It's midafternoon on an overcast day at the Long Beach harbor, and !!! frontman Nic Offer is having a dance party of one in the midst of thousands of skinny-jeaned twentysomethings. The year is 2003, the festival is All Tomorrow's Parties, the lineup reads like a Sub Pop roster Photoshopped onto an indie Hall of Fame nomination list (Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Iggy and the Stooges, Spoon, Cat Power), and some dude with a microphone is trying to get me to dance.
It's a moment every indie-leaning kid has confronted, when the bass thumps, the DJ is workin' it, and your head says "No," but your body says, "Well, maybe: Is this ... okay?"
Around the same time, on the opposite coast, a guy by the name of James Murphy is telling underground rock fans that Daft Punk is playing at his house, and that it really isn't so bad. In fact, you could even enjoy this without pills — or guilt.
Fast-forward to 2010, and Murphy's LCD Soundsystem project is headlining a festival that celebrates the movement he helped start. The dance, electro, and DJ musicmakers are in the indie world to stay — and it's now okay to dance.
"When we first embraced this kind of music, at the the time it was something that was not cool, and I think that's why it became a part of the scene," Offer says. "Nineties indie rock became boring and needed some rejuvenation."
Across the Atlantic, electronic music was a different, older story. Acts like the Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, and Four Tet built on ideas put forth by the pioneering German electro group Kraftwerk, which arguably introduced dance-oriented electronica to art-rock audiences in the '70s. But in Europe, scenes never had rigid lines of demarcation, Four Tet's Kieran Hebden says.
"It's a weird thing for me to understand," Hebden says when asked about the addition of dance-oriented music to the indie-rock paradigm. "It's a North American situation. Once I get [to the U.S.], people are militantly into a certain kind of music, but in the U.K. it's much more common to go see a concert, then go to a club afterward."
Like many electronic musicians, Hebden first understood music through rock bands and the music he would hear at London nightclubs, where house and drum 'n' bass were blasted into nondiscriminating local eardrums.
"Twelve years ago, I'd been in bands and messed with production, using tape machines," he says. "And then I got my first computer and I was able to sequence and program, and it seemed natural to me, something I'd always been trying to do, so I started putting records out."
When Hebden, Murphy, and Offer started taking their newfangled sounds into the public domain, a different kind of fan took notice. NoisePop co-owner Jordan Kurland was one of them.
"With NoisePop, we started booking more dance-oriented acts," says Kurland, whose company organizes Treasure Island with local concert promoter Another Planet Entertainment. "That's when [co-owner] Kevin [Arnold] and I started listening to that stuff more, but we are also part of that community that we curate for.
"It's just good music," he continues. "When I say independent music ... it's always been more of a spirit or approach than what [certain] labels are putting out, and there's been more dance-oriented artists with that approach."
Kurland and Arnold and Another Planet are on their fourth year of promoting a festival dedicated to that spirit. This year's lineup lets fans have a Saturday night dance party and then recover from the hangover on Sunday with more traditional indie-rock heavyweights. Kurland reports that strong two-day pass sales indicate that many festivalgoers are open to "indie" serving as a modifier for "dance."
As for what the future holds for this music, Offer sees no end in sight: "Punk is the embodiment of rock 'n' roll rebellion, and the punk attitude is great," he says. "But there's always a need for dance music, and there's always a need for dancing. Dancing is always gonna be important."
Treasure Island Music Festival