Does the Looming '90s Revival Presage a Nirvana-Style Breakthrough?
We've almost weathered the '80s revival without anybody rear-ending the morons stalled at the intersection listening to Spandau Ballet, but it's official: The ladle is scraping barrel when it comes to that decade's nostalgia.
The Winona Ryder/Christian Slater movie Heathers is being turned into a series on Bravo. (Bitchy fictional teens, the perfect lead-in for their older Real Housewives counterparts.) Already, pouf skirts, neon colors, and the most horrific of '80s fashion crimes — shoulder pads — have returned like a cold sore. (At least now we have Valtrex.) On a similar, even more foreboding note, Bret Michaels released a chart-topping album two years ago and has another on the way.
If I'm Nickelback or any other conventional "active rock" band, I'm frightened. Staind's Aaron Lewis saw the signs and made a country album. You could just ask Michaels. One minute you're comped at the Hilton, the next you're crashing at Motel 6. It happens quicker than you can say grunge. I've got my fingers crossed.
It's not even out of spite. The late '80s through early '90s was an exceptionally fertile period for underground rock. (Much like the same period 20 years earlier.) Kurt Cobain led the way for dozens of bands that spilled over into the mainstream. The funny thing is that circumstances are remarkably similar in the underground today. Only this time maybe David Geffen won't need to open his wallet to find Nirvana.
Of course, broach the idea of another underground rock revolution to a major-label record exec today, and he'll laugh you out of the room. All the label money goes to the Nicki Minajes and Brad Paisleys of the world. Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell finds this a travesty.
"I have a torn ligature in my hip, torn meniscus in my knee. I have double hernias and might have a third hernia on the way — all from performing, but that's not what bothers me. To be honest with you, I take all that in stride. What bothers me is the way the music industry has just abandoned musicians and gone for this quick, pop commercial buck," Farrell says. "I understand, back in the day, they thought the rock 'n' roll kids were all downloading. So they didn't want to invest in them. They knew that they could get little kids to buy coffee mugs and nail polish."
That hasn't stopped the pot from simmering. Indeed, unwatched the underground rock scene is beginning to boil. You can hear it from long-standing grass-roots iconoclasts like Lightning Bolt and Neurosis through more recent pop experimentalists Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer, and St. Vincent to the clamorous, hooky sounds of Japandroids, No Age, and Ty Segall. Less attendant to commercial concerns, people are doing their own thing. And the cream's rising. Farrell points to his own annual Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, one of many similar destination rock events (Coachella, Bumbershoot, Fun Fun Fun Fest) that have popped up across the country over the past decade.
"We don't book pop. We're booking the real deal, and guess what? Hundreds of thousands of people are coming out to see that," he says. "They're still the coolest. They're still the ones you really want to get behind and say, 'They're representing me.' These commercial crappy contest winners, they have nothing to do with my life. If you say I'm hungry and I need something, I don't go to a box of Pringles; I want some steak."
Nobody's arguing that things aren't tough for rock musicians today. No more than 10 percent of their income is from album sales, forcing bands to earn their keep on the road. Everyone's in the same situation, filling the clubs with established acts all competing for a shrinking dollar.
But, years ago, David Bowie made an observation that really rings true today. He suggested that downloading would squeeze out all those for whom making music was a choice and not a necessity.
For all the moaning you hear from musicians, they have no reason to complain, in a certain sense. Things are much better than they were 25 years ago. Computers and the Internet make touring much easier. Bouncing Souls bassist Bryan Kienlen recalls frantically handwriting postcards in the back of the van to alert their fans of their upcoming shows. Heck, before Black Flag trail-blazed across the country in the early '80s, there was no underground touring circuit. Back then you were DIY because there was no other alternative.
"[We] are such a product of Phoenix, in a way, because it wasn't in any way an industry town," says Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood. "My motivation was so exceedingly personal. I just really liked stringed instruments, and it was something we pursued doggedly. The parallel that exists [between then and now] is that we didn't need a label either when we started. Everybody just started making their own label. That was the burst of creativity that went down at that point."
That's what makes the incipient '90s revival so informative. Before Nirvana, there was no pretext of commercial success. They weren't hopping some trend or pandering to the lowest common denominator. They were making music for themselves.
"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."
The sheer volume of music recalls the early days of punk in another way. Not because there were a lot of bands. Back then, limited distribution and difficulty discovering bands meant you really had to dig and become something of an obsessive. The same is true these days, though, for different reasons.
