Is there any U.S. festival more exciting for Popkids than the NYC Popfest? Only the UK’s Indietracks is as heralded the popworld, and rightly so. The chance to see indiepop’s biggest bands amidst the backdrop of America’s biggest city is an adventure, especially for those of us who don’t live in that city. Whereas Indietracks is a festival that everyone takes a sort of “vacation” to get to, and is almost in an idyllic “Indiepop Dreamscape1” of classic trains and bucolic station-facing main stages and secular popchurch and even acoustic sets on the train, the NYC Popfest is scattered at venues throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, making the city of New York the backdrop to it all and thus a meaningful part of the experience.
Popfest isn’t just the bands and shows: it’s taking the Subway from the day show at the Cake Shop to the night show at Baby’s All Right; it’s going for a slice and seeing indiepop power couple Elizabeth Morris and Ola Innset (from Allo Darlin’ and Making Marks respectively) walk by; it’s colossal bear hugs from dear friends that you unfortunately only see at Popfests because everyone lives somewhere else; it’s walking to the afterparty to hear Fortuna Pop‘s Sean Price DJ and encountering a widely diverse series of New Yorkers out at night for whatever their weekend will bring and laughing in a large group, ready to dance till you can’t feel your feet any more; It’s running to whatever omnipresent corner deli is nearest for a veggie sandwich with Elia of Scotland Yard Gospel Choir; or drinking good NYC beer and talking indiepop between sets with Lio Kanine; it’s late nights at a Williamsburg AirBnB around a bottle of whiskey or porch cigarettes with newly-made friends who just happened to be outside. It’s the wild rush of life moving at its frantic city pace, as those of us on indiepop vacation get to experience the gentle voyeurism of the traveler, while also contributing to the experience of the city.
I think there is some truth to the Tom Wolfe quote of “One belongs to New York instantly; one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” And that wonderful sensation one has in New York where it feels like every night is a Saturday night, and that we are all walking on history at the same time as we are making it, past buildings that would lean in and say, “Hey Bub, lemme tell you a story”, if only we would listen, but feverish with excitement we all run past things that could enrapture us for hours, had any of us only had the sense of stillness to listen, and if the gentle popkids don’t have time for it right at this moment, then who ever will? But unbeknownst to us from elsewhere, for every unaware footstep, there is also a self-appointed street historian taking note of who went where and why. And this is similar to your humble narrator’s mission here: to provide some some armchair history of this great DIY pop event that has came and went.
Popfest began for me a day early2, but was a series of odd near-misses and confusion due to my own haste. Had train trouble, and missed Alpaca Sports (backed by Lisle and Kristine from Tiny Fireflies), who strangely went on first(!), but at least I got to CBTweeB’s in time for Matt Harnish from Bunnygrunt’s set (who are playing the newly resurrected Athens Popfest, curated by the peerless Mike Turner of Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records),
I then left for Alphaville to try and catch Bill Botting (from Allo Darlin’) and the Two Drink Minimums, and Pale Lights but missed them and caught the end of Kyle Forester‘s very competent 70’s style soft rock act that I just wasn’t feeling, though due to no fault on his end. Didn’t realize he was in Crystal Stilts and Ladybug Transistor, since this was a pretty large stylistic departure from the reverby garage pop of The Crystal Stilts and the sunshine dreaminess of Ladybug Transistor. I called it a night precociously, saving as much energy as I could for the busy weekend ahead.
The first venue for the actual first night of Popfest was Le Poisson Rouge (and there was a red fish in the tank hanging above the stairway precariously from a chain…or maybe it was a Goldfish). This was easily the largest Thursday night venue and crowd that I can remember, since I’ve been going to Popfest, at least.
I just missed the ironically-named, local Brooklyn power trio “Big Quiet”, unfortunately (more train chaos. I finally just quit and started cabbing it after that), but all the reviews from sage popheads like Chris Mac and Michael Zakes were super positive. One of their songs has the best name I’ve heard for a song in a minute: “Punk Floyd” (though the actual song has a “jangle ska” feel through most of the song). Check out the highly infectious and energetic “Maura and Dana” if you’re looking for an entry point into this band.
