Bashin' Pop 

Will cutesy indie rock survive another recession? Pop Holiday suggests it will.

At this year's South by Southwest Festival, the Austin American-Statesman ran a series of articles spoofing the "Rock Is Dead" claims that music critics habitually make. The paper's writers took turns suggesting that "Garage Rock Is Dead," "Alt.Country Is Dead," "Hip-Hop Is Dead," and even "Nü-Metal Is Dead." (Please, say it isn't so!)

Oddly enough, however, they never got around to proposing "Indie Pop Is Dead." Maybe because it's not really a joke.

Lately, the twee, literate genre has felt pretty close to flat-lined -- at least in the Bay Area. Back in the mid-'90s, the local scene boasted a surplus of pop-minded groups: the Aislers Set, the Fairways, Poundsign, Go Sailor, Lunchbox, Ciao Bella, and Sushi, as well as numerous pop-themed club nights around town. Nowadays, the landscape's as barren as George W. Bush's brainpan. In these times of economic and political turmoil, the kids don't seem to want to play quaint little love songs or carry Hello Kitty lunchboxes; instead, they want to spazz out in the Land of Misfit Haircuts, sounding and looking as weird and as wild as possible.

And yet, here comes the Pop Holiday festival -- four days of fuzz and jangle at SF's Bottom of the Hill, with bands and audience members venturing from as far away as Sweden, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, the Philippines and, um, Sacramento. At press time, Saturday's show with the Lucksmiths had sold out, with Thursday and Friday expected to follow suit. Maybe there's still some life left in the old indie-pop bird yet.

The Pop Holiday festival is the undertaking of several East Bay organizers: Be My Records impresarios Mario Hernandez, Chris Pruitt, and Lisa Brandt; KALX DJ Andrew Lison; and Paris Caramel honcho Mark Sgarzi. This is actually the third version of the affair, which has been put on every other year since 1999, albeit with a different moniker each time. (The first was called the San Francisco Pop Festival, the second 2001: A Pop Fantasy.)

This year's fete almost didn't happen at all. When the friends started discussing the event in the summer of 2002, they feared a lack of local interest. "There really wasn't that much going on scene-wise," says Lison, 25, who's also a guitarist for the Crabapples, one of the participating bands. "The Mosquitos and the Frenchmen, and that's about it."

Much of the late-'90s Bay Area scene had revolved around the Aislers Set/Fairways/Poundsign axis. When the Aislers' Amy Linton moved to New York temporarily, Poundsign went on hiatus, and the Fairways broke up, there was no scene to be seen. Add in the acrimonious aura of the dot-com era, and you've got an atmosphere more conducive to noise-rock bands than cuddly pop acts.

"When times are better, people want to hear pop," Lison suggests. "Now, people want to hear post-punk, because the economic situation is so much like the '80s."

In the end, what really made this year's Pop Holiday festival come together was boredom. "Popfest meetings are always sitting around and drinking," Lison says. "So we'd sit around and drink and say, 'There's nothing going on. What about the Popfest? What bands would want to play?'"

Taking a different approach to previous years -- when the organizers counted on friends and connections to bring in bands -- the quintet began digging around the Internet, looking for new acts they hadn't heard of. They paid especially close attention to the rosters of Shelflife and Matinée Records, two preeminent indie pop labels.

In the end, the Pop Holiday braintrust contacted 30 bands, and 21 eventually agreed to play, fitting nicely into three categories: old-timers, newcomers, and the Stewart Anderson contingent.

Caustic, Baroque, and Retro

The old-timers are led by Gregory Webster, who deserves an entire festival of his own. In the mid-'80s, Webster and bassist Tim Vass founded Razorcuts, one of indie pop's classic combos. Mixing punk aggression with the pastoral jangle of '60s folk rock, the English lads came up with a sound that was both pretty and pissed, exemplified by the snarly "Big Pink Cake" and the melancholy, chiming "A Is for Alphabet." (Matinée released a best-of collection, R Is for ... Razorcuts, last year.)

But Webster didn't stop there. Throughout the '90s, he worked in a number of elliptical bands: the baroque girl-group the Carousel, the self-described "strange space-rock" outfit Saturn V (not the SF garage-twist outfit of the same name), and his own solo acoustic project. And in 1997 he put together Sportique, offering up angular post-punk in the vein of the Buzzcocks and Wire, with snotty vocals, caustic lyrics, and serrated guitars.

Webster had returned to his roots, or, as he put it in an e-mail interview, "Enough time had passed to be able to listen to the late '70s/early '80s stuff with fresh ears and enjoy it all over again." (For his first-ever California show during the Pop Holiday, Webster will mine his entire back catalogue.)

