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

Wednesday, Feb 23 2011
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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.

Spoon
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

Dam Funk
This is the era where semidecomposed trends of the half-remembered '80s rise up like the ass-shaking monsters they never got to be. Dam Funk boarded the zombie train early with smooth, synthy R&B, boogie, and New Jack Swing. And thank god he did, because otherwise all we'd remember of the '80s were the stupid pants. Now we're fixing for the keytar solos and mirror shades — all of which should be arriving with Dam-Funk on Saturday, Feb. 26, at Public Works.

No Age
Punk doesn't die — it just gets boring until a new generation finds something fresh to do with blown-out power chords and blitzkrieg tempos. L.A.'s No Age drives its guitars to psychedelic volumes and distortion levels, and hits those snares fast enough to start a 'pit. But as you'll find out on Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Rickshaw Stop, there's an artfulness here that goes way beyond leather and safety pins. No wonder No Age is at the core of an aggressive music renaissance in its native burg.


Local Bands Who'll Help You Brag About Being Here

Geographer
Festival organizers love to see previous local Noise Pop openers moving up to headlining slots, but we doubt this'll be the last promotion for S.F.'s Geographer. The immaculate voice of frontman Michael Deni begs for attention on its own, but backing it with buoyant, New Order-y rhythms, precious synths, and the evocative atmospherics of an electric cello makes for a unique — and effective — freshening of beat-driven emo-pop. Experience Geographer local with electro-disco whizzes Butterfly Bones on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at the Independent.

Birds & Batteries
It's rare anymore to find a rock band that really sounds unique, but then it's also rare to find one that uses both lap-steel guitar and bloopy keyboards — and makes it work. Birds and Batteries pair a crazy sonic palette with the considerable songwriting skill of frontman Mike Sempert — a combination that knows no bounds. Electrify your rootsy wings on Friday, Feb. 25, at the Rickshaw Stop.

Tamaryn
S.F. indie rock in 2011 means shoegaze. And few local sludgeniks are as immersed in the subgenre's aesthetic as Tamaryn, with her ravenlike appearance, dragging tempos, and unabashedly dramatic lyrics ("Waiting for the water to claim you," goes a line on "The Waves.") Some moments devolve too thoroughly into nothingness, but at least you can count on all the black-clad hipsters being at Cafe Du Nord on Friday, Feb. 25.

Dominant Legs
Ryan William Lynch plays guitar in the stellar band Girls, but as Dominant Legs (with Hannah Hunt), he gets funkier, wigglier, and more stripped-down — while keeping a sheen of bittersweetness on all his bouncy satisfaction. Expect good things from this precocious pop when Dominant Legs plays with How to Dress Well on Saturday, Feb. 26, at Cafe Du Nord.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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