Revenge of the indie rockers
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published September 18, 2005
After years in which mainstream rock was dominated by burly bands from Limp Bizkit to Creed, drowning in testosterone, the indie kids who speak for the world's video-store clerks, sandwich-shop waitresses and back-packing college students are taking over.
In the last year, bands that were once staples of independent-music connoisseurs and college-radio programmers, such as Modest Mouse, the White Stripes and Franz Ferdinand, released albums that sold more than a million copies. Last month, longtime underground favorite Death Cab for Cutie released its fifth studio album, "Plans," and it debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Its 90,000 first-week sales "woke everybody up," says the band's A&R representative at Atlantic Records, Sam Riback, 28. "This isn't just the next `priority' at the label; this is the real deal."
In October, Scottish quartet Franz Ferdinand will release its highly anticipated second album, "You Could Have It So Much Better" (Epic), and Tuesday the band launches its North American tour in Chicago at the Aragon. The Arcade Fire, a percussion-heavy Canadian septet that headlines Sept. 28 at the Riviera, has sold more than 200,000 copies of its debut album, "Funeral," on North Carolina indie Merge Records. The band's music has been championed by U2, David Bowie and David Letterman, and in recent months Arcade Fire has carried the day at the Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals with giddily anarchic performances. And Bright Eyes, a vehicle for the songs of Conor Oberst, has been playing sold-out shows in theaters around the world touring behind two albums released simultaneously last January on Omaha-based indie label Saddle Creek, "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" and "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning."
The indie-rock surge has been ushered in by an Internet community of music connoisseurs who trade MP3 files and gather to talk music and champion favored bands on blogs and Web sites such as Myspace.com, and write for e-zines such as Pitchforkmedia.com.
Role of the Internet
"The Internet's role is important because there aren't as many gatekeepers," says Atlantic's Riback. "You can put the music on a Web Site, or on Myspace or the blogosphere and let the fans find it, talk about it and analyze it before radio or MTV even knows it exists. The fans get it first, and that gives them a sense of ownership."The laptop culture accounts for Death Cab for Cutie's growing audience, says the band's guitarist and producer, Chris Walla. "This is the golden age of the Internet, the place we'll be telling our grandchildren about 25 years from now," he says. "We're halfway through this transition where the Internet has flattened the playing field and put indie bands on an equal plain with major label bands."It also doesn't hurt that a generation of tastemakers raised on the underground rock of the '80s and early '90s has ascended to power in record companies, movie studios, radio stations, magazines and television.
Portland indie-rockers the Shins are a favorite of director Zach Braff, who used the band's music on the soundtrack for his acclaimed 2004 movie "Garden State" and had the character played by actress Natalie Portman give them a shout-out on screen.In the prime-time television teen soap opera "The O.C.," the lead actor is a young music fanatic named Seth Cohen (played by actor Adam Brody). In the show, the charmingly earnest Cohen name-drops bands such as Bright Eyes and has a Death Cab for Cutie poster hanging in his bedroom.
"The idea that an indie-rock kid can be made into a TV idol, a heartthrob, is hilarious and gratifying to people in our world," says Josh Rosenfeld, 32, co-owner of Seattle-based Barsuk Records, which originally signed Death Cab for Cutie to a record deal in 1998.The show's creator, Josh Schwartz, and music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas, are self-described music nerds and Death Cab fans."I had the bad haircut and saw the English Beat when I was still in junior high," says Patsavas, 37, who grew up in suburban Glen Ellyn. She booked underground shows at rock clubs while attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the late '80s, and in 1999 began booking music for shows such as "Roswell" and later "Six Feet Under" and "The O.C."
Meaning of `indie' has changed"The music that fits `The O.C.' the best has an indie sensibility, whether it's `indie indie' or `major-label indie,'" she says. Once indie rock meant just that: rock music released on independent labels outside the mainstream. In today's world, "indie" is rock-speak for "stuff that's innovative, different," Patsavas says. Though bands such as Death Cab, Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse have moved from independent to major labels, the music they make is essentially uncompromised.
When Death Cab for Cutie signed with Atlantic last year after recording four albums for Barsuk, it retained Walla as its producer rather than hiring a high-profile outsider. The major-label deal allowed for a more leisurely recording pace and a fatter budget. But the $200,000 spent to make "Plans" is still barely one-tenth of the budget for Kanye West's "Late Registration," which came out the same week and debuted at No. 1."We were absolutely given creative control," Walla says. "When [Atlantic] tried to suggest things, we were ultimately able to say `no.'"
