Wednesday, April 30, 2008
 
GIMME INDIE ROCK
Sebadoh
Homestead 7" : 1991
Available on: III (Reissue)
Domino : 2006
[Buy It]

A few years ago, I spent a few weeks fact-checking at a magazine called Elle Girl. One thing I remember about those weeks is being asked to check an album review which began, more or less, as follows: "How in the world did an indie band like Dead Boy Confessional manage to end up on two soundtracks, a Doritos ad, and Hot 97, all before they'd released their first album?"

I went to the editor and said, "Well, they managed it because they're signed to Atlantic, and have the full resources of our media-industrial complex behind them." And the editor said, "no, no - indie doesn't mean independent. Indie's an aesthetic, and Dead Boy Confessional are the indiest band around."

That Friday, I asked the undergrads in my Writing About American Music class about it; as I recall, they agreed with the Elle Girl editor, unanimously.

LOVE TO THE THIRD POWER
Great Plains
Slaves to Rock'n'Roll
Self-released (cass.) : 1985
Available on: Length of Growth 1981-1989
Old 3C : 2000
[Out of Print]

LOVE TO THE THIRD POWER
Great Plains
Live at the Electric Banana, Pittsburgh 5.22.85
Old 3C : 2005
[Buy It]

The other night, my friend Franklin and I schlepped out to Maxwell's, in Hoboken, to see two old, reunited indie bands - Great Plains and Big Dipper. Both bands had appeared on Homestead's Wailing Ultimate compilation (which had also served as a lot of people's introduction to Dinosaur Jr., Death of Samantha, Salem 66, Volcano Suns, Squirrel Bait, Naked Raygun, and Big Black). Great Plains was a Columbus band, led by the irrepressible Ron House (who went on to front Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments). Big Dipper, a Boston band which included Bill Goffrier (who'd fronted the great Lawrence, KS band, the Embarrassment), and the former bassist and guitarist from an early incarnation of the Volcano Suns (a band fronted by Mission of Burma's drummer, Peter Prescott). There were many other connections: Before it was an aesthetic, "indie" was something close to an ideology - small, geographically centered, and no more or less incestuous than, say, the N+1 crowd. Big Dipper had recorded an epic song called "Ron Klaus Wrecked His House" -
He had a party
He had a band
And a thousand loving friends
He had his reasons
Or so he thought
This should be where the story ends:

Ron Klaus
Wrecked his house
Down on Indiana Street
Ron Klaus
He wrecked his house
Now it's lying at his feet

He threw the doors
Out of the windows
And the windows out the doors
He brought the outside
Into the inside
And the ceiling to the floor...
- and Franklin, who is also a musician (as well as a music writer, and erstwhile philosophy professor) - whom I'd met when I interviewed him for my fanzine, almost twenty years ago - used to cover Great Plains songs with his old band, Nothing Painted Blue:

LOVE TO THE THIRD POWER
Nothing Painted Blue
2 song 7" : 1994
Available on: Emotional Discipline
Scat : 1997
[Buy It]

Maxwell's is a tiny club; you're never more than a few feet from the musicians, and that night, everyone in sight seemed to be a musician: One band finished playing, and the folks who'd been standing beside you climbed onstage. (Climbing on stage isn't a big deal at Maxwell's, where the stage is about six inches from the ground.) Yo La Tego's Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley stood towards the back (YLT's history with Maxwell's goes back 25 years or so); their bassist, James McNew, played a short opening set. (YLT, too, has covered Great Plains songs.) Another friend of Franklin's had flown in from Portland for the occasion, and was thinking of flying in again, in July, to see the Feelies. I'm 35, and it's not often that I get to be the youngest guy at the show, but with a few exceptions, I was the youngest guy at the show - which felt, more or less, like the nicest, noisiest, smallest high-school reunion you could ever imagine. Ron House sang "Letter to a Fanzine" - the song included on that old Homestead comp. - which might have served as something of a generational cri de cour, twenty-some years ago, if more than a few thousand people had heard it (if memory serves, the lyrics were cribbed from an actual letter to a fanzine):
I I like everything that comes out on 4AD -
You like everything that comes out on SST -
You like almost everything that comes out on Homestead -
I like everything I get in the mail for free!
LETTER TO A FANZINE
Great Plains
Naked at the Buy, Sell, and Trade
Homestead : 1986
Available on: Length of Growth 1981-1989
Old 3C : 2000
[Out of Print]

LETTER TO A FANZINE
Great Plains
Live at the Electric Banana, Pittsburgh 5.22.85
Old 3C : 2005
[Buy It]

- and Bill Goffrier sang "Ron Klaus Wrecked His House" with Ron House standing five feet away, in cargo shorts and a pullover:

