S.F. Noise Pop Festival '95

Thursday January 26 - Sunday January 29, 1995

Below, pop enthusiast Alan Rapp takes a look at the upcoming Noise Pop Festival '95 in San Francisco for Volume One of Buzznet

'95 Noise Pop Festival San Francisco, California

Nowadays, there seem to be roughly two kinds of music festival. We've had two invidious examples of one in the last year, the megabuck- raking quasimusical menageries known as Woodstock '94 and Lollapalooza. Cynically misrepresenting an entire generation of fans by posing as the final frontier of mass culture, the most profound lesson that we can come away from these is that money still dogs pop music to the detriment of almost everything the music was supposed to represent, and especially to the fans themselves.

The other breed of festival is more of a home-grown, grassroots affair - sincere, intimate and a true vehicle for the music and the bands themselves. Thankfully, these festivals outnumber the other kind, even if they don't garner as much attention (and, needless to say, money). The San Francisco Noise Pop Festival '95 is exactly this kind of event, and it is fast becoming a focus for West Coast bands whose melodious songcraft is driven by kinetic, clobbering guitars.

Spread over five shows in four days and featuring no less than twenty-one bands, the Noise Pop Festival wasn't always so grandiose. For January of 1993, organizer Kevin Arnold was asked to put together a five- gig night at the Kennel Club, so he planted some of his favorite local bands (and friends) on the roster. Realizing that the bands were likeminded in their fondness for euphonious compositions most akin to pop music, even though overdriven guitars and breakneck beats erect fortresses of sound around the sweetness, Arnold casually tagged the night a "Noise Pop" festival. The name turned into a genre label almost overnight; though some have problems with the term, including its creator, it has tenaciously stuck.

Overwhelming Colorfast, The Meices, Corduroy, Carlos!, and Bitchcraft were already friendly with each other and some had been playing together, so the draw filled that first bill, which by any standard was a success. Eight hundred people arrived where six hundred were expected, and Seattle legends the Fastbacks even played a short unannounced set. Arnold was originally concerned that their show, set at The Chameleon on the same night as the Noise Pop Festival, would compete for the same crowd, but then realized that the Fastbacks were Noise Pop naturals, if not forerunners. He invited them to crash, which they did, with the Meices' equipment.

Arnold had no set plans for any succeeding festivals, but it was the bands and the fans themselves who started pressing him to action around October of the same year. The interest had grown sufficiently since that, aside from the Festival's six charter bands, enough additional talent was added to fill three shows. This infused a bit more diversity into the lineups,from the scrappy low-fi energy of Tina Age 13 to the sonic grrrl assault of The Red Aunts.

The S.F. Noise Pop Festival '95 is the largest yet, boasting mostly San Francisco artists, but also bands from the musical bastions of San Diego, L.A., Sacramento and Seattle. No wonder Arnold lets out a sigh of relief after such a weighty event. National notice has grown along with the show, and the music media are keying in as well. It almost contributes to a conspiracy theory about how these kinds of quality musical sprees can get co-opted by sponsors with great capital (the same kind of theory you have about how your former favorite band was so great until they made that one "commercial" album that got them discovered). It's a topic that worries Arnold: "Who knows what could happen," he says about the future. "I don't want it to get so big that I'm competing with myself; never more than four days." Then he muses, "Maybe it should stop after this year."

And with that statement is revealed the greatest paradox about the two kinds of festival that were introduced at the beginning of this article. Arnold wouldn't quit the job if he had a choice, if image, market, and publicity forces would corral themselves to an acceptable level. He's not backing out to protect his investment from failure, because by now everybody knows that won't happen. Kevin Arnold knows how big this could get, how one kind of festival is in constant danger of being transmogrified into the other, and he is slightly afraid.

After all, good things market themselves. And if the SF Noise Pop Festival were to grow to MTV proportions, who will we finger as the culprit? We don't fear obscurity for events like this anymore, we fear their heightened success.

write Alan Rapp:rappa@sfgate.com
markup/design = alistair/mike @ buzznet.com 1/14/95