1994: The Year Indie Broke


By Brian Burlage, Daily Arts Writer
Published July 30, 2014

Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich of Pavement are each seated on blue equipment crates. Their pants are stylishly baggy, Malkmus’ hair is long but cropped and several panels of strange tribal artwork surround them. They’re being interviewed on MTV’s hit music show “120 Minutes” to discuss their latest album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The year is 1994.

The interviewer is polite enough. He gives Malkmus and Nastanovich a warm introduction and begins by describing the success of Pavement’s debut Slanted and Enchanted as well as their popularity with fans and critics alike. He proceeds by asking about pressure and whether or not they felt it while making Crooked Rain. Malkmus and Nastanovich are silent. After the interviewer prompts them, Nastanovich rattles off a generic answer and Malkmus follows with a joke about massages. For the remainder of the interview, the two respond to questions in this way, as though they’d rather talk about anything but indie music.

Skip ahead twelve years. The Michigan Daily’s own Kimberly Chou is writing a feature story on Stephen Malkmus and his new band, The Jicks, as they play a show at Eastern Michigan’s Pease Auditorium. Chou writes about Malkmus’ befuddling stage antics, his slackness, his informality, awkwardness and charm. The Stephen Malkmus of 2006 is much the same as the Stephen Malkmus of 1994, she infers – confident, daring, ridiculous. After the show, she and Malkmus chat at the Corner Brewery. They talk about the Tigers, Potbelly sandwiches and his hotel room. Anything but indie music. And as they finish up their discussion, she invites him to a party later that night. Malkmus frets. Other kids had invited him to a party earlier, he claimed. He was worried they would want to talk about indie rock.

Before concerts were streamed live to thousands of people over the web, fans subscribed to ‘zines,’ researched shows, memorized band schedules, scouted for tickets months in advance. Before camera phones could capture images and sequences and distribute them across numerous media platforms in a matter of milliseconds, concertgoers played witness to impassioned, unscripted moments and surprises and had to wait until the next day to spread the news. Hardly any individual reactions were documented, and all the really sensational details of a performance had to be transmitted through storytelling or journalism, which no doubt twisted certain facts and figures.

Part of what makes ‘90s music so fascinating, particularly the year 1994, is its place in time: a strange and unique buffer between music in the 20th century and music in the 21st century. The decade acts like a bridge between the old pre-technical world and the new, digital, downloadable, clickable, linkable world. The computerization of the future was a ways down the road, but it was visible. Everyone was aware of its incredible significance. For bands in the ‘90s, music became a matter of selecting which ideas, perspectives, grievances, sins, dreams, prayers and desires belonged in the new world. And no single year better captured these various selections than 1994.

In a year of unprecedented musical variety, genres like hip-hop (Notorious B.I.G.), garage rock (Green Day), ambient/electronic (Aphex Twin), grunge (Soundgarden) and alternative (Weezer) were filling airwaves and Pioneer stereo systems. Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” and Mariah Carey’s “Hero” owned popular music. “Loser” was Beck’s most recent single, which propelled him directly into the spotlight after Kurt Cobain’s death and Nirvana’s subsequent disbanding. Madonna was still receiving ample radio play, Janet Jackson was enjoying three bubbly singles in the Billboard Top 100, 2Pac was fighting Snoop Dogg for records sales and Haddaway’s “What Is Love” was more than just a throwback dance anthem. But underneath the surface of all these topical trends and sonic diversions and deviations, independent music in 1994 was forging its way straight into the new millennium, bearing with it the timelessness, inventiveness and brilliance of fundamental musicianship.

Independent music was, at that time, broadly conceived as adherent to independent labels, many of which were pioneered by bands, band managers, knowledgeable fans, business owners and allied musician groups. The rock and pop aspects of indie music had yet to trickle into mainstream tastes. Major labels had yet to organize separate ‘indie’ divisions that could cater to the public demand. Effectively, indie was, at this time, identified more with the production process than with the music’s sound. Many folks will try to argue that early Weezer, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, the Smashing Pumpkins and other prominent bands were, in fact, ‘indie’ in 1994. That would be a mistake. In 1994, Weezer was signed to a subsidiary of Universal, The Jesus and Mary Chain to a subsidiary of Warner Bros., Sonic Youth to Sony and the Smashing Pumpkins to Virgin. The indie sound was there in some regard, but the philosophy was not.

