The comeback kids: Indie-pop straight poppin'

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The Bay Area has always been a warm breeding ground for bands and thus has always had a vibrant music scene. Indie-pop is a rock subgenre that has thrived particularly well here. In the 1990s, indie-pop experienced a significant heyday in the Bay -- a phenomenon that may be bubbling up once again.

So what exactly is indie-pop? 

SF Popfest organizer Aaron Ehrlich describes it as having "some sort of jangly guitar sounds," but wouldn't elaborate with further descriptions, understandably. "It's kind of like the Supreme Court's definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. When you hear it [indie-pop music] you can tell it," he construes. "It's really hard to provide any pithy definition."

"As a genre, it goes back to the mid-'80s," recounts Mike Schulman of Slumberland Records, "when it became a term to describe a specific kind of music that had bands looking back to the Byrds for inspiration, or sunshine-pop stuff like Mamas & Papas, or Sagitarrius and mixing that up with girl-groups and the Ramones." More pop-oriented punk ala the Buzzcocks, the pleasant sounds of the Smiths and the noisy leanings of the Wedding Present poured out of the indie-pop blender, "It's a pretty broad banner," Schulman surmises. 

Slumberland Records is an independent label started by Schulman in 1989 and has been operating out of Berkeley the last 20 years. Not a purely indie-pop imprint per se, but Slumberland has been a key player in the scene past and present. Boasting such previous acts as the Aislers Set, Henry's Dress, and Go Sailor in the '90s, the label still has its fingers oh-so-delicately pressed on today's indie-pop pulse with bands like Terry Malts, Frankie Rose, and Veronica Falls. 

Towards the end of the '90s an amazing frenzy of activity popped up in the Bay Area: Indie-pop had exploded into the spotlight, and with it's tight-knit community in tow. "It was a magical two- or three-year period where there were shows every week," Schulman reminisces, "you would go to the show and see all these familiar faces and everyone would be down front singing all the lyrics to the songs. It was really thrilling."

During this time, Schulman and Slumberland were experiencing a career high with signee The Aisers Set, "They started getting bigger outside of the Bay Area and touring nationally," he says, "and it was just super exciting"

The biggest difference between then and now, is how immediately noticeable the subset has become. "There will always be an indie-pop underground with fanzines and small labels doing stuff. It seems like, maybe now, indie-pop's a bit more overground … visible." The industry has changed drastically since the '90s allowing for music to become more accessible, therefore aesthetically acceptable and almost mainstream. With help from the Internet (and its infinite wisdom and blogs) and the current trend of very melody-based compositions, indie-pop may be experiencing another renaissance. 

Currently popular bands like the Drums and the Pains of Being Pure At Heart -- who refer to indie-pop as a big influence and are clearly informed by it -- have garnered both attention and commercial success.

Club nights that cater to indie-pop and the like, such as Shine On in The City and Time Keeps Time in the East Bay, have popped up and fill up fast.

"We're in a period where it's cool to be melodic. People are ready to hear it," Schulman says. Bigger labels such as Hardly Art, Sub Pop, Fat Possum have also lent a hand in shining a light towards the music as press tends to pay attention to those who make the most noise -- literally -- and in turn the people listen,  "… and there's a knock-on effect," he concludes. 

Droves are expected this weekend to SF Popfest's three-day event. The festival starts Friday evening at the Hemlock with headliners Seapony and support by BOAT, Black Elephant and Desario. Saturday's all-day show at The Knockout sees Kids on a Crime Spree, Surf Club, Manatee, Dead Angle, Cruel Summer, plus the Shine On DJs. The event ends on Sunday back at the Hemlock with TV Girl, Allen Clapp and his Orchestra, The Bilinda Butchers, Outerhope. More concert and ticket information can be found at sfpopfest.com.

"Indie-pop is this perennial thing," breathes Shine On DJ Jamie Guzzi. Indeed.

Julia B. Chan is a writer and hosts "Play for Today," a program on Radio Valencia -- www.radiovalencia.fm -- every Friday from 6 to 8pm. Follow her on Twitter @onTheBeat.


SF Popfest 2012: Day 1

Fri/25, 5pm, $10

Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF

www.hemlocktavern.com

 

SF Popfest 2012: Day 2

Sat/26, 4pm, $10

The Knockout, 3223 Mission, SF

www.theknockoutsf.com

 

SF Popfest 2012: Day 3

Sun/27, 5pm, $10

Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF

www.hemlocktavern.com