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The Fastbacks played their 'farewell' show. Or did they?

Noise Addict

The search for signs of intelligent music at Noise Pop

By Gina Arnold

IT HAD TO HAPPEN sometime. If San Francisco's uniquely self-contained Noise Pop Festival lasted long enough, it was bound to coincide with an actual resurgence of popularity in noise pop, and this was the year. That is, it was the year if you consider bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to be either noise pop--or popular. Both ideas are open to debate, but if you haven't heard the music of those three bands, I'd say that their popularity isn't quite as great as many a screed would lead you to believe.

The noise pop phrase was originally coined by founder Kevin Arnold to describe a certain type of crunchy guitar rock--somewhat punky, but cuter than hardcore. It's generally played by foursomes, often lacking in sophistication, fancy production, horns, strings and synth arrangements. The first festival was held 10 years ago, at the Bottom of the Hill, and featured the bands Carlos!, the Fastbacks and some others I can't remember. This year's last show featured those two bands, as well as Fluf and Overwhelming Colorfast, but there were a number of other shows at venues around San Francisco as well, including some by Death Cab for Cutie, Guided by Voices, John Doe and the illustrious Big Star.

In addition to the shows, the festival included film screenings and an educational series of panels, the latter of which took place on what may have been the most beautiful March day ever in San Francisco. Indeed, it was so beautiful that I was shocked and appalled to see the location--the Noe Valley Ministry--full to the brim with noise poppers who preferred hearing artists like X's John Doe and Imperial Teen's Lynn Perko and writers like Greil Marcus and Ann Powers gab on about music theory to getting some fresh air.

The artists' panel was supposed to answer the question "Can one make a living in the music industry?" The short answer, given by the Fastbacks' Kim Warnick: "No." Since the 'Backs are 22-years-old and counting, and Warnick quite literally didn't have the price of a burrito in her pocket, I'd say she is probably right. Doe, who does make a living, said he only does so as an actor. If, however, you choose to play noise pop--as opposed to rap, rave or boy-band crap, then not making a living is just part of the paradigm. It's like being gay. You do it because you have to, not because you want to.

The writers' panel, moderated by VH1's Greg Heller, was supposed to answer the question "Is indie rock dead?" The short answer, given by yours truly, was: "Yes." But the others on my panel begged to differ. Marcus in particular has a remarkable ability to search out the genre. His current faves are a band called Electrelane and another called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which he believes occupy indie-rock territory like the diehard citizenry of a vanished country.

So, too, I thought, did all the young men in the audience, who were convinced that there was a vast record-company conspiracy abroad to make the Strokes popular. Such thinking, however, is proof positive that, popular or not, noise pop is a concept that will seduce and destroy people for years and years to come.

Oh, well. It's all very esoteric and specific, and it's what the last 10, if not 20, years of my life have been devoted to, but at this point, I really have to wonder. Is it all about to end? That night's Fastbacks show was being billed as their last, but I for one don't believe it. In the band room at the Bottom of the Hill that night, I sat on a couch, chatting and admiring OC's Bob Reed calf-long tattoo of Joey Ramone, and reading the Fastbacks' set list (which, incidentally, included three new songs). Presently, guitarists Kurt Bloch and Lulu Gargiulo began singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and when they got to the end of the verse, the entire room burst into the chorus: "A wim a weh! A wim a weh!"

That's how I want to remember the Noise Pop Festival and the Fastbacks and the era of indie rock: as a group of strangers in T-shirts singing along to songs from our past like kids in the church choir. If indie rock is dead, then long live indie rock.

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From the March 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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