In reality, independent artists were paid a few hundred dollars upfront to subsidize recording costs and were then sent on their merry way. If their records ignited a spark somewhere in the market, then maybe they’d feel traces of its heat or just simply hear about it later. Independent music in 1994 was, in every sense of the word, independent: the artists wrote the songs, recorded the material, lobbied for shelf space, grappled with distributors. Indie releases didn’t get discussed outside indie fan circles – even indie bands, like Malkmus, were careful not to be too overt in promoting their work. After all, autonomy was the golden word perched above every door and bed frame. Indie’s heart and soul shrugged away mainstream trends, ignored popular demand and reveled in privacy. To talk about indie music too much was to pull away the flame that kept it simmering, simmering, until talents like Malkmus could bring it to a boil. From its own cocoon-like world, indie music theorized about the 21st century with an astounding prescience.

It was Jawbox who delivered 1994’s first major independent release. Ironically, the band had just parted ways with their indie label, Dischord, and signed with Atlantic. Their record, For Your Own Special Sweetheart, is gripping, fast-paced and hounds purposefully on many unpopular styles. It was noise rock in its infancy, still skirting on the coattails of Fugazi and post-Wire rock/punk. The genre-adjectives ‘hardcore’ and ‘art’ were orbiting around similar artists at the time, but they seemed to appropriate best with Jawbox. Their sound is heavy, yet well distributed. The band’s tremendous sense of melody, combined with producer Ted Niceley’s ear for detail, makes for a sound that is both impacting and clear. Though their recording contract and rules then read Atlantic, their music and their energy still boldly declared indie.

In the spring, indie helped birth Britpop. It also elevated post-punk to a healthy plateau and brought punk closer together with shoegaze and emo. Catchy, hooky, upbeat songwriting was slowly mixed into the form. With Blur’s Parklife, The Fall’s Middle Class Revolt, Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary and Superchunk’s Foolish, indie music was making waves on both sides of the ocean. “Love in the 90s/Is paranoid/On sunny beaches”, Blur sings on “Girls & Boys” as they make a convincing argument about why pop culture was then completely distanced from meaning and coherence. Music fans were largely distracted by the impending turn of the century – of the millennium – while television programs, radios and newspapers cross-pollinated the first seedlings of Y2K. Where was music going? What would it sound like with a ‘20’ docked in front of the year? Whatever the true answer was, Sunny Day Real Estate offered a happy solution with “In Circles”: “Meet me there, in the blue/Where words are not, feeling/Remains. Sincerity”. We may not know where we’re going, they seemed to say, but at least we have a destination.

That summer, indie briefly split into two main sound groups: American heartland lo-fi/DIY and busier, blistery pop punk. One of the year’s more influential albums arrived with Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand, which falls into the former. Brothers Robert and Jim Pollard were the creative forces behind the band and the album’s heartfelt, basement-recorded vibe. Bee Thousand is still so beloved – for the same reason its influential – because it sounds like something you and your group of friends could make in your basement. Persistent microphone feedback fizzes throughout “I Am a Scientist”. Don Thrasher (aptly named) sounds like he’s playing a kid’s drum set from a separate room in many of the songs, while the album’s liner notes explain how the band used four bass guitars and three lead guitars. Only one of the original twenty tracks passes the three-minute mark (by a whopping four seconds).

A few other releases helped cement ‘lo-fi’ as a viable recording form. In mid-July Elliott Smith debuted with Roman Candle, which he produced and, according the liner notes, played ‘all instruments’. Like Bee Thousand, the album is highly organic, and for its driving motif of isolation, is also very poignant. Smith was 25 years old at the time. Throughout the nine songs, he twists his feelings of alienation into different metaphors and witticisms. Though the music sounds light, the tone feels heavy. This thematic duality was echoed in Lush’s dream pop album Split. “And I knew everyday/Came a chance that you’d leave me/So I found what I could to take your place,” mourns Miki Berenyi on “Kiss Chase”, a song rich with harmony, the guitars streaming like the loose ends of long banners. Lush was rather unique in its demographic: two female songwriters, two male accompaniers, each of them tweaking pitch to produce a kind of lucidity. A final notch in the lo-fi belt was Built to Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love. Doug Martsch and Brett Nelson heave dazzling guitar solos into many of the songs (“Cars”) and transplant many of rock and roll’s core values into the music.

The genius of these lo-fi records is the endearing songwriting that each of them boasts – songs that could be written and played by any band with a few microphones – and yet, these albums exude ingenuity.

Robert Pollard, who sang and did most of the Guided by Voices’ lyrical work, cited William S. Burroughs as a strong influence on numerous occasions. Pollard had learned the ‘cut-up’ technique from Burroughs, in which the song (or poem) is completed, then spliced, then rearranged in random order. This writing technique is aleatory: in other words, it deposits chance directly into the creative process. What’s produced as a result of the technique is completely random and, at the same time, is also limited to the original plan. In this way, Pollard deftly carved spontaneity into his songs, ensuring that repetition and, better yet, replication would be impossible.

