An annual spectacle that never really grew to the obnoxious levels that Austin’s South By Southwest did, San Francisco’s Noise Pop Festival surfaces at the end of February to informally begin the festival season. While major acts such as Mr. Zooey Deschanel, the resurfacing Dan Deacon, folk act Alexi Murdoch, and the chillwave Marriage of Best Coast/Wavves made up the main headliners this year, the lineup was a decidedly less pronounced affair than last year. Furthermore, many other matters interfered, such as the prediction that The City would receive its first snow in 35 years (which it did not). Still, the overall festival was a solid one.
Day 1: Wheeling and Reeling
Opening night gave people two choices: indie rock heroes Yo La Tengo in Oakland or electronic guru Dan Deacon at the Independent. Since I knew I’d see the latter the next night at the more intimate Rickshaw Stop, I took the former.
Fox Theatre in Oakland has a tendency to open Noise Pop with an established big act. Last year, it was that personality cultist Yoko Ono. This year, they stayed in New York, removed the pretension a bit, and went back to quintessential noise pop (that was intentional). Punk rock standbys The Urinals opened, and you get the sense that their sound hasn’t evolved much in the past 15 years or so that they’ve been together for the second time. I felt so bored at some points I started daydreaming that the Buddhist statues flanking the stage were Lakitus dropping Spinies from their buckets into the crowd.
Yo La Tengo did much better. Like Superchunk at Treasure Island, their set was enjoyable and fresh enough that you could still come in as a newbie and actually have fun. As a testament to their talent, however, the two sets were preceded by a “Wheel of Fortune,” where a fan spun the wheel to determine what the first set was going to be about. Themes varied from the band playing songs they wrote for aquatic documentary screenings at the Castro Theater 10 years ago to Ira Kaplan and James McNew reenacting sitcom scenes to a Don’t Look Back of Condo Fucks (it fell on “S Sounds”). The two sets covered a wide array of their repertoire, from covers to recent numbers from Popular Songs and I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. The encore boasted visits on stage by buddies The Urinals and even the man who set the vocal standard for Wesley Willis, “The Great” Gaylord. Not the greatest start, but the right kind of start.
Day 2: Hats and Cats (Apologies to Raocow)
Note: Day 2’s review is unedited.
Hey there everyone, this is Ze Pequeno, watching Noise Pop productions things at Rickshaw Stop. Let’s just go ahead and go. Dan Deacon, Ed Schraeber’s Beat Machine, Sister Crayon, Lily Taylor. That’s a long name, they should change that.
Well, this is definitely a garage, it’s filled with ricks and shaws. Oh wait I’m an idiot, I’m talking to this duder backstage. Okay, front stage. Hey there, Lily [pictured], how’s it going. You’re a lady who sounds like this lady, and sounds like that lady. And you’re losing track of your voices, but they’re nice and rivery. But careful now, the voices could start arguing each other, or start screaming at each other, or maybe revolt and start ordering people to eat cheese…
Anyway. Sister Crayon. There are sisters, but no crayons, and this lady sounds like this lady but not this lady, which may be a pr…oh. It’s everyone’s friend Mr. Dubstep! Nobody wants you here! Simonak… Honestly, I don’t have a problem with drum machines on top of drums, it’s a very clever idea that I can back. But it’s a problem when the beat you emit is so loud and low that it punches you in the face every time it happens. And it happens every so often that you just want to step outside and wait for snow. Also, you dropped your hat, lady. Why’d you do that? Now it’s all gone. You should know that if you leave your hat on the ground, a Spiny will take it, and they always lose hats to Charlies.
And now the stage is all gone except for this light and this duder with a tie and DON’T FLASH THE LIGHTS YOU’LL GET THE SHAKES or epilepsy. Oh hey there, Eddie, how’s it going. You’re a guy, and you have no shirt. You have a drum, and you have a bass over there, but you aren’t drum and bass. Not that that’s a bad thing I reckon. Oh, you’re singing like that, that Tony Bennett guy! That’s pretty good. That you can switch between the bowels of your lungs and Tony Bennett, that’s something you should exploit at every chance. You should challenge Tony to a dance-off, I’d pay money to see that.
Hey there guy I talked to backstage but without staging. You have a green skull, and a lot of lights and speakers. And everyone’s having too much fun here, waving their arms and praising the green skull and doing dance-offs and following a Hawk’s interpretative dance, and I’m somehow on a woofer. I don’t know why. But everything’s so happy and jumpy and the new music is new and different, and different in a nice way, and everyone is now on stage and he’s not. It’s crazy!
