These days — in San Francisco — one can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness. It’s a sadness at the fact of a lost cause, and a mass exodus. Overtaking the weird, creative spark of the city is a dullness brought about by the thousands of techies from Silicon Valley, whose seeming intent is to finally render San Francisco a bedroom community. With their presence, and an array of other issues for which everyone is to blame, the cost of housing in the City has risen dramatically over the course of 15 years, with no neighborhood in the more industrial eastern side of the city left untouched by “urban renewal” and new condo developments (the western side, a lower-density residential area, remains mostly unscathed due to unfavorable microclimates and limited infrastructure investment).
It’s against this bleak background that we witness Noise Pop 2013, the preamble to the festival circuit. Much has changed in the previous year. New venues have popped up, particularly in the Mission District (Brick and Mortar and the Chapel), while some venues (in particular the memorable Bimbo’s 365 Club and the Mezzanine) have ceased hosting events altogether. The lineup is far less grandiose than in previous years, with the biggest names being DIIV and Amon Tobin (compared to the Flaming Lips and Die Antwoord last year). In terms of “buzz,” many of the acts are well-entrenched, but no clear breakout figures emerge.
Thus, like last year, I felt hesitant to cover Noise Pop at all. This time, C Monster did not drop a track on Chocolate Grinder that made me say, “okay, I have to cover this.” Still, in what feels like a conclusion to a series, I feel I should not leave this festival behind without doing all that I can with it. I decided that, at the very least, I give would this thing another go. Through its lens, I witnessed the decline of city, and a rise of nothing worth noting.
We decided to continue the trend of letting others decide which shows I should attend. This time, however, instead of just letting the staff decide, we let our readers choose my fate through the TMT Facebook page via daily polls. The results are what you will witness below. Neither a train wreck nor an adventure, it was more a tricycle in a downhill race, which somehow got derailed and landed in a mud pit.
Day 1: Forward to the Past
The first day, as I was picking up my badges, I noted on 24th Street the old Discolandia record shop that closed down the year before. For most hipsters and white folk, it was uninteresting: its specialty was music from South and Central America, especially Cubano, Banda, and some Norteño music. Although I peeked in there once or twice, nothing caught my attention enough to merit purchase. Still, its purpose was great. It was a real record shop for the sizable Latino population in the neighborhood, and an alternative to taking a bus to Rasputin or Amoeba (the nearby shops, Explorist International and Aquarius, clearly have a “white people music” vibe to them, and tend not to sell Latino records unless it is something the hipsters want).
The combination of “urban renewal,” the nigh-stagnant economy, and the industry’s recklessness brought this mom-and-pop record shop down last year. I wondered what had become of it, only to be saddened at the sight of some new foodie place — a common replacement when a storefront in a “prime” neighborhood opens up — that specializes in pork and pies.
Later, I saw another band replace what had been an institution at the Rickshaw Stop. This time it was Sonic Youth, whose indefinite hiatus was noted in the city by a graffiti’d sign four blocks away: “RIP Sonic Youth.” (More on that later.) I arrived to see opener Noel Von Harmonson finish up his set. My immediate thought was, “everyone needs a Thurston, I suppose.” His drone-y, somewhat thrashy approach to guitar was generic at best. He was followed by local death metal band Burmese. If there is one thing to learn from hipsters, it’s to never trust them with metal. Although there was a high level technical skill on display, technicality means nothing if you look silly. This was especially true of their front-woman, who possessed a strong dynamic range, from authentic death metal to hardcore scream, but looked like a stick all the while. The only high point was their Big Black cover.
Taking things in a different direction was local act Elaine Kahn a.k.a. Horsebladder, whose beats and loops were refreshing. Kahn bore some resemblance to a louder, darker Julia Holter, and carried a lot of a restraint. What lyrics I could hear sounded interesting. Still, there are limits to what laptop music can do, and she came out looking a little dull — a bit un-enthused, even. Still, she an improvement upon the other two acts.
As the closing act, Kim Gordon debuted her new project with noise practitioner Bill Nace, Body/Head. What was striking is that it sounded like we were listening back in time, to the No Wave-era of utterly copious shredding that remained Sonic Youth’s trademark to some listeners. Gordon sounded like Glenn Branca’s lost disciple at times, even though they never worked together. An array of technical, often amusing feats played out during the set, from Nace’s percussion-like plucking to Gordon turning her guitar into a jackhammer, all while walking on top of her amps. Most significant was when Kim Gordon pulled out a harmonica. One would think the instrument would appear more often in such music, but this is the first time I’ve seen it. Finally, Gordon’s vocal eeriness was still present after all these years. This was most apparent in her cover of Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No…I Got Life,” and a song whose lyrics seemed to be hinting at her breakup with Thurston Moore. It’s apparent that Gordon is using what she has learned over the past three decades, and going back to what works.
Day 2: Repeat Repeat Repeat
Bottom of the Hill is a venue that could define an area, and represent — greatly — the city’s culture. For the past few decades, the Potrero Hill landmark has hosted many an act, including Neutral Milk Hotel, Whiskeytown, and The Arcade Fire (back when they were touring with The Unicorns). I’ve written about a few of those shows, and one of our fabled writers, elzee, used to work the door and as a liaison for bands and venue staff. But now, in its somewhat empty corner of the city, the venue is under threat from development by healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, which is using the expansion of UCSF’s biotech campus across I-280 nearby to create an encroaching presence. The threat is real: a skyscraper in that part of town would rents up even more, and increase traffic in an area that can’t handle it (not to mention that it would be an eyesore in a low-density area). The survival of the venue would likely be in question if it were to be built, and it remains to be seen whether or not grassroots efforts to redirect the company to a different part of the neighborhood will succeed.
