By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
"It makes you a lot stronger because you don't depend on public adoration," says Peter Prescott (Mission of Burma, Volcano Suns). "You sort of get use to the opposite, and you get used to the idea that nobody is paying attention, so you do whatever you want."
That's why so much of that music in the half-dozen years before Nirvana broke is so good. Buoyancy came from the foundation laid by early punk acts like Black Flag, X, Mission of Burma, Descendents, Dead Kennedys, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, and The Minutemen. An even larger, more eclectic batch of bands picked up the baton, and now, decades later, have returned to crowds far exceeding those they enjoyed when they broke up.
The first breeze of these trade winds was the Pixies' very successful 2004 reunion. Since then, many of their contemporaries also have returned — Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Superchunk, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Guided by Voices, fIREHOSE, Sebadoh, Afghan Whigs, and Archers of Loaf.
Undoubtedly part of it simply is the business of nostalgia.
"I think a lot of the punk rock nostalgia is valid. There were a broad range of successful new ideas. Maybe people were more broad-minded and less needful of the pigeonhole for their security. Audiences and bands were more willing to take a risk," says Grant Hart (Hüsker Dü, Nova Mob). "But, yeah, some of just may be our midlife crises."
However, a good part of the allure is the music — or its absence. That's Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster's take. He's currently backing Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü, Sugar) on a tour supporting his most thoroughly rocking solo album in years, Silver Age.
"It's kind of a novel thing now, especially an older guy doing it. I think that's why Bob stopped doing it for a while. It was such a known quality in the late '90s," Wurster says. "It takes a while for that to come back around. [The last Superchunk album, 2010's Majesty Shredding] was our best-reviewed, maybe best-received record ever... the same thing with these Bob shows — they're incredibly well attended. It's amazing. I think it's just the right time for this stuff to be revisited and re-appreciated."
Like another generation's touchstones — The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Big Star — time's turned commercial indifference into critical genuflection and abiding adoration. Part of the appeal is the indelible sincerity and authenticity implicit in music made without ulterior motives. Though it's certainly possible for some commercial artists to still make great art, a scene usually withers beneath the intense media spotlight.
So, it's no coincidence that within a few years of Nirvana's breakthrough, underground rock started to falter. Quality suffered as cheap knock-off acts proliferated, diluting originality. Suddenly, people were thinking about music as a means to something and not an end in itself. To quote a Minor Threat song from a decade earlier — the core had gotten soft.
"When Nirvana happened, and the major labels were won over to create this thing called 'alternative,' people got lazy and thought, 'Oh, all these people can do this for us.' Then, when they pulled out, there was no coherency," says Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, Stooges), noting underground rock's fallow period during the late '90s and early Aughts. "There has to be some kind of fabric of the scene to give identity and people something to talk about."
Nowadays, rock bands have little reason to think about how many albums they might sell. It's all about touring and the DIY spirit that first ignited the underground scene. It was no big secret when Stephen Malkmus of Pavement sang, "You have to pay your dues before you pay the rent." That's de rigueur again.
"We've always kind of worked the same. We've been doing this for 19 years, and after the show, it's time to put the stuff in the van and switch to the front seat, then try to find a place to sleep. That's the way it works. That's what we do each night," says Lightning Bolt bassist Brian Gibson. "I opened for some Ratatat shows. So I've been in a club with a hot tub in back, but I didn't feel I was allowed to get in it. I just don't know any better."
Certainly, a DIY approach has never been easier than it is now. There's no need for expensive studios or label backing. Not only is home recording quick, easy, cheap, and often surprisingly good, but companies such as TuneCore will quickly distribute your music for you to all the online music services.
Some feel it's too easy, flooding the market with crappy, trend-biting neophytes that steal attention from more worthy bands and dilute the market. But mere dilettantes are quickly washed out by the fact that albums aren't really worth anything.
"It's easier than ever to make records with home studios, but going out and touring, and living with each other, playing to two people a night seven nights in a row? That's where the reality of what you're doing comes into play," Wurster says. "That's where you separate the boys and girls from the children."