Oh well, that was fun. Join me next time, when we take another path. Maybe a Café. See y’all.
Day 3: Mumbling and bumbling
Housing is a bitch in this city, especially when you’re on a deadline. It gets more obnoxious when you can’t even find the place. Tie it up with this festival and you have what they call a “high-pressure” situation. Thus, I was late to tonight’s show at Café Du Nord in Upper Market and miss opening act Melted Toys. Sorry about that. I’m sure some blog will give you a proper review on that front.
I settled in to a seat. I was hungry, so I could do that, and anyone who’s hungry is going to take advantage of sitting down rather than standing up for a few hours. Gregory and The Hawk, the solo project of Meredith Godreau, was playing as I sat. Everyone could sense the fear in her, but they didn’t understand that she was more scared of them standing still than swaying about. This was her first gig in the city, and it showed. She was filled with mumbles in her banter and seemed acutely aware that the crowd was small. It was kind of sad, because Miss Godreau has potential to be a folksier, more whimsical variant of Joanna Newsom without all the quirks that block mainstream appeal.
I ordered a Sirloin Burger with fries. Something I realized that night: Sirloin burgers, which use a different cut of meat, actually does have a unique taste as opposed to the standard chuck-based hamburgers. It’s usually drier, coarser. This taste was kind of similar to the sound of next act Apex Manor, of which the majority of the crowd was here for. However, it was not a good dry — more a mediocre dry that you’re starting to see in every band you come across. Indie rock is not only old, but it sounds old, and a band like Apex Manor, who were just bumbling about, just makes it sound even older.
The only time I got out of my seat was for closing act Film School, who are alumni from the 2004 Noise Pop (opening for Cat Power). They managed to get the crowd, halved from its peak, moving, but only through the use of props such as beach balls and glow sticks. While lame, it was definitely worse that it was the crowd’s only response, given that the act’s shoegaze elements were actually interesting and not just a derivation of greats such as The Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. Even calling in former bandmate Nyles Lannon to the stage seemed a bit contrived to stir the crowd. As I walked out, the crowd’s murmurs seemed more interested in the downpour awaiting them outside than what just happened.
Day 4: Engineering and Cheering
Most non-concert hall venues aren’t designed or equipped with much thought for acoustics, so the best you can hope for is that the engineer gets the sound close enough to enjoy it. Tonight at the Rickshaw Stop was a particular exception. I say this as both a spectator and an audio engineer: Sam Cole is the best fucking house engineer I’ve heard in years. Basically, every act on Day 4 that Cole helmed the board for sounded incredible from an engineering standpoint. Take opener, Psychic Friend, for example, a new project of Imperial Teen guitarist Will Schwartz with drummer friend Patty Schemel (Hole). Cole’s setup on the drums was simply exceptional: not only could you actually tell the difference between specific drums, but everything sounded incredibly crisp and at a level that was loud but not distracting from other sounds in the mix.
Having clear vocals in a live setting is incredibly important too. While people can sing along to your songs, you want people unfamiliar with your music to hear what you’re saying. Certain bands tend to let their vocals drown in a live mix, partly to obscure their actual singing ability, partly because they do not notice what the crowd is hearing. This was not a problem tonight, especially with second act Magic Bullets. With the crowd able to hear every single lyric and annunciation, it allowed frontman Phillip Benson to focus more on his stage presence. Since he was spin-jumping around in a pit of Spinies while singing, he displayed an utter sense of confidence rarely seen in indie rock.
Keyboards and effects are probably one of the hardest things to mix in a live setting, and thus are often the most heavily snubbed. I once watched The New Pornographers play many years ago, and I recall the house engineer all but muting the keyboards, which ruined such key songs as “Mass Romantic” and “Use It.” Tonight, every synth and every vocal effect was heard with clarity, especially with Birds & Batteries [pictured], a promising new local act that blends synth-pop with some classic organic touches. The mix was incredibly balanced, and nothing was really lost during the course of their set.
Of course, it was not all perfect. The Concretes, utilizing their own personal live engineer, did some changes to the mix that were at best okay and at worst mediocre. But of particular loss were frontwoman Maria Eriksson’s vocals, who sounded like a mumbler than a singer. The rest of the music still sounded distinct, but it was much muddier than the previous three acts, especially the drum sound. Still, it was great to hear acts play with an engineer who actually understands the room and the equipment of a particular venue. Many props to Sam Cole.
