As a fairly recent addition to the Bay Area, my opinion of the Noise Pop Festival surely differs somewhat from that of seasoned veterans. Through my virgin eyes, Noise Pop appears to be a titan in the mythos of indie rock. While the festival is without a doubt appropriately appreciated by those who have been blessed to observe its ascension to notoriety, it holds legendary status in the hearts and minds of those lacking the liberty to attend year after year.
Prior to my recent relocation to SF, I spent a decade in Athens, GA, which can undoubtedly claim notoriety in the indie rock realm. And the fact that I spent so much time there instilled in me a certain understanding -- almost entitlement -- of the genre and the mindset. Even so, the accomplishments and innovations of Noise Pop are something even Athenians cannot deny. After all, its founders were the first to use the namesake term to describe the yin and yang of melody and dissonance so pivotal in modern indie rock.
Noise Pop shares the stage with festivals such as SXSW, as pioneers of the decentralized, city-encompassing music extravaganza. What sets it apart, though, is its roots in, and continuing focus on, the showcasing of local musicians and artists. The festival celebrates a music scene that cannot be contained by the city's borders -- one that is not only defined by its local artists but by those who grace its stages on tours throughout the country. Its organizers do a fantastic job of assimilating these two aspects into a sort of musical casserole.
This year Noise Pop will be introducing a new Noise Pop Headquarters as a centerpiece to the sprawling, boundless festival -- another yin to a yang. I spoke to Dawson Ludwig, Noise Pop Industries' General Manager, about this new expansion, the music business, Athens, synergy, and the meaning of the term "indie."
The word "indie" gets thrown out a whole hell of a lot these days, and some people have no idea what it really means. What do you feel constitutes art as independent?
Dawson Ludwig: We are an interesting festival in regard to the term "indie," in large part because we've seen sort of the birth of it and the redefinition of it. In 1993, when the festival started, indie had a very specific definition. If you were "indie" music, some company other than one of the four major record labels specifically was distributing your records. As a lot of the smaller indie labels started signing deals with major labels, specifically distribution deals, that muddied the waters -- because someone like Sub Pop or Merge (quintessential indie record labels) now had some degree of partnership with a major. That in and of itself really shattered the strict definition that it was created under.
The term "indie," similar to the word "alternative," became a catch-all for things that are cool and things that are of a certain cultural relevance. The term has been co-opted to some degree; however, there is still this oddly, strangely defined culture that is truly an "independent" culture. Sometimes it doesn't adhere as strictly as it used to in the early '90s, but I think a lot of the artists -- someone like Death Cab For Cutie, for instance, who is as major as major gets -- they are categorically "independent." I think that's largely because of the progressiveness of what they're doing as well as the aesthetic of what they're doing. They hold onto that "indie" aesthetic even though they're technically not independent.
So do you consider Noise Pop to be an indie festival?
DL: Yeah it is. In the same way that a band like Death Cab is considered an indie rock band, we are an indie rock festival -- in large part because of the genre we champion as well as because we've been doing this for a while. We sort of walked the term "indie" from its inception to the really broad scope that it has now.
You took it through its teenage years...
DL: Or it took us -- one or the other.
So, obviously there is a focus from Noise Pop on local bands. In Athens we had a music festival called Athfest, which is modeled after festivals such as SXSW and Noise Pop itself. Athfest has remained strictly a showcase for local talent... maybe a band from Atlanta to headline. What made you guys decide to introduce bigger national acts into the fold?
DL: I think a lot of that was due to the state of the San Francisco music scene, which is something like Athens in that it's a town that has an overwhelming amount of incredible talent. San Francisco is a little bit more of an international city, in regard to the music scene, and there's more of an opportunity to capture bands on a national level and utilize that for the festival.
I think early on we were able to realize that a lot of this is celebrating the San Francisco music scene, and in order to do that we need to get people out into the clubs. In order to get people out into the clubs, they need a big name. The idea was to bring in a big name national act and get three bands, which is pretty unusual for a club night. Most clubs have one or two supporters. Our idea was to have three supporting acts that were really -- from our perspective -- the things that people needed to be checking out. Obviously it's great to see Bright Eyes, for instance, but if [the crowd] shows up two hours early and catches the first three bands, then that's really where our motive comes in. As the festival has gotten bigger and we've gotten larger names we've been able to really shine a brighter spotlight on some great local talent.