RON KLAUS WRECKED HIS HOUSE
Big Dipper
Craps
Homestead : 1988
Available on: Supercluster : The Big Dipper Anthology
Merge : 2008
[Buy It]

RON KLAUS DEMO'D HIS HOUSE
Big Dipper
Unreleased Demo (w/drum machine!) c. 1988
Available on: Supercluster : The Big Dipper Anthology
Merge : 2008
[Buy It]

Big Dipper broke up in 1991 or so, after releasing a mediocre, major-label album which resulted in a total loss of indie cred whilst failing, utterly, to penetrate the mainstream (a common enough, pre-Nirvana predicament). Great Plains hadn't even tried to break through to the mainstream - once, they'd pressed a single which never went on sale at all. (You had to write Ron House a letter in order to get it; if he liked it, he'd send you a copy for free.) "How many bands can you name that are consistently unafraid of allowing their songwriting reach to exceed their musicianly grasp," Franklin wrote, in his liner notes to a Great Plains compilation which was released eight years ago (and is currently selling for ninety-nine bucks per used copy, on Amazon). "As they put it in 'Before We Stop To Think' - 'We would write our songs slow, then try to speed them up/We would write our songs soft, then try to make them tough.' This is a pretty fair description of four-fifths of the music that's made the last two decades worth living through, and a better introduction to Great Plains' honest ambivalence about themselves (and the whole punk-rock making enterprise) than anything I could say."

This seems right to me, and I don't see the profit in following it up with a thousand words about indie then, indie now, semantic drift, and my own sense of what we may or may not have lost along the way.

YOU'RE NOT PATSY
Big Dipper
The Waiting Ultimate
Homestead : 1987
Available on: Supercluster : The Big Dipper Anthology
Merge : 2008
[Buy It]

Instead, I sent a draft of this post to a handful of friends, and asked them to provide their own definitions of "indie," in hopes that it'll encourage further discussion in the comments, or elsewhere. Here are the replies, as of this morning:
As in the new millennium catch-all that is the term "indie rock?" I mean, it's a huge field, but when we're talking a specific, sort of defined sound that syncs with that term alone, I think of (often bland) bands like Tapes'n'Tapes, the National, the Arcade Fire, etc. As far as a shared aesthetic, I'd say it's generally straight-ahead guitar music with a few meticulously considered deviations (recently horn orchestrations and Americana influences) that inhabits that sort of middle space between mainstream rock and the experimental underground. In other words, it's pop music for people who define themselves in opposition to pop music."

- Andrew Phillips, music editor/writer


The way I see it there are two kinds of genres - genres that represent living subcultures and genres that are purely marketing constructions (examples of the latter might include 'folktronica', 'IDM', 'electronica',... genres that no musician really claimed while the terms were first being bandied about, more as umbrella terms than as descriptors of unified movements, although then next-gen musicians sometimes claim these terms for their own, these media-created terms that described no living movement at their inception can actually birth a subculture that really *is* aligned around them). So those type of genres have two faces or phases that occur at different moments. Whereas genre-terms I regard as more meaningful-- things like punk, hip-hop, indie, genres that describe living subcultures where the terms are propagated by the musicians and THEN picked up by the media, which have lifestyle accoutrements and organic social dimensions etc..,, these also have two faces or phases, but they unfold simultaneously. So "indie" viably means two things: the fundamental one is music that is recorded outside of the major label system (& this category is very confused now b/c so many "indie" labels are structured so much like major labels and/or have commercial ties with them, and b/c unlike in the late 70s/early 80s when arguably American indie rock was born, there wasn't the massive touring and commercial infrastructure for indie rock that exists now, which made the term less shaky and more meaningful, with bands genuinely just finding their own way around the major label system not settling for this institutionalized subcurrent to it that exists now...plus with the current shakiness of the label system, categorizing a band by their label-affiliation is making much less sense than it used to.) & so the other thing that 'indie' means now is mainstream, record industry bands who emerged from this organic indie scene, who appropriated certain very visible musicological strains of it, and who are "indie" in the same way that a mainstream band can be "punk", we can say they are a punk band and while being mainstream violates every tenet of organic punk-movement culture, people will know what we mean. I guess the bottom line you're asking which of these definitions is the "right" one, and I think they're both right... what can I say, I'm a descriptivist at heart."

- Brian Howe, poet/critic


Indie is short for "independent." There are four major labels: EMI, Sony BMG, Universal and Warner. If a label ultimately answers to one of those four companies - if one of those companies has the power to make direct decisions about what the label does, or signs its paychecks--then it has a dependent relationship with that company, and the artists affiliated with it aren't "independent" either. That's a definition, not a value judgement, although it sometimes has value judgements attached to it. And it's a very useful tool for understanding where certain recordings and artists and labels fit into the economic matrix - what resources they have available to them, etc.

