How to life

3 Musical Experimenters Forge Indie Success in Area

In today’s fractured music industry, the definition of success has changed: cultivating devoted niche audiences means more than major label contracts. In the independent-minded Bay Area — where musicians have had difficulty finding financial rewards — some musicians are thriving in this do-it-yourself environment.

Three of the hottest indie bands in the country — Thee Oh Sees, The Fresh & Onlys and Sonny & the Sunsets, are led by musicians (John Dwyer, Tim Cohen and Sonny Smith, respectively) who have been plying their trade locally for years.

Their secret? Work collaboratively, live cheaply and take creative risks. Each band has a distinctly different sound — Mr. Smith’s band is sun-drenched pop, Mr. Dwyer prefers noisy garage punk and Mr. Cohen dabbles in jangling psychedelic rock and intimate acoustic tunes — but the trio share a Bay Area ethos.

“One of the biggest drags in the music industry is dealing with people who have a clipboard under their arm talking about hype and what your next move should be,” Mr. Dwyer said. “When, really, your next move should be what you want to do.”

Each of the three musicians has been well-known locally for years, but in 2010 that recognition helped their bands’ profiles rise.

Mr. Dwyer has been on the road relentlessly, showing up at huge European festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties in Britain, and has been flown to Paris at Jim Jarmusch’s request. Currently, his band is on a boat in the Caribbean for the rock Bruise Cruise festival.

The more mellow and melodic Sonny & the Sunsets are in Australia after performing in Oakland this past week with Yo La Tengo.

The Fresh & Onlys’ last album was named one of the top of the year by Pitchfork, an influential music Web site, and the band will be playing in San Francisco’s popular Noise Pop festival on Sunday.

Of these acts, Thee Oh Sees is the best known. In the psych garage world — music with a pop core that moves at a spastic speed with warped melodies —Mr. Dwyer, the front man, is an underground idol.

Mr. Dwyer made his name in the late ’90s in San Francisco with Pink and Brown, a guitar-and-drums duo who wore colored bodysuits. Since then, he has played lo-fi punk on top of washing machines in laundromats as part of the Coachwhips, and with the Thee Oh Sees he has played at a bowling alley and a Mexican drive-in.

Although he works with a booking agency, Mr. Dwyer often finds odd places where he and his friends can play for fun. “It’s cool when the venue has something weird going on,” he said.

Experimentation, of course, has long been part of the local music scene. Richie Unterberger, a music historian and author, said this creative freedom was a holdover from the musical explosion of the ’60s and ’70s, when Bay Area acts did not have an infrastructure of big studios and labels. “When you’re outside of the mainstream in that way, you devise ways to be creative and make your music known that aren’t mainstream,” Mr. Unterberger said.

All three musicians blur disciplinary lines, working in gallery settings as easily as rock clubs. Mr. Smith, for example, known best for his retro-pop sensibilities, exhibited the “100 Records” project last spring after finishing his second residency at Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito. The installation was a collection of real seven-inch singles by fictional bands, with songs by Mr. Smith and record covers from visual artists.

For the project, he assembled top local musical talent — including Mr. Dwyer; Mr. Cohen; Ty Segall, a garage rocker; and Heidi Alexander, from the folk pop act the Sandwitches — to perform in different personas, including as a Mexican punk band, a sci-fi country act, a Beach Boys homage band, and a spoken-word artist, each with its own fictional biography.

In a move that Mr. Smith likened to when Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy “went on to have their own shows,” some of the fake bands are now playing gigs and putting out records on various labels. The show has since resulted in a second album.

Mr. Cohen, like Mr. Dwyer and Mr. Smith, is a natural experimenter, displaying what Pitchfork called “understated and unfakeable weirdness” in his music. His lyrics are like fever dreams about love and the supernatural, caged in plenty of reverb from his band or stripped to haunting lo-fi ballads solo.

“Tim has the option of presenting music in so many styles,” said Britt Govea, who books shows catering to the indie and experimental rock crowd in the Bay Area. “It’s phenomenal to have a well deep enough to water all those gardens.”

The constant touring and small paychecks might not be for everyone — Mr. Dwyer does not have a day job, Mr. Cohen works at Amoeba Music and Mr. Smith supports himself with various side jobs — but these stalwarts may be providing the best model for 21st-century accomplishment.

As Mr. Cohen said, it is less about instant gratification than about creating a lasting impression. “My idea of success,” he said, “is to contribute something that someone can find 30 years from now, to be an intangible inspiration down the road.”

By Jennifer Maerz
NY Times
February 24, 2011