Other exciting long-timers at the fest include Australia's Even as We Speak (best known for their 1993 gem Feral Pop Frenzy) and Honeybunch, one of the most unheralded US indie-pop acts of the early '90s. Listeners should swoon over EAWS singer Mary Wyer, who can move from anthemic warble to moody croon amid her group's alt-rock chime and trip-hop weirdness. And Honeybunch's new EP, Throwaway, shows that nearly a half-decade of inactivity hasn't softened Jeffrey Underhill's touch for hushed vocals and electro-acoustic melodies.

The Swedish, Balls-Kicking Newbies

Of course, many people count on the Popfests to bring in new bands that have rarely -- if ever -- played here before. This time around, the event organizers scored big-time with two Swedish combos: the Radio Dept. and Free Loan Investments. On its Shelflife debut, Lesser Matters, Radio Dept. wraps the feedback sheen of My Bloody Valentine around the jittery guitars of early Primal Scream and the drum-machine strut of the Field Mice, somehow making it all sound new via the sad-eyed vocals of Johan Duncanson. Free Loan Investments, on the other hand, opts for exuberant post-punk pop, with singer Amanda Aldervall moping about seeing a boy she loves kiss another girl before offering to "kick his balls out" (on last year's EP, Ever Been to Mexico?).

Proving that Californians can still cut the mustard, Sacramento/SF combo the Frenchmen offers chaotic noise-pop and airy girl vocals -- just like in the glory days of the UK's shambledelic C-86 movement. And San Fran's Evening Lights -- comprised of ex-Autocollants chanteuse Laura Watling and guitarist Ed Mazzucco -- deliver an ethereal, softly psychedelic sound similar to Slowdive.

The One-Man Band

Finally, you can't get more old-school or prolific than British native and current Arizona resident Stewart Anderson. Best known as the lanky guitarist for his anarchic noise-pop outfit Boyracer, he's also played the Bay Area solo and as drummer for Girlboy Girl, Lunchbox, the Cannanes, a reconstituted Henry's Dress, and a one-off with Amy Linton of the Aislers Set. This time around, he'll front Boyracer and a thunderous two-person Who tribute band called the How, then bash the skins for Even as We Speak and Australia's Origami (trying not to step on the latter's grrl-power punk-pop in the process).

Lison certainly appreciates Anderson's ubiquity: "We like it -- it keeps costs down."

Add in sets by Vancouver power-poppers Salteens; local lo-fi garage-savants the Mosquitos; East Bay icons From Bubblegum to Sky and Bart Davenport; London-based bossa electro duo Pipas; and Seattle geek-rockers Tullycraft, and you've got a hell of a week of entertainment. Perhaps indie pop will survive another decade after all.

Leave it to the old-timer, Gregory Webster, to put it most appropriately. In the liner notes for Sportique's new CD, Communiqué No. 9, Webster quotes Phil Ochs: "It is wrong to expect a reward for your struggles. The reward is the act of struggle itself." For indie pop enthusiasts, this weekend's all reward and no struggle.

Junk in the Trunk?

The hang-ups and obsessions of the Pop Holiday brain trust.

In order to get a sense of the current indie pop zeitgeist, we briefly surveyed some Pop Holiday bands. Here are a few answers:

What's the greatest pop song ever?

"'Roadrunner' by [Jonathan Richman and the] Modern Lovers." (Sean Tollefson, Tullycraft)

Who would you most like to roadie for?

"Run-DMC." (Bart Davenport)

Do you have a peculiar thing you find attractive?

"Upturned noses, junk in the trunk." (Mario Hernandez, From Bubblegum to Sky)

Internet date or blind date?

"Sorry, we're geeks, and geeks don't date." (Toby Thorsen, Aerospace)

What's the most embarrassing record you own?

"Can't Slow Down by Lionel Richie." (Mark Monnone, Lucksmiths)

Do you own any Hello Kitty merchandise?

"Yes, lots of things. My favorite is my Hello Kitty guitar -- it's pink and sparkles and has a built-in speaker." (Stewart Anderson, Boyracer, etc.)

What makes you cry?

"Amy Linton dissing Talulah Gosh in the SF Weekly." (Niki and Amy, the Frenchmen)

What untalented person are you attracted to?

"This whole Liz Phair comeback thing is pretty exciting to me, and I'm not talking about the music." (Andrew Lison, the Crabapples)

What's your biggest reason to keep living?

"Friendster." (Ed Mazzucco, Evening Lights)


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