Opening were Burnt Ones, who represented the generic flavor of garage-rock revival that has been dominant in the state for the past decade, with bits and pieces of each region’s spin on the genre. There’s not much else to say; they were dull. Plateaus followed them with a more specific flavor of garage rock, that is, the surf-rock-/chillwave-based variety. Adding a quaint touch to the act was the lead singer’s voice, which sounded incredibly geeky, even charming.
As if to properly match the era and its excesses, right after they finished their set, Creed’s ‘Take Me Higher’ emerged from the venue’s PA. An icing of piss on a shit cake.
After that act, I went to the back porch/courtyard, a unique feature of the venue. While chatting with a girl who approached me earlier in the night about a book I was reading, someone noted R. Stevie Moore’s passing by us, and asked for his autograph. I turned, and holyfuckit’sBluebeardaaaaaaaaah….or something. But seriously, his blue beard that gave that very dark fairy tale some credibility. He played a very tight set, which is a rarity in the lo-fi/bedroom-recording world of this Ohioan. (He only jammed-out in what would have likely been the festival’s only non-headlining encore.) His age is becoming increasingly obvious. He mostly sat during introductions and solos played by his backing band. He kept his cane on stage in case it became necessary. Afterward, he sounded tired while talking to fans. Part of it may have been a long tour, which was soon ending, but one cannot help but sense decline, especially with Ariel Pink (whose Ku Klux Glam R. Stevie played a cut from) raising his specter from obscure to quasi-mythical.
The last time that I, in a lovely chat with elzee, spoke of The Fresh and Onlys, they were the closing act of the closing show two years ago — at this same venue no less. We spoke highly of the conclusion to this festival. Althought this set was still good, it took a while for the band to raise the spirits of the crowd. Part of it, I suspect, arose from the fact that it sounded almost the same as it did two years ago. I was impressed, for some reason, at frontman Tim Cohen’s take on banter, making fun of what it was, and making me wish he was there at that first Noise Pop I covered with Edward Sharpe & Magnetic Zeroes (whom I still consider fakes to this day). Surprisingly, he noted his own exit from the City (to Arizona) in introducing “Fog Machine,” though unlike others, he would later tell me his exit had nothing to do with the City’s decline.
Day 3: Like Plastics Melting Together
In these times, one cannot help but feel distant in San Francisco. The music scene in the city has taken a beating in the last year. The band Girls broke out as I was acclimating myself to the city in 2009, and then broke up in 2012 after Christopher Owens could no longer deal with the constant turnover. The Dodos lost Christopher Reimer, who died in his sleep shortly before the previous Noise Pop. As I mentioned above, Fresh & Onlys’ Tim Cohen moved home to Arizona. Mirah, who became a fixture after moving from Portland and working with local favorite Thao Nguyen, moved as well. One particularly crushing blow was the revelation in December that Ty Segall, a hero to the scene, would be moving to Los Angeles this month. Some argue that this was a career move, but he blatantly pointed out the broken-record reason: housing, as he told the local Bay Guardian: “I’ve loved it there, but I can’t even play music… I can’t work at my home… I think a lot of musicians and artists are being forced to move out of San Francisco because they can’t afford it, and they can’t really work anymore because they can’t afford housing that allows for noise.”
A creative exodus has slowly taken hold over San Francisco, with many artists and musicians leaving for Oakland and Berkeley, and others leaving the Bay Area altogether. This is a consequence of the second wave of the Silicon Valley techie invasion, and the economic and political mess of an overheated housing market/bubble that has come as a result. I, too, am among the creatives who’ve left: last year, following a brief period in Alameda, I moved to West Oakland after nearly three years of living in the City. I now pay less than half than I used to for rent, but this — at best — remains a tenuous situation. A close friend who recently moved to L.A. noted the absurdity of the rent situation when he found 2-bedrooms in Beverly Hills that were cheaper than anything he could find in the City. I’ve seen too many close friends and allies announce their exit, and move on and out, with plenty of others ready to follow in their path. I see far more goodbye notices than welcomes.
Thus, one can feel distant and detached from all that is happening. That’s what occurred tonight, anyway, at the Hemlock Tavern — such a shame, too. The sound crew ran the best mix I’ve heard since Sam Cole’s mastery at the Rickshaw Stop two years back. It felt very clear, with both the mid-range coming across, and the vocals sounding articulate. It was loud, but not abusively loud. Aan opened up and played pretty decent Portland-style shoegaze with a bit of range to it. However, it felt like it set the wrong tone for the rest of the night.
Föllakzoid took over, and the night took a bit of a dive. I was already feeling tired, and had a hard time discerning differences between songs. If their intent was to sound spacey, they achieved it, but at the cost of jamming way too much.
Mike Donovan (of Sic Alps) played a set for the crowd. The consistent flavor of SF garage rock remained apparent even in this folky version. What made things weird was the use of reverb on Donovan’s microphone. It was supposed to lend a trippy psychedelic vibe, but around this time, it felt like all the music was like plastics melting together. The live mix was the only thing keeping it from turning into goop. Then, headliner Psychic Ills came on and ruined even that. Their mix sounded stereotypically loud: everything was clumped together, and the vocals were way too quiet. The band seemed too untrusting of the sound crew, and too nervous about their own sound. In a way, they distanced themselves from the crowd, as if they just wanted to finish their set and leave. I couldn’t handle it, and bailed after the third song.