By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Photos by Amanda Lopez.
Noise Pop has prevailed.
This year, as the San Francisco festival's 20th annual week of indie music concerts gets under way, the proceedings have the distinct feeling of a victory lap — a very loud popping of the cork, or at least pulling the tab on the tall boy.
Bob Mould, Castro Resident by Emma SilversJordan Kurland's Top Five Noise Pop Memories
Two decades is a milestone for any festival, and this year's lineup is worth getting excited about. For 2012, the organizers are bringing in venerable greats like the Flaming Lips and Bob Mould, and new artists who embody the festival's musical identity, and broaden it. (There are a few head-scratchers, too, like unremarkable dubstep producer Porter Robinson.)
But the sense of achievement isn't limited to the list of who's performing in San Francisco this week. Now especially, there's a feeling — and plenty of evidence — that the larger mission of the Noise Pop festival has in many ways been realized, that the culture it champions has kinda sorta won.
The gospel of independent-minded rock, what Noise Pop lineups have preached for 20 years in clubs all over the city, has converted the local music scene and the music world at large. "Indie rock" originally meant music that was released on small labels, or made without emphasis on commercial appeal; now, it's effectively become shorthand for "new rock that has a modest chance of being interesting." Accordingly, the genre's most successful artists have ascended to the mainstream: Last year, Arcade Fire won the biggest Grammy they give out. This year, President Obama put them on his official campaign playlist. Only a week ago, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon name-dropped the respected but relatively obscure indie label Jagjaguwar as he awkwardly accepted a Grammy trophy for Best New Artist. A decade or two ago that would have been unimaginable, but in 2012, it's taken for granted that most of the young artists making creatively serious music with guitars are indie artists. And the remnants of what their music was an "alternative" to — stolid, self-important, major-label shlock-rock — are commercially in decline and creatively a joke. (Punchline: Nickelback.)
Noise Pop alumni have defined the last 10 years of loud, guitar-wielding America: bands like the Flaming Lips, the White Stripes, Spoon, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Shins. To varying degrees, the festival has helped all of them succeed. But an equally important legacy is its having given small artists, especially local ones, a larger audience than they would get without the critical mass of a concentrated batch of shows. In the last 20 years, the festival thrust dozens of Bay Area bands into a national spotlight, while elevating the profile of the vibrant San Francisco music scene. (SF Weekly is a sponsor of this year's festival.)
Still, the festival's organizers aren't ready to declare victory just yet. "I wouldn't necessarily say, 'We won — mainstream music is now good,'" says Noise Pop founder Kevin Arnold. "There's still a lot of stuff that I think is manufactured, calculated, commercial, soulless out there. If there is a battle, that's what we're fighting against."
The war against slick music product won't end soon, if ever. But as the festival reaches adulthood, organizers face another challenge: In 2012, the world of "indie music" includes a more diverse array of sounds than ever before. The rise of bands like LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture in the early '00s helped introduce dance music to kids who grew up on independent rock. The conversion of indie kids into club rats continues here every weekend at forward-thinking dance parties across the city. (Meanwhile, mainstream dance music, as exemplified by artists like Deadmau5, Skrillex, and, yes, Porter Robinson, has exploded in popularity, steamrolling its sounds into Top 40 pop and R&B.) Though rap and hip-hop were once regarded as just not for rock fans, that stance has long become obsolete. Rather than opposing the rise of indie music, hip-hop's best artists have embraced parts of its aesthetic. And even rock gods like Radiohead have grown into devotees of dance sounds, with Thom Yorke showing up to DJ last year at Low End Theory, an L.A. party devoted to a strain of hip-hop-indebted electronica loosely called bass music.
For the Noise Pop crusade for independent, underground sounds, these changes present both an opportunity and a challenge. Can the festival maintain its revolutionary zeal and musical relevance in a world where styles are more mixed than ever — and where other genres are arguably pushing the creative envelope more forcefully than indie rock?
Kevin Arnold was fighting a much smaller battle back in 1993. As he tells it, the popular strain of rock music in San Francisco then was funk-rock. Even just two years after grunge broke, bands like Limbomaniacs, who followed in the freaky footsteps of Primus, were the local rockers most likely to play larger clubs like Slim's and Great American Music Hall.