Day 5: Clarity and Stupidity
Wow, the last day was too long. Let’s do each band now in 20 words or less, shall we? Bottom of the Hill, you are too far from anywhere, but here we go…
• David Smallen: You have nice pipes. And you sound loud enough to boot.
• Westwood & Willow: You are actually funny, and your bluegrass is pretty solid. Could capture the Primus crowd.
• The Trophy Fire: If you are going to cover something, cover “Shake Some Action” by The Flaming Groovies. DON’T EVER COVER THE KNIFE AGAIN.
• Max Bemis: Good going, but why are people so familiar with you? …Wait, you’re from Say Anything. Oh. Um…you have nice pipes? [Runs away, trips on a Spiny]
Day 6: Elzee and Z.P.
After the final day’s matinee show at Bottom of the Hill, I had a chat with fellow TMT writer Elzee, who just so happened to be watching the door at the venue.
Ze Pequeno: All right, let me begin by asking your thoughts on that first act I completely missed because I overslept. What was their name…?
Elzee: Oh…Wrong Words. They were good. I was not really paying attention because we were totally swamped at the door, as happens at Noise Pop shows. But they were nice. I think their sound could have been a little thicker in terms of instrumentation, but they’re off to a good start.
ZP: All right. I joined in when The Pleasure Kills started. They were pretty good, I think.
Elzee: Yeah, I really liked them. Particularly because I feel like there is this really big deficiency of female-fronted bands that aren’t polite, and even if they are punk bands, they are usually pop-punk. But I really love them because Lydiot is super cool, and she’s a great singer. And she just totally tears it up and owns the stage. I also love how they have all those synths in their music. I really, really liked them a lot.
ZP: Yeah, I really liked it too. The fact that she was just able to command the crowd, that was something she was very good at.
Elzee: And she’s very charismatic.
ZP: She’s got the charisma down. Also, you mentioned the whole synth thing, and I thought it was a solid touch. It was a nice punk sound. Unlike…
[Discussion follows on The Trophy Fire’s cover of “Heartbeats.” Ugggh]
ZP: Anyway, third act. The Growlers…
Elzee: They were really great. Their music was really enjoyable, and it was low-key but in an interesting way. I tend to think that lower-key surf rock can just be kind of boring, but they were able to play music that was not super-demanding and not confrontational but still very interesting and engaging.
ZP: Yeah. But then, I never even saw them as surf rock. I thought it more a combination of an acid trip and a Western. Acid Western?
Elzee: Those twangy guitars are really nice.
ZP: And that was a really nice touch. I think the only thing that bothered me was that, towards the end of the set, the frontman’s voice started to get to me a little bit. It’s definitely an acquired taste. Of course, that was also the band I saw the most people dancing to, the most active crowd in the entire show.
Elzee: Yeah, that was good to see.
ZP: And of course, there’s The Fresh & Onlys [pictured].
Elzee: I liked their record Play it Strange from last year. It’s definitely a record to relax and hang out to. I liked their set, but I have a feeling that… well, I saw them at Great American Music Hall a while ago and I really liked their set. But I think the reason I liked that set so much was because it was only 40 minutes long. I think this one got a little bit too long.
ZP: I do agree it was a bit long, but it was still enjoyable. I haven’t listened to their stuff in a while, but The Fresh & Onlys definitely have something going. It was the first act I’ve seen in a couple days that you could put synths on, but did not really need to do so. Everyone else was like, “Eh…”
Elzee: It was a nice afternoon. It was good music for a day show, I think.
In the hallowed backstage of the Great American Music Hall, Mr. Zooey Deschanel was moping.
Granted, his wife, an actress of some acclaim, was missing, probably attending the Oscars for the sake of looking important. But Mr. Deschanel had gotten used to her not being around. It is certainly expected that an actress keep busy away from family, and no exception should be given to what some consider the hipster Royal Couple.
No, Mr. Deschanel’s emo moping had to do with a fan he met in passing at Amoeba Records. The fan, an avid old-school gamer who did not have anything to sign at the coincidental meeting, gave the morbid singer a hat shaped like a Spiny. Mr. Deschanel was at least gracious for the gift.
However, the fan could not have known that Mr. Zooey Deschanel was the only kid in his neighborhood not allowed a Super Nintendo. And thus he could only mope on a missed opportunity in childhood.
Also, he wanted to throw a snowball that day, but it did not snow at all.