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This Scene Is Killing Me: An Evening With Rock Kills Kid And Other Fine Individuals Such As Myself

By Andre Perry | 21 December 2007

It's Saturday night and indie rock is dying. Or maybe it's Tuesday or Thursday. I dunno. What's certain is that that this particular brand's been stiffening up for a couple of years now, its body destroyed by tired chord progressions, bands enforcing style over substance, and one too many nods to the New Wave, garage rock, or other "classic" genres. Of course, "classic" is a term and terms are what keep us sane, encapsulating zeitgeists into digestible touchstones so the incomprehensible distance between what's available to listen to and what we actually are able to listen to isn't so daunting. Terms allow us History:

Long ago, there were visionaries: Velvets, Dylans, Dolls, and Pistols expanding the parameters of rock's sound by shrinking its restraint. Then there were true independents: Fugazis, Replacements, and Minutemen toiling their way across the country erecting a network for the underground. At some point, we took the word "indie" and applied it to the bands -- Pavements, Dinosaurs, and Mice -- that sounded different and embraced the ideals and techniques of our brick-laying heroes. Those bands further defined and enriched the underground network and re-imagined rock's possibilities. Simple enough.

This History, all of it, is a good thing. But somewhere along the road, the cool kids and the scene-makers, the suits and the promoters, caught on and not only made indie rock their soundtrack but embraced its style. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when or where it started, maybe in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side as hordes of middle class post-college youth set up shop, avoiding Generation X. The intentions at first must have been genuine -- we like this music, let's celebrate it -- but then independence caught on and that's when the people who make money had enough sense to sign the Strokes.

Yes, the very word "independent" is at stake, ready and willing to be commodified into a term that simply signifies the young apart from the old; true independent and original music continues on, perhaps more than ever in basements and concert halls across the country, but this thing called "indie rock" is more than just a useful catch-all phrase to describe new music. Like hip-hop it has become marketable pop culture, a mainstream-leaning product. Style and sound have mixed to create repetitive bands and fashions, the kind that disrespect their elders by being all kinds of unfinished, crass, immediate youth. You don't need Sub Pop to put out an indie band. Warner Bros. and his colleagues do it just as well. In 2007 they know what it looks like and what it sounds like and who to sell it to. We even sell it ourselves. Vice Magazine shits on indie culture and then, as only pure irony would have it, picks it up, eats it, and puts it in your local boutique, at which point you pick it up and laugh at a picture of your coke-addled counterpart in some or another American city.

I admit, it's just so easy to unfold layers of vitriol upon such useless outfits as the Bravery and Moving Units, exposing them as the problems with indie rock. But there's always been bad music so we can't point fingers at the Bravery for making indie a dirty word. We can blame the scene that surrounds and supports this bad music: clubs and parties packed with hype-fueled expectations and the fans with thick white or black wristbands, retro clothes, angular haircuts, make-up to cast them as vampires, and enough coke to put a Bret Easton Ellis protagonist on edge. I cough bird flu on them, those wayward acolytes so eager to rally around whatever bullshit the bodega sells them. No, not all indie rock fans are tasteless sheep -- many are wonderful people -- but it still stands that the scenester-followers and the papier-mache music they promote could use a bit of a makeover. Is it just plain over and should we all move on?. Yet another critical cliché on my part to suggest that everything is so do-or-die. Indie Rock Is Dead! Long Live Indie Rock! What am I, an Arcade Fire record?

Some time ago, whatever night that was, I was pushing around the streets of San Francisco minding my business. Thousands of rock fans had just finished a day of partying at alternative radio station Live 105's annual BFD rock festival featuring the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Echo and the Bunnymen, and more. You wouldn't have caught me dead at that concert. It was at Shoreline, an unpleasantly large venue outside of the city that dumps most of its ticket holders onto a vast lawn. What a waste: all of those bands, some good, others washed-up, and you can't even see them from where you're standing. OK, maybe if you had given me a free ticket I would have gone. But you definitely wouldn't have caught me at the BFD after-party taking place at the ultra-hip downtown club Mezzanine and featuring here-today/gone-tomorrow buzz band of the month, Rock Kills Kid. Well OK, I was at the after-party but that didn't mean I liked it.

I'm not a scenester, I promise. I don't have the fashion-sense; by the time I hear the new it's already old, and I can only stay up late once a week these days. That aside, on some masochistic level I can't stand to miss the party I hate, just to tell people I was there and hated it. Furthermore, just being at the hated party establishes that I knew about it and that I could get in and that I could rightfully hate it. Public appearance is essential and private dissatisfaction is a posture that many of us inhale. Scenesters only disappear from the scene to make a statement: they've gone into exile, they've died, they will return with a new look, a new sound, a new stack of rare mash-up piled into their iPods, and as expected the sheep will follow. It's all very morbid.

My buddy Kevin had convinced me to accompany him after someone put us on the list. We slid past the line and into the unremarkable cavern that is the Mezzanine. It's just one big clinical room. Everything is synthesized, from the "mysterious" red lighting to the mist that floats through the air. It felt like the set from a movie, the one they use when the romantic leads do some dirty dancing in a hip, techno nightclub. A hot girl with a punkish leather skirt and pink hair brushed by us and grimaced. I think it was her way of smiling.

We walked over to the smoking area, a well-lit, open-air zone that was caged off so no one could get into the club from the street. Seeing it packed with human beings sucking on nicotine brought on a flashback to a Harpers article I read about the pork industry: the modern pig lives in a cage not much bigger than the pig itself. It shits on the floor and moves about nervously trying to figure out what to do with its limited existence. That punk chick with pink hair looked much better in the dark.

