as many streams. But within the first month of putting it out, there was so much attention from other musicians that I respect, and labels, and all these people. And they felt really excited in much more of a cultural way than in some sort of algorithmic way.”
As he settles into the DJ booth at Home Sweet Home, he puts on a DFA remix of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.” A freezing cold night, it’s not as crazy as usual outside the club, but just about everyone in the bar packs the dance floor as soon as Smith turns on the fog machine.
He soon gets to the part of the set that most of the crowd had been eagerly awaiting: a string of Dare demos, which add to the you-had-to-be-there allure. Freakquencies, Smith explains, embodies “a lot of the values I'm starting to express in the music, where it's not exclusive, it's stylish, and there's cool people there.” The Dare, in other words, is supposed to sound as fun as the party is.
When he queues up the LCD-inspired upcoming single “You’re Invited,” a new mainstay of his sets that also serves as a sort of thesis statement for the nightlife free-for-all, the place erupts in cheers. Several Freakquencies regulars in smudged eye makeup, jump up and down, sing-screaming the words to the songs, which has yet to be released.
At Fanelli’s, wearing a slim dark blazer and white button-down with a mop of messy bangs, Smith is a necktie away from an honorary Strokes membership. (And in fact, he usually does wear a necktie.) Some are surprised he doesn’t sing with a British accent; the New Yorker writer Naomi Fry referred to him on Instagram as “a young Paul Weller.”
Smith might have the look for it, but he’s not exactly the smirking Lothario suggested by “Girls,” “Good Time,” or the new Dare jam “Sex,” which will be released on his first EP, out Friday, May 19. “Harrison isn’t too cool to be nice,” says Payseur. “We’re past the era where it’s cool to be a dick—now you can make music that’s bratty and seductive and still be a chiller.” A little shy, Smith calls himself a huge music nerd, and as he pokes at a cheeseburger, he describes how moving to NYC left him, for a time, struggling with anxiety and hypochondria. He speaks passionately about instructing students and leading music classes at an after school program. “I really, really liked being a teacher!” he says.
But he loves being a rockstar.
Smith tells me how “Girls” came together at 2:00 am one night in his bedroom recording studio. It started, he said, as “kind of a joke.”
At the time, Smith was still grinding away on his indie band, Turtlenecked, that he formed in 2014 as a college student in Portland, Oregon. Turtlenecked had amassed the cultiest of cult followings in the Pacific Northwest indie scene, with a scrappy post-punk sound that reflected Smith’s childhood in the suburbs of Seattle. He describes his upbringing as “a timeless story”: Kid snaps violin bow, picks up the guitar, reads music and fashion magazines, dreams of moving to a big city, starts a band.
When he landed in New York, in 2018, the Turtlenecked sound got bigger and more ambitious. “We started playing shows and everything,” Smith says. “I was elated. I was trying to build up something exciting, and colorful, and confident. A rejection of how I was feeling at the time.” The only problem was that nobody cared. In NYC, at least, music had long moved on from sensitive guitar boys from the suburbs, and Smith self-released his final Turtlenecked album just as the pandemic turned NYC into a ghost town. “I didn't really expect anything to happen” with Turtlenecked, he says, “and nothing really did.”
Smith laid down “Girls” in about an hour. He had been building electronic music and beats during the pandemic, and that night he was noodling around, trying to get a rise out of his buddies. “We all made goofy songs just for fun, and I sent it to them just to make them laugh,” he says. This one was his stab at something in the vein of “Some Girls” by the Rolling Stones. He approached it with less of the self consciousness of his previous work. “When I'm doing that as a goofy thing, I usually turn off the serious part of my brain that's like I'm going to release this. And when I made it and I listened back to it I was like, ‘You know what? This is pretty good.’”
He started playing “Girls” at Turtlenecked gigs way out in Brooklyn, and noticed the crowd was responding more strongly to the petulant party rock than his soul-baring indie. Soon, he started wondering: what if I actually do release this? “I guess I just was like, ‘You know what? Fuck it. I'm gonna make all these electronic songs.’”
David Wolter, the executive vice president of A&R at Republic Records, caught an early gig where Smith performed (frenetically, with a lot of strobe lights) solo as The Dare. “When I saw his live show, I left feeling like I could say ‘I was there,’ and only a few months later it’s incredible how important it already feels,” Wolter says. “I knew we had to be a part of this scene.”
As another round of drinks hit the table, I asks Smith why he thought “Girls” landed with such a splash. Was it thanks to indie sleaze, or something more universal?
“I think ‘Girls’ in a way, and what I do with The Dare in general, is a rejection of the last five years of music,” he says. The way Smith sees it, music has been too smooth, too serious, and above all, too complicated. “I never really liked or connected to music that talked about sex, for instance, in a very corporate or political way. I don’t think ‘Girls’ really has any political agenda. It definitely doesn’t have the agenda of making me look like a really good guy or anything. And I think that excites people. It's also just really fun and it's very simple. And I think a lot of music isn't that fun and isn't that simple.”
“There's a Lou Reed quote I read in a book about songwriting where he talks about how he writes songs,” Smith continues. “He said something like, ‘I turn on my radio and I listen to what God plays me.’ With ‘Girls,’ it literally kind of felt like that, because it just happened so quickly. It even feels strange that I wrote it.”
Smith is now working on debut Dare album that’s due out later this year. A few days after Freakquencies, I meet him at a recording studio near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He had spent the afternoon re-recording the lyrics to “Sex.” “This song has been a huge pain in the ass,” he says. It’s difficult, it turns out, to make a song that includes the line “I want to call your mom, and tell her you’re the bomb,” not sound just a hair too ridiculous. “The earlier version was too forced and theatrical,” Smith says. The version he played me, he says, “is more laid back.”
Smith also has a Detroit techno-style track in the bag, and another that sounds like a twisted Justin Timberlake dance hit. In the last year, he’s gotten enough filthy DMs on Instagram to write a song, called “Open Up,” about one particular unsolicited exchange (the title is as on-the-nose as his others). “I should probably tell her before I put it out,” he says with a grin. But Smith tells me he doesn’t want the album to just be lascivious bangers. He’s just finished another track called “All Night” that sounds more like LCD Soundsystem’s late night anthems, like “All My Friends,” which laid bare an ambivalence to the hedonistic excess of the original aughts-indie era.
Now that he’s a downtown celebrity and burgeoning rock star, Smith’s been thinking a lot about where he’ll be when the lights turn on at the end of the night. “I do wonder what my life is going to be like in a year,” he tells me. “Because right now, the worlds of Harrison and The Dare are blurred, but they’re not overlapping completely. There’s definitely a lot of separation. But I do wonder if, in a year or two’s time, that separation is going to get more and more hazy.”
Not that it would keep him away from the party. Following a stretch of sold-out shows in NYC and LA, Smith plans to keep throwing Freakquencies every week, he tells me as he roots around on the studio’s computer for a few more demos. Well before The Dare had begun to take shape at 2 am in his bedroom studio, his aspiration, Smith explains, was to write songs that made people want to go out, start bands, and play shows. To get off their phones and go to the club. “I like songs,” he says, “that feel like it’s us against the world.”
Originally Appeared on GQ