How to create a successful indie rock band in 10 simple steps:
1. Consume music and other art omnivorously, absorbing influences anywhere and everywhere.
2. Buy an instrument, secondhand if need be. Learn to play it competently (or not — whatevs).
3. Find a couple of other guys (bonus points if you can find a girl) who think and play on your level. Start your search at the local college campus or skate park.
4. Form a band with a cool name that sounds vaguely ominous and/or bookish, such as “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1.”
5. Write some songs. Musically, they should synthesize existing genres while putting a new spin on them. The lyrics should focus on political injustice, the pathos of suburban life or teenage aimlessness and self-destructiveness. Failing that, make up some impenetrable nonsense that sounds deep and cerebral. (See: Bon Iver.)
6. Start booking your band at hip local clubs (e.g., the Empty Bottle or Hideout if you’re here in Chicago), then slowly branch out to other cities as your network of contacts expands. Play several shows straightforward, but also have at least a few where you smash up your instruments/wear weird costumes/start fistfights with fans/cover Seals & Croft songs, just to keep things unpredictable.
7. Immerse yourself in the scene by attending the right parties and meeting other tastemakers (such as other musicians, journalists, photographers, DJs, artists and fashion designers).
8. Record an album over a couple of days. Get it pressed on a label like Sub Pop, 4AD, or Yep Roc. If it’s self-released, distribute it to record stores and music media yourself. Expect to be ignored by half of the people you send it to.
9. Get reviewed on Pitchfork. Shoot for a 7.0 or above, or a 3.0 or below. Anything between that is irrelevant.
10. Repeat steps 5-9 until you’re famous. (But not FAMOUS famous, just indie famous.)
This is the formula laid out in Our Band Could Be Your Life, which chronicles the time between the birth of the scene in the late 1970s and its apotheosis in the early 1990s when Nirvana hit the big time. In this book, rock journalist Michael Azerrad provides an account of the careers of 13 very different bands that, through their unique views of the nature of collective art and the way the music business ought to be run, helped shape the indie movement. Little about that movement has changed between when it got underway more than three decades ago and now, except that today much of the networking is done online and the career-making music reviews are published on Pitchfork instead of in abstruse fanzines like Maximumrocknroll.
(Re-reading the above, I realize that I might be coming off as snide and dismissive toward these groups and the indies in general. That’s not my intention. I came away from this book with a genuine admiration of their values and work ethic. And reading about them makes you realize just how deep and wide their influence really runs — into the songwriting, attitude and style of all kinds of contemporary musicians, from Green Day to The White Stripes, from Vampire Weekend to Lady Gaga.)
So what were they all about? According to Azerrad, the indies were motivated by two fundamental principles: think for yourself, and do it yourself. And to hell with what the industry, other musicians and even the fans want. They applied that philosophy to how they played, performed, recorded, promoted and distributed music. But that’s where the similarities end, for the most part. (And it’s why bands such as Bad Brains and REM don’t count as “indie,” even though they’re closely related to it.)
Musically, the common theme among the earliest indie bands was to take existing rock formulas, strip them down, then speed them up. However, most of these groups — along with ones who would come in later on — went in experimental, genre-defying directions during their careers. And their influences were all over the place, extending from Creedence and Dylan to the Stooges and Ramones.
They were even more diverse in their personas, ranging from the arthouse sensibilities of Sonic Youth to the shocking, sophomoric stoner antics of the Butthole Surfers. And they were geographically distributed too, popping up in unlikely places like Southern California’s Orange County and Washington, D.C. The fact that these scenes managed to connect with each other without the Internet and very little in the way of resources is nothing short of amazing.
Although the mainstream media would later focus on the scene in Seattle, the indie/post-punk/alternative movement that spawned bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains had been a national underground network for years. Azerrad seems to have written this book in order to give that network — comprised of certain bands, rock clubs, labels, zines, and college radio stations — its due.
Our Band Could Be Your Life is not without its flaws. For one thing, I thought Azerrad’s repeated references to the oppressive environment of the “Reagan ‘80s” — even in write-ups of bands that weren’t really political — were a bit forced. I’m not a parishioner of the Church of St. Ronnie, but this aspect of the book seemed overdone. And contrary to the title, there were a few bands whose lives I could not have imagined as my own. Also, a couple of the groups included seemed only nominally connected to the indie ethos.
That aside, this is a great book. And the greatest group from the book is, in my opinion, the one whose song lyric is referenced in its title: The Minutemen, smart but fairly regular dudes from working-class San Pedro, California — “corndogs,” in the words of guitarist D. Boon — who formed a band because … well, why not? They weren’t necessarily the most talented musicians, and they certainly weren’t the most famous (though I’m pretty sure you’ve heard at least one of their songs).
The Minutemen were great because they were exemplars of the best of indie: They were incredibly enthusiastic and sincere in their approach, and churned out music that was uncompromising, clever and innovative.
Incidentally, I got Our Band Could Be Your Life as a birthday present from my uncle Toby, a musician himself, and his wife Stacey. Toby, to me, embodies that same indie spirit: His influences are wide-ranging, he is continually experimenting and broadening his musical horizons, and he’s a generous collaborator. Thanks again for this book, m’man.