A Decade of Indie: The Rise of the Outsiders
A Discussion with Geoff Barrow, Isaac Brock, Wayne Coyne, Bradford Cox, Black Francis, Scott Kannberg, Jason Lytle, Mac McCaughan, Colin Meloy, and Chris Walla
Nov 10, 2009 Issue #29 - Year End 2009 - Best of the Decade Photography by Dewey Saunders (Illustration By)
Though it's reputed to be the most widely spoken musical language in the world today, rock and roll was born on the margins. The offspring of marginalized bluesmen, backwoods country singers, broke ass jazz bands, and rowdy kids who dared to mix black R&B with white pop music, it was once the musical representation of everything that was thought to be dangerously lurking beneath the veneer of American society. But, once its baby teeth fell out, it became a business, neutered for the masses with subsequent waves of reformations aimed at bringing the music back to its liberated roots. Arguably the most enduring of these, indie rock—itself the successor of the punk rock, New Wave, hardcore, and college radio scenes of the '70s and '80s—proudly carried the outsider banner, defining itself in opposition to the music that was designed to appeal to the masses, the antidote for everyone who wasn't content to take what was fed to them on the radio and MTV. But by the middle of the first decade of the new century, indie was in, with Feist turning up in commercials, Sonic Youth playing on popular primetime TV shows, and stadiums full of sports fans chanting the hook to The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." Suddenly, indie rock had expanded its territory; it just wasn't clear who its residents were anymore.
In truth, the answers to questions of citizenship have never been clear, as the definition of "indie rock" remains constantly in flux. Are bands on independent labels the only acts pure enough to have a legitimate claim to the "indie" spirit? Or is indie rock an aesthetic that belongs to any artist who puts creative integrity before commercial potential? Can an indie rock band sell millions of records like Modest Mouse, perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic like Grizzly Bear, and have their songs celebrated by the government like The Flaming Lips? Do the words "indie rock" mean anything anymore?
We've discussed these border disputes before. Only 15 years ago, the music industry was still recovering from an influx of bands that were at least tangentially related to the indie aesthetic, with an entire "alternative" music movement springing up to capitalize on Nirvana's chart-topping success. But while Generation X got its full 15 minutes—complete with a Simpsons parody—the indie aesthetic withered under the spotlight. By the end of the decade, Matchbox 20, Creed, and Limp Bizkit had made "alternative" music nothing more than a label that was run into the ground through major-label marketing schemes. But the great majority of underground bands just stayed where they'd always been, touring the trenches and selling albums through the mail.
And, so, as indie rock enters the second decade of the 21st century, its definition has never been less clear. Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and The Decemberists all made the treacherous transition to major-label marketing money without sacrificing their integrity or idiosyncrasies, and selling bundles of albums in the process. Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Bright Eyes, and Spoon all managed to sell nearly as many records while remaining on indie labels, proving the power of peer-to-peer trading, tireless touring, and word of mouth. Do we need a new indie rock that reclaims the fringes? Has indie rock changed or has the world simply caught up to it?
A Teenage Riot
"Indie rock in the early '80s aspired to just be indie rock," says The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. "When we put out our own records in 1984, I don't think it was even called 'indie rock.' The idea that you could make your own record and put it out and be played on strange college radio and be written up in strange do-it-yourself magazines and play at all the punk rock clubs around the country, to us, that was already the pinnacle of success. There wasn't anywhere to go from there, but in a sense, we never really felt like we deserved to go anywhere else. Then, as the '80s went along, a lot of these indie rock bands started to get signed to major labels, and when bands like Sonic Youth started to sign to major labels, you started to think, wow, maybe this isn't just music for outsiders. So all that started to change. Then I think indie rock was a holding pattern until you got popular enough, or people thought you were cool enough to get signed. Then through the '90s and the early 2000s, on different levels—whether it was grunge music or electronic music or some version of pop music that could have been Linkin Park or Red Hot Chili Peppers—it was stuff that someone thought could sell. Now I don't think it's that at all anymore. Now I think indie rock bands are saying, 'We're going to put out our own music and put out our own records and make our own videos and play to people who are like us.' I think in a sense that it's almost exactly like it was when it started."
