By Johnny Ray Huston
DID YOU KNOW punk has gone mainstream? One San Francisco weekly has trumpeted this fact on its cover three different times in recent months. Such an announcement isn't exactly good news, and truthfully, it really isn't news--the media has been rehashing it, and major labels have been profiting from it, since Nevermind broke big in 1991. Debates over whether fame killed Kurt Cobain and articles devoted to trendy regional scenes obscure other more insidious issues, like what types of punk rebellion are salable, and the myriad effects corporate co-optation has on the creation and production of independent music.
Mike Schulman, creator and chief operator of the Berkeley, California-based label Slumberland, has experienced the latter quandaries firsthand. Inspired by U.K. indies like Postcard and U.S. indies like K, Schulman started Slumberland in 1989, searching for "really interesting sounds or good songs--preferably both." Since then, he's put out early efforts by two bands--Velocity Girl and Stereolab --who've moved on to MTV and Lollapalooza, and terrific recordings by more obscure artists. A recently released double-LP compilation chronicles Slumberland's history so far; Why Can't Popstars Dance? asks its title, and the sleeve notes provide an answer--"Because guilty feet have no rhythm."
"Everything's overground now, and there's no going back," Schulman says when asked about the current state of indie rock. "It's not just label attention, it's media attention and fan attention. People don't get a chance to fully develop their ideas." To Schulman, the now overwhelming surplus of seven-inch demos and fledgling labels signify more a lust for attention than artistic inspiration. "It's hard not to be elitist, because statistically, a large percentage of anything--books, movies and TV, too--is going to be shit," he explains. "But today, I get all these fucking horrible seven-inches from people who don't think carefully about what they're doing. People used to gig around for a year to get their stuff down, and now bands form to put out a single. Kids are just throwing their money away, because the records are hard to sell."
The proliferation of "lo-fi" recording is another development Schulman views with disdain. "Bands like Sebadoh and Eric's Trip have a few ideas to rub together, but much of it is copycat stuff, not even ambitious enough to create actual songs," he notes. Slumberland receives 10 to 15 demos a week. The label's latest find is Rocketship, whose 21-year-old leader creates studio-slick compositions in his Sacramento, California, garage. A truly brilliant hybrid of recent Blur and jangly, mid-period My Bloody Valentine, the group debuts later this year.
At the moment, though, Schulman is busy selling a new mini-LP by Henry's Dress, a San Francisco-based outfit (via Albuquerque) who bury catchy melodies beneath guitar reverb and a bass sound that rumbles like an ocean-bottom earthquake. This skewed pop approach is characteristic of Slumberland, but Schulman's own personal tastes extend far beyond his label's roster, ranging from doo-wop records to contemporary dance music. Before driving to a gig by U.K. DJs the Dust Brothers, he and his girlfriend, Nommi, take aim at a few more valid targets, including performers and label heads who use the Internet to spread false gossip ("A bunch of old biddies leaning over the picket fence," Nommi says), and the macho posturing of various boy bands ("Even a label like Kill Rock Stars," says Schulman, "which has a number of female acts, has a strong undercurrent of tough-guy rock. I've always found that alienating").
A flip side to that last quote can be found in Real Fiction, a brand-new "weird political rock opera" by a loose-knit group called the Fakes. "Why do the indie boys like women who sing like angels or children?" someone--probably Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna--writes on the album's cover. Released by Donna (Team Dresch) Dresch's label, Chainsaw, Real Fiction mixes spoken word with music; its title refers both to the former's content (memories of sexual abuse) and the latter's stylistic approach. "I know that when the trollmaster dude calls me 'P.C., untalented, daggy, useless and fake,' what he means is, shut the fuck up 'cuz only the few people with no reason to be freaking out are allowed to make what gets called REAL 'art' or REAL 'music,' " the liner notes rant.
Whereas Slumberland celebrates classic pop, oblivious to current major (and indie) label fashions, the Fakes react against all the above. "The plan was to play-act like we were a REAL musical group," Real Fiction's sleeve explains, "...so we did a song where we tried to be like Mazzy Star and one that's sorta like Ween or that Beck guy." This approach is effective on the volcanically noisy "Lil' Mommy," which rages against male record industry weasels and female pop dollies. It also works on the a cappella "Pop Song," which strings together lyrics from golden moldies like "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," turning them into the sinister chant of a stalker. But just as often the approach results in scene-obsessed reverse snobbery, offering self-indulgent sour grapes instead of valid criticisms.
Like San Francisco's Outpunk and its Outpunk Dance Party, and the three compilations put together by the Kill Rock Stars label based in Olympia, Washington--Kill Rock Stars, Stars Kill Rock and Rock Stars Kill--Real Fiction brings together various artists not just to sell records, but to offer a forum for radical feminist and queer expression that major labels wouldn't touch. For example, one page of its CD booklet shows the roles sexism and homophobia played in the trial, conviction and imminent execution of Aileen Wuornos. Unfortunately, Real Fiction is also problematic in concept--like the Kim Gordon/Julia Cafritz collaboration Free Kitten, it advances the idea of indie "supergroups," mirroring the rock-star attitudes it criticizes.
A less antagonistic, more productive example of queer-positive feminist art is available on Free to Fight, a musical self-defense kit for women available from Candy-Ass, the label run by Team Dresch's Jody Bleyle. Mixing together spoken instruction and "success stories," along with songs by Lois, Fifth Column and Heavens to Betsy, Free to Fight is groundbreaking. Its vision extends beyond the indie/punk scene's lily-white confines, including tracks by Northwest rappers like Mizzery and Azteca X, as well as a 75-page booklet with writers like bell hooks. It also succeeds both as entertainment and direct activism, giving women firsthand, clear-cut defense tips so they can "take action and feel safe."
Certainly, independent music is under corporate siege, and certainly, an increasingly wide range of performers have taken to the word "punk" as a badge of resistance. Of course, some things never change--the pages of Maximum Rock and Roll are still filled with terminally immature boys who equate stupidity and obnoxiousness with rebellion. Ultimately, as a Kill Rock Stars sleeve insert notes, "All the fine-tuning arguments of punk-rock-as-genre punk-rock-as-attitude punk-rock-as-indie-rock-as-alternative-as-nirvana-as-yuppie commodity" are a waste of energy. What matters is taking action, and doing so with integrity. In that sense, labels as disparate as Slumberland and Chainsaw have something in common: They're an inspiration.
Slumberland Records, P.O. Box 14731, Berkeley, CA 94712; Chainsaw Records, P.O. Box 42600, Portland, OR 97242; Candy-Ass Records, P.O. Box 42382, Portland, OR 97242.
This article originally appeared in SF Weekly.
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