The label initially wanted an engineer who had mixed Matchbox 20's hit albums to work on "Plans," but the band insisted on doing the job itself. It turned over one song mix to Chris Shaw, whose work for the band Sloan impressed them."I'm not interested in manufacturing a record," Walla says. "More and more in the computer age it's the manufacturing factor in records that I hear. For the first time in recorded music history there are people in the process of making a record who are purely technical and don't have any creative skill. You can have a guy who just runs Pro Tools. He may like music, but he doesn't have to know anything about music. He's a computer guy. I think that can go so wrong: Just building songs in perfect little chunks and tuning all the vocals and lining up all [the] drums. That's not what I want when I make a record. I want to be spending time with people and getting performances. I want blood. I want grit. I'm not a gritty producer either, but I want to be able to hear that the sounds came from a voice or a pair of hands."
That passion underlines Death Cab's music, but it's not about blood and grit. It's more akin to a headlong dive into an ocean, a kind of beautiful drowning. The voice of Ben Gibbard has a choirboy's transparency as he shares his most intimate secrets. When Walla peels back the shimmering layers of sound that enfold most of "Plans" to focus on Gibbard's voice and guitar on "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," it's easy to see why the Seth Cohens of the world believe in this band so ardently. "Love of mine, someday you will die," Gibbard sings, "But I'll be close behind and I'll follow you into the dark.""No other band has ever given me chills like Death Cab," writes one believer on the band's Myspace.com site, where the first single from "Plans," "Soul Meets Body," has been played more than 400,000 times in recent weeks. "You make my heart hurt."
Walla's deft production downplays the preciousness and amplifies the melodiousness inside Gibbard's songs. The music exudes insularity, a built-in integrity that implies staying power. Death Cab has already had a sturdy career; its previous album, "Transatlanticism," sold more than 350,000 copies for Barsuk. Gibbard's electronic side project on Seattle-based Sub Pop, the Postal Service, sold more than 600,000 copies of its 2003 debut, "Give Up.""I just turned 29, and it seems that people in that general age bracket, people who grew up on college radio when things blew up in the '90s and then imploded again, are starting to end up in places of power in the music industry," Gibbard says. "They'll say, `I don't want to use that awful [rap-metal] song for this part in that movie. I want to use a Shins song.'"
But as in a Death Cab song, the moment may be fleeting. The parallel between the indie-rock surge of the last year and the rise of underground rock in the early '90s when Nirvana briefly stormed the charts is not lost on Barsuk's Rosenfeld. Though he's thrilled to watch Death Cab get a big marketing push from Atlantic, and in turn boost sales for his back catalogue of Death Cab albums, he's skeptical about just how long the mainstream door will be open to indie bands.
"If the pattern holds true, what will happen next is a rash of really terrible bands that are pale imitators of Death Cab and Modest Mouse will get signed by the major labels and be marketed to a mainstream audience," he says.
"But right now we're in a phase where quality is driving popularity, and I'd like to enjoy it while it lasts."
That second-to-last quote, "If the pattern holds true, what will happen next is a rash of really terrible bands that are pale imitators of Death Cab and Modest Mouse will get signed by the major labels and be marketed to a mainstream audience," may very well be true. I've heard about a lot of bands in that vibe getting a lot of attention from major labels, but I just don't understand why they're bothering to look. The Law of Diminishing Returns never works in favor of these bands. These bands will get lumped into the genre as copycats.
In the case of some DFW bands, like Black Tie Dynasty and The Hourly Radio, these bands are doing their own things, however, people may easily be led to believe they're trying to get on this newest "alternative" rock gravy train. Yes, their music is dark, atmospheric and poppy, but I know that these guys are not trying to jump onto trends. Apparently, BTD singer/guitarist Cory Watson just recently got into Echo & the Bunnymen, a band his band is often compared to. That's funny thing about playing music: you think you're making your own music with a variety of influences and then someone comes along and compares your music to some band you've never heard of.
All I can say is this, I'd rather hear a band in the vein of Death Cab for Cutie or Modest Mouse on the radio/TV/film fields rather than nu-metal.