"With no barrier to entry, what it really means is not more great bands than there were in the late '80s; it means around the same number, but you have to wade through 20 times more bands to find them," says Jack Rabid of the '80s band Springhouse, now editor of long-lived iconic magazine The Big Takeover. "When it becomes a lifestyle — when your parents buy your gear and everything is done by Facebook and Bandcamp for free — it becomes harder and harder to stand out even if your music would."
At least you don't have to trust a critic, buy a CD, or listen to the radio to discover a crappy band. Everyone's empowered to make up their own mind. And that seems to be working just fine for most people.
"Music is just as popular as it has ever been. It's just that people aren't paying for it anymore, so bands are forced to do things on their own now," says Supersuckers frontman Eddie Spaghetti. "And if you're going to make a living at it, you're going to have to get creative, for sure."
That may mean strange lineups — like former Squirrel Nut Zipper Stu Cole's garage-soul band Fantastico, which features two drummers, a singer/guitarist, and two female vocalists. Or shambling rockers He's My Brother, She's My Sister, who boast (besides the harmonizing siblings) a tap-dancer playing a snare drum. Wye Oak's Andy Stack plays keyboards while he drums, and keyboard/violinist Andrew Bird is so proficient layering loops that he improvises whole symphonies in real time, even while playing solo.
In the end, it comes down to getting in front of people and giving them a reason to come. It's even truer today when touring is a band's lifeblood, but it's been that way before. Nothing can ever compare with a live show. "The only way to really feel the rollercoaster is to get on," Spaghetti says.
When Watt was in the Minutemen, they split the world in two halves — gigs and fliers. Anything that wasn't a gig was a flier — interviews, publicity photos, records, show fliers.
"They were all to get people to the gig, because that's where we felt we had the most control. The least middle men, less filter," Watt says. "Back in the old days, before the recording medium, you literally had to play it for people. Selling the medium as a piece of merchandise is only about 100 years old. All the other times, it was performance-based, so it's kind like of returning the minstrels to the people."
Though some bemoan the overabundance of musical product, Watt laughs: "You want it the other way around? 'Oh, no, I have too much to listen to, too much to decide if I like it or not.'"
Who's against competition? It may be responsible for the short shelf-life of recent revival trends — post-rock, garage, psych, and shoegaze — leading them to succumb under the weight of all the quick-to-the-trough trend-hoppers. Those failures hastened fair-weather rockers on their way, as most seemed to have bought banjos or programmable drum machines and moved along in the last few years. More and more of late, artists are staking out their own idiosyncratic territory.
"It's almost a chance for rebirth, like we've got a clean slate in a sense you have to reinvent yourselves," says Rachel Kolar of He's My Brother, She's My Sister. "It forces you to be creative, because if there isn't a radio station playing a lot of good rock 'n' roll, it forces you, like, 'How can I still be heard? How can I still be noticed as being innovative, doing something that really speaks to the people but also advances our sense of what rock 'n' rock music is?'"
There seems little doubt that Nirvana wouldn't have happened had the majors not been actively seeking to capitalize on underground rock for years. The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Swans, the Pixies, and Sonic Youth all had their major-label shots, but something about the band, the album, and the timing clicked, making Nevermind a perfect storm.
"Nirvana really went for it. They had the machinery in place, and they really went for it. They made a great record — but it's a really great commercial record," Wurster says. "It was really produced, really pro-sounding. And the bands you mentioned, none of them made an album that sounded like that."
The times have changed dramatically enough that big-money labels no longer may be necessary to catalyze a revolution. (Though once it happens, you can be sure they'll be there, checkbooks out.)
It was Merge Records, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, label co-founded by Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, whose band Arcade Fire won the Grammy last year for best album. This year, Bon Iver (on Indiana indie Jagjaguwar) won the Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album Grammies for his chart-topping disc, Bon Iver.
Neither group is what you'd consider a rock band, but maybe that doesn't matter. Like a rising tide, Nirvana didn't just carry Superchunk and Dinosaur Jr. over the ramparts, they cleared the way for acts like They Might Be Giants and the Dead Milkmen. While media could only really conceive of flannel and Seattle, the alt-rock underground was — like that of their early-'80s predecessors — broad and diverse.
Yet there is no denying that the ready availability of music has changed how people consume it.
"You're coming out of something that was a little more of a whisper on the wind, and now you can find out all the information on your favorite artist," says Craig Finn (the Hold Steady, Lifter Puller). "Now kids are, like, 'I'm getting into Dylan,' and suddenly they know it all in three weeks. It took me until I was 28 to get to The Band, because I started with punk and there just wasn't enough time in the day [to work my way back]."
