From its humble beginnings in 1993 as a single club show of five bands, Noise Pop has grown into a week-long "celebration of indie music and culture." It now includes a film festival, art shows, a music industry mini-conference, and a design fair and marketplace. However, music remains Noise Pop's focus with more than thirty shows in large and small venues scattered around San Francisco and, for the first time this year, at the Fox Theater in Oakland.
While there are no designated headliners at Noise Pop, each year's lineup includes internationally prominent performers. This year it's the Yoko Ono Plastic Band and the Magnetic Fields. Star acts add excitement to the festival but Noise Pop's national status is based on it being one of the premier showcases for that most loosely defined musical genre, indie rock. Noise Pop prides itself on bringing exposure to emerging bands, some of whom go on to become major acts. And from year to year, good up-and-coming bands move from opening to headlining shows — the Shins first appeared as an opening act and Death Cab for Cutie as a mid-bill act.
Noise Pop festival co-founder Kevin Arnold said that while it's a "small little speck of a festival," it's also "an integral part of the local landscape," providing something for local bands to aspire to and bringing some great bands from out of town during a "quiet time in February." He was hesitant to predict which bands Noise Pop might break this year and believes the festival has only a small role in any band's success.
However, local bands that have come up through the ranks are more than willing to credit Noise Pop with giving some bounce to their careers. The festival places special emphasis on booking local bands and strives for half the bands at each year's festival to come from the greater Bay Area (Santa Cruz to Sacramento). (Noise Pop will host a daily "Happy Hour" at Bender's Bar that features only local acts.) Two Bay Area bands that have come up through the ranks and are headlining for the first time this year are Judgement Day, a "string metal" trio out of Oakland, and the Mumlers, a seven-piece alt-folk group out of San Jose.
The dual identification of Judgement Day as a string metal band and an indie-rock band points to the fluidity of the indie-rock genre and the ways in which the band is and is not a metal band. The first time you hear heavy metal on violin (Anton Patzner), cello (Lewis Patzner), and drums (Jon Bush), it strikes you as a novelty act, but as Anton made clear in a recent interview, Judgement Day is a serious musical effort. The band wants to "bring something new to the world of music," he said.
Steeped in both rock and classical traditions, Anton and his brother Lewis, a conservatory-trained cellist, began busking on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in 2002. They spent the next six years figuring out how to make metal on violin and cello work. Their first album, 2004's Dark Opus, was part of that process; after that, Anton says it was just exploring and experimentation.
Judgement Day was not the first band to play heavy metal on violin and cello — that distinction probably belongs to Rasputina or Apocalyptica, bands that formed in the early Nineties — but Judgement Day is opening up new musical territory. Other string metal (aka "cello rock") bands play covers, placing themselves squarely into novelty act territory. Playing only original compositions helps Judgement Day avoid being dismissed as mere novelty. Anton also feels that not having or wanting a singer allows them to shred without being pigeonholed as a metal band. They typically tour with indie bands, not metal bands. The one time they toured with a metal band, Anton remembers that the "metal kids" loved them, said as if he's never been a metal kid himself. For the Patzner brothers, Judgement Day is an exercise in self-definition: Anton, the hardcore rocker who toured with folkie indie band Bright Eyes; Lewis, the working classical musician whose wrote an etude for their last EP that consisted of two minutes of solo shredding on cello.
The musical challenges of playing metal on strings — creating strong rhythms that can lock in with the drums, the cello providing both the low tones of the bass part and the mid-range rhythm guitar part — are matched by the challenges of directing your own career. Finding appropriate venues is part of that. Anton feels Judgement Day fits at Noise Pop because the festival "is not as much about genre as about having innovative bands." He also appreciates the way the festival mixes local bands and "amazing headliners." Judgement Day opened a Noise Pop show in 2008; this year it's headlining. For Anton, it's both "a big honor" and "an amazing opportunity."
Will Sprott, lead singer and primary songwriter for the Mumlers, says he "likes old things," specifically folk, soul, and Fifties and Sixties pop. You can hear that in the songs of the Mumlers. The seven band members don't intellectualize the diverse musical sources they draw from or worry about authenticity, but "just let the songs congeal." Critics have cited echoes of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Bobby Blue Bland, and others. There's an element of truth in all those takes but it also reflects that there is something unique and elusive in the sound of the Mumlers.
Born and raised in San Jose, Sprott called friends who played a variety of instruments to help him with an EP he was recording at a friend's house. The ensemble quickly grew to include French horn, cello, trombone, and glockenspiel in addition to bass, drums, keyboards, and guitars. They put on a show and haven't stopped playing since. The band got a lucky break when a friend gave its EP to the editor of Slap, a skateboard magazine, who passed it on to Glaxia, the label that ended up releasing its next two albums.
The last three years, the Mumlers have played Noise Pop as a supporting act; this year they're headlining. Their prior appearances at Noise Pop helped the band establish itself in San Francisco, and Sprott is sure it helped open doors to other possibilities beyond the Bay Area, but that's a hard thing to track. Noise Pop also helped the Mumlers gain the opportunity to play with really big bands from all over the world. Last fall, the Mumlers released their well-received second album, Don't Throw Me Away, and completed their first national tour — and entered what Sprott describes as an "interesting phase" in which the band decides where to go from here. Moving to the next level of success may mean that the band members, who have "real jobs," will have to make a choice. Whatever bounce they get out of Noise Pop will figure into the calculations.