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The Outrageous Thrills of Model/Actriz

THE BROADWAY have no idea what’s about to hit them. Model/Actriz frontman Cole Haden, 26, stands onstage in a sequined tunic, cutoff shorts, a weathered baseball cap, and a glorious mustache, looking a little like Freddie Mercury if he lived off the L train. It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday. Haden and his bandmates are playing this Bushwick, Brooklyn, dive under a fake name to warm up for their next tour — and that means anyone who stumbled in here early tonight is in for a treat.

Haden eyes the crowd and begins to sing slowly over a high, needling drone from guitarist Jack Wetmore, 27. Then the rest of the band kicks in, and the room tips into chaos.

As Wetmore, drummer Ruben Radlauer, 27, and bass player Aaron Shapiro, 28, furiously thrash away on their instruments a few minutes later, Haden marches into the crowd, approaching audience members one by one and getting right up in their faces. “Delicious, and everything gushing, ripe and crimson,” Haden purrs at one mesmerized onlooker, holding eye contact to an almost unbearable degree. All around him, people move their bodies to the demented industrial groove.

Shows like this made Model/Actriz the hottest word-of-mouth sensation at this year’s SXSW festival. Every time they perform, it’s an explosion of outrageous noise, raw physicality, and communal joy — all the thrills that rock bands aren’t supposed to be able to provide anymore.

“From a record-label perspective in 2023, you don’t sign bands off of live shows,” says True Panther head Dean Bein, who did just that after seeing Model/Actriz play a small room at the Brooklyn club Elsewhere two years ago. “I just went because I wanted to go to a show. But I left there being like, ‘I have to work with them.’”

If Model/Actriz’s audience was building steadily before, it’s grown like wildfire since the release of their debut album, Dogsbody, in February. “Up until last year, we would show up to a new place, and there just wouldn’t be anyone there, which isn’t unreasonable,” Haden says. “But this past tour, that room would be completely full.”

A couple of weeks before the secret show, we’re gathered at Shapiro’s walk-up apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. A record by North Carolina indie-rock sage MJ Lenderman spins on the stereo as Haden and Shapiro lounge on a couch, with Radlauer and Wetmore perched nearby. “Oakland was one of the better shows when we toured last year, but it was 40 or 50 people,” Shapiro says. “And then this year, to have it be sold out, just bonkers, insane energy, people singing along.… It was crazy.”

Part of Model/Actriz’s appeal is the gleeful way they smash all the stereotypes of their scene — they’re probably the only noise band whose singer cites the musical Cats as a formative influence — and the crowds they draw are correspondingly varied, with fans from distant herds united in rapture on the club floor. “There’s the punk kids, there’s the internet-music fans, there’s a gay and queer crowd,” Radlauer says. “It’s a pie chart with multiple slices,” Haden agrees. “But they’re not standing separately, like the Sharks and the Jets.”

When they recorded Dogsbody in the summer of 2021, they weren’t sure it would resonate with a wide audience, nor was that a big priority for them. “It’s a pretty weird album,” Shapiro says. “There’s a parallel reality where it could have gone very differently.”

“We were there to take a swing for ourselves,” Haden says. “If a comet were to hit Earth, we could be in the fire and the flames of it, with our album clutched to our chest, and be happy.”

LATER, HADEN WELCOMES ME to his own apartment, which feels like a DIY art gallery. There’s a large poster of a German magazine cover starring Kylie Minogue framed on one bedroom wall, not far from a set of iridescent butterflies that Haden’s great-grandfather pinned in the 1920s; nearby, above the fridge, hangs a painted portrait of the singer embracing Real Housewives star Sonja Morgan. It was in a room like this that Haden wrote the lyrics for Dogsbody. “I think I’m a librarian at heart,” he says as he retrieves a water-stained scrapbook filled with scrawled stanzas and collaged cutouts of wrestlers and dancers.

Haden’s writing sessions for the album rarely began before 11 p.m., when he finished his shifts as a restaurant server. “There’s a sense of urgency to writing at night,” he says. “How much can I get done before the sun comes up?” In early 2020, when his workplace shut down due to the pandemic, he was excited to have more time for his nocturnal pursuits. “I could go as long as I wanted, for days on end,” he says. “I realized at some point that I was committing sleep sabotage on myself, driving myself to the point of exhaustion.”

He describes his process in vivid, dramatic terms. “The album is about learning how to love myself again,” he says. “And that takes, at least for me, talking about failed Grindr exploits, talking about boys that I used to love, talking about staying up all night and then feeling like there was no reason to do that.… Things that I had carried with me from childhood that had become fragmented shards of glass in my heart.”

Haden grew up in southern Delaware, near the mid-Atlantic coast. A born theater kid, he loved choreographing elaborate routines for his younger sisters, a pair of twins who did gymnastics. “I kind of forced them to do it, but it was really fun for me,” he says. “I could get them to do some pretty avant-garde stuff.”

