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.
Day 4: Of Times Never
On Friday evening I walked into one of the City’s newer venues, The Chapel, bypassing all the “big acts” for a night of singer-songwriters. It was probably for the best. The Chapel employs a space originally designed as a church (likely Pentecostal or some other related denomination). As this was my first time in this venue, I was struck at what I was reminded of: not a complete, actual place, but an idea, involving one, that never came to fruition. The Portuguese have a word that is untranslatable in any language, saudade. The closest translation to it in English is nostalgia, but using that word misses the meaning significantly. Nostalgia implies times past that you remember and reminisce upon, perhaps with fondness. Saudade, on the other hand, refers to the desire and reminiscence of times past that didn’t actually happen, or to be more concise, of times never, which is what I was feeling with this place.
Not far from this location is a space my friends and I had set out to move into, and establish as an alternative model to what has been a disastrous housing situation for creatives and families in the Bay Area. We had a vision, and a plan to make it work. We also were, admittedly, a bit in over our heads, since none of us had managerial/logistical experience in building a venue. But the passion was there, and the ideas were solid. However, because of other priorities, the leader of the group suddenly had to fall back on planning. This eventually led to the plan’s unraveling. Now, many of those friends are leaving the Bay Area, or have begun thinking about it. As I looked at this space, again, I thought about what could’ve been with a hint of sadness.
The utter mellowness of the show that night amplified that sadness. Opening up was Emily Jane White, who essentially played the role of average waif-like chanteuse folk singer. This was not inherently bad, but it seemed clear she had not practiced enough, which resulted in a few obvious missteps. Next, the more experienced Peggy Honeywell, performed simple folk songs that served as some relief from previous acts throughout the course of Noise Pop. However, she got mired in the venue’s technical problems, with one song being cut off by the venue’s PA suddenly playing intermission salsa music. Although it was not her fault, it was a setback nonetheless.
Taking the stage next was Aaron Espinoza (of Earlimart), who for a solo act, had an elaborate setup — including video projections that reminded me of Dan Deacon’s Ultimate Reality project (especially Arnie’s appearance). I spent more time watching the screen than the singer (who, though a bit slow and miasmic at times, offered a halfway decent show). It was one of those rare cases wherein the distraction probably helped more than it hurt.
Closing out the night was Damien Jurado, a singer-songwriter whose renown seems to be built entirely on word-of-mouth. Although this is not necessarily a bad thing, I felt annoyed for having to sit for 25 minutes after stage setup — which consisted of a guitar rack off to the side, a stool, and a microphone — before the headliner made his appearance. Then, it took on a vibe not unlike that show Unplugged, if anyone remembers it: some storytelling, some funny banter (for example, after a song about Washington State: “Is that song about something specific? Um, yes.”), and some introspection. It was all right, but it could’ve easily lulled people to sleep. Again, I left early, and drifted off thinking of times never.
Day 5: Feels Like You’re Only Backward
One can argue as much as they want about the causes of the mass exodus that is affecting San Francisco (and, to a lesser extent, the Bay Area). To lay the blame on the internet/tech industry, their tribal tendencies, and their utterly dismissive attitudes toward the creative class would be too easy. They have brought money to the area, and are likely the reason the state of California has not reached a Malthusian limit and filed for bankruptcy. To blame real estate developers for cashing in on this “untapped market” at the cost of decent affordable housing would be too simplistic as well. The Feldcos of San Francisco are simply doing their job, and are using their corporate resources to make the most of it.
No, everyone owns a share of this mess. From City Hall’s utter sycophancy toward the business class, to the progressive faction’s utter intent on throwing banana peels in the form of byzantine planning rules designed for corporate workaround rather than attacking the source of the problem directly, to the elitist liberal/moderate faction’s nudging the former faction to do so on account of pretentious NIMBYism and utter detachment from the rest of the city, there is a lot of ball-dropping and contemptuous action going around. But we, the creatives, are just as much to blame. In our efforts to separate ourselves from our childhood communities (because they, admittedly, tended to shun us), we made a very minimal effort in creating our own. Our own “mobility” has become a weakness on the sole ground that, when faced with a harsh conflict in our living situation(s), we tend to flee at the first opportunity rather than create a situation from which we actually build stronger connections.
In our efforts to separate ourselves from our childhood communities (because they, admittedly, tend to shun us), we make very minimal effort in creating our own, and our own ‘mobility’ becomes a weakness on the sole grounds that, when faced with a harsh conflict in our living situation, we tend to flee at the first opportunity rather than create a situation from which we build stronger connections.
