The New Boys in Town

Fixing up the welcome wagon

Watching the local music scene for the past few years has been like working the desk at a dilapidated hotel: You see a lot of people check out and not many check in. Sometimes I feel like I need a map of the United States and some thumbtacks to keep track of where our local artists have scattered. So it's heartening to see that three -- count 'em, three! -- indie pop labels have moved to the area in recent months.

Last May, Magic Marker's Mark Rothkopf decamped to Oakland from Portland (his label cohort, Curt Kentner, stayed put). Rothkopf wasn't drawn by the temptations of the Bottom of the Hill or those clam chowder bread bowls on Fisherman's Wharf, though; he was lured south by love. "I had two reasons, really," Rothkopf says via phone from his Palo Alto office. "One, I took a research position here at Stanford at the medical school, and two is Shannon [Handy, his fiancee]." Rothkopf fell for Handy when she was the drummer for Oakland act Lunchbox, which put out its last album on Magic Marker (and will do the same with its new one, Evolver, this week).

When asked to describe Magic Marker's aesthetic, Rothkopf says, "I like to think of us as a pure indie-pop label without being too fey or twee, but people might disagree with me." Recently the label has released records by '60s garage-pop act Walker Kong, harmonic daydreamers Boy Crazy, and the folk-inflected Dear Nora, whose leader, Katy Davidson, moved to S.F. herself last year.

As for Rothkopf's view of the local musical landscape, he's a bit disappointed. "I don't really see much of a big scene," he says. "In Portland, the scene was more compact, and everyone knew each other. Here, it's not as tightly knit; there are many more niches."

Clairecords co-founder Dan Sostrom had the same reaction after moving to Sacramento from Jacksonville, Fla., last September. "In Florida, people were always asking you to come and play, and you'd jam, and that's how bands would form," he says via phone from his home. "It's not notfriendly here, but everyone focuses on the bands they're in."

Sostrom opted for the cross-country switcheroo after a July 2001 tour with his band the Brittle Stars, in which he and his wife Heather "fell in love with the West Coast." The pair picked Sacramento because of its proximity to the mountains and to San Francisco, as well as its need for a good indie record store, which Sostrom had dreamed of opening. "There's only two here, and one is closing down in March, so we're going to move into the space." Tentatively named Tone Vender, the store will feature similar stock to that offered in the Sostroms' mail-order business (www.clairecords. com). Both the mail-order enterprise and the label highlight excellent "noise pop and spacey stuff," as Sostrom describes it, with the latter responsible for such gems as Mahogany's The Dream of a Modern Day, a shimmering mix of cellos, guitars, and Cocteau Twins-esque vocals. Future Claire releases include the first full-length from Monster Movie, a group with Christian Savill of seminal noise-pop band Slowdive, and an LP by an Estonian band called Pia Fraus.

The folks at Shelflife Records take pride in finding similar gems from faraway corners of the globe. Ed Mazzucco, who moved to S.F. from Brooklyn last October with Shelflife co-owner Jill Bliss, explains the imprint's catalog thusly: "I've always liked expanding my horizons and finding bands doing the same thing in other countries as I'm doing." Shelflife has released records from Greece, Germany, and Sweden, with upcoming efforts due from France (River, Souvenir) and the Philippines (Soft Pillow Kisses, Carnival Park). As you may be able to tell from the band names, Shelflife favors soft, occasionally childlike pop. "[Our sound's] kind of sugary sweet, with lots of "ba ba bas,'" Mazzucco says.

Even before moving here, Shelflife's owners put out efforts by Bay Area bands like Skypark, Phoebe Quest, and Santa Rosa's Laura Watling, with whom Mazzucco has formed a group called In a Day. But like the other label heads, Mazzucco finds the local scene a bit chilly. "It's a lot different from New York City. Everyone there goes to the same 10 shows a month; here, I haven't seen that. Here, people in indie pop bands don't necessarily listen to indie pop." Mazzucco hopes to foster a stronger community by starting up a new DJ night that will host international bands like Brazil's Postal Blue. Over time and given enough new, similarly minded residents, the music scene may be able to upgrade from rattrap to four-star hotel.

Oops, I'm sorryIn the Dec. 26, 2001, edition of Pop Philosophy, Reality Check host Dragon Dave was erroneously called Diamond Dave ("Check, please!"). In the same issue, the Outsiders were incorrectly described as English instead of Dutch ("Top 10 reasons for making a Top 10 list"). We regret the errors.

 
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