Music
8 min

The deli girls are the anti-establishment, pro-queer, pro-freak band of your dreams

How Danny Orlowski and Tommi Kelly became the queer, DIY alt duo at the centre of New York’s live music moment

Deli Girls
Credit: Courtesy Yulissa Benitez

The deli girls don’t have a band Instagram. They also haven’t made any music videos. “Not across the board, obviously, but music videos are like advertisements most of the time and are really shallow and just like these fashion things,” vocalist Danny Orlowski tells me over Zoom. “Like, I’m not making an ad or a fashion thing!”

The pair, which includes percussionist Tommi Kelly, is more concerned with the music—a combination of industrial, nu-metal, hip-hop, noise and dance elements—and the purity of their message: Anti-establishment, anti-rape, pro-queer, pro-freak.

The two met in 2013 after graduating from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute School of Design the year prior, bonding over “hating on some art.” Kelly grew up in Arizona, while Orlowski grew up in Queens and Long Island. A year later, they started making music—first with a radio show, then in a performance at the now-shuttered Brooklyn venue, Coco 66. And you can feel those years of collaboration come to fruition in their newest album, BOSS.

Performing live is largely how the deli girls have made their name. Their shows happen anywhere from art museums to basement clubs and even police protests, but the setup is usually the same: Producer Kelly leans over to operate six or seven machines in various states of disrepair, while Orlowski prowels the stage, screaming about rape, violence and various other facets of our dystopia in the faces of the crowd. Audiences regularly get so excited they inadvertently unplug Kelly’s equipment; the pair once even managed to incite a mosh pit at the snooty Brooklyn techno bar Bossa Nova.

Along with other brutal acts like Dreamcrusher, Machinegirl and Lust$ickPuppy, the Deli Girls find themselves at the centre of a live music moment in New York City—one where punks and ravers bleed together in a multicultural stew that’s queer almost by default.

“It’s crazy how now things have seemingly congealed into this scene and it’s almost remarkable just looking at it that it’s a queer thing,” Kelly says. “As the larger world has slowly become more accepting of queer and trans people, it’s only natural that the underground scene would follow suit. And it turns out we have a lot to say and an interesting way to say it.”

Though darlings of the DIY music world in NYC they may be, the band maintains their focus on tangible action in a world of virtue signalling. “There are bands and artists that other people would consider in the same wheelhouse as us [but] it’s all about aesthetics for them,” Orlowski says. “It’s not about real resistance and rebellion.”

The deli girls named their first album Evidence after Orlowski was told by prominent figures in the scene that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove they had been raped. The band has also been openly anti-policing for years; their 2019 song “Officer” was written after attending Black Lives Matter protests a couple years prior. “You watching? You scared?” Orlowski shrieks, goading the cops peering at them through a riot shield.

Much of their new album, BOSS, broadens that disdain for the police. “I wanted to talk more about the policing that happens in yourself and within the people you care about,” Orlowski says. The album’s lead single, “no such thing as good and evil,” exemplifies this impulse, with Orlowski screaming “Kill the cop in your head!” The track “feedback/failure,” meanwhile, explores the idea of benefitting from criticism instead of being harmed by it. “It’s feedback! / Not failure! / No need to put yourself in a jail yet,” Orlowski yells. It’s harsh music about the kindness of giving yourself room to grow.

It’s a long way from the screamed lyric “I’d rather die than change my mind” from the band’s last album, I Don’t Know How To Be Happy. The deli girls have always embraced mutability, even though they traffic in unforgiving sounds. Orlowski is a non-binary person on the masc-spectrum, while Kelly is in more of an undefined place, only recently returning to a more femme presentation. Over the past seven years, they have both occupied various identities while in the band, from two girls to a masc/femme duo to two masc people to their present state.

“It’s cool to change your mind whenever you need to and do whatever you gotta do,” Orlowski says. “There are a lot of great trans icons out there, but they’re very stable in their presentation and representation of themselves. That’s awesome but sometimes, for me at least, that can be a lot to live up to or intimidating when you’re figuring yourself out.”

Fortunately, that journey of self-discovery has led to the record that best captures the intensity of seeing them live—something vital now that COVID-19 has made packed basement shows  impossible.

Until we are allowed to return to the basement parties of yore, the band is forging a new way to bring BOSS to their community: a deli girls video game, in collaboration with New York developer Mark Fingerhut. “I really miss shows and I want to give people an experience, and this is the only way we could do it,” Orlowski says about the game. They describe a text-based game that pulls from a script they wrote, with visual assets by Kelly. “You’re clicking through a lot of things and there’s the illusion of choice,” Orlowski says. Then we laugh together: “Illusion of choices,” how fitting.

The game will feature songs from across the deli girls canon, though it is predominantly focused on the new record. Whereas their first record, Evidence, played as a no-frills recording of a live set, BOSS sees the band move beyond old drum machines that were always on the verge of breaking. There’s still plenty of crushing guitars, gut-wrenching screeches and clipped action movie dialogue to make long-time fans feel at home—but there are fresher textures now, too. Songs include softer elements like a string quartet, some computer editing and, yes, even singing. A highlight is the voguish song “loaded gun,” which features ballroom-esque vocals from LEECH (a.k.a. Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver) before ending with the sound of a piano. It’s a message of hope: That the chaos of this life will yield an equally restful coda.

Editor's note, Nov 19, 2020: The story has been updated to better reflect the origins of the band, along with a more accurate description of their music in the deck of the story.

This story is filed under Arts & Entertainment, Music, Culture, Profile
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