Are you guys often approached by concert promoters in other cities attempting to start up their own festivals or take existing festivals to the next level?
DL: Absolutely. We're often approached by venues in the city, to get them to be a part of Noise Pop. Noise Pop also has a private events service, and there have been times when other festivals have gotten in touch with us about how to optimize something or how to get in touch with artists. There's an opportunity for us to share our expertise with people who are coming up in the same arena. It's a crowded arena at this point, so there are a lot of people looking for advice.
In turn, do you guys often find yourselves seeking out advice from the organizers of other music festivals?
DL: Sure. There's definitely a dialogue that goes on between festivals. Noise Pop and Another Planet, for instance, partner together to do Treasure Island [Music Festival]. We also are in constant communication with someone like SXSW, where we're actually doing a showcase this year. And our previous producer was one of the executive producers at CMJ. So that close-knit community creates a dialogue.
There are definitely some things that are shared and discussed on ways to optimize. Other areas can be held a little closer to the chest, basically because we are, at the same time, competitors. But we're all friends and know that if one goes away then it hurts the industry. So we're very supportive.
Something like Burning Man is also a good example. Burning Man is where a lot of festivals go to find art that you see at festivals all over the country. They use Burning Man as almost a sculpture gallery to see what artists are working on and how they can get them into the festival. That festival is a great example of synergy between all of us.
Synergy is such a great word. I feel like any time you can use "synergy" you just have to throw it out there.
DL: Yeah! Absolutely -- unless you're in a business meeting and there's someone who just realized how effective that word is and overuses it.
Obviously I've known of Burning Man and how influential it is, but I never realized how it functions as a sort of art gallery for other festivals.
DL: Yeah. Actually our art director for Treasure Island is a guy named Will Chase, who is one of the top guys at Burning Man.
You guys are introducing a headquarters for this year's festival. How do you think this will change the dynamic?
DL: One of the great things about Noise Pop is that people have experiences all over the city. It's as much a festival about figuring out what bands you like as it is a tour of San Francisco venues. At the same time, that can create a lack of cohesive experience for people. So one of the things we are trying to do this year is create an opportunity for everyone to be able to, at some point throughout the week, come in and experience something together. That ranges from artists hanging out in this area to fans hanging out in this area. It's really an opportunity for everyone to gather under one roof -- either for happy hour and then going out into the night or experiencing a show at this place. It's really a ground zero, for lack of a better term.
It's one of those things that we wanted to introduce without taking away from that weird energy that comes when people just decide to gather in a certain place but also offer something that would help define it a little more.
What bands are you most excited about seeing this year?
DL: Real Estate I think is probably my favorite band on [the schedule]. And their new record is unbelievable, too. Matthew Dear -- his new project Audion is going to be unreal. It's actually the same stage setup as the guy who does Amon Tobin's cubes. So it's going to be a huge spectacle -- and at the Regency. I imagine that will be THE festival highlight and the one that people are talking about the most.
Beyond that is Digital Mysticz. They are sort of the pioneers of dubstep, and not the testosterone-filled, Skryllex dubstep. But they're a little bit more from an original source that mixes Jamaican beats over this very spacey, electronic atmosphere. They are icons and they rarely tour together, so it's really going to be special.
What bands in this year's line-up do you think are poised to take a major leap?
DL: I would say a band called Painted Palms is one that is really poised to take off. They are two local guys. They write perfect songs from beginning to end -- just like a scalpel -- the way that they construct their songs. And they have a really cool Beach Boys-y sound that is popular.
Another one is an artist called Mr. Carmack. Actually he might already have broken out -- the Internet moves so quickly -- but he's a god in the SoundCloud community. He's playing at Scene Unseen, which is our free event with Do415 on Friday. It's pretty amazing. I imagine he'll be making beats for Kanye West within a year.
Another great one is Social Studies. That's another band that I personally love a lot. They write great songs, and they have good heads on their shoulders. They have all the elements; they just need that break and that bit of luck, which hopefully we can help provide.
The Noise Pop Festival runs from February 25 to March 2, 2014 at venues throughout San Francisco. For more information, visit noisepop.com.