Wednesday, February 28, 2007

...And Then There Was Noise: An Interview With Noise Pop Founder Kevin Arnold

For those of you who aren't caught up on pop and rock music festivals of this year, you should know that one of the best and most expansive is packing the music venues of San Francisco as I write this (Feb. 28). The festival I speak of is Noise Pop, a celebration of the best bands on the periphery of Rolling Stone and MTV today, shining a spotlight on bands that would become household names, such as Death Cab For Cutie, The White Stripes, Jimmy Eat World, and, most recently, Wolfmother.

Today, the festival includes art exhibitions, a film festival, and comedians such as Brian Posehn and Patton Oswalt, and claims 6 days and the stages of 15 venues. When it first started, however, Noise Pop was just a concert put on one night in 1993 at an inconspicuous music joint, due to the enterprising of one Kevin Arnold. Arnold has organized and managed the festival since that first night, and considering what Noise Pop has become, I was eager to hear what he had to say about the fortuitous history of Noise Pop and what he sees for the future:

(Q): Thanks for being able to converse. I'm actually amazed that you could get a chance to talk right now (this interview was conducted 6 hours before the opening night of Noise Pop). How are things going so far?
Kevin Arnold: So far, so good. During the recent days and weeks, things have been getting pretty hectic in terms of organizing, but right now the situation's relaxed itself a little bit. Right now it's sort of the calm before the storm, though, 'cause business is going to get even crazier than it was before really soon.

(Q): Well how about going back in time a bit- what gave you the idea for the first Noise Pop in 1993, and what made you decide to make it an annual festival?
KA: The first show just came about with an opening slot that I had one night at a club in San Francisco. I'd been booking bands and shows around the Bay Area, which I'd started doing for shows at UC Berkeley as a student, and I had that one night booked at the club, so I got some bands together that had established themselves locally and set them up to play that night.
I never really decided on making the festival an annual thing. It just turned out that a lot of people really dug the first show, so I decided to do the next one in 1994, and things just took off from there.

(Q): Have you ever thought about taking Noise Pop outside of San Francisco in the future?
KA: I wouldn't rule it out, but at this point I don't know whether or not that's gonna happen. We had festivals in Chicago in 2000 and 2001, and that was really cool because I have roots there, and I'd be interested in maybe doing a tour...

(Q): Speaking of Chicago, what was it like organizing shows there those two years?
KA: Well, in 2000, we were able to make the move to Chicago with a relative amount of ease because the dot-com boom was happening around that time, so we had loads of sponsorship. Pretty soon, a significant amount of start-ups began to lose interest, though and we were coordinating Noise Pop Chicago in San Francisco, so in 2002 we decided to concentrate all of our efforts in San Francisco again, and that's been working really well for us ever since.

(Q): With the way the festival is set up right now, there are Noise Pop shows and venues spread out all over the SF Bay Area. Have you ever thought about consolidating the shows and having a huge one-day festival in a larger venue, like an amphitheater or arena?
KA: I've considered it before, and I can't rule anything out, but if we did put Noise Pop into a much larger venue we'd do it in some unconventional way- not in an arena.

(Q): Are there any specific goals that you set out to accomplish this year with the 2007 edition?
KA: The fact that it's the 15th anniversary makes it pretty special, and we're trying to celebrate appropriately this year, but there aren't any particulars in terms of goals or themes. We've been trying to expand the film festival though, and I'm happy with how that's turning out.

(Q): Do you have a favorite Noise Pop moment or show?
KA: I've been to tons of shows over the years, so it's hard to really pin down one particular moment. There have been times when I've really been happy about getting a musical hero to play, like Bob Mould or the Flaming Lips, but I can't give you one show in particular that was my favorite.

(Q): One show that stands out this year, in my mind, is the Lyrics Born & Coup show at the Fillmore (the reknowned San Francisco music hall). Does this suggest that Noise Pop is going to have more of a hip-hop element in the future?
KA: We've had hip-hop shows before, with artists like Sage Francis, so it's not like hip-hop is some alien genre to us, but we're not trying to take Noise Pop in a hip-hop direction or anything. We just try to stay open-minded and put bands on the bill that we think people will like, simple as that.

(Q): Take us through the process, that a band has to go through to get a slot on the Noise Pop bill. What's that like?
KA: Well, that varies a lot, as some bands are a lot "bigger" than others. Sometimes more well-known bands will play here as a stop on a tour, sometimes they'll fly out, but then there are also a lot of local bands that play, although I wouldn't suggest trying to make Noise Pop the first show for a brand new local band. In terms of the local artists, though, we pick ones that we like and ones that are locally known, and hopefully they'll benefit from the exposure and work their way up the lineups over the years, like the bands Film School and Rogue Wave did.

(Q): This year's festival is about to start tonight and ends on Sunday- what are the next 6 days going to be like for you?
KA: I'll just sit at home and watch TV (laughs). No, I'm going to be running around like a madman trying to catch as many shows as I can. I might stop and catch a lot of some shows with bands that I really like, but I try to get around to all of the venues and make sure that things are running smoothly with the venue's staff and stuff like that. But yeah, these next 6 days are going to be exhausting.

-- Ross Moody (Photo: Lyrics Born, one of the highlight performers of Noise Pop 2007)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Panda Storm Slim's

I bet you're scratching your heads at the title- "Since when were pandas belligerent animals?"; "Since when were bands that named themselves Panda were supposed to storm anywhere?". While both of your questions aren't unfounded, they were definitely answered on Saturday (Feb. 23), when a group of high schoolers played the San Francisco equivalent of CBGB before they even graduated.

