Portland singer-songwriter M. Ward has long had a special place in the heart of the indie-folk-appreciative Bay Area. "The crowds in San Francisco have always been really supportive," the troubadour admits graciously by phone from Omaha, where he's putting the final touches on his next album. His last effort, 2006's Post War, helped cement his position as one of his generation's most gifted talents, with compositions that are at times forlorn, penetrating, uplifting, and exquisite — not to mention incredibly catchy.
So when Ward hooked up with celebrated indie actress/singer Zooey Deschanel, it made sense that their debut performance would take place at Noise Pop. "I love the Great American Music Hall," Ward said of their venue. "That was one of the reasons I said 'yes' to it. Of any room in the world, I've played there the most. It's a home away from home in a way." Sure enough, the show, which caps off the week-long music fest, sold out weeks in advance.
Simply named She & Him, the duo cumulates country and pop influences, with Ward's trademark analog-recording aesthetic on its debut, Volume 1. The songwriters first got together while recording a duet for the soundtrack of the movie The Go-Getter, at the suggestion of its director. After hitting it off, Deschanel sent Ward some demos she'd recorded, and they decided to see them to fruition.
Ward produced the album and helped with arrangements on the songs, which started in very rough piano-and-vocal form. "The best thing you can do as a producer is to stay out of the way of the direction the song wants to go to," he said. "... So much of it is trial and error, but when you have a great singer and great songs, it makes it a lot easier." Sources of inspiration included George Martin, Brian Wilson, the Ronettes, and many others, he said.
Over the years, such unique shows have become part of Noise Pop's bread-and-butter. One-off performances, reunions, and the occasional superstar in an intimate setting are unusual enough to draw fans looking for a different experience, such as last year's appearance by Roky Erickson. This year, in addition to She & Him, the Magnetic Fields and the Gutter Twins — a new collaboration between former Screaming Trees/Queens of the Stone Age singer Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers fame — are proving to be the most sought-after bills.
"Oftentimes, bands use Noise Pop as a springboard in the market," explained Noise Pop's Jordan Kurland. For example, the Gutter Twins' debut, Saturnalia, will be released just a few days after their appearance. "There's so much exposure for the festival that goes on," Kurland continued. "What's been nice is that a lot of bands that have grown have wanted to come back."
In the case of the Gutter Twins, Lanegan and Dulli, both veterans that got their start in the '90s alt-rock scene, are Noise Pop virgins. The collaboration began with a rumor, when an Italian journalist asked Lanegan about a project with his longtime friend. On the spot, Lanegan played along, and penned them the Gutter Twins. The name (and idea) stuck.
The moniker is rather appropriate given the singers' penchant for wrist-cutting melodrama. Lanegan's gravely voice, like a built-in sorrow instrument, could convince you that locking yourself in a rundown motel room with only whiskey and cigarettes to survive on would be a good idea, while Dulli conveys his dark emotions by overwhelming force. Together, they could spill into overkill, but instead, the record simultaneously shows off their respective strengths and willingness to travel beyond the scope of their well-worn paths.
"We're real good friends," Lanegan remarked. "When we're not doing music, we see each other a couple times a week, talk every other day. It was pretty intuitive, I think. He finishes my musical thoughts. It's a natural, unspoken thing."
At times, the songs on Saturnalia show hints of their past projects, such as Mad Seasons or QOTSA with the heavy psychedelic riffage of "Idle Hands." But sonically, they're never stagnant. "Circle the Fringes" mashes Middle-Eastern flourishes into a cryptic ballad, while "All Misery / Flowers" sees Lanegan speak-singing against an eerie, foreboding backdrop of screeching guitars and distortion. Each song was written collaboratively, says Lanegan, but in various combinations: sometimes Dulli wrote the music and Lanegan the lyrics, or vice versa.
Indie-label stalwart Sub Pop, which is releasing the Gutter Twins album, has long recognized the exposure that Noise Pop provides its artists. The Fastbacks played Noise Pop for years, until they finally broke up. But A&R head Tony Kiewel says the Twins' launch with the festival was merely a happy coincidence.
"I'd be lying if I said it was something that we were consciously orchestrating," said Kiewel. "But San Francisco is a really important market, A) because it's a big city, but also Live 105 is a surprisingly supportive radio station, at least for us, and for many indie labels." He notes the alternative rock station was one of the first to jump on bands like the Hot Hot Heat, the Postal Service, and the Shins. "If you can tip over a city like San Francisco, you always hope that's the first domino. Then you can take that story and prove to Seattle and Los Angeles: this band and the song they're writing are not only good, but more people like them. It's the gross part of marketing," he admits.
Regardless of its sleazy connotations, the publicity afforded by Noise Pop ultimately helps "new" acts like the Gutter Twins and She & Him reach eager audiences. And for Ward, that audience interaction can be fruitful unto itself. "It'll be our first show, so I'm sure there's going to be some butterflies," he says, "and that always creates something unexpected."