The annual indie-palooza takes over the city -- and Dâm-Funk, Peanut Butter Wolf, Dominant Legs, Admiral Radley, Geographer, and Psychic Friend are among the acts we're rarin' to see
MUSIC The 2011 edition of Noise Pop  finds the festival stretching the definition of noise pop ever further outward in order to swallow excellent sounds. Back in 1993, when Noise Pop originated, muted My Bloody Valentine-derivative bands with lowercase names evocative of junior-high lunch were the norm. This year, the fest taps into the recent, more sharp-edged shoegaze revival and the current California garage rock zeitgeist, while also making room for hip-hop, freak folk, and deep funk. It's safe to say that, unlike the character assassinated in Steely Dan's "Hey 19," Noise Pop at 19 knows about the queen of soul. Here's our guide to some of the event's best lineups.
It's the midnight hour on Valentine's Day in Portugal when I reach Dâm-Funk, a.k.a. Damon Riddick, on the phone. He's just outside of Lisbon, his surroundings are "phenomenal," and he's ready to wax enthusiastic about his longtime partner in funk Peanut Butter Wolf. "Me and Chris [Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf] connect on that sound because we remember and we revere," he says, when I ask about their shared love of soul, hip-hop, and funk. "We knew what it was like before cable television and the Internet existed, we remember everything from those early VHS tapes to the way the sun set."
As the sun is still rising on Valentine's Day, in L.A., the man Dâm-Funk calls "Wolf" for short shows similar brotherly love. "When Dâm met me, we had a mutual respect," says Manak. "He saw my record collection and vice-versa. When we discover songs, we'll say, 'Check this out.'" In turn, this shared enthusiasm, and the positive response to Dâm-Funk's albums Toeachizown and Adolescent Funk -- both released on Manak's label, Stones Throw – has recharged funk sounds in Los Angeles and SF, and led to new discoveries of soulful and funky treasures from the recent past.
One such gem is Jeff Phelps' 1985 Magnetic Eyes, a Tascam Portastudio 244 bedroom recording with sensational vocals by Antoinette Marie Pugh, who stars in a terrific no-budget video for the album's "Hear My Heart" currently up on YouTube. "That album is something I've known about for a long time," Dâm-Funk says, when I mention Magnetic Eyes and its hand-drawn yet futuristic cover art. "It's a great project."
Another great project is Tony Cook's Back to Reality (Stones Throw), a collection of mid-1980s recordings by a musician who got his start as James Brown's drummer. Taking on the role of executive producer, Manak has added some extra pop to the already formidable strut of Cook songs such as "Heartbreaker," even drafting in Dâm-Funk to contribute new vocals to one track, "What's On Your Mind." "You'd think they were 24-track recordings, but he [Cook] only worked on an 8-track," marvels Manak. "He was a good musician and producer – when you're bouncing tracks, you have to know what you're doing. In those days it was hard to achieve a full sound like that."
These days, both Dâm-Funk and Peanut Butter Wolf know what they're doing — and that's a damn lot. Reflecting his Gemini nature, Dâm is planning to explore the dark side on an EP with that title before venturing into the light on his next LP. He's also remixed Nite Jewel and is collaborating with her on a project, Nite Funk. He's producing music by Steve Arrington for Stones Throw, and he wants to put out another chapter of his archival venture Adolescent Funk, with him choosing the tracks instead of Manak. As for the man Dâm calls "Wolf," he's got Stones Throw's 15th anniversary on his hands, including a 7-inch box set, and a series of live-to-vinyl performances by the label's artists in L.A. These guys are busy, but — fortunately for Noise Pop, and for SF — that doesn't mean they don't have time to throw a 45 party. (Johnny Ray Huston)
PEANUT BUTTER WOLF, DAM-FUNK
With Guillermo (Sweater Funk), Hakobo (Fresco)
Sat./26, 9 p.m., $15 (21+)
161 Erie, SF
Whether he's raging in the streets alongside fellow Giants maniacs or musically lost between the sheets, Dominant Legs' Ryan Lynch sounds like he's sweet to the core—and even more. "I didn't have anything to do with setting the mattress on fire, but I was there," says the SF musician of SF's impromptu World Series throw-downs. "But I wasn't stopping anybody from celebrating."
Lynch also rolls with the love when it comes to music. "I don't really listen to much music that would be characterized as aggressive," he continues, on one of those sunny Bay afternoons that make it easy to float away on blue skies and daydreams. "I listen to pop music and, honestly, mostly KISS FM." His favorite song on this crisp, creamy day is R. Kelly's "Lost in Your Love." "It's all about him wanting to bring love songs back to the radio,'" Lynch adds. "And that's sort of what I also aspire to—not that we get any radio play!"
