It'd be hard to invent more inauspicious beginnings for a music festival than Noise Pop's: it began not with a big-name producing team, not even with a big name band, but rather five acts playing to a tiny club in the Lower Haight, backed by an even tinier producing team and operating on a shoestring budget. Advertising consisted of a poster made in one of the cofounders' Oakland garage, and a ticket to the show cost $5. It was, according to current producer Stacy Horne, "scrappy."
That was 1993, and what's happened in the nineteen years since is the stuff of local-music legend: Noise Pop has since grown into a sprawling, six-day, multi-city, multidisciplinary event that's not only one of the Bay Area's most beloved cultural traditions, but a bona fide destination festival, drawing folks from all over California and the country. And even as other festivals have been struggling, slimming their offerings, or calling it quits altogether, Noise Pop has managed to steadily add programming, and now includes a full film festival, three art exhibits, a pop-up shop, and a full slate of workshops. According to Horne, this year's festival encompasses 55 separate events over six days and on two sides of the Bay Bridge.
This staggering growth speaks to more than just a rich local music scene and a festival-hungry populace (though those certainly don't hurt). While some festivals look like nothing more than a series of shows strung together under the same name and logo, Noise Pop has always felt more cohesive, more curated — a festival in the realest sense, with a well-chosen collection of rare bookings and imaginative double bills, a musical lineup that features local up-and-comers and nationally known buzz bands in equal measure, and a series of workshops and other auxiliary events that don't seem like an afterthought. The fact that the festival is in February, a traditionally slow month for concerts, means that it can snag big-name acts — Pitchfork darlings Best Coast and Wavves, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard in a rare solo show, indie-punk legend Ted Leo — and, moreover, that the festival won't be the zillionth stop on anyone's marathon summer tour.
And as a truly indigenous festival, Noise Pop knows how to spot local talent, as well as how to partner with the Bay Area's many cultural institutions. "We're in this really great position to broaden our horizons," Horne said." We've become an institution of sorts within the city, so we can collaborate with other groups, and we've invited a lot of people who are really part of the culture in the Bay Area." This year, that means they're partnering with local dining writers for a panel discussion on food truck culture; with Isotope Comics for a comic book workshop; and with Oakland's own Turf Feinz for a film screening and discussion. Altogether, the focus has broadened considerably since that first show, but Horne said, ultimately, it's all about different ways of telling the same stories about local arts and culture. "The founders [Kevin Arnold and Jordan Kurland] always had a larger vision, but at the core, we haven't changed out mission," Horne said. "It's all just another arm of how to present what we want to present."
Here are some of this year's not-to-miss highlights:
Yo La Tengo
This year's iteration of Noise Pop is remarkably bereft of East Bay shows, but what we're missing in quantity we're more than getting back in quality. Though the organizers shy away from naming any act in particular as the festival's headliner, with twelve albums and nearly two decades under its belt, Yo la Tengo is arguably this year's biggest name. This will be a special "spin-the-wheel show," meaning the first of the band's two sets will be dictated entirely by whatever a Wheel of Fortune-style wheel comes up with.
Dan Deacon's live shows are downright legendary, and for good reason: The electronic artist has been known to eschew a stage in favor of setting up shop in the middle of the dance floor; to engage his entire audience in games of red rover and hopscotch; and to generally turn every concert hall he sees into a sweaty, frenetic, rapturous tangle of bodies. It's sure to be the best dance party you'll ever go to.
This Is Noise Pop
Over a decade in the making, the documentary This Is Noise Pop chronicles the growth of the festival — and, by extension, the local music scene in general — with rare behind-the-scenes footage. A must-see for any local music fan.
Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson
Noise Pop is well known for putting seemingly disparate artists onstage together, but pairing growl-voiced backpacker Aesop Rock with impossibly twee anti-folker Kimya Dawson seems to be one of the festival's weirdest flights of fancy yet. If it's anything like what we've seen from them in the past, though, it'll work beautifully.