Next up were Philly’s “Free Cake For Every Creature” who are normally a quartet, but tonight were a two-piece (lead singer and guitarist Katie Bennett told the crowd that the drummer just graduated from SVA and was “out getting drunk somewhere”).
The songs consisted of very understated vocals over Katie’s guitar3, reminiscent of what a sincere version of Kimya Dawson might sound like if stripped of the twang or the sometimes painfully-forced whimsy. The earnestness of the performance was a welcome relief, since, based on the name alone, I had feared that we were in for something cloyingly precious to the point of insincerity, like The Smittens. Instead, these songs were wonderfully direct and heartfelt, with the effect of somehow turning that giant stage and the crowd gathered in front of it, into something as intimate as a living room performance. It was like seeing Chan Marshall only playing her quieter songs, but without the drama or volatility4, but with all of that immense talent. Katie was backed by a member of her band on backing vocals, and I was struck by the boldness of what it must feel like to be on stage as a two-piece, and only singing occasionally, without the benefit of an instrument to “hide” behind. If this was nerve-wracking or daunting, neither let on, though it was clear that both felt honored to be on this stage. Katie told the crowd, “4 years ago we started with the dream of playing Popfest and here we are”.
Up next were Mel Whittle’s Hermit Crabs, from Glasgow, Scotland with Jeremy Jensen of Idaho indiepop stalwarts “The Very Most” sitting in on guitar (and occasionally keyboards). The band set up is that of a 5-piece, with singer Mel on an acoustic guitar, and also backed by Jeremy on a telecaster (and a magic one at that! More on that later) , a gentleman on keys, another on bass and a drummer.
Despite the folk-tinged indiepop style of The Hermit Crabs, the drummer is wearing a Motorhead shirt, which is one of the many great things about indiepop; yes, there is a certain style that is decidedly indiepop (cardigans, solid color Peter-Pan collared dresses from the late 50’s and early 60’s, horned-rim glasses, Oxfords or Chelsea boots, striped shirts, bowlies and anoraks, etc.,) but it is far from being a uniform, and the scene is inclusive of all kinds of styles, be they musical or otherwise (Sometimes to the detriment of people like Roque and myself who want to hear *actual* indiepop DJed on indiepop nights, instead of hip-hop or something else modern being played with an ironic wink, in between all the usual suspects).
At some point, someone in the band took notice of the shirt and mentioned that “This next one is for Lemmy“, before launching into “Correspondence Course” on the Matinée CDEP of the same name. After the show, Jeremy was telling me that the drummer felt a bit apprehensive about wearing the shirt, but everyone reassured him, “This is indiepop! Wear whatever you like or feel comfortable in; no one will mind!”
Jeremy was getting a really sweet, bright, and bubbly tone from the telecaster he was borrowing from Andreas (I think?) from Alpaca Sports. I’ve never heard a sound so warm from a telecaster before, and he played such wonderfully delicate and fitting additions to each song, in addition to jumping on the keys for a song! Jeremy really is like the indiepop Dave Grohl, because it seems like he can masterfully play any instrument you put in front of him and always seems ready and able to sit in with any talented band that asks him to, like when he sat in on vocals at a moment’s notice on “Darling Please Come Home” when Charles with The Math and Physics Club lost his voice at a Popfest a few years ago. He got a great response from the crowd when introduced, to the point that someone in the crowd started a “Jeremy! Jeremy!” chant, to which Jeremy replied, “That guy! That guy!” while pointing at the person who started it, in a move indicative of his typical magnanimity.
Mel opens the song “Should I Drop You Off” from their most recent album “In My Flat”, by calling it “a country song”. It made me think that all indiepop is “country music”; it’s just that the “country” is Scotland.
Since both Jeremy and Mel play in the Eardrums Pop-facilitated supergroup Baffin Island, so-named by being the halfway point in Canada between Mel’s Glasgow, Scotland and Jeremy’s Boise, Idaho. In light of that, I was hoping to hear my favorite song that either had been a part of, the perfectly wistful You Make Two Weeks Two Days, but for whatever reason, that wasn’t in the cards.