Arguably the first indie band to throw themselves upon the gears of the major-label machine and emerge entirely unscathed, The Flaming Lips also were the first former indie band to figure out how to be handsomely paid to be your weird ass self. As one of the myriad of bands to run through the hole Nirvana tore in the fabric of the music industry with 1991's Nevermind, The Lips were one of the only ones still standing once the "alternative" music fad of the mid-'90s faded into trend-humping grunge posers and nu-metal acts. Still, it wasn't until 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots—a full 10 years after they released their major-label debut-that they started to turn a real profit. By then, the music industry was collapsing all around them.
"The market bottoming out on giant pop records is the best thing to happen to the music world," says The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, having come of age in an era where pop chart border incursions were virtually non-existent for indie bands. "It's nice for us, just looking around and seeing Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear raising the bar in some respects, and actually recognizing that there's a huge fanbase, a huge audience, for music that 10 years ago was seen as really experimental and never would have moved out of the 200-capacity club circuit. Can you imagine even 15 years ago a band like Grizzly Bear being anywhere on TV? Maybe I wasn't that tapped into that when I was a kid, but that seems really anathema. Seeing The Replace-ments on Saturday Night Live was like a major coup, and nowadays it doesn't seem like that's anything that anyone would even blink at. But it's an interesting world out there, and it's definitely humbling for me, and exciting, too, just looking at how much awesome music is being created by our peers. I think that's a really
Still, no matter how much the playing field has leveled between the majors and the indie labels, it remains true that the deeper pockets of major labels give you more spins at the roulette table and more opportunities to catch the cultural zeitgeist at the right moment. Even 10 years ago, though, these sorts of aspirations were quick to elicit cries of "sell out" from the back of the club. Indie rock was identity music, the soundtrack to a lifestyle of decrepit clubs, broken down tour vans, and a high degree of humble accessibility. It was a precious and fragile dynamic, and listeners didn't necessarily want to share it with everyone else.
The '80s had been a productive decade for indie rock despite an almost complete lack of access to mass culture, with Black Flag, Minor Threat, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, and Pixies laying the groundwork for the '90s "alternative" music surge—but most of those bands were gone by the time Nirvana made a whole generation of listeners aware of another world that existed beyond the borders of mainstream music. Taking their place were Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo, Superchunk, and Pavement, prodigious and prolific bands whose rough edges and lo-fi production ensured that they were too odd and obtuse to capitalize on the brief alternative rock revolution. But while they didn't make a significant dent in the charts, they were building a culture that by 2000 was becoming so eclectic and cosmopolitan that it was ready to burst into a myriad of new definitions. By the time The Decemberists were releasing records, they were right in time to claim a bigger piece of an increasingly smaller pie.
"When we were on Kill Rock Stars, Picaresque was their first album to even crack the Top 200," says Meloy, "which is crazy considering the stature of Elliott Smith's Either/Or or Sleater-Kinney or Bikini Kill—the importance of those records. But none of them had cracked the Top 200. Obviously, with the market collapsing around the giant bands, it has made the competition more available to alternative or independent bands. But I also think there's a little bit of a shift. With all the options available, people are able to discover newer and maybe more experimental music than you were before."
Across the ocean in Britain and Europe, indie rock was developing along slightly different lines, with less aggressive but no less adventurous bands such as The Cure, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine having intermittent chart success that culminated in a Britpop movement that dominated the U.K. pop charts during the mid-'90s. But while indie bands have been increasing their commercial viability in the United States, the relatively small size of the U.K. means that even a moderately successful indie band might not be worth the investment of a major label.
"I know people that are at the top of the game and run massive major labels, and they are not particularly interested in indie music," explains Portishead's Geoff Barrow. "For them, it doesn't sell. They'd prefer to spend their money on television-based talent shows. They can almost manufacture something into success, but with an indie band, you just can't. You put out a record and they either click or they don't, and that's an awful lot of money to spend when you don't know what they're going to do. Because of the state of the industry, they need to spend it on something they know is going to work. There's a random element to indie music that they don't like, whereas if you get The Black Eyed Peas to write a tune for you, and you get a celebrity to sing it, it's a walk-on at Christmas."