The increasing irrelevance of radio among young people and the wide availability of music has sort of collapsed time. Established artists note how much young fans are as drawn to older songs and deep album cuts as they are to the artists' newest music. Thanks to the Internet, an artist's back catalog is nearly as relevant as the current release.
Some feel this smorgasbord complicates the emergence of another Nirvana. For a movement to gain steam, it needs to reach critical mass. People's tastes may just be too broad, and the available options too many for people to fully buy in.
"The way everything works today — media and instant everything — there are too many distractions for one thing to solidify. It's not out of the question, of course, but it's that people listen to one song and move on to something else," Wurster says. "Kids are bombarded with so much that it's hard for anything to really get entrenched enough to form a movement."
We've had plenty of trends. When will we have something that sticks, something transformative? The underground's ripe for it, like a Manhattan-size island of misfit toys. The Internet's cleared away the middle men, and the rigors of the road have hardened skins and sharpened wits. The success of Bon Iver, a Wisconsin-based band that sold 104,000 copies of its most recent album in its first week of release in the United States, shows that people will go for even relatively unknown acts without big-label budgets.
"I doubt, at least in the beginning, [Bon Iver] got a very different push from the label," Finn says. "What happened is people reacted. They heard that record, it made them feel something, and they sort of voted with their attention/dollars/whatever."
Given the viral intensity of mass communications these days, what's to prevent an even more virulent contagion than Bon Iver from cutting through the culture? Who wouldn't thrill to experience something like Elvis, the Beatles, or the Clash in real time, as opposed to reliving it on documentaries and YouTube videos?
"It gives you hope when something like that happens," agrees Deer Tick's John McCauley. "But there hasn't been a sound of a generation yet."
We're just waiting on someone to lead the charge. Someone will take the reins. It's almost inevitable. Someone with enough charisma and savvy not to wilt beneath the hot media glare. Isn't that what part of what makes them Mick Jagger or David Bowie?
"It's the thing inside the people. It's the same thing as Elvis. It's want, drive, desire, and power. That's all it comes down to. The cream does rise to the top," says Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers). "Phenomena happen. Look at Frank Ocean, a perfect example of someone who basically got dropped by his label, put out his own record. Gave it away for free on Tumblr, and next thing he knows, he's playing Coachella. There's always that dude who gets around it and redefines it thusly. That will never stop."
Nor will rock. It will forever be a place kids go to find identity, sow some rebellion, and just celebrate the fine art of living. Guitars and loud, boisterous music always will have a home in kids' hearts, even when the media and money men are indifferent.
"A lot of people say [guitar-based rock] sort of comes and goes, but for people like me and my friends, it never really went away," says Paul Saunier of noisy rock duo PS I Love You. "The mainstream notices it sometimes, and then they don't... For me, releasing albums was a fun thing I've always wanted to do, and now I do it. It's almost more about me."
These communities never truly disappear. As it does with any club, membership fluctuates. But underground rock persists because it offers something we will always crave: a sense of belonging. (Even/especially for the outcasts.) At a time when all of us are struggling financially, those uniting threads are stretched that much tighter. (Also like 20 years ago: Remember "it's the economy, stupid"?)
"One of the things about rock 'n' roll, in our future — or now — is it makes a human connection in times when things don't always feel human. What rock 'n' roll can provide for most people — with or without a breakthrough — is a human thing that I think people get less and less of in their daily lives," Finn says. "That community can happen — especially when you're at a rock show. Some guy is wearing a Deer Tick T-shirt, and you turn to him and go, 'Dude. Nice.' And it's not weird. He's not like, 'Get away from me.' He's, 'Oh, yeah, I just saw them.' All of a sudden you're talking to a dude you don't know."
Rock music's ability to forge bonds and galvanize attention never diminishes. It just falls out of fashion from time to time, but it's usually the better for it. Obviously, the entire industry has changed since Nirvana's breakthrough. Recording has become democratized. Now it's very easy and inexpensive to release music, yet hard to make a lot of money doing it.
Perversely, this probably is a good thing. Call it survival of the hardiest. You want the person you back to really mean it, and not offer you lip service. It's about sharing something rather than selling it. Of course, some musicians are motivated less by connecting or expressing something than the selfishness of a deep personal devotion.
"There's nothing else to be done," says Kirkwood, sounding like a character from Waiting for Godot. "Look around. Life is disgusting... What are you going to do when everything else is mewling and pathetic? Might as well do what you do."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.