I was joking with Jeremy later that it almost seemed as if the night was a EardrumsPop night, since that label featured releases by The Very Most, The Hermit Crabs and the next band due on stage, London’s brilliant duo Young Romance, featuring Claire on (standup!) drums and vocals and Paolo on that scorching, effect-heavy guitar.
I first became aware of Young Romance from the aforementioned EardrumsPop label (who I really can’t say enough good things about) and their cover of Lulu and the Lampshades’ “Rose Tint” for one of that label’s featured co-releases with Oddbox Records. I was lucky enough to see them at the opening night of the London Popfest in 2013, where they kicked off the festivities on a Friday night at Brixton’s Grosvenor (RIP to a wonderful and historic venue).
Their set that night was much more sedate, in comparison to the rowdy and energetic NYCPopfest performance. This was a bit of a surprise, and almost like seeing two different bands, but a pleasant one. It’s close, but I liked this heavier style a bit more than the more delicate and restrained version.
I think of recordings like the aforementioned “Rose Tint” or “Twenty Five” from the stellar Nobody’s Business comp put out by beloved Dutch zine/record label Candy Twist that showcase their more deliberate side compared to songs like “Follow on Your Own” which show hints of that noisy edge, but were also tempered by a bit of polish and the sweetness of Claire’s vocals, that are both strong and gentle/delicate in that magic indiepop way, as does “Break My Heart by Morning”, which has a bit more of a skip in that drumbeat, but still is a pretty clean and poppy-sounding endeavor (which later appeared on the B-side of their “Pale” 7″). Live at Popfest, these last two songs really opened up into raw and wildly exciting noise.
As is unfortunately the case in this heteronormative and patriarchal society, inevitably any time there is a male and female musical duo, questions and assumptions will inevitably arise about their romantic involvement, in a way that wouldn’t if the pair were of the same sex. These questions tend to be exacerbated when the band name is as provocative as “Young Romance” is. However, the pair are best mates, of the sort that often finish each other’s sentences. The band name comes from a 1915 silent movie they found themselves enamored with.
I always find it strangely compelling to see a stand-up drummer using what’s known as a “cocktail kit” . You see it in bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Velvet Underground, The Raveonettes, Violent Femmes, Low and Jellyfish, but I find it the most compelling in indiepop. As far as I know, only Tali from The Lucksmiths and Claire from Young Romance also tackle lead singing duties while drumming, which seems like a real challenge, despite the both of them making it look so natural and easy. I really enjoy the setup, because it seems to create for a more egalitarian stage setting. You see the Lucksmiths live, and they are all equals in a line, instead of drums being relegated to the back, or as is sometimes the case, to the back and on a riser. The stage set for Young Romance places Claire stage left and Paolo on the right, creating a dramatic binary between the two. Claire is necessarily stationary, belting out vocals with one of the strongest voices in indiepop, on a level nearly approaching Emma from Standard Fare/Mammoth Penguins (who, to myself and many others, is the powerhouse, um..standard — if you’ll forgive the pun, by which all others are judged in indiepop, and honestly, elsewhere as well
Although Young Romance was easily the rowdiest band of the night and the crowd reacted accordingly (well as rowdy as indiepop gets, anyway) to Paolo’s effects and calculated feedback-heavy guitar playing and Claire’s aforementioned powerhouse vocals (and were the band I responded to most favorably on a night of consistently great music throughout), especially among the younger set, the excitement brewing for the headliner was very palpable. The Trash Can Sinatras humbly took the stage with little fanfare on their part.
The band introduced the opener, “Easy Read”, by saying something to the effect of “this is a song about disco dancing,”, which is the sort of understatement that verges on being self-effacing, that is typical of this incredibly clever band.
