Indie Rockers Do It Better

Unless you've been isolated from civilization for the past six months, you know that the commercial music biz has been pushing "electronica" as the next big thing, signing geeks with samplers at the same rate it signed grunge bands back in '92.

What you might not have noticed yet is that indie labels known for their guitar bands have been kicking out electronic/synthetic beats themselves.

K Records owner Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System has been injecting Jamaican-flavored soul into the booties of indie-rock brats for several years; the Folk Implosion splits its time between lo-fi acoustic songs and bass-heavy dance-floor tunes such as "Natural One" and "Insinuation" ("Insinuation" was even remixed by the legendary Dust Brothers, the guys responsible for the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay); and Tortoise won over legions of indie fans with its post-Slint experimentalism and mangled, remixed 12-inches of its own album tracks.

While major-label techno generally restricts itself to club-friendly mixes that fit neatly into various subgenres (drum 'n' bass, jungle, deep house, etc.), indie rockers are taking the technology and blending it with their own styles.

So why do indie rockers do it better? We like beginnings and ends to our songs; we like our songs inspired by emotion and not merely by how neat they sound (not that the neatness factor is immaterial, but we're goin' for integrity here); and we don't care how many club DJs spin our discs, we care how it relates to us personally when we're chilling around the house.

Of course, not all the electronica being put out by guitar-rock indies lives up to those standards, and not all the commercial stuff being spun in the clubs sucks, but indie rock's batting average is a hell of a lot higher proportionately.

On the indie/electronica/funk tip, Pigeonhed is a studio collaboration between Seattle's Steve Fisk and Shawn Smith: Fisk is best-known for his indie production credits, which include Nirvana (when it was on Sub Pop), Unwound, Low, and Beat Happening; Smith is vocalist for Northwest bands Satchel, and Brad. Together as Pigeonhed--Smith croons and programs drums, Fisk remains behind the boards running synths, loops, sequencing, and manipulating Smith's vocals--the two drop funked-out, groove-heavy bombs worthy of, well, Prince circa Controversy. (On "Battle Flag," off P-hed's most recent LP, The Full Sentence, Smith even busts out Prince's "Sexuality" rap from Controversy.)

Actually, Pigeonhed's instrumentation blows away anything the Artist Formerly Blahblahblah's various backing bands could've constructed, but through most of the album, Smith sings in a sultry, Marvin Gayelike falsetto that conjures comparisons to the Purple One. Meanwhile, Fisk lays down thumps with Parliament-flavored synths, then overlays them with instrumental tracks by some of the duo's friends (Helios Creed from Chrome, Wayne Flower of the Treepeople). Smith's shimmering soul and Fisk's funk aptitude redefine what R&B has evolved into; Pigeonhed demonstrates just how diverse two white boys raised on punk rock can be.

Revolver called up Fisk last week to get some insight into the electronica phenomenon and how Pigeonhed fits into all the hype. Here's an excerpt:

Revolver: A lot of guitar indies are "diversifying" into electronic music, right in synch with the "industry." Some of the releases are actual techno, rave-style recordings. What's your take on that?

Steve Fisk: I think we've had three bad years in the record industry, and a lot of indies are just as clueless as the majors at this point, so they're coppin' an attitude and puttin' on blue see-through pants to see if they can sell records that way. I think it's really cynical; I don't think it's really interesting, actually. Ultimately, interesting things happen, but I don't know anybody who's doing it smart. I guess they're all responding to a demand, but I don't think anybody really has a clue. I think we're in a sorting-out time right now.

R: How does Pigeonhed relate to the electronica boom?
SF: I don't think we really fit into all that techno crap. And we didn't get signed because all of a sudden our label [Sub Pop] decided they were going techno and making a Sub Pop rave logo so they could make some dough. They're not dumping their guitar bands to put out techno remixes; they've been trying to diversify for a while.

R: And your opinion of the electronica scene?
SF: There's great stuff out there, really, really great stuff, but there's such a glut right now of techno records that most of them are pretty lame. I'm getting tired of records with limited samplers. You can hear that the person making it has like eight or 16 seconds of sampling time, and it really restricts what they can sample and bite. It gives it the air of a puppet show: It's like, here's the sample, here's the sample, here's another one three times real fast, here's the first one again. It's an easy kind of music to make, and it's being cloned quicker than any other English export has.  

R: What about guitar-oriented artists who are incorporating electronica into their music now?

