February 19, 2003

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Sweet on Noise Pop
By Kimberly Chun

WHAT IS THIS crazy little thing called Noise Pop? Throw that question to a gaggle of music writers or particularly picky fans and let the games begin. Some will quibble and pick a fight about whether there's enough real noise involved or whether pop translates as "popular." Some will simply size you up with a stare, put down their drink, and coolly complain about a lack of gender inclusiveness or a dearth of multiculti consciousness. Others will simply shrug, stroll to the other side of the room, and tell their friends you're an idiot whenever you open your mouth.

Does it matter – as founding organizer Kevin Arnold and crew will tell you patiently over and over again – that Noise Pop is simply about them presenting their favorite music?

But is it? In the past 11 years Noise Pop has come to mean something much more than just another random assemblage of indie rock bands. For me, Noise Pop hit a turning point in 1999 when a bumper crop of northern California bands such as the Aislers Set, Beulah, and Grandaddy provided an imaginative, musical heft that caught up with the festival's ambitions. The event topped itself in 2000 when its star appeared to be on the same ascendant trajectory as its programming, which included the White Stripes, the Shins, and the Faint.

Since then, like spoiled overage adolescents, we've all just come to expect more. The festival became the Rosetta stone by which all other locally born and bred noncorporate music festivals were, consciously or not, measured. Like its host body, San Francisco, Noise Pop was getting bigger, more intense, more complicated, and more crowded. Arnold kept hold of his good attitude, but the festival wasn't simply about the Fastbacks anymore.

So when we greedily scanned the festival schedule last month, we brought the love but were nonetheless a little disappointed. We've seen many of these bands before, at past Noise Pops and on those rare occasions we crept out for non-N.P. outings: Crooked Fingers and Calexico, Stratford 4 and Stephen Malkmus – been there, heard that. No surprises, sure things. Vets such as Creeper Lagoon, No Knife, and Trackstar are back, while other names are conspicuously missing. A clutch of spastic noisemakers such as the Locust have nailed down their turf, duking it out with a few more indie electronic groups and some familiar names, such as Camper Van Beethoven, Trans Am, and Tortoise, that are new to the fest. And though last-minute additions still appear to be popping up on the schedule, there seems to be less pop for your buck: at press time the weeklong event included about 80 artists, down from 88 or so last year.

Our beloved office gadfly got happy and was quick to bring the doom and gloom: "See, I told you – indie really is dead. How much more irrelevant can this get?" He had been mentally preparing to write off Noise Pop for years, ready to stack it up alongside other moribund genres like Merseybeat, pub rock, and the new romantics.

That's when my Noise Pop pride kicked in, like a snappy chorus or a particularly persistent virus. "Oh yeah, who said it's supposed to be relevant?" I sputtered. "Who said any of this was even supposed to be popular?"

I didn't have the numbers. I didn't even realize more than 10,000 attendees, "college-educated, urban sophisticated and culturally sophisticated" (see Noise Pop demographic literature), popped open their wallets for last year's fest. I was casting my embattled, embittered mind back to Noise Pop: The Early Years. Overwhelming Colorfast, the Meices, Carlos – where did these bands fit in during the grunge and then gangsta rap years of '93 to '95? Guess what? They didn't.

Another early Noise Pop regular, NoCal's Bracket had a knack for the catchiest Ramones-style pop punk. Their central, irritatingly superficial downfall: they completely lacked their inspiration's brilliant visual and conceptual cohesiveness. Bracket looked like a truly loose, disparate union of Odd Fellows, and if someone put them all in some kind of uniform – failed-dot-com Ts and John Deere caps would do the trick – they could have been, oh, Blink-182.

Believe it or not, Bracket are still around: they weren't trendy then, they're not hip now, and they're not even playing Noise Pop. But for me, Noise Pop is embodied by their spirit and by shows that make an effort to get bands like them out before all of those maniacs who eat pop hooks three meals a day. Though for a few years anything seemed possible, you can count on only one thing now: you'll never see them on MTV, they'll always be yours – you and maybe a thousand other audience members' own special secret – and, who knows, maybe somehow they'll make you fall in love again.