Doug Martsch, originally from Twin Falls, Idaho, used his grassroots influences playing in small rural towns to hone the earthy twang of his guitar. He met Brett Nelson in the duo’s first band, Farm Days, and together they built a nontraditional band with a traditional rock sound. As they explored grunge, post-hardcore and other sub-genres, Built to Spill’s music broadened in range. In both of the aforementioned examples – Guided by Voices and Built to Spill – one key factor emerges: creative adaptability. Indie music, particularly lo-fi indie music, is inherently adaptable.

On the other end of the spectrum – though fewer bands indulged – Lync, The Jesus Lizard and Sebadoh were propagating noisier, more distorted song structures that followed in the tradition of Sonic Youth. With These Are Not Fall Colors, Lync achieved a distinct vitality that, unfortunately, was never tested, as the band only made one album. The record is notable especially for its bass-anchored songs, which highlight the tremendous groove and talent of James Bertram. Meanwhile, The Jesus Lizard released Down, their last on an independent label. While the album revealed a few shortcomings – namely the disquieting organ on “Horse” – the sheer strangeness of its interior resonated with many fans, and it went on to chart in the U.K. Additionally, Sebadoh’s Bakesale provided indie fans with an acoustic/electric crossover that dove into punk, noise rock and more regular indie sound. Lou Barlow’s pleasant strumming whooshes out of focus more often than not, and when Bob Fay or Jason Loewenstein take a turn at lead vocal, the songs veer from the directness of their usual course (all fine evidence of the album’s DIY-ness). Ultimately, though, its effervescent blend of indie sub-genres and enjoyable subject matter continue to promulgate its appeal.

With such variety and diversity of style, it can be rather easy to get lost within 1994’s shockingly wide array of indie. So many talented bands spawned so many compelling albums – albums that, for the most part, survive in even better condition today than they did twenty years ago. Even so, in the midst of this sprawling sonic realm, one band, one album, must be the governing force. One album must rest at the pinnacle of 1994 indie achievement and be the homing light on the shore, the guiding device that entices wayward souls looking for a solid landing. Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain does just that.

The twelve songs on Pavement’s sophomore album are by no means perfect. They aren’t staggeringly innovative, nor do they disassemble genre. Instead, the songs and the music of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain draw a line straight through the work of every other indie band and tie them, and their efforts, together into one neat abstract package. Only twelve songs exist on the album, and yet, almost all the major indie touchstones are recognized: “Silence Kid” – sarcastic, “Elevate Me Later” – carefree, “Cut Your Hair” – satirical, “Gold Soundz” – infinite, “Range Life” – enlightening, “Heaven Is a Truck” – whimsical, “Hit the Plane Down” – antisocial, “Fillmore Jive” – visceral. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’s importance isn’t derived from the music, but from the idea contained therein: this is what independent music sounded like in 1994. This was its vessel into the new millennium.

Interestingly, the notion of time and distance proved to be particularly pervading topics for most indie artists in 1994. Immense change was only six years down the line, or so they thought. Would the world of music be the same? What effect would time have, how far would the consensus shift? Nearly every artist expressed some reaction to the uncertainty, a couple of which being:

“And you can never quarantine the past” – Pavement, “Gold Soundz”

“Because we feel the same/And kiss with dry lips/When we say goodnight/End of the century/It’s nothing special” – Blur, “End of the Century”

There’s an old explorer’s term for this kind of contemplating and quantifying, and it dates back to the age when much of the world remained vastly unexplored. The term is longimetry: the art of measuring distances both accessible and inaccessible. There were parts of the world utterly beyond the reach of man. And though his technology, his intelligence and his daring could not change this fact, it was important to try to reach those places anyway, if not for that age then for the ones that followed.

In much the same way, independent bands and musicians of the ‘90s saw the coming millennium as a broad, unknowable horizon. They understood that, like all horizons, this one did not mark the end of something but rather the beginning. While many popular artists somewhat anticipated an obliteration of ‘90s pop culture and music, independent artists tended to see the open space as completely welcoming of it. Though the invisible distance between two decades had perhaps never been so great as it was between the 1990s and the 2000s, independent artists could afford to experiment and test their theories because of the autonomy that so justly defined them. Their greatest triumph came in mapping the distance between the heart of songwriting then and the heart of songwriting now, without ever having a true sense of direction. And here we are twenty years after one of indie’s most prodigious annual outputs, still discussing the music, the people and the stories that injected life and beauty into a great cultural turning point. In 1994, these artists gave us definitive proof that the distances between time and place, however measurable or immeasurable, could always be transcended.