The music venue in question, Slim's, was significantly packed as a result of the efforts of not just Panda, but a few other local bands (one of which definitely committing a rock faux pas with a keytar player), but none of them really managed to hit the sweet spot of a good rock show as much as the bear-monikered quintet. The essence of the show they put on was not based either too much in kitsch or in melodrama- two qualities, whether transmitted over the airwaves on the radio or on TV, that are in no short supply these days. Admittedly, they're probably going to have to think of some other onstage fx besides a smoke machine if that contract from Capitol comes their way, but this type of thing should be the least of worries for a band with any integrity left, such as our present subjects.

Obviously, as they could still be labeled a garage band in the most literal sense, the boys in Panda (Johnny Flanes- guitar/vocals, Petros Anastos-Prastacos- guitar/vocals, Garret Leidy- bass, Louie Diller- drums, Joey Orton- keyboard) did not take playing a place like Slim's very lightly. The excitement in guitarist and singer Petros Anastos-Prastacos's eyes was palpable as he exchanged some last words with bassist Garret Leidy before their set kicked off. But once these guys gave the music a greenlight, they played like Slim's (again, the San Francisco equivalent of CBGB) was no big deal. Subsequently, from the first notes of their breezy song "Chinatown" to their swing-meets-Zeppelin roller coaster "Carry On", they simply owned the whole building.

Shortly after their set ended, I got a chance to catch up and interview the band's drummer, Louie Diller, who managed to remain articulate despite the marathon he had just been through onstage:
(Q): The first thing I noticed when hearing about you guys is that your name seems like it has nothing to prove. Why did you name yourselves Panda?
Louie Diller: We had been practicing for about a couple of months, and we knew that we were gonna have to come up with something if we wanted to get any gigs, so we just randomly flipped open a page of the dictionary and "Panda" was the word we came to.
(Q): I don't think there's any label, besides something as basic as "rock", that could be applied to the stylistic breadth of your music. What are your main influences?
LD: I'd say The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Mars Volta, Radiohead, and Muse.
(Q): There definitely seems to be a swing influence in the groove of some of your songs as well- especially "Carry On" and "Fake Tattoos". Where does that come from?
LD: Well, yeah- there is definitely a swing-type thing going on in those songs. A fair amount of it has to do with the fact that I joined the band, I'd been taking drum lessons specifically on jazz rhythm and theory, so that ended up rubbing off during the songwriting process for some of our songs.
(Q): Speaking of which, how do you guys come up with your material in the first place?
LD: We usually have, like, one person who comes up with a main melody or chord change- recently, it's been Petros, but before it's been others in the band as well-and who ever comes up with the main riff just shows it to us and then we all work on it from there. The majority of the time it's taken to write any of our songs has involved collaboration between everybody in the band.
(Q): Well, since Festival Preview is a site that mainly covers music festivals, I have to ask: Has Panda played any festivals?
LD: We haven't played any real big festivals yet, but we're gonna play at South By Southwest, and we're really looking forward to that, of course.
(Q): Obviously then, you guys must have come a fair ways since starting up. What two shows were your favorite and least favorite since being in the band?
LD: Well, I know right off which the worst one was- one of our first gigs as a band was at this talent show in our town, unsurprisingly, and I'll just say that it didn't go that well. The best one, though, was probably when we played down at UC Santa Cruz (an school in the University of California system). That gig was pretty tight.
(Q): I have to say, I was floored by the show you guys put on tonight. What would you say is the effect that you guys try to give or send out to the audience most in a performance?
LD: Well, thanks. As for the question, I know it's kind of cliche, but we want to sort of take the audience on a trip with our performances. We like to start off with some straightforward stuff, like we did with "Chinatown" tonight, then we try to play songs that are a bit more relaxed, like "Fake Tattoos" and then sort of come back with something stronger than what we started with, like "Carry On". So, in general, we want people who come to our shows to feel like they've been through some really powerful experience.
Most of the writing you will read on FP honestly won't have as much praise lauded on a single band as that which you have just observed. Also, if we report on multi-band shows, you'll usually find each band will get its fair share of coverage. However, in the spirit of supporting local bands (except the ones that suck), I must continue to deviate from the conventions of music criticism and command all FP readers to get online and steal Panda's music now!! Don't feel guilty about the pirating part- they'll be very grateful.

-- Ross Moody
(Photo: One of the non-musical feats in Panda's repetoire)

Monday, February 05, 2007

A convenient concert: Gore planning multi-city LiveAid-style global warming fundraiser

Could former Vice President Al Gore's next stop be not the White House but a concert simultaneously held in your city--and others worldwide -- for Global Climate Change?

According to a Daily Kos progressive-political-blog diary entry by regular contributor "rook", who appears to be based in Nashville, a "source inside the Gore family home in Nashville" says that Gore is organizing a simultaneous concert to build awareness and raise money to combat global warming, in the style of the "Live Aid" AIDS- and hunger-fundriasing concerts, with "some of the world’s biggest music acts performing on the same night in cities around the world."

Besides planning a tour for his new book, The Assault on Reason, Gore has been laying low of late, politely declining repeated entreaties for him to run for President again in 2008, training 1000 Climate Project volunteers to give his climate-crisis presentation featured in the movie An Inconvenient Truth. --Raines Cohen