stinato is Stylus’ live music column.
The Arcade Fire
Irving Plaza is a 1000person+ rock venue off Union Square, just above the 14th Street line of uptown/downtown demarcation, with mandatory coat checks and black bouncers with metal detectors and young women in tight shirts who walk through the crowd carrying cocktail trays high above their heads, asking normal people like me and you if we want anything to drink. The only times I’ve been here include shows by Louis XIV, Herbert, Black Dice, Blueprint, and this Deerhoof concert I’m about to talk about. Irving Plaza sells tickets through Ticketmaster, and in between acts they sometimes screen the old cartoon version of Lord of the Rings. The stage isn’t high enough, but the sound is reliable, and if you explain to the cocktail waitress that you’re struggling with asking her to fetch you a $6 can of Amstel because on one hand you feel weird about asking a person your age to fetch you a beer at a rock concert, while on the other hand you know she’s willfully in this tray-toting situation and the best way you can show you care is let her fetch you some Amstel, maybe Amstels plural, she’ll probably understand.
Deerhoof have played bigger and/or better venues elsewhere, but not in New York. They’ve been touring for ten years, and most of their shows I’ve seen have been in Brooklyn, not Manhattan, and to relatively small crowds. This has always made perfect sense to me. If you are a band that plays fractured, seemingly unwieldy noise-rock with offbeat vocals and roundabout chord progressions, you will probably play a lot of New York gigs across the river at the Northsix. And though they’ve been writing some really poppy, really communicative stuff, Irving Plaza was a coup. A sold-out Irving Plaza too. It was like the fans were getting away with something: a full-stage sound that compensated for the departure of Chris Cohen, smoke machines, a light show, and a return to the “one big song” approach of Deerhoof’s past, just a momentum-building run of highlights from their last four albums, all three members menacing through the tracks, the kind of uplifting rock show that’s more overwhelming than just sonically impressive—the kind of show where you run out of the venue feeling like you can do anything. I’d go through their setlist and catalog the riffage, but for some reason the sight of this beautiful Asian girl in the audience, perched up on a metal fence and clutching her boyfriend to her left whenever Deerhoof got loud, like she heard lightning outside or was watching a scary movie, seems to say everything I want to.
Not by any means that this was an “awesome band sells out”-type situation, which it wasn’t. This was probably the 15th or 16th time I’ve seen Deerhoof play, and my second or third favorite show of theirs to date. But there’s still this huge WTF to deal with nevertheless, which is how this by-no-means traditional rock band ended up playing one of the city’s most mainstream Ticketmaster-serviced venues and sold it out with little effort. I’m short on harder sales-type stats, “people who bought this also bought that,” or anything that isn’t purely observational. But is the indie-rock trickledown effect I just assumed was taking shape post-Arcade Fire / Shins / Sufjan etc., finally happening, finally affecting the less conventional strains of indie rock? The Modest Mouse car commercials and Whoever Else TV spots amounting to something tangible for more interesting albeit less popular bands I care about?
The Man Man show at the Bowery just a few weeks prior, same thing. The place was packed, and pardon me for the following Status Ain’t Hood-type detail, it was packed with people I didn’t mind looking at. Man Man make emotionally explosive, obtuse music—yelps and banging and a growling melody in there somewhere. Even though the lyrics are often very traditional fare about feeling locked down or bummed by girls, they’re more likely to invoke bizarre animal imagery or moustaches than take recourse to the usual down-on-my-luck, pills-don’t-work rhetoric. Their songs are in fact songs, but everything’s a little lateral, like they know the most direct route to the hook but they take the long road anyway. Man Man aren’t a cult band necessarily but they have cultish designs. You’d probably think twice before putting a song of theirs on a new-girl mixtape.
And they play better shows than they ever did. They’ve added horn parts here and there, drummer Chris Powell knows his way around the traps, and, no slight to former members, they just seem like they have a better handle on their instruments. Every note seems more intentional. But other than that not much has really changed. They’ve never had much of a cool streak; nor much of a hot scene to plug itself into the way your We Are Scientists and Braverys did; nor an extramusical hook to sell them, à la label-less Clap Your Hands’ smart DIY distribution of their otherwise middling indie rock. They’ve had increased exposure only because the amount of exposing forces has increased, but otherwise they’ve ascended slowly but surely and naturally, from perpetual opening gigs to, finally, their own headlining tours. And yet right now that trajectory seems unusual to me.
