Noise Pop: Flaming Lips, Bob Mould Salute Festival's 20th Anniversary
San Francisco's Noise Pop music festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, a birthday a million squiggly guitar riffs in the making.
"I don't think we ever thought that far ahead," producer Jordan Kurland told Billboard.com. "And then [when] we started thinking that far ahead, we decided we had to get here. Now we haven't really thought past 20."
Once hailed by SPIN as "the music festival that launched a thousand (or more) indie bands," Noise Pop has become a hub for the Bay Area underground rock scene and helped serve as a national springboard for groups ranging from the White Stripes to Modest Mouse.
It launched in 1993 with a five-band show at the Kennel Club; one founding group, Overwhelming Colorfast, will return to the bill once more this week, this time joined by over 100 other acts. The 2012 edition will extend through a dozen-plus venues and include a film component, a pop-up shop, the Culture Club D.I.Y. space and further artistic explorations.
"The goal has always been to be music-focused but to also move into the territory of being a celebration of independent culture and arts," Kurland said, pointing to the Bay Area's lively foodie culture as continuing in the Noise Pop spirit. "When you think back to early Noise Pop days, or what really defined it, it was the low budget recordings... Now you're starting to see that, not that craft beer or the number of coffee roasters in San Francisco is lo-fi, but that attention to detail, [a] smaller focus."
It's a shift he's embracing: beyond this week's event and its sister project, the five-year-old Treasure Island Music Festival, the Noise Pop team has added local food and music pairing dinners to its calendar.
But indie rock's still the main attraction. This year's headliners include festival veterans the Flaming Lips and Bob Mould, who will each unroll full album performances: the Lips will take on 1999's "The Soft Bulletin" tonight, with Mould set to perform his former band Sugar's 1992 release "Copper Blue," which coincidentally turns 20 this year. It'll be the post-punk icon's first-ever full-length performance of the album.
"I can't believe Sugar never played 'Fortune Teller' because it's such an easy song," Mould said, laughing.
He'll be joined by longtime bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk, The Mountain Goats) for the performance, the same duo that backed him at a November tribute concert at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall, where he aired out some of the old material. While he's still perhaps best known for his tenure in the abrasive Husker Du, Mould thinks "Copper Blue" has aged well thanks to a sunnier spirit.
"It's a pretty optimistic record, compared to some of the work that proceeded it and followed it, so I guess it stands out for that," he said.
Both Mould and the Flaming Lips have a long history with Noise Pop. Mould, a San Francisco resident, began playing Noise Pop sets in 2000; he's now managed by Kurland. In 1998, the festival was the site of one of the Lips' pre-"Soft Bulletin" Boom Box Experiment performances, wherein audience members helped operate dozens of the devices equipped with unique audio tapes in a sort of cassette orchestra. They'll return on Tuesday with one of their best-loved albums, a critical darling that marked the group's turn from raucous experimentalism to pop grandeur.
"People know that record more than they know us," frontman Wayne Coyne said. "We played this giant show in London last summer, a 'Soft Bulletin' show, and it was one of the greatest shows we've ever done. By the end of it, people [were] just crying."
The rest of the lineup ranges from veterans such as Built to Spill to the buzzed-over newcomers of Sleigh Bells, with a number of local acts, such as the Fresh and Onlys and Young Prisms, peppering the bills.
"We've always really tried to balance it. It used to be right around 50 percent. It's a little bit less now, as far as local acts," Kurland said. "Our concern is, we need the bigger acts to anchor the festival and then we go out and look at what's exciting and who are going to be those bigger acts eventually."
While a number of city takeover festivals, including New York's CMJ and Austin's SXSW, have become filled to the brim with hungry young bands seeking a few words of blog exposure, Kurland says Noise Pop has grown large enough.
"We don't have the conference element to it and we don't just keep expanding outward," he said. "Part of the experience people love is the intimacy of it, so that is something we keep our eye on for sure… the danger of it turning into an SXSW-type thing doesn't really exist. It's never been our goal to compete with that or with CMJ. It's more about the Bay Area and music fans in general."
"I think Noise Pop does a great service to the town," Mould added. "[It's] really a good example of when a music [festival] can work with a city and sort of help to brand a city or further the identity."
Not that San Francisco doesn't carry an impressive legacy: the city will forever imprinted in the music history annals for its '60s heyday of Haight-Ashbury, the Grateful Dead and Rolling Stone magazine, a hippie past that lives on in its current psych-rock scene.
"I think that's always going to be part of it," Coyne said. "You think of these places and whether it's real or not, there is an allure to going where there are weirdos like you."
But Noise Pop has helped give new generations of Bay Area musicians a chance to make history of their own -- and according to Kurland, with 20 years down, the festival has plenty of birthday candles still to blow out.
"It's always been a labor of love," Kurland said. "Noise Pop is always going to be the core of our business."