Indie Band Surge in SF 

Six days, fifteen venues, 110 bands: Noise Pop turns fifteen.

It's twelve days from showtime, and Noise Pop festival chiefs Kevin Arnold and Jordan Kurland can't stop fidgeting. The morning's first wave of caffeine is rolling through them as they sit in a coffee shop in SF's Mission District, watching their PDAs lighting up with new messages.

Kurland, who manages Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service, says this year's ethic of "go big or go home" is paying off in terms of advertisers and sales, but then his PDA buzzes. "The power just went out at the office," he tells Arnold, who's hunched over a Mac laptop doing his duties as head of a major digital music company. Arnold looks up from his e-mail, sort of dazed. "Great."

It's crunch time for these two heavy hitters of the indie scene. In its fifteen years, Noise Pop has grown into a six-day, fifteen-venue, 110-band surge that galvanizes the Bay Area music community every year. Sure, there are always one hundred bands playing in San Francisco in any given week, but Noise Pop introduces an annual element of painful choice. On Friday, March 3, should you go see the Donnas, Jolie Holland, the Dandy Warhols, Autolux, or Ted Leo? On Sunday, closing night, should you catch the mythic Cake or the up-and-coming Comedians of Comedy? Metal hotshot Hella vs. the Sebadoh reunion on Wednesday? Indie rapper Lyrics Born vs. psychedelic madman Roky Erickson on Friday? On Saturday, do you drop acid with Brightblack Morning Light or rock out to Clinic?

Roughly ten thousand people will make those choices next week, spending $150 for a rare, all-access badge, or about $15 per show. Many of the aforementioned shows are already sold out, but it doesn't matter, because longtime attendees know that the biggest treats can come from unknown acts on the launching pad of stellar careers. Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, the White Stripes — all have played small shows at Noise Pop before blowing up. "Wolfmother went from playing Bottom of the Hill to stadiums," Kurland says.

Indie-rock fans have come to count on Kurland and Arnold's skills as talent scouts, and Noise Pop Industries Inc. has flourished as a limited liability corporation due to their acute hearing. After fourteen years of losing money splitting time between their day jobs and the festival's tasks, the pair, now in their thirties, took out a loan, incorporated, hired a staff of six, and reimagined Noise Pop as a year-round cultural driver in San Francisco. Now with more sponsors, Tuesday's opening night is free and features Tapes N Tapes and comedian David Cross. Fans who sign up online get free posters and T-shirts at the events. A film festival, cultural expo, and indie-rock business classes complement the huge lineup. Noise Pop Industries Inc. is now available for marketing, branding, and consultation, and year-round events may include "some type of summer festival that's outdoors but maintains a connection to the urban core," Kurland says.

The guys stay humble, though. "If it doesn't work, then we'll have a sweet sixteen party next year and pack it in," Arnold says. And they remain modest about their tastes — Kurland cops to an obsession with the Who and Neil Diamond, and Arnold admits to liking Justin Timberlake and Kanye West. They're both very happy to present mainstream band Cake this year. The Sacramento alt-rock outfit formed in the early '90s as a reaction to the mainstream rock scene. The same could be said of Noise Pop .

Kurland says many people don't know Cake was an independent band on its first release, Motorcade of Generosity, before going platinum on a major label with Fashion Nugget and Prolonging the Magic. Cake trumpeter and keyboardist Vincent DiFiore says the band has returned to its indie ways after it recently parted with Columbia following Pressure Chief, the band's last commercial letdown.

"Everything was sort of crumbling," DiFiore says. "They [Columbia] were merging with BMG and they seemed very distracted and we felt like we weren't getting the attention we deserved."

The band is now concentrating on preselling an album of eleven B-sides and rarities — three unreleased songs, live versions of "Short Skirt" and "Coming Down," and six songs recorded for various movie soundtracks. Other than that, frontman John McCrae works on new Cake tracks and updates the band's Web site with the standard liberal-commie-pinko-fascist posts about EPA deregulation, electric cars, pesticides, and gay marriage.

Despite Cake's decline, its Noise Pop show on Sunday, March 4 sold out in ten minutes, Kirlund says, further evidence that bands who play NorCal's biggest rock festival may not need a major label to draw, while Noise Pop has become a major corporate entity in its own right.

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