The musicians of indie rock come from a variety of backgrounds, and that creates a wide range of styles and structures for the genre’s songs. There are plenty of simple acoustic songs and straightforward punk-inspired anthems, which all can stand well enough on their own, but there are also a number of indie musicians who can bring in experimental styles, peculiar time signatures and key changes to set their music apart.
Often, these artists are classically trained musicians who decided to go a different route than their peers after colleges and conservatories. They were the kind of kids who were in honor bands and played in upper level orchestras but fell in love with artists like The Velvet Underground and The Talking Heads just the same.
1. Rostam Batmanglij
While Ezra Koenig may be the face of Vampire Weekend, the band has two primary songwriters, with keyboard player Rostam Batmanglij playing an invaluable role in the band’s sound. A Columbia University music major, Batmanglij and the other band members put out 2008’s self-titled debut just after graduation.
Besides writing much of the delicate, orchestral pop that made Vampire Weekend a staple in the indie world, Batmanglij also produced two of the band’s three albums. The third, Modern Vampires of the City, he co-produced with Ariel Rechtshaid.
The multi-instrumentalist and composer scored his brother Zal’s film The Sound of My Voice back in 2011, and he also plays in electro-pop act Discovery with Ra Ra Riot frontman Wes Miles. Next up, Batmanglij will provide the music for a Broadway show starring Michael Cera titled This Is Our Youth.
Anton Zaslavski may be best known musically for producing and DJing as Zedd, but his musical career began in very differently. Born to two musicians, Zaslavski learned to play the piano at four and the drums at 12. He played in a post-hardcore band before moving into electronic music in 2009.
“Even if it sounds mean, I think the problem in the electro music scene is that lots of producers aren’t really musicians, just people who learned what they need to click to get ‘sounds’ out of their computer,” Zaslavski said in an interview with blog The Worst Guy. “Having some musical knowledge in the back of my mind has helped me to write more ‘musical’ compositions, I think.”
While now signed to Interscope, Zedd’s classical roots helped establish himself in the electronic scene as an independent producer.
3. Andrew Bird
The prolific musician typically falls into the indie-folk category, but Andrew Bird comes from a highly different background. Bird was trained in the Suzuki method, a Japanese teaching style that gets children well-versed with an instrument and music early.
The program begins with young children and typically employs the violin or piano as a starting instrument, scaled down and taught in small steps. The Suzuki method approaches music in a similar manner as language acquisition and centers around forming a connection with music rather than just learning to read it.
“Musically, what is most important about it is that, since I didn’t learn to read music right away, I made a direct connection to what was in my head,” Bird said in an interview with the Suzuki Association. “That allows the music to not just go in my ear but also come out of my head and onto my instrument.”
Seeing how Bird has built a reputation for improvisation and flexibility, the Suzuki method’s focus on connection seems to have paid off for him.
4. Kishi Bashi
Kaoru Ishibashi, or Kishi Bashi, is renowned for experimental pop music and a talent for utilizing loops, but his background in music is much more traditional. Also trained in the Suzuki method, Ishibashi graduated from the Berklee College of Music with a degree in film scoring and uses his musical expertise to complement his experimentation.
“Though I have studied classical composition, I prefer to take an unconventional path when it comes to creating and thinking about music,” Ishibashi said.
The violinist began his career in the band Jupiter One and found work as a touring and recording musician with acts like Regina Spektor, Sondre Lerche and of Montreal. Now, Ishibashi has made waves as a solo artist, with this year’s Lighght making it on to Billboard’s Top 200 list.
Never one to let things stay straightforward, Ishibashi also often closes out an encore with raucous covers of classic rock songs, like Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” to cap off a show from a violin virtuoso who specializes in indie pop.
5. Jonny Greenwood
Radiohead’s lead guitarist was on his way to getting a degree in music and psychology when the band got signed to EMI. However, that hasn’t proven too detrimental, as he holds an artist residency with the BBC Concert Orchestra alongside his part in Radiohead.
The multi-instrumentalist has found time outside Radiohead to do a good deal of film scoring, including The Master and There Will Be Blood. Music from the latter was released this year alongside an original composition by Bryce Dessner, who we’ll get to next.
Constantly inspired by composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, Greenwood has played a pivotal role in Radiohead’s expansive experimentation over the years, drawing from classical greats but still pushing the band forward stylistically. On December 12, you’ll be able to experience Greenwood’s latest project, the score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
6. Bryce Dessner
Bryce Dessner is best known for playing alongside his brother Aaron in The National, but the guitarist is also an acclaimed composer. This year has seen the release of Dessner’s composition St. Carolyn by the Sea, and the Yale graduate has also orchestrated a work called The Long Count alongside Aaron and visual artist Matthew Richie. With composer Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens, Dessner also made The Planetarium, a song cycle saluting the solar system.
Dessner holds a master’s degree in music and created the MusicNOW Festival in 2006, which features an experimental mix of music drawing from both rock and symphonic music. The festival is held each year in Cincinnati and has hosted acts such as Grizzly Bear and Owen Pallett alongside the Kronos Quartet and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Both St. Carolyn by the Sea and the recent album Trouble Will Find Me by The National have drawn plenty of praise, as Dessner has been able to explore the best of both worlds.