Emerging From Under Rock
Back when the term “alternative rock” still meant something, living outside the hit-or-bust norms of the pop marketplace was no picnic.
This was a music of underdogs from the underground, created by bands that inherited punk rock’s spirit of defying the established order, but who were less straitjacketed musically than punk purists.
The alternative rockers who defined the genre during the 1980s--among them Sonic Youth, Husker Du, the Replacements, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, the Mekons, Camper Van Beethoven, Throwing Muses and the Pixies--were eager to experiment and push the boundaries of rock.
They wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible and toured relentlessly to do it. But the ceiling on “possible” was extremely low during alternative’s burgeoning years, which spanned the 1980s.
For the vast majority of these bands, selling 20,000 or 30,000 copies of an album was tantamount to a substantial hit. Radio, except for college stations, wasn’t interested. MTV, to the alternative fringe, was an alien force from a parallel universe, not a power to be courted as an influential ally.
Then, suddenly, alternative rock was seated at the big pop banquet table. In the summer of 1991, the Lollapalooza festival, led by Jane’s Addiction and introducing Nine Inch Nails, showed that a touring alternative caravan could do big business.
By year’s end, the movement had found its commercial messiah: Nirvana’s single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was propelling the band toward multi-platinum sales previously inconceivable for an act rooted in the 1980s underground. Major-label scouts trolled what they viewed as the independent bush leagues and signed hundreds of bands in hopes of riding the rising wave.
Alternative had prevailed.
Or had it been co-opted? Were industriously tunneling creatures from the underground meant to flourish in the bright spotlight?
And, now that “alternative” had changed from a word with meaning to a marketing label, could the old ethics forged in the 1980s endure, and the adventurous spirit remain?
Some answers may emerge from “This Ain’t No Picnic,” an Independence Day showcase for the old independent spirit. Twenty bands will gather Sunday at the 5,000-capacity Oak Canyon Ranch in Santiago Canyon, a few of them signed to big labels, most on small ones.
As in the old days, all still exist apart from the rat race to the top of the charts that continues to fuel KROQ-style bands, and they don’t sell many records.
The festival borrows its name from the title of a frustration-filled, 1984-vintage Minutemen song about being trapped in a dead-end job with a bigot for a boss.
Headliner Sonic Youth, a revered godfather of indie rock, sold 54,000 copies of its last album, “A Thousand Leaves,” according to the SoundScan monitoring service, down from its quarter-million peak during 1992-95, the immediate aftermath of the Nirvana explosion.
Sleater-Kinney, the most celebrated new true-alternative rock band of the past three years, arrives for its first Orange County show having sold 64,000 copies of its brilliant 1997 release, “Dig Me Out,” and 42,000 of this year’s sequel, “The Hot Rock.”
“The [mainstream] culture has shut down” for bands like those on the Picnic festival, who won’t compromise their sound to make it palatable for radio, said Bob Lawton, booking agent for Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney, and three other Picnic participants, Guided By Voices, Rocket from the Crypt and Superchunk.
“In the post-Nirvana craze, everyone did a little better for a while,” Lawton said. “Now it’s settled back down. They don’t get on the bigger tours.”
The idea for the Picnic festival, he said, was “Let’s put together this small, compact thing where everybody knows and respects each other and wants to have a good day of music. No one is out there making a big career move.”
Music Is More Exciting’
Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, whose band, formed in 1981, was primarily responsible for bringing a new dimension of honed clangor and artfully wielded noise and dissonance to the rock-guitar vocabulary, has no regrets that mainstream commercial paths are barred now to bands that live, as a proud old Replacements ode to the true-alternative spirit put it, “Left of the Dial.”
“Most of us were only too happy to see it go back underground and fall to the wayside,” Moore, 41, said over the phone recently from the Manhattan home where he lives with wife Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth’s bassist, and their young daughter.
“It was great when Nirvana busted open and decimated the [glam-metal] hair bands that had a stranglehold on the rock mainstream,” he said. “But I’m really into the idea of the whole scene always having a flux to it. . . . The true underground music is more exciting now than it’s ever been. It’s wide open, and young people are getting involved with all strains of musical ideas and literate ideas and artistic measures.”
Sonic Youth led the charge for left-of-the-dial rock when it headlined the 1995 Lollapalooza tour on a bill with such like-minded acts as Pavement, Mike Watt and the then-emerging Beck.
But outsider-rock saw its mass-market prospects die at that Lollapalooza. Each night, much of the crowd would melt away as Sonic Youth came on to play. Most had come for the second-billed Hole, a band dominated by the tabloid allure and soap-opera saga of its singer, Courtney Love.
“I think the majority of people there were drawn by [Love’s] celebrity,” Moore said. “I don’t have anything against celebrity, but there is a distinction between that and the whole value of musical exploration.”