But, oh, a girl — or a boy who once was a Girl (until recently, Lynch was Girls' touring guitarist) — can dream. And dreams have been coming true for Lynch, a longtime Giants follower who recently contributed "Finally Champions" to a digital-only benefit comp of Giants tribute songs released by True Panther. Meanwhile Dominant Legs continues to pick up steam—and members.
Once the repository of Ryan's solo singer-songwriter imaginings away from longtime band Magic Bullets, Dominant Legs found favor when the Redwood City-bred musician was laid off from his job as mail clerk-receptionist at a law firm. He didn't sink his sparse funds into job retraining classes or the like; instead he bought a cheap Casio keyboard and drum machine. "I shouldn't have been spending any money," he recalls now. "But the direction of the music really took off after acquiring those pieces of musical equipment." Friend Hannah Hunt, who had just graduated from college, offered to help out at a 2009 show at Amnesia and ended up sticking around.
"She brought a softness, and delicacy, which made the songs more delicate since her voice is so different from mine," he observes. "I think her voice is easier on the ear than mine." For Noise Pop, the two have acquired a few more legs to help them on their way: drummer Rene Solomon, bassist Andrew Connors, and guitarist Garrett Godard, the latter once the drummer for Girls.
They'll be filling out the already intoxicating pop bounding off Dominant Legs' 2010 EP, Young at Love and Life (Lefse), which has inspired music bloggers to go wild, tossing out scattershot, albeit flattering allusions to Orange Juice and Belle and Sebastian, Kelley Polar and Arthur Russell—and even Dave Matthews. Feeling lost again? Just listen to the earnestly lovelorn, gently bopping, synth-popping tunes like the title track and "Clawing Out at the Walls," with its curious admixture of sweetness and self-doubt. Kindred spirits and modern lovers such as Jeremy Jay and Camera Obscura, also given to such exquisitely anxious reveries, would understand. "The only thing I've heard is that [the EP] is too heavily influenced by the '80s," says Lynch. "But I don't see that as a problem." (Kimberly Chun)
With How to Dress Well, Shlohmo, Chelsea Wolfe
Sat./26, 8 p.m., $12–$14
Café Du Nord
2170 Market, SF
Jason Lytle has never been shy in revealing the frustrations leading up to Grandaddy's demise. Exhaustion from middling success, a love/hate relationship with his lifelong home of Modesto, and a diminished interest in making music with others resulted in a move to Montana to focus on a solo career in 2006. Enter Admiral Radley, a collaboration with members of indie-pop group Earlimart and Grandaddy drummer Aaron Burtch that has him not only playing in a band again, but touring Japan and singing about his former home on songs such as the sarcastic "I Heart California." Lytle took some time out from a snowy day of magazine shopping at Borders in his new hometown of Bozeman to talk about the project.
SFBG Rumors of a collaboration between you and Earlimart date back to the Grandaddy days. What led to you guys finally working together?
Jason Lytle It was really an excuse to hang out at [Aaron Espinoza's] studio and just have people coming in and playing parts. We set aside a week as a fun little project. Maybe somebody else had other plans for it, but at the time, I was convinced it was just gonna be a cool opportunity to make a record and be done with it.
SFBG Were you guys surprised by the amount of excitement surrounding the project?
JL Yeah. Then it turned into, alright, we gotta name this record something, and give the band a name, and pretty soon it was this real entity. The Japan thing started off as a joke, and then became more of, "Let's give this a go, and if it winds up getting us to Japan, we can call it good" — and the whole thing was worth it.
SFBG And how were the Japan shows?
JL They were really scrappy. The places were just dumps. I kept joking with Aaron, saying, "If we weren't in Japan right now, and if these weren't exceptional circumstances, there's no way I'd be putting up with this."
SFBG You'd expressed some skepticism about playing in bands again after Grandaddy split. Has this experience changed your opinion?
JL My place in Admiral Radley is totally different from what my situation was with Grandaddy. I'm getting off easy. Aaron is a great organizer and knows that a big appeal for me joining the band was not dealing with a lot of the day-to-day crap I used to deal with. I feel like I'm a piece of a puzzle with this band, which after all these years is something I've never really experienced. So it's been kind of neat.
SFBG Both you and Aaron like being hands-on with production in your work. How was the collaborative process on this album?
JL That part was pretty effortless. Aaron and I share a lot of the same philosophies on production and making albums sound a certain way. I definitely sat in on some of the mixing, but there was a lot of it where I was just able to trust what he was going to do, knowing that it probably wouldn't be too far off from what I'd do myself.
SFBG Was it strange writing lyrics about California now that you've been gone for almost five years?
