This Is Noise Pop: What Not to Miss at S.F.'s Signature Indie Music Fest

Now it's a festival name, an almost-genre, and, for some, even a mantra — but back in 1993, "noise pop" was just a term Kevin Arnold made up to describe a bunch of bands he liked. He stenciled the phrase on a poster, along with the names of the acts he'd corralled, and proclaimed the first-ever "S.F. Noise Pop Festival." When everyone showed up at the Kennel Club on Jan. 29 for the festival's first (and only) night, there were about 200 more people than the fire marshall would have allowed. But the show was a huge success anyway — so much so that when Arnold demurred about whether he'd do it again, the fans and bands basically forced him to.

Thus were the humble beginnings of Noise Pop, the rock festival turned indie culture celebration that takes over San Francisco for a week each winter. In 18 years, the festival has grown from a single night into a series of shows, and then into a series of nights with many shows each. It has convened educational panels, started a film festival, and even grown a short-lived appendage in Chicago. But the spirit of Noise Pop lingers in the curatorial origins of its name: Arnold and Noise Pop co-headmaster Jordan Kurland have a knack for dragging out interesting musicians every year. To review the festival's past lineups — see below — is to kick yourself for not being keen (or old) enough to catch some of the most significant acts in indie music's last decade before they hit their peak. "I can't say that any of us went to those [shows] thinking they would be what they were," Kurland says about booking Spoon in '97 or the White Stripes in '01. "It is still about what we're excited about."

Granted, nowadays, the pandemic popularity of indieness and online bazaars like Pitchfork have made it easier for less savvy birds to catch the thrilling musical worms, sucking some of the oh shit juice from recent Noise Pop lineups. But an insistence on keeping the lineups half-local has helped Arnold and Kurland ensure that Noise Pop remains a showcase for the frayed edge of music. Below, we look at the past and present of Noise Pop: four acts from yesteryear that helped prove the festival's mettle, four bands playing this year that may — or may not — have millions of fans in their future, and four artists that represent the depth of Noise Pop's local love. Digest at will, and see you at the festival, kittens.

They Played Noise Pop Before Achieving Mega-Greatness

The White Stripes
Sure, we all miss 'em now. But back in 2001, when they played their first headlining show at Great American Music Hall — way before "Fell in Love with a Girl" — no one had any idea the White Stripes would become, well, the White Stripes. Not even the folks who booked their show. Don't believe us? Check this out: An army of volunteers has long been shooting footage for the This Is Noise Pop documentary that's part of this year's festival. Unthinkable as this may seem, in 2001, no one even thought to film the White Stripes' show.

Modest Mouse
Granted, "Float On" took Modest Mouse to heights of crossover pop stardom no one could have foreseen. But in 1998, when the band headlined Great American Music Hall at Noise Pop, Modest Mouse was between The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica — in other words, right in the middle of what you could call its golden age.

It was a Thursday in late February, and some band from Austin called Spoon was playing fourth in a lineup at Bimbo's headlined by Archers of Loaf. Of course this Spoon was hardly the Spoon we know and love — it hadn't yet released its game-changing sophomore album, A Series of Sneaks. But it just goes to show that if you want to know what frat boys will find cool in about a decade, go see the opening bands at Noise Pop.

The Flaming Lips
Four years before the explosive comeback of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — and a year before a stunning album called The Soft Bulletin — the Flaming Lips did one of their Boombox Experiments at Noise Pop, in which the band performed the four-part album Zaireeka with choirs of people playing tapes through boomboxes. It was an early taste of the lovable chaos that would make the Lips stars — again — throughout the aughts.

Shows You May Regret Missing This Year

Best Coast
By now, Bethany Cosentino has to be getting sick of this whole sudden-fame thing. But the world — for reasons we don't totally comprehend — doesn't show any sign of wearing out on her stripped-down, fuzzed-out guitar pop. Whether this is an omen, or a fluke, isn't clear, but Best Coast's easy rhymes and catchy choruses certainly are a phenomenon — one you can catch on Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Regency Ballroom.

Dan Deacon
Reaction to the news that Francis Ford Coppola invited Dan Deacon to hang out was almost unanimous: What could Coppola want with an electronic musician who oversees audience-participation-heavy shows and titled a record Spiderman of the Rings? Their common ground must be the glowing spark of artistry driving Deacon's bizarre world. He is always game for peculiar experiments (like dedicating a tour to doing a super-set with Deerhunter and No Age), and Bromst, his 2009 LP, is an unorthodox and wonderfully unpredictable mélange of chants, melodies, and effects. So get psyched that Deacon's scoring Coppola's upcoming Twixt Now and Sunrise — and playing on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at the Rickshaw Stop. Reyan Ali

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Don't miss your last chance to be a hipster before that sh** finally goes out of style. How great is it to think that we will ultimately look back at 2011, laugh at the idiots performing in this festival and write it off as just another one of those "fads." But way more annoying than the 80s because hipsters actually take themselves seriously.

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