At 12, he starred in a community-theater production of Oliver!; when he was in eighth grade, his dad drove him to Philadelphia to see Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball Tour. “I wasn’t totally aware of my sexuality at that point,” Haden says. “I mean, I enjoyed the concert to an incredible degree, but I don’t think I knew how much it meant to me. I was afraid, maybe, of being too into it.”

By high school, he was listening to Grimes and Deadmau5, and performing his own music at local venues. “I wasn’t very shy,” he says. “I would take my keytar around to coffee shops and put glitter all over my face and wear medallions. But when I would write songs, I would use ‘you’ instead of ‘he.’”

He met Radlauer and Wetmore in 2015, when all three of them were students at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The bandmates’ memories differ on the venue where they first saw Haden perform — it was either a bar or someone’s basement — but everyone remembers Haden writhing on the floor in a corset, fake blood dripping down his face. “As soon as Cole went on, we were like, ‘This is fucking sick,’” Wetmore recalls.

“We were impressed by how all-in you were,” Radlauer says to Haden. “There was an intensity that was even more intense than what we would see at punk shows.”

Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

Radlauer and Wetmore were childhood acquaintances through their fathers, two musicians who’d been bandmates in the Eighties. “Our dads really wanted us to be in a band together,” Radlauer says. Instead, they pursued separate paths through Los Angeles’ hardcore and garage-rock scenes, exchanging awkward hellos when they ran into each other at shows. (Radlauer also went through a dubstep phase and briefly ran a “low-profile, low-effort” EDM blog that the other members affectionately rib him about.)

They had reconnected in college and were searching for a singer to start a band with when they found Haden. “That wasn’t really what I was looking for,” Haden says. “But I was lonely.” He tried writing lyrics for some guitar-drums voice memos that Wetmore and Radlauer gave him, and soon they were recording and touring as a trio. “I remember at the first practice being shocked at how it suddenly sounded like music,” Radlauer says.

Model/Actriz quickly gained a rep around Boston. “I remember hearing the name around a lot,” says Shapiro, another Berklee student at the time. “Y’all were the cool, scary band.”

While Haden enjoyed those early tours, he says now that he was ambivalent about the band’s future. “We could tell that Cole wasn’t feeling fulfilled,” Radlauer says. “It was not knowing how to be himself in the context of a heavy-music band.”

Radlauer felt trapped in the genre, too, even if it was one he had more experience in. “We were all posturing a little bit,” the drummer says. “Putting on the stone face and an air of nihilism, looking a certain way and acting a certain way.”

“Stoic and mean in drop-D,” Wetmore says.

“We had conversations about feeling limited to being able to express only anger or negative things,” Radlauer continues. “I remember Cole being like, ‘I want to express happy things. Life is a blessing, motherfucker!’”

In 2017, Haden broke up the band. “Jack and Ruben were doing everything they could to make it a supportive and healthy environment for me, but they couldn’t save me from myself,” he says. “I needed time away to come back and say the things I wanted to say.”

Radlauer remembers feeling aimless in the two-year hiatus that followed. “I joined a million different bands at once to try and fill the hole,” he says. “I was having fun, but it didn’t feel the same.”

When Haden, Wetmore, and Radlauer started the band back up again in 2019, they brought in Shapiro — the actual model in Model/Actriz — as their fourth member. A veteran metalcore musician from Burlington, Vermont, he had moved to New York after college to work in fashion, followed by a stint walking runways in Milan for Thom Browne and Boris Bidjan Saberi. This reminds Shapiro of the time he tried to hang out with Model/Actriz a few years before joining the band, and got denied: “I hit up Jack, and I got cool guy’d,” he says. (Radlauer laughs, embarrassed: “I don’t remember that.”)

At Model/Actriz shows these days, it’s easy to see how Shapiro completed the band. He’s a dynamic presence onstage, lurching unpredictably and twisting his bass keys in a way that suggests he’s only a chord or two away from ripping his instrument apart with his bare hands — yet never falling out of lockstep with Wetmore and Radlauer’s focused attack.

Haden, meanwhile, has grown into a force every bit as commanding and charismatic as the pop stars he grew up idolizing. “Kylie, Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Fergie,” the singer says, rattling off their names. “I love pop music, and I look up to that pantheon of divas.… I’ve always been fascinated by that symbolic power.”

In its exuberant, unapologetic sexuality, Model/Actriz’s music can feel like a counterpunch to the prudery and homophobia of American public life today: Dogsbody is an album that you just know would ruin Ron DeSantis’ day if he heard it. For Haden, it’s about challenging the boundaries of the band’s scene. “I’m able to make something that reflects me, where I don’t see a lot of other examples of me reflected,” he says. “In this space where it’s so macho and straight, this is my opportunity to make it good.”

He pauses as he searches for the right way to describe the alternative he wants to offer to the world of heavy music. “I’m just a serious clown,” he adds, smirking with pleasure as the words come to him. “I feel like Meat Loaf.”

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