JL I've definitely had a renewed perspective. Every time I visit or I'm there doing some work, I'm thrust right into the shit. Like right into L.A. or SF, rather than adjusting or letting it sink in slowly. So, usually it's pretty jarring for me just because the pace is a lot more relaxed and different here. Having a bit of that outside perspective now allows me to look at things a bit differently. (Landon Moblad)
With Typhoon, Social Studies, Fake Your own Death
Wed./23, 8 p.m., $12 (21+)
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
The dress code doesn't include a finely-pressed lab coat, and the toolbox isn't filled with fragile beakers, but a geographer is indeed a scientist, one who pours himself into the earth and bleeds across its surfaces to observe and categorize its residents. I haven't asked the members of the San Francisco synth-pop trio Geographer if this occupation has had any inspiration on its sound, but there's reason to believe the answer may be a humble yes.
Geographer has discovered new ground in the electronic realm. Its unique ménage a trois of music-making contraptions — drums, synth and cello — produces audible scenery that simultaneously calms and energizes the senses. Luscious forests of synth share habitats with rushing bass and guitar. The cello adds a sneaky-smooth layer that easily melts between or melds the more jagged sounds.
Behind the sweet scenery resides a less than pretty picture. Themes of loss and inevitable change creep through their sun-stained melodies, pulling at the roots of the band's core. In 2005, Michael Deni fled his home in New Jersey, after the unexpected deaths of two family members. He landed in SF, and his instruments became a source of comfort and release while he wandered the new, unfamiliar territory. After a period of searching and surveying, Deni met and began collaborating with Nathan Blaz and Brian Ostreicher. In 2008, Geographer self-released its debut full-length, Innocent Ghosts, a far more relaxed collection that showcases Deni's round, patient voice.
The landscapes on 2010's Animal Shapes (Tricycle) are majestic, but far more celebratory. Things are tighter spun, beats kick harder and there's a cohesive exploratory factor. Specifically fabulous: "Kites," a track that strikes gold with a lustrous synth party. Deni's sincere vocals float high above the mountainous bass vibrations, but mingle ever so courteously with the shrill, twinkling electronic additions. Enter the romantic cello and the song is a straight-up gem.
Now is a good time to button up your favorite white jacket and take some notes on the current environment in which you reside. Whether you're into earth science or not, Geographer is a swell listen that goes well with salty pretzels and an adventure around your own neighborhood. Animal Shapes on repeat will keep you in step with eyes and ears open. And listen carefully: there's good word on the street about these Geographer guys in the live form. (Amber Schadewald)
With Butterly Bones, K Flay, Funeral Party
Wed./23, 8 p.m., $13–$15
628 Divisadero, SF
Will Schwartz and the piano go way back, to when he was nine. "I've been attracted to the C chord and to A minor since I was a kid," he says from L.A., where he's living in Los Feliz. "I learned to play piano by ear, and it was always based on [starting with] a C major and going from there."
You could say Schwartz played his first gigs on the instrument. "We had this two-story living room in our house in New Jersey with a little balcony, and the piano was up on the balcony," he says with a laugh. "I would imagine I was playing for people down below. I would put on shows for the living room furniture."
In his new band Psychic Friend, Schwartz updates California chamber or piano pop for today's era, with contributions by Hole drummer Patty Schemel and instrumentalist-producer Bo Boddie. The result is a fresh chapter in Schwartz's musical story, one that has ranged from the guitar-rock of Imperial Teen to the D.I.Y. choreographed pop of Hey Willpower, which involved contributions from videomaker Justin Kelly, DJ Chelsea Starr, and musician Tomo Yasuda.
Crisp and clean, in a way Psychic Friend sounds like the moment Schwartz has found his voice, or unknown heights or depths of it. The pounding "Once a Servant" revives the spirit of Jobriath. "Water Sign" has a Serge Gainsbourg undercurrent. "Shouldn't Have Tried Again"'s rendering of the repeat failure of a relationship matches the plaintive sunshine-y yearning of Harry Nilsson's sublime covers of Randy Newman.
You could say Psychic Friend is new Californian pop. The piano-based melodic immediacy of the group's sound has a kinship to Carole King's solo work, or Burt Bacharach and some of his hits for psychic and other friends, yet both the sound and the lyrical content is very contemporary, not retro. It also isn't Rufus Wainwright showboating — tracks like "We Do Not Belong" allow Schwartz's voice a freedom and resonance it hasn't had before, but he doesn't run away with himself. "The nature of playing a piano and writing melodic songs, it almost brings you back to '70s songwriting," Schwartz observes.
"I just found this place in my voice that feels very connected, actually, that comes from playing the piano, and it feels good," he adds, simply.
Schemel's powerful drumming and Boddie's hit-making skills have a role in this shift. "It's like an Eddie and the Cruisers feeling," Schwartz says, "where you start to play something, and by the end it sounds like a finished song." (Huston)
With The Concretes, Birds and Batteries, Magic Bullets
Fri./25, 8:30 p.m., $13–$15
155 Fell, SF