Indie rock fights a constant battle between its origins—small-scale, defiantly local—and its tendency towards universality. By rejecting certain aspects of a fast-paced, modern world ruled by forces outside our control, the genre can end up capturing the outsider or misfit in everyone.
Late Century Dream describes the indie music scenes in six American cities: Seattle, Athens, Phoenix, Austin, Chicago and Chapel Hill. Different authors chronicle different scenes. (Most of these writers hail from England, though Brian Howe, who writes the Chapel Hill section, worked as a former contributing editor at Paste.) The book also, as the title states, concerns dreaming. It describes the vibrant communities that existed in these towns, but also contemplates why they didn’t persist—getting at the contradiction at indie’s core.
Things kick off here in the ‘80s, when “underground punk and indie rock revolved around close-knit social ties, the evolution of grass-roots networking, handshake record deals…” Rock bands in little cities around the country started rebelling against what they perceived as the excess of the mainstream, releasing music on small independent labels, touring around the country in crappy vans, and forever cementing the concept of “indie.”
Some of these groups went on to national fame and legacy; more of them dissolved without much fanfare, and the members returned to normal lives. (Another book, Michael Azerrad’s famed Our Band Could Be Your Life, beautifully documents specific bands from this period, rather than geographic scenes.)
Often these towns bred close-knit crews of musicians, who played the same bars and exchanged ideas, books and records. Members of the Georgia band Pylon reminisce fondly about the parties that fueled the scene in Athens. As described by host (and professor) Robert Croker, “I’d start by inviting everybody I know…Then everybody I know invites everybody they know…As people start to show up we mill around for a little while until somebody taps the keg…I wander idly about, loose off a few bottle-rockets just to get things stirred up…The electronic musicians set up in the studio, the DJ in the living room, and the acoustic contingent forms up on the lawn. Then whatever happens, happens…”
Voila! Bands form, music is made, scenes develop. It only takes a keg and some bottle rockets.
Not quite. Something special swirled in the water (or the kegs). Maybe relative isolation?
Louis Pattison writes, “[I]n the early 1980s the Athens scene seemed largely immune to dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Few bands viewed their music as anything like a career option, but the flipside to this was that groups could mature and evolve at their own pace, largely divorced from commercial imperatives and the eddying currents of fashion.”
Maybe the magic stemmed from the friendly sense of camaraderie. Matt Gentling of Archers of Loaf suggests, “I never felt that you’d be laughed at or ridiculed or ostracized for departing from some protocols in terms of how you were supposed to sound.” Bands got comfortable, took their time and played around, unafraid or unaware of consequences.
But not every happily inebriated college party breeds a band like Pylon. Though the group didn’t last long, breaking up after a couple of years, some of its peers—R.E.M., for example, also hailing from Athens—didn’t break up. That group broke out, making it into the big leagues. All that friendly experimentation paid off. Goodbye lawn parties, hello stadiums.
The ascensions naturally caused divisions within tight-knit groups—what Late Century Dream refers to as reckoning with “the fraught indie ideology of the day.”
“The scene had gotten bigger so it was inevitable that it was less a community…This set the stage for the uniformity of shows and the rules that come with that as opposed to coming to be a part of something. College radio and Nirvana breaking through [Nirvana put out its breakout album Nevermind on a major label] sealed the deal.”
Laura Balance, formerly of the band Superchunk, notes, “[i]t really did feel like hooking up with a major was ‘selling out,’ a term that was frequently tossed around back then…That was something we tried to be hyperaware of not doing because it really changed the way people perceived you.”
Ash Bowie, from the band Polvo, says “[the Squirrel Nut Zippers] were…on a big label. I thought they were really good and cool, but I didn’t really get into them because they had their own audience—the Zen Frisbee, non-indie-rock thing. I thought they were more artsy types, probably all painters and stuff.”
As musicians started thinking about peer perceptions in different ways, they also tried to appeal to larger, more diverse audiences, spurred on by the success of some of those breakout groups.
It’s what the book calls buckling “under the weight of commerce and contradiction.”
Commerce and contradiction: Indie principles demand disavowal of the middle ground. But like Robert Redford’s politician in The Candidate, several of these groups eventually came to own a piece of the very ground they detested. This not only made it harder for R.E.M. and Nirvana to keep making interesting music, it also changed the game for almost every other aspiring indie musician in Athens and Seattle.
Could the downfall have been avoided, allowing Robert Croker’s art department parties to keep on nurturing cheerfully oblivious little bands forever?
That’s a hard question, and the book doesn’t answer it. But it offers hope for the future: “There will ALWAYS be that person/group that will pick up that DIY flag and start up something else.”
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today, and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.