Arnold preferred lesser-known locals like Overwhelming Colorfast, whose simple lineups, loud guitars, and strong melodies were deeply influenced by punk icons Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. He had experience promoting bands at the Bear's Lair at UC Berkeley, so when a friend who booked the Kennel Club (now The Independent) offered Arnold a night, he took her up on it. He knew exactly what to call his show.
"'Noise Pop' to me was just the name that sort of described the sound of that music," he remembers. "I was trying to brand it, really, and make it into something bigger than it really was. And that name came and stuck."
The first Noise Pop bill included five bands, and cost $5. More people came than could legally fit in the venue. Over the next few years, the festival expanded to multiple nights and larger clubs, but its musical focus remained the same: Arnold booked artists he liked, and the artists he liked sounded fairly similar. There was no rapping, or keyboards, or DJ music. It was all indie rock. And at that time, before the Internet, indie rock was still basically an underground phenomenon that Arnold wanted to show off. "[Noise Pop] was initially a debutante, then later like a declaration of a scene, putting a stake in the ground, I guess, to draw attention to this stuff that I do think was overlooked," he says.
Though early iterations drew ever-larger crowds, the festival was always imperiled. Arnold had a full-time job as database manager at Oracle, and booking a rock festival — one that had now grown into multiple nights at multiple venues — was an immensely demanding side project. By 1997, Noise Pop's most ambitious move was college radio staples Archers of Loaf headlining Bimbo's 365 Club. It was the largest and most prestigious venue the festival had approached. "For me, that was one of the biggest deals in the world at the time," Arnold recalls.
But things would soon change for Noise Pop. Ahead of the festival that year, Arnold sat down for an interview with an aspiring talent manager and freelancer writer named Jordan Kurland, who was working on a piece about the festival for the Examiner. Later that year, Kurland started managing early Noise Pop staple Creeper Lagoon, whose guitarist was Arnold's roommate. The two began socializing. Then in September 1997, at a Creeper Lagoon show, Kurland mentioned to Arnold that if he ever needed help putting on Noise Pop, Kurland would be happy to contribute.
"And he's like, 'Yeah, sure,'" Kurland remembers. "So we started working on it together, and he made me a full partner from the get-go, which I thought was very, very gracious."
Adding Kurland proved to be a crucial step: Arnold always had to be sly about working on the festival during his days at Oracle. But as a full-time talent manager, Kurland didn't — and he was already regularly in touch with the local club bookers.
After Kurland got involved, Noise Pop's ambitions greatly expanded — both in the size of the event and in the stature of the acts it booked. The '98 festival featured the Flaming Lips performing a live boombox experiment in the wake of Zaireeka, a quadruple album designed to be played on four separate stereos simultaneously. Former Pixies frontman Frank Black performed, along with Harvey Danger, a few months before its "Flagpole Sitta" single dominated rock radio. The then-aptly named Modest Mouse headlined Great American, taking a big step up from Bottom of the Hill, the band's regular S.F. haunt.
In 2000, buoyed by sponsorships from the dot-com largesse, Noise Pop opened a satellite festival in Chicago. It was a brave move, but the Internet bubble burst quickly. By 2001, the second year in Chicago, "we lost a fair chunk of change, and sort of retreated licking our wounds," Arnold remembers.
The Chicago experience instituted one important change for Noise Pop, though: Up until then, the festival had been booked with no conflicting performances, so that, theoretically, one could see every set. That idea went out the window in Chicago, and afterward, Noise Pop began running multiple shows per night in San Francisco, too. Its 10th anniversary festival featured an ambitious 88 bands, including Death Cab for Cutie, Guided by Voices, and the New Pornographers. Soon the festival had also started a film component.
Through the '00s, the festival rode the rising indie rock tide, and its bookings followed as the interests of its demographic moved into dance music and hip-hop. Other genres like folk and post-rock came into the fold, too, with artists like Joanna Newsom and Tortoise. But the prefix "indie" was always either stated or implied ahead of whatever genres Noise Pop brought in. The festival's sound palette expanded, but it always perceived itself as championing a more honest, more creative, less commercial alternative culture to the one that dominated popular music.