Rather than managing what is necessary to have a unified front on matters important to us, we’ve tended to create our own individualist agenda because something that could bring a community together is later seen as too corporate or too elite — or just too “inclusive” — to placate our egos. I recall the fit thrown when Oakland Art Murmur transformed from a compact gathering on 23rd and Telegraph to a block party covering most of Uptown Oakland, citing the loss of exclusivity, even though continuing in its previous form was impossible. One can even see it in people hosting an “Anti-Noise Pop Fest,” which itself was a single-night showcase that, if one were to remove the title, wouldn’t be any different from a standard night at the venue in question. This thinking suggests a desire for self-glory over self-sacrifice, but not everyone can be Captain of Art, just as not everyone can be Captain of Industry.
In any event, such issues are inherent in viewing one of the biggest acts of the festival, Saturday’s sold-out Toro y Moi show at The Independent. After getting there early and sneaking to my favorite spot, while feeling bits of déjà vu from past Noise Pops, I watched the mismatch of a lineup go about. Opening were local act James & Evander, who played decent electro, but with vocals sounding so lackluster that they barely registered as more than a buzz. Still, they played a few decent covers here and there — so there’s that. Ultimately, it all felt like a local act that was lucky to get into a sold-out Noise Pop show.
Then, everyone was sent back to the early-to-mid 90s with Dog Bite. The guitars were jangly, and phasing at levels the likes of which haven’t been heard since Nirvana’s “Lithium,” or the Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas. Right after they finished their set, as if to properly match the era and its excesses, Creed’s “Take Me Higher” emerged from the venue’s PA. It was an icing of piss on a shit cake. There was a demonstrable improvement of quality with Sinkane, but also an accompanying revelation: Broprog exists. Technically, they were solid as any run of Yes or other late 70s prog band, but they were so damn ‘bro’ about it. This wasn’t necessarily “wrong,” and in fact may be useful in broadening taste among bros. But, for some reason, it felt off. Moreover, at that point, the room started to circulate pot smoke, as one person after another took a hit on their pipe. It made one want to legalize marijuana, if only to expand indoor smoking bans to pot.
Finally, Mr. Bundick got on stage with a set of Venetian blinds to serve as lighting (which was actually quite useful, so good play there). Unlike most music journos and critics, I tend to view microgenres with indifference. The overhyping of such things makes me wonder whether this is relevance whoring to rack up page-views and ad money, and whether the notions of genre should be questioned, if not outright done away. Consider Toro y Moi, who is identified as a key figure in chillwave. Just what is chillwave exactly, outside of some fantasy Carles of Hipster Runoff conjured up while smoking some BC Bud? From what I heard during his set, Mr. Bundick’s music sounded like everything from the 70s that required a keyboard, XXXed with the wonders of modern synths and laptops. The way he set things up, he had a solid structure going. It works live. Although, it’s uncertain if it would work as a recording. It’s definitely more dance-party material at its high points, and worthy of the pot smokers who started to light up as much as the flashes from smartphones. It was definitely a decent showing in comparison to the other nights.
Day 6: …partez-vous?
Sometimes you know when it’s time to go. There are times when people have to push you to get out of your comfort zone, and then there are just situations wherein it’s clear there’s nothing left to do but leave. In many ways, San Francisco (and the Bay Area) have become that place — a place to leave. I have been neutral on its existence since moving here nearly four years ago. Part of it stems from leaving Chicago (a city I loved) way too soon for me to hate it. But now, I feel like I — alongside many writers, artists, and musicians — don’t belong here anymore.
Noise Pop has represented some of the greater things that this city has had to offer, as well as great points in my own life. Now, those aspects have vanished. Consider this: at the first Noise Pop I covered, in 2010, I met someone at one of the shows. We hit it off immediately, and became fast friends. Soon, we became like siblings, with the running joke that this person adopted me as their little brother. We have done a lot together — even performed, and worked on art projects, together. It truly became a sort of familial closeness that one could not begin to fathom, except — possibly — with their own siblings. It made the subsequent years worth it. It made Noise Pop something to look forward to.
Now I look to Noise Pop and feel sadness. This person, like others, is abandoning the City, and moving to Los Angeles in the coming days. I get the feeling they will not come back, except for the occasional visit or two. L.A., by its nature, is a city I can’t live in, even if I wanted to, so I can’t just follow them. So I’m spending whatever chance I have to see them. That means I skipped Noise Pop’s closing show to see the conclusion of their own art show. So, I apologize to Caspian, Native, Boyfrndz, and The Dandelion War for failing to make an appearance. But it was necessary.
So it’s necessary, too, that this be the conclusion to it all. I have my doubts about next year’s Noise Pop. I have doubts that I’ll even be in this part of the country next February or March. I have no idea where the winds will take me, and what conclusion awaits me.
But it’s time to go.