"Indie rock" has a generally understood meaning, largely associated with what a bunch of guitar bands on independent labels did in the '80s and '90s. It is, in fact, a subset of rock released on independent labels - an aesthetic that got its name from its economic circumstances. But the reason it got its name that way is that the idea of deliberate financial independence from a few large companies was, and sometimes still is, an important part of the intention and meaning of a lot of "indie rock" artists' work. To claim that a band can be "indie" without being financially independent of the major labels is to pretend that industrial capitalism does not exist.

- Douglas Wolk, author/critic


The way I see it, "indie" is a definable genre, not just a declaration of limits vis-a-vis the market (since, after all, there are tens of thousands of variously rebarbative musical units far less market-friendly than anything that can be labeled "indie"). If punk is descended from the Stooges, indie is descended from the Modern Lovers. Both subgenres come down from '60s garage rock, but indie takes the introspective, romantic, self-conscious, self-doubting road. Indie is usually friendly, catchy, and openhearted enough that it seems as though it should be accessible to all and therefore mass-popular in that old AM-radio way, but in fact it represents a formerly centrist aesthetic that's been pushed out to the fringes by a bunch of large historical forces. Its self-doubt, a crucial element, also tends to limit its appeal, and I'll let you guess what demographic unit feels sufficiently secure to countenance it. When something that sounds indie makes it to the big show, it's usually either because a freak weather pattern broke its way, or else because an indie wrapping coats something slick and shallow. Indie is a lot like the kind of American novelists who are kept in print by the French. Jim Thompson may speak to the soul of the nation, but Americans would generally rather read James Patterson.

- Luc Sante, writer


Wait - I thought the "indie" aesthetic being referred to was actually the "alternative" aesthetic; "alternative" more aptly referring to, say, Nirvana on Geffen, whereas "indie" would have referred to Nirvana on Sub Pop. Or is "alternative" now a sanctioned Billboard category like Country and Western? Anyway, as Tom Frank aptly put it around fifteen years ago in THE BAFFLER, "Alternative to what?"

Indie, anyway, does appear often to be a marketing term (albeit an intrinsically fraudulent one) referring more to a certain flavor of product issued by the majors (whether labels or studios) than to independently produced and released works. As far as the aesthetic it espouses or implicitly promises, it seems generally to be a tepid one, at least by my lights (same with the average "indie" movie).

(I think, incidentally, that the idea may be spreading to publishing as well -- look at Soft Skull's acquisition by Counterpoint. They're really acquiring an attitude, not necessarily just a backlist.)

I have to confess to being somewhat disturbed by your students' unquestioning absorption of the corporate line in this instance, particularly since it's music in which they, especially, have historically had a stake. The carelessness with the language is surely opportunistic for the record companies, but inexcusable in students charged with the task of thinking critically. We're in Orwell territory here; If "indie" doesn't actually mean it, then "organic" doesn't have to either, and we can all easily extrapolate from there.

- Christopher Sorrentino, novelist


My heart wants to side with the indie-economic-model hardliners but my head says that, semantically, that fight is lost: "Indie" has been redrawn by common usage just as "alternative" was before it - the most common musical strains in an oppositional subculture crossed out of that subculture, and the label crossed with them. "Indie" now connotes such a hodgepodge of economic, social and aesthetic associations that it is irrelevant. We can be rueful about that over beers, but that's about all.

So everyone please abandon ship on the word "indie" just as happened with "alternative." The principle of autonomy doesn't have to go with it.

Then again, considering that the four major labels are at the moment losing their hegemonic power like oil tankers spilling crude into the sea, maybe that's not currently the most compelling battle. If your main paycheck is coming from your songs being sold to commercials and TV shows, but you're on a non-major record label, are you still meaningfully economically independent from large entertainment
conglomerates? And as critical as we want to be of popular-culture economics, the indie/alternative subcultures have had their share of pathologies and snobberies that might warrant as much a "good riddance" as a sentimental tear.

The bigger question is whether the autonomy of the "indie" movement from mass entertainment was in fact as sociopolitically progressive and artistically liberating (not the same thing) as people attached to it believed in the 80s/90s - the populist question. And even if it was, as the major labels flounder to redefine themselves, what does true independence in the age of digital reproduction look like? What might "selling out" be?

Maybe the expiration date of the word "indie" provides a good, temporarily unlabelled moment to look at things anew.