Then, sometime in the mid-to-late '00s, the adversarial stance of "indie music" vis-à-vis the larger culture shifted dramatically. The waning power of traditional media, the flattening influence of the Internet, and the decline of the major-label system all helped give independent artists — Noise Pop types — a more equal footing with their corporate competition. At first, the majors would pluck the most popular artists from indie labels, like the White Stripes and Modest Mouse. But as the decade wore on, the accolades and sales figures would be earned by bands like Arcade Fire, which remained on tiny North Carolina independent label Merge. And though a lot of the print magazines that championed '90s alt-rock had died, indie music found a newly powerful, if controversial, voice in the website Pitchfork. Able to raise or shatter the profile of a previously unknown band with a single review, Pitchfork brought the conversation about "indie" music out into the light, where anyone could find it.
After all these shifts, indie music was no longer an insular club for urban young adults, college kids, and diehards. It was chart competition for the biggest pop stars in the business. It was a major force in American music. And the significance for Noise Pop would be tremendous.
In 2012, one could reasonably ask whether independent music culture still needs Noise Pop's help. Certainly, the bigger artists on this year's lineup don't: Newcomers like Sleigh Bells or Porter Robinson would headline the Regency Ballroom or the Fox Theater whether theirs was a Noise Pop show or not. And some artists, like the Flaming Lips, are playing venues far smaller than what they could otherwise fill, seeking to create a more intimate, singular experience.
In recent years, with indie a dominant strain of national music, some of Noise Pop's larger shows have felt like branding exercises, merely rebadged versions of events that would have happened anyway. There may be a Noise Pop banner behind the stage, but otherwise, the show is the same as any other. And when a major headliner sells so many advance tickets that virtually no Noise Pop badgeholders can get in — as happened at last year's Best Coast performance — it spoils the festival's communitarian spirit as a gathering of underdog artists and fans.
There is still a crusading heart of Noise Pop, though, and part of it lies in what the festival has done since '93: giving worthy local artists a larger audience. Noise Pop offers these bands slots on carefully curated bills opening for better-known artists with a similar appeal, amid a storm of media attention. In many cases, openers go on to headline their own Noise Pop shows two or three years later. Some local Noise Pop alumni have made it to indie's big-time, and performers say the festival offers a unique career boost.
"I still meet people who come to shows and say the first time they saw us was at this or that Noise Pop show," says Will Sprott of San Jose outfit the Mumlers, who played Noise Pop every year from 2007 to 2010. (Sprott is performing solo this year.) The Mumlers sold out no fewer than three Noise Pop concerts, and Sprott says they got more offers to play with national and international touring bands after performing at the festival.
Giving a boost to worthy locals like the Mumlers was the Noise Pop mission from the start. Early on, Arnold and Kurland would book promising bands into the next-largest room than they would have been able play. "We couldn't sell an extra 500 tickets, but we could certainly maybe sell an extra 100, 200 tickets, and help bands get to that next step," Kurland remembers. "We're putting on them on a great bill, and the hope is that people react to it." The festival is doing lots of that this year, getting leading local acts like the Fresh & Onlys, Sonny and the Sunsets, Dirty Ghosts, Young Prisms, and oOoOO their own headlining shows.
In 2012, indie music is riding a wave of popularity. There are more festivals, websites, and other organizations supporting and promoting it than ever. The genre's biggest bands have graduated to playing the major venues in the largest markets. The battle that Noise Pop helped fight for the last 20 years has, in the broader culture, and for the current moment, reached a kind of victory.
But for indie rock, at least, the wave seems to be cresting. Sincere, creative artists have replaced corporate wankers in the rock world, but the overall share of consumers who listen to guitar music is shrinking. Many younger listeners see dance music, hip-hop, and pop as the future. Noise Pop has worked to branch out into those other genres, and it's had some success: Last year's festival saw electronic misfit Dan Deacon packing two shows, and this year's lineup includes interesting electronic artists like Matthew Dear as well as New Orleans bounce music leader Big Freedia.
Still, the festival's heart and soul unquestionably remains in indie rock. It can't — and shouldn't — abandon that, especially not with a local scene that's putting out some of the genre's strongest talents. But the musical times are changing, and faster than ever. The biggest question Noise Pop will face in its third decade — at least if it wants to stay relevant — is whether it can keep up while hanging on to the underdog spirit and impeccable taste that powered its success for the last 20 years.