Maybe for about a minute a few years back, I remember trying to explain to my parents what I was listening to, this indie music stuff. The weirdest, most out-there band either of them liked was Kansas, so the idea of explaining the existence of an entire thread of music culture with its own influences and heroes and Woodstocks of sorts was pretty difficult. I remember my mom saying she understood, that listening to indie rock was sort of like watching farm-league baseball or buying generic prescription drugs or filling your tank up with 87– things you do until you can afford the real stuff.
I assumed there’d have to be some sort of trickle-down effect from mainstream’s well-publicized newfound interest in indie rock, but I didn’t know exactly how it’d work. Your Arcade Fires and Shins and Sufjan Stevenses really aren’t that far from sounds people are familiar with already, commercially viable ways of expressing one’s self musically—U2, Bowie, Springsteen in the case of AF, for instance. They’re not on major labels and don’t have major-label budgets that could get them on MTV, but otherwise they might as well support the mom’s theory, i.e. indie rock as cheap knockoffs. If you can’t drop a grand on U2 tickets, or are personally unsatisfied being one of the million billion people who love U2, perhaps you’re more than happy to pony up slightly less cash to have your own relative heavy hitters.
Beyond that we trust our tastemakers/professional music filters to point us in directions we like, we sign onto their authority and we trust they’ll make us happy. If they pointed us to Arcade Fire, then Sufjan, then Decemberists, why not check out this probably terrible black-metal album they recommended, etc.? Ideally we can believe they know more and more deeply about the things we want to know about, so it goes, and suddenly you have tickets to every Deerhunter show up and down the East Coast and you’ve only listened to the album twice so far.
Might be fun for a minute but we have to ask ourselves, did we want to hear good new music or did we want to be part of a new music scene—and I can’t help but wonder how many bands have benefited merely from people’s need for the latter, and how many have been burned all the same. “New” is not the safest look.
Yet I’d venture to say that’s what’s selling shows out right now, why a new band like Peter Bjorn and John sell out the Bowery faster than more established acts that took time growing their audiences to the sizes they are now, your Yo La Tengos, your K Records bands, etc. The problem is, of course, that the firecracker bands’ appeal is less tied to their music, more to their newness, and you gotta wonder how much this cycle of new keeps bands from developing fanbases in more traditional ways, i.e. in ways that might actually have something to do with their music. I feel like Animal Collective played NYU a billion times before anybody even knew about them, yet Clap Your Hands put out one terrible album and suddenly they’re playing Irving Plaza on New Year’s Eve. All’s to say that maybe Man Man and Deerhoof have done something that right here, right now, seems impossible: They’ve existed just slightly under the radar long enough to benefit from more exposure and sales, but they haven’t been sold down the hype river as so many indie rock bands have been in just the last three years. Remember M83?
The Arcade Fire
After dinner on Valentine’s Day it was pretty cold in the West Village, and cabs were nowhere, so she and I ended up running crosstown on 4th Street, half as a joke but increasingly as a thing of survival. 4th Street runs along the south side of Washington Square Park, which is where you’d find Judson Church, which is where the Arcade Fire were playing that night. We ran right by the place and we could hear them playing a song from their first album. Bowery Presents made it next to impossible to scalp tickets since you needed your ticket-purchasing ID to get in, so people were paying in the hundreds of dollars to meet Craigslist ticketholders by the door, pay them the amount agreed upon, then walk inside and see the show and probably never talk to the other again.
I love music, and I love Arcade Fire’s new album, but I could never imagine going to so much trouble to see them—even if they were Deerhoof. Earlier in the month I had paid $110 for a pair of $30 Sonic Youth tickets and I was still beside myself. But the thing that occurred to me in that five-second moment was who knows how many weirdo bands Merge can sign now because of Arcade Fire, who knows how many chances that band’s success has afforded the label. As for whether Merge would rather search for its next major-not-major Arcade Fire-type act to sign instead, I don’t know. The two options aren’t mutually exclusive. I guess it was too cold for me to even hazard a guess.
By: Nick Sylvester
Published on: 2007-02-23
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