Next song they played, “Best Days On Earth”, was from the new record, “Wild Pendulum”. Predictably, about 5 of the 16 songs they played were from the new album, as can be expected for a band touring in support of a new project. Surprisingly, for a band as venerated and long-standing as The Trash Can Sinatras, all the new songs held up as well as the old ones, especially the aforementioned second song, but also the funky-for-indiepop “All Night” and the crooner “What’s Inside The Box?” which both also found their way into the set. It seemed to me these new songs were as well-received by the crowd as the old favorites. The Sinatras have this hyper-melodic way of writing songs so infectious that they sound instantly familiar, as if you could sing along right away, but without reminding you of an antecedent. With flawlessly executed harmonies and clever and intricate lyrics, often in some narrative persona, such as “Hay Fever” from 1993’s “I’ve Seen Everything” that they played somewhere in the middle of the set.
Some of the other high points from their set was the title track from “I’ve Seen Everything” as well as the two songs “Only Tongue Will Tell” and the crowd-pleasing encore “Obscurity Knocks” they played from their debut album, 1990’s “Cake”.
A satisfying end to the night, and I think we were all secretly grateful that there was nothing else organized that night for Popfest, since we’d all need all the energy we could muster for the three very full days remaining ahead of us.
Stay tuned for Day 2 and beyond, coming to these “pages” soon.
2: A few days before and a few days after are always a great time to be in the area for any city-based festival, since bands traveling from far away (especially those who rarely travel) are often willing and eager to play shows with different bills, and often at venues more intimate than the festival itself, which may surprise Popfest goers, since many of the venues aren’t exactly arenas. To give away a secret, showing up early is also one of the best ways to do some crate digging before the other popkids, and that’s how I was able to secure these two rare beauties
But there are many other reasons to hear out early or stick around late than mere record shopping. I’m thinking in particular about 2014’s The Aussie Hangover at Otto’s Shrunken Head (a great little Tiki bar that never charges a cover and has cheap-for-Manhattan prices on some wild drinks in crazy mugs that you can either keep and bring home, or return and get $6 back; the place is rundown and ramshackle in all the right ways) where all of us leftover traveling popkids, and the Popfest locals gathered to see Monnone Alone, Bart & Friends, The Zebras, Mid-State Orange, Nina Rene, and Olson, Rydholm, & Forester of Ladybug Transistor.
Or the next day, seeing Gold-Bears at Shea Stadium (no, not the former baseball field in Queens for the Mets that is now a parking lot for the grossly-named corporate City Field, but the awesome Brooklyn DIY band venue) in a sweltering upstairs room that necessitated set-break emergency scrambles out onto the balcony, but jumping once more headlong unto the breach indoors as Gold-Bears picked up their instruments, because having seen them just a few days ago, I knew how unmissable even one song is from them.
Or seeing The Spook School and Heathers a few days later at Bar Matchless and hugging Niall from The Spookies when he was happy to see me wearing my Team Ireland jersey (because it was the lightest and most breathable thing I owned and it was bloody well hot!) and joyfully discovering that we were both Irish, or talking with Cloudberry‘s Roque — the man who is single-handedly keeping the true spirit of Matt and Claire’s label alive with his heartfelt praise & Proselytism, be it by blog or by Sarah-esque missives on the inserts of 45s, not to mention his daring willingness to be refreshingly candid about his displeasure when warranted (consequently, is there any feeling as good as earning his praise since you are absolutely certain it is sincere?) — about bands we like and DJing. Later, talking outside among the smokers to the highly esteemed Michael Grace Jr., — the eminently-quotable Oscar-Wilde-meets-Hieronymus-Bosch of indiepop, and keeper of the Gloominati flame — about ritual and The Velvet Underground, and then there’s the photo that’s floating about somewhere of Papa Death Party and I showing our mutual fawning admiration for Evans-The-Dan Moss.
The point? It’s always worth it, if one can swing it, to find a way to spend a few days before or after a festival, especially the NYC Popfest.
3: a rarely-seen-in-indiepop Fender Strat
4: or that slight meow-y yarl in her voice, which is wonderful when Chan does it, but would just seem like a plagiaristic affectation from anyone else.