While indie bands are hardly safe money for labels in the States, artists that missed out on indie rock's drift toward a wider cross-section of listeners are more commonly claiming their consolation prize in the form of lucrative reunion tours. The Stooges, Mission of Burma, Pixies, and now Pavement have all experienced the unexpected benefit of reforming in an era when their entire catalogs are available at the push of a few keystrokes, and enterprising listeners don't have to dig hard to find reams of information tracing the extent of their influence through the family tree of rock history. Still, for artists who fell on the wrong side of a changing milieu, watching the parade of indie rock bands on late-night TV is hard to fully understand.
"I haven't got an invitation, and I invented the whole thing!" jokes Pavement guitarist and solo artist Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg. "Pavement was part of something that helped create that. It was pretty hard for us to even get on those shows, but now everybody gets on. That's just a sign of the times, and maybe that's why the excitement over the Pavement reunion is so high, because it's more accepted. We were always too weird and too rehearsed in the old independent scene. Even though we played Lollapolooza, we got up there and we could barely play our instruments. It was more about the attitude and the sound than the performance. There was no way we were ever going to break through."
Still, Pavement's lack of commercial success was easy enough to understand. Today, even the idea of what constitutes success is unclear. Are record sales an accurate measure when so many listeners are downloading music, often leaving little or no trace of their interest or money in the band's tip jar? Do the comparably lucrative paydays provided by landing songs in TV commercials and on movie soundtracks balance out these concerns? Or is real success only found in building a loyal fanbase that brings more of their friends to see you and buy your merch every time you return to town? For some, these shifting standards both threaten the ability to make a living and offer a previously unavailable freedom.
"The only time it gets weird is that every now and then someone like my dad or some friend that I know that doesn't know anything about the music business says, 'So, how's your CD selling?'" laughs Jason Lytle, the former Grandaddy leader who now finds himself back on an indie label with his first solo album. "The reviews have been great and the shows were well-received, but the CDs aren't selling shit. I've sort of been laying low and relying on people who know more about it than I do, like, 'How do we conform? How do we adapt? How do I justify continuing with this so-called career?' And I still feel like I've come up short in terms of these solid strategies that exist out there. Grandaddy got into that whole three-year cycle thing, and I understand why that existed, but even then it used to frustrate the shit out of me because all I wanted to do was go home and make more records. I'm in that position to do that now, so that's going to be my response to whatever current state of the way things are. I'm going to make more records and saturate my own little tiny corner of the market."
The Good Times Are Killing Me
"Indie rock as a type of music, it pigeonholes it down to this narrow thing in the same way that has happened to punk rock and generally happens to any sort of rock," says Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, an artist who has benefited as much as any from the increased appeal of adventurous music. "Now when you hear the word 'country,' most people don't think of all the great old country musicians, you think of crappy young country. When you hear 'indie rock,' you think of crappy, whiny, nasally bullshit. It became a type of music, and I'm not into that type of music. Try as you might to make us fit into that fucking category, we don't."
Such a statement calls into question who does fit into that category. A world where Modest Mouse represents something other than the aesthetic of independent music is one where the definitional terms have clearly shifted. But hasn't this always been the case? Were Talking Heads not a prototypical indie band, releasing music as challenging and unusual as anything made in their era, despite being on a major label for the entirety of their run? Isn't Radiohead still the most common contemporary touchstone for creative musicians of all stripes, an indie act regardless of the fact that only their last album was released outside of the major label structure? Does "indie rock" really connote anything other than an outdated dichotomy between old modes of marketing?