Sonic Youth plowed the money it earned from Lollapalooza into building its own studio, achieving the ultimate in independence. The band remains on a major label, Interscope (which took over its contract from the defunct Geffen), but it releases its most experimental work on its own label, Sonic Youth Records, and Moore says it is now positioned to carry on completely independent of the corporate music business, if need be.
Mike Watt has been a friend, comrade and occasional collaborator of Moore’s since the mid-'80s, when Sonic Youth and Watt’s original band, the Minutemen, were jewels in the incredible, genre-defining roster of the small L.A.-based label, SST Records.
Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Black Flag and, later on, Soundgarden also recorded for SST, whose leading bands made indispensable records that shared an attitude of exploration and restlessness while sounding not the least bit alike.
Watt, 41, is a solo act now. He doesn’t quite share Moore’s enthusiasm for the current state of independent-minded rock: “When it comes to ‘What are we gonna sing about, what are we gonna play?,’ we’re kind of in the doldrums a bit,” Watt said from his home in San Pedro. “Maybe it’s not exploding as new. It’s too regular.”
But Watt and Moore agree on the lasting impact of the true-alternative movement on the broader music culture. The point never was to maximize sales, they said, but to prove that vitality in music lies in the search for something fresh that will rub off on other seekers.
Even rock fans oblivious to the underground seem willing to embrace electronica, hip-hop, the genre-splicing of Beck and the currently hot funk-and-metal meld of Korn and its imitators.
In the ‘80s, When It Was
‘a Crime to Be Artsy’
There are no more lasting orthodoxies of taste in the rock world, and the ‘80s alternative rockers did much of the digging to undermine the monolith’s foundation.
“It’s not walled off,” Watt said. “It’s open enough that [a musician] could come in with a new thing, and people would not be so prejudiced against it. It broke down barriers that were pretty strong back then.”
Said Moore: “We came up in the ‘80s when it was sort of a crime to be artsy. Now it’s in vogue. The more you are involved with an avant-garde idea, the hipper it is, the more cachet it has. That wasn’t the story in the ‘80s. I see it as a real success.”
At a time when major labels are consolidating and dropping many of the “alternative” rock bands they signed, Lawton, the booking agent who calls his company Legends of the 21st Century, thinks being truly alternative isn’t such a bad move career-wise, as well as creatively.
“A lot of these bands have found a way to operate on a level that makes sense to them. Most of them have had careers for a good long time,” he said.
Moore, a major-label musician since Sonic Youth signed with Geffen in 1990, and Watt, who has recorded for Columbia for 10 years, dating to his post-Minutemen band, Firehose, say the trick in being on a major label while maintaining independent ways is to keep costs low and avoid the six- or seven-figure, label-provided budgets for touring and recording that are actually just huge gambles to be written off, along with the band, if they don’t pay off with gold and platinum sales.
Lawton said a band like the North Carolina-based Superchunk, which for years has released albums on its own label, Merge, can exist beneath the mainstream’s radar and make more money selling 30,000 to 60,000 records than most big-label bands who haven’t attained star status.
Jim Guerinot manages three of the biggest-selling acts to emerge from the ‘80s independent, do-it-yourself movement: the Offspring, No Doubt and Soundgarden’s singer, Chris Cornell.
Walking Line Between Alternative, Mainstream
Guerinot’s Laguna Beach-based label, Time Bomb Recordings, straddles the fissure between “alternative” camps, taking its funding from the BMG conglomerate and aiming for mainstream hits, but operating on independent principles of keeping costs low and emphasizing a gradual buildup through steady touring, rather than a brass-ring grab for a quick breakthrough.
To Guerinot, “alternative” today stands for an approach to a career rather than the style a band might play, or which sales stratum it might aspire to.
The key question, he said, is “Are you a band who in some form is doing it yourself, as opposed to [having] someone else do it for you? Are you at the center of directing the business part of your career as well as the creative side?
“There’s a kind of band that waits to be signed and have somebody put the whole thing together for them,” he added. “That kind of band is going to have a tough time” if it fails to score a big hit.
“We’ve always wanted to sign bands who are going to be bands whether they’re signed or not,” Guerinot said. "[Their attitude is] ‘It would be nice to have [a substantial record company] to work with, but in the absence of that we’ll do what we’re doing.’ That kind of band will [survive].”
It’s fitting, then, that an unusual rock festival for self-reliant rockers is taking place on Independence Day.
“It’s neat it’s on the Fourth of July, because coming up with your own way to articulate yourself is pretty American,” Watt said.
“I like all these [bands], they’re all friends of ours,” Moore said. “I can’t wait to see them and set off firecrackers.”
This Ain’t No Picnic, with Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney, Sunny Day Real Estate, Guided By Voices, Mike Watt & the Black Gang and others, Sunday at Oak Canyon Ranch, 5305 Santiago Canyon Road, Santiago Canyon. 11:30 a.m. $25. (714) 740-2000 or https://www.goldenvoice.com.