SF: Rock bands shouldn't put down their guitars and pick up samplers or start doing remixes of songs and getting them played in clubs that don't even represent their fans. I think guitar bands are guitar bands and drum-machine bands are drum-machine bands, and there's reasons for both. But they're best when they stick to what they know. It's all punk rock. It's always about annoying your parents. You can do it with a guitar, or you can do it with a Casio."

Modest Mouseketeers: What do you do when you start thinking musical creativity is a lost relic, when you realize that alternative is a long-dead buzz word, "rock" has gone the way of stale reunion tours, and pop is, well, the Spice Girls? You turn to the kids, the only ones you can count on to rescue the art of sonic construction (and I'm not talking about Beck).

Modest Mouse is three young'uns (vocalist/guitarist Isaac Brock is 21, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green are both 19) from Issaquah, Washington, who're reinventing the standard for indie pop. As a follow-up to its awesome 18-song debut LP, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About (on Up Records), MM got together with Calvin Johnson to record a self-titled nine-song EP for K Records. It's a stunning platter of various pop stylings, ranging from the sinister screeches of "Dirty Fingernails" to the shut-up-and-dance riffs of "Summer" to the quietly depressing "Karma's Payment" (on which Brock sullenly mumbles "I am not who I want to be/I probably will never be"). Johnson's production and the boys' access to the toys in his studio keep a rhythmic, hip-hop-influenced groove going throughout the recording (three tracks are pure studio manipulation of other songs on the EP), though this won't be mistaken for Wu-Tang Forever.

The EP is just an appetizer for the next Modest Mouse effort, a double CD to be recorded with Johnson later this summer. Consider the last line on the EP an omen: "I could tell you, but it's a long story." (Up Records, P.O. Box 21328, Seattle, WA 98111-3328. K Records, P.O. Box 7154, Olympia, WA 98507)

Bigmouth strikes again: Cap'n Jazz, the early-'90s Chicago-based math-emo quintet, took punk rock to new levels of expression and instrumental complexity during its short life. Cap'n Jazz used algebraic timing tracks, schizo volume and pitch shifts, and near-Burroughsian lyrics (words as images rather than phrases) to create its one-in-a-million album Shmap'n Shmazz.

When Cap'n Jazz split, guitarist Davey vonBohlen went on to form melodic emo giants the Promise Ring, while brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella and Sam Zurick (drummer, vocalist and bassist, respectively) founded Joan of Arc. Thus far, JoA has released two seven-inches, the first on Jade Tree several months ago, the second--"busy bus, sunny sun"/"stemingway and heinbeck"--on Southern Records recently.

Joan of Arc transcends Cap'n Jazz's frantic anguish to linger on the more ambient side of experimentalism. "Busy bus, sunny sun" is a meandering minimalist lament sprinkled with samples of busy-phone signals and cartoon-character voices. "Stemingway and heinbeck" takes the sampling technique further with swirling off-the-beat whistles and tweets, plus a lyrical takeoff on the Smiths' "Bigmouth Strikes Again" ("I'm 'bigmouth strikes again' and now I know how Morrissey felt"). JoA hasn't quite the talent of the members' former band, but it continues to take punk rock to never-before-seen dimensions. (Southern Records, P.O. Box 25529, Chicago, IL 60625)

Joan of Arc is scheduled to perform on Monday, June 30, at Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Tempe, with Jejune. Call for showtime.

Relaxing with KARP: From deep within the encrusted bowels of Olympia, Washington, KARP brings you the latest installment in its power-scare epic. The threesome's Self Titled LP has stripped sludge-core to its basics: muddy production that even the Melvins are above, enough repetitive power riffs to run a factory, and vicious, screaming vocals that are worthy of any grind-core band.

Is KARP just death metal for junior high indie-rock kids? Probably. But does it fucking rock? Definitely. When your girl/boyfriend's dumped you and you gotta let out some aggression before you drive your car into a concrete wall, this is the album you put on. When you've consumed way too much coffee and gotta clean your bathroom, this is the album. And when you just wanna piss off your parents, KARP is the band you blast through your speakers. (K Records)  

Stinkin' promoters: Props go out to Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Tempe for providing a venue for a shitload of recent cool shows, including the Peechees, Elliott Smith, the Grifters, and Boys Life. Since the promoters and clubs in town aren't quite hip to what's going on in the indieground, Stinkweeds has picked up the slack, letting bands play on a tiny stage in a corner of the record store, with crowds of up to 80 kids packed around the record bins. I hear in some cities you can see the above-named bands in actual clubs where the group has room to jump around onstage, and where you can drink beer and sit on stools and stay there 'til 1 a.m. Here in Phoenix, I'm just stoked I can see these bands at all. Stinkweeds rules.

--Brendan Kelley

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