- Carl Wilson, author/critic


Apologies for being obvious, but Indie used to mean 'not on a major label' - and the DIY attitude that that implied - and that was the only time we all knew precisely what it meant. When the major labels sniffed money, and bought the bands, it couldn't mean precisely that anymore - perhaps the word should have been more strictly applied at this time: "you were Indie yesterday, but since you signed that contract, you're now Modern Rock" - so it came to refer to the type of music which embodied that spirit, or was at least influenced by it, whatever the profile of the label.

"...with the current shakiness of the label system, categorizing a band by their label-affiliation is making much less sense than it used to."
Hits the nail on the head, and true for a long time.

And now Indie, or Alternative, is a "branding tool" that annoys. But those who still use the word in conversations (rather than marketing meetings) are generally understood to refer to music made regardless of the mainstream, for the love of doing it, regardless of technical perfection, profit etc.... or any combination of the above. I can't speak for those who use it in marketing meetings, but I assume they refer to that, but also to another meaning, which as with all sales terms is a slippery catch-all concept, comprising everything from "people with goatees and tattoos who are, to our delight, happy to make money" via "The spirit of the Kids and their Nike revolution" and "What's New" to "That music I may or may not like that will make me money".

One is a devil-may-care philosophy, the other its commodification - sorry: I can't think of a less Cultural Studies word right now! (Commoditization may be more up to date in Business School.)

Maybe Alternative Music nowadays is like Alternative Medicine?

- Wesley Stace/John Wesley Harding, author/musician



The first entry cited in the OED comes from a 1928 edition of the NY Times: "Indies, independent producers of pictures." More to the point however is a 1945 Billboard heading: "Indie diskers new collection ache for publishers royalty." What's relevant is the association of the term with vendors rather than with artists themselves. Additionally, there is the English idiomatic use which refers to scruffy but apolitical music as far back as Happy Mondays and Stone Roses. The term is now used internationally in this manner to class music as a broad commercial category. I think the term is helpful in the U.S. for drawing a line between groups who are oppositional (punk, free jazz) and groups who are totally cool with making it (indie). It's worth mentioning, however, that "indie rap" still seems to describe a fairly cohesive venue for intelligent, countercultural music (J Live, The Coup). But I think the elliptical return of the early citations is relevant: film and music, in a standard bid for commercial synergy, converge somewhere around the end credits of most romanticized youth dramas (Garden State's anointment of The Shins being only the most obvious example). As it stands now, indie means operational freedom from social consciousness; it's about as atomized and self-interested as the Victorian Novel. Actually, we can go slightly further by noting the current coincidence between Jane Austen films (affirming the virtues of marriage and estate ownership) and the commercial fiefdom of indie (affirming the virtues of Urban Outfitters and Apple). Both, I think, offer the consumer a provisional show of "hardship" (or authenticity) before moving on to an easy retirement.

-Blake Schwarzenbach, musician/professor


my "alternative" OED, different than the usual overground edition cites "in-die" as opposed to "out-die" ie to die on the inside generally defined as selling fewer records than everyone believes you should have and/or having driven a seemingly popular or commercially viable style or approach into mercantile disrepute versus "out-die" to die on the outside to sell more records than is seemly or good for the state of your carbon footprint and/or soul in the larger sense of such things hence the paradigmatic in-die band would likely be big star -- taking beatle-esque pop hooks, attractive hair, hetero love motifs and settling into underperforming "cult" inner-death (i.e. no one else really cares) status while paradigmatic "out-die" band is certainly the rolling stones -- who dragged oppressively morbid delta blue fetishivism and drug-death-spiral somehow through four decades and counting of overdog arena-selling "outer-death" (i.e. we're all appalled to have to witness their dollar-soaked decrepitude)

a simple measure of the difference is often the function of a cover song -- out-dying cindy lauper propelling in-dying jules shear number onto the charts vs. in-dying galaxie 500 or yo la tengo burying out-dying kinks or george harrison tunes in the "in-die pantheon"

one of the paradoxical cases is the velvet underground, long understood as the "ur-in-die" band but they were actually out-die -- leveraging john cage dissonance, cellos, homosex motifs and bad singing into some shred of popularity and lasting fame -- yet the innumerable bands adopting them as a model have achieved treasured "in-die" status (i.e. gloriously no one cares)

(meltzer would have taken this and run for fifty pages, whereas I have to get to work)

-Jonathan Lethem, novelist


We're curious as ever to know what you think... In the meanwhile here's one, last song by Big Dipper:

A SONG TO BE BEAUTIFUL
Big Dipper
Craps
Homestead : 1988
Available on: Supercluster : The Big Dipper Anthology
Merge : 2008
[Buy It]

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