Now it's a festival name, an almost-genre, and, for some, even a mantra — but back in 1993, "noise pop" was just a term Kevin Arnold made up to describe a bunch of bands he liked. He stenciled the phrase on a poster, along with the names of the acts he'd corralled, and proclaimed the first-ever "S.F. Noise Pop Festival." When everyone showed up at the Kennel Club on Jan. 29 for the festival's first (and only) night, there were about 200 more people than the fire marshall would have allowed. But the show was a huge success anyway — so much so that when Arnold demurred about whether he'd do it again, the fans and bands basically forced him to.
Thus were the humble beginnings of Noise Pop, the rock festival turned indie culture celebration that takes over San Francisco for a week each winter. In 18 years, the festival has grown from a single night into a series of shows, and then into a series of nights with many shows each. It has convened educational panels, started a film festival, and even grown a short-lived appendage in Chicago. But the spirit of Noise Pop lingers in the curatorial origins of its name: Arnold and Noise Pop co-headmaster Jordan Kurland have a knack for dragging out interesting musicians every year. To review the festival's past lineups — see below — is to kick yourself for not being keen (or old) enough to catch some of the most significant acts in indie music's last decade before they hit their peak. "I can't say that any of us went to those [shows] thinking they would be what they were," Kurland says about booking Spoon in '97 or the White Stripes in '01. "It is still about what we're excited about."
Granted, nowadays, the pandemic popularity of indieness and online bazaars like Pitchfork have made it easier for less savvy birds to catch the thrilling musical worms, sucking some of the oh shit juice from recent Noise Pop lineups. But an insistence on keeping the lineups half-local has helped Arnold and Kurland ensure that Noise Pop remains a showcase for the frayed edge of music. Below, we look at the past and present of Noise Pop: four acts from yesteryear that helped prove the festival's mettle, four bands playing this year that may — or may not — have millions of fans in their future, and four artists that represent the depth of Noise Pop's local love. Digest at will, and see you at the festival, kittens.
They Played Noise Pop Before Achieving Mega-Greatness
The White Stripes
Sure, we all miss 'em now. But back in 2001, when they played their first headlining show at Great American Music Hall — way before "Fell in Love with a Girl" — no one had any idea the White Stripes would become, well, the White Stripes. Not even the folks who booked their show. Don't believe us? Check this out: An army of volunteers has long been shooting footage for the This Is Noise Pop documentary that's part of this year's festival. Unthinkable as this may seem, in 2001, no one even thought to film the White Stripes' show.
Granted, "Float On" took Modest Mouse to heights of crossover pop stardom no one could have foreseen. But in 1998, when the band headlined Great American Music Hall at Noise Pop, Modest Mouse was between The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica — in other words, right in the middle of what you could call its golden age.
It was a Thursday in late February, and some band from Austin called Spoon was playing fourth in a lineup at Bimbo's headlined by Archers of Loaf. Of course this Spoon was hardly the Spoon we know and love — it hadn't yet released its game-changing sophomore album, A Series of Sneaks. But it just goes to show that if you want to know what frat boys will find cool in about a decade, go see the opening bands at Noise Pop.
The Flaming Lips
Four years before the explosive comeback of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — and a year before a stunning album called The Soft Bulletin — the Flaming Lips did one of their Boombox Experiments at Noise Pop, in which the band performed the four-part album Zaireeka with choirs of people playing tapes through boomboxes. It was an early taste of the lovable chaos that would make the Lips stars — again — throughout the aughts.
Shows You May Regret Missing This Year
By now, Bethany Cosentino has to be getting sick of this whole sudden-fame thing. But the world — for reasons we don't totally comprehend — doesn't show any sign of wearing out on her stripped-down, fuzzed-out guitar pop. Whether this is an omen, or a fluke, isn't clear, but Best Coast's easy rhymes and catchy choruses certainly are a phenomenon — one you can catch on Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Regency Ballroom.
Reaction to the news that Francis Ford Coppola invited Dan Deacon to hang out was almost unanimous: What could Coppola want with an electronic musician who oversees audience-participation-heavy shows and titled a record Spiderman of the Rings? Their common ground must be the glowing spark of artistry driving Deacon's bizarre world. He is always game for peculiar experiments (like dedicating a tour to doing a super-set with Deerhunter and No Age), and Bromst, his 2009 LP, is an unorthodox and wonderfully unpredictable mélange of chants, melodies, and effects. So get psyched that Deacon's scoring Coppola's upcoming Twixt Now and Sunrise — and playing on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at the Rickshaw Stop. Reyan Ali
This is the era where semidecomposed trends of the half-remembered '80s rise up like the ass-shaking monsters they never got to be. Dam Funk boarded the zombie train early with smooth, synthy R&B, boogie, and New Jack Swing. And thank god he did, because otherwise all we'd remember of the '80s were the stupid pants. Now we're fixing for the keytar solos and mirror shades — all of which should be arriving with Dam-Funk on Saturday, Feb. 26, at Public Works.
Punk doesn't die — it just gets boring until a new generation finds something fresh to do with blown-out power chords and blitzkrieg tempos. L.A.'s No Age drives its guitars to psychedelic volumes and distortion levels, and hits those snares fast enough to start a 'pit. But as you'll find out on Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Rickshaw Stop, there's an artfulness here that goes way beyond leather and safety pins. No wonder No Age is at the core of an aggressive music renaissance in its native burg.
Local Bands Who'll Help You Brag About Being Here
Festival organizers love to see previous local Noise Pop openers moving up to headlining slots, but we doubt this'll be the last promotion for S.F.'s Geographer. The immaculate voice of frontman Michael Deni begs for attention on its own, but backing it with buoyant, New Order-y rhythms, precious synths, and the evocative atmospherics of an electric cello makes for a unique — and effective — freshening of beat-driven emo-pop. Experience Geographer local with electro-disco whizzes Butterfly Bones on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at the Independent.
Birds & Batteries
It's rare anymore to find a rock band that really sounds unique, but then it's also rare to find one that uses both lap-steel guitar and bloopy keyboards — and makes it work. Birds and Batteries pair a crazy sonic palette with the considerable songwriting skill of frontman Mike Sempert — a combination that knows no bounds. Electrify your rootsy wings on Friday, Feb. 25, at the Rickshaw Stop.
S.F. indie rock in 2011 means shoegaze. And few local sludgeniks are as immersed in the subgenre's aesthetic as Tamaryn, with her ravenlike appearance, dragging tempos, and unabashedly dramatic lyrics ("Waiting for the water to claim you," goes a line on "The Waves.") Some moments devolve too thoroughly into nothingness, but at least you can count on all the black-clad hipsters being at Cafe Du Nord on Friday, Feb. 25.
Ryan William Lynch plays guitar in the stellar band Girls, but as Dominant Legs (with Hannah Hunt), he gets funkier, wigglier, and more stripped-down — while keeping a sheen of bittersweetness on all his bouncy satisfaction. Expect good things from this precocious pop when Dominant Legs plays with How to Dress Well on Saturday, Feb. 26, at Cafe Du Nord.