"I don't know what it means," admits Deerhunter/Atlas Sound frontman Bradford Cox. "I don't like being identified by something that I don't fully understand. I'm not a political person for that reason. I just don't like the name. The term 'indie rock' doesn't mean anything. When I think about it, I think of this pointless limit on everything, like, 'Oh, you're going to be a successful indie band.' I hate how everything is called indie rock now. To say 'I play in an indie rock band' seems so banal and reeks of mediocrity when you might be trying to channel Gustav Mahler. And it's limiting career-wise, too. You set your aspirations so much lower. 'I'm going to sell out indie clubs.' Fuck that. I'd rather sell out theaters. I want to connect with as many people as possible. I don't want to limit who my music is for; it's not for a certain group of people. It's not for a majority white upper-middle-class audience of college students."
Cox has a valid point, and even as indie rock becomes increasingly difficult to define, there remains a lingering stereotype of it being a largely white, often elitist, bourgeois bastion of snarky hipsterism. No longer the arena of artists who have no hopes of a house in the suburbs, for many it's become the lifestyle music of young professionals who sit in coffee shops with their Mac laptops and take themselves too seriously. With the angry punk, the art school dropout, and the jaded slacker now replaced by the caricature of the urban hipster, can indie rock be the music of the pretty and popular, too?
"Indie rock has lost its edge, but not in a way that I can hold 'indie rock' responsible," explains Pixies vocalist Black Francis. "Indie rock is not an entity. It's an idea, perhaps. And the line that separates things 'indie' from things 'mainstream' is an invisible line. It's so, so easy to move back and forth across that line. It is so easy, also, to not really understand where that line is. And at the end of the day, does it really matter? I think that all that really matters is good vs. not-so-good. An artist tries to be good, whether that artist is mainstream or underground."
Still, it's one thing to steer your music toward as many curious ears as possible; it's something else to actively court mainstream success. As vaguely defined as indie rock is, it has been characterized by an aesthetic that puts creative integrity first, commercial concerns second. The success attained by some bands carrying the indie banner threatens to render it just another fad, another movement that can be cornered and exploited by bands wanting to cash in on what they perceive are its main selling points.
"I think that led a lot of people to really start thinking about indie rock for the wrong reasons," says Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla. "Indie rock as 401(k), and it's not that. There were just a couple years there where everything I heard, I was like, 'Fuck! You are trying too hard. Stop trying so hard. Just be a good band.' I could hear there was a good band in there. 'Why are there lasers in the song?'"
Ultimately, for those who have been involved in the indie rock scene for the last 20 years, the movement continues to be defined by the relationship between a band, their music, and their listeners, with most of the work founded on the relationship between the band and their label. For Merge Records founder and Superchunk vocalist/guitarist Mac McCaugh-an, success has done little to change those fundamental
"I know it's kind of an arbitrary term, but to me if someone says 'indie rock,' I know that I kind of have an idea of what they're talking about. [It's] not really changed by Arcade Fire or Spoon's success because though they have Top 10 records, they don't sound like whatever else is in the Top 10," he says. "I don't know if the playing field has leveled; I don't really look at it like we're competing with majors. We're just putting out the records we want to put out and operating accordingly when it comes to spending money on stuff like retail promotion, magazine ads (in what few mags still exist), etc. I know we're all in 'the music business' but I feel like we're in a different business than, say, Sony."
More than anything, the rise of indie rock and the changing definitions of what, if anything, those words really mean, has brought to the surface the underlying assumption that obviously superior music will ultimately find its listeners if only given a chance. But how do we define ourselves as listeners, as a unique culture, if so many people now like what we previously saw as our music? If indie rock is so accessible, so easily digested by the uninitiated, doesn't that mean that it has lost its ability to challenge us? Has indie rock gone soft?
"I feel like every molecule that we gained, in some sense, we earned," Coyne says. "I'm not saying that we didn't get lucky along the way, but there's a lot that we do that's about art and standing for things. Some things work better than others, but it's always up to you to understand your situation. It's not up to the situation to enlighten you. So it's up to us to see what else is available. There are a lot of other things that you can do, and it's not as limited as people would think. But I also think that if music is good, people will find it," he says, his career having illustrated that premise perfectly. "I always believe that."
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