Kevin pointed to a round, sweaty kid with a bowtie and slightly maniacal grin. He laughed, "Yeah he was at my apartment last weekend doing coke until sunrise with all of his friends. These fucking hipsters always leave such a goddamn mess. You wake up with baggies and beer cans all over the place." Yes Kevin, but you invited them over and secretly I kind of wished I had been there.

Out of duty we checked out the end of Rock Kills Kid's set. It was awful, as if the band had been pre-packaged for the soundtrack to Laguna Beach or its cheeky Los Angeles sequel The Hills. People were dancing and by all accounts loving it. You may wonder how Rock Kills Kid, let Laguna Beach or The Hills, even sneaks itself into an article about the state of indie rock? Did the infiltration begin with the OC's post-"Rat" appropriation of the Walkmen (or do we question the Walkmen's willingness to be appropriated by anything with a pulse?) Just think about the cool kids and remember that they are in power. Little babies with camo diapers and platinum Zippos, a funny image that allows Kevin and I to continue fantasizing:

Some young writer in L.A. says: this is what I like and since I am "the kids" this is also what the kids like. This young writer, this Young Turk hears "Fake Empire" and damn does it makes sense to place it in the scene where the girls find that their boyfriends are cheating on them. Then there's a Hollywood executive smiling as the young Turk explains to him how the company will enact a hip and smart Myspace or blog campaign to convince the world to buy into this band that wrote this damn sensical song. The Turk tells the old man who is incidentally eating a steak sandwich and smoking a cigar that "This is the 'indie' thing sir. This is what they want: tight jeans and coke."

"Well if that's what they want then sell it to them Charlie," the executive replies. He turns to his window as the Young Turk leaves his office, looking out the window, taking in the ants below all mechanical-like running through arteries of industry. He chuckles to himself, "Heh, when I was young they just called it rock."

Kevin and I had an idea: I produced a pen and a pad from my back pocket and we scribbled some fan mail for the band. It read:

Wow, you guys play so well! Too bad your music is the most derivative played-out shit we've heard in months. Cheers! :)

We left the note on top of the keyboard while the keyboardist was playing guitar. He smiled from a distance thinking, no doubt, that we'd left him our girlfriends' phone numbers. Looking for trouble elsewhere, we headed backstage. I lied to the bouncer, put on my mask, and told him I was a writer for Pitchfork there to interview Rock Kills Kid post-show. "Somehow, sir, I've misplaced my press pass." He stared at us, poker-faced and said, "I'm sorry. No pass, no entry."

A woman walked up to us with her faux-blond hair and a worn-in face. I placed her as older, shifting with the scene as new fashions turned over but keeping her social-climbing core intact. Her whole demeanor was napalm. "Who in the fuck are you guys? If you're not in the fucking band, then get the fuck out!"

Where did she get the nerve? From what I could tell she didn't even work at the venue. A friend of ours in one of the BFD festival bands eventually saw us and waved us in. The bouncer apologized and sent us upstairs to mingle with the elite. The VIP lounge was split into a few different spaces with one area overlooking the dance floor of the Mezzanine; VIPs with PBRs laughed at the LFBs (less fortunate below) like Roman royalty considering the plebes. Tucked behind the lounge was a packed hallway leading to green rooms for the bands.

I moseyed on into Rock Kills Kid's room and chomped down on some carrots from their fancy veggie platter. I swiped a water bottle and surveyed my surroundings. Hipsters abounded: young female fashionistas with haircuts from a book of lost geometry shapes; boys in their skinny-rocker jeans, myself included; some wearing the aforementioned one-color leather wrist bands, myself not included. Conversational marionettes swinging back and forth on their strings. The same setlist a different night, a different club. While 75% of the people backstage don't know shit about anything, it's all about looking confident and acting like you know shit about something. Take the situation by the balls, son, and look like a rock star, or a label rep, or a promoter, or a groupie who knows about the after-after party and has connections to all of the drugs. If you can adopt the look of confidence, then others will assume you're running the show in some sort of capacity. I was just a guy eating carrots, wearing faded black jeans and a navy-blue hoodie. But damn did I look serious with those carrots.

Across the room I noticed the lead singer from Rock Kills Kid appearing adolescent and lost at sea. I gathered up my courage. It was time for me to tell this kid that his band, well, um, sucked. He would be better, my ears would be cleaner, yes the whole world would be at ease if he just moved on and tried something else. I was there to break it to him while he was young and had time to explore other things. I walked over to him, extended my hand, and unraveled a rainbow of lies.

"Hi, my name is Andre and I've been sent by Pitchfork to review your band's show and write an article about it."

"Oh wow, cool. My name's Jeff. What'd you think?"

"You guys are fucking great. You're so tight. Good job."

Indie Scenster Backstage Party: 1
Andre Perry: 0

My integrity was at an all-time low. I couldn't bring myself to speak to Jeff honestly about his music. Or maybe I couldn't resist indulging in my P-fork bunburying. Perhaps he even knew I was a fraud but in his own ego-driven mind wanted to believe he was indeed being interviewed by Pitchfork. And I wanted him to think I was cool, and though I'd never met him before this night, that I was his friend in the kingdom of the backstage. With his cute smile and boyish looks, he should have been working at Disneyland: he was cut right off the white American chopping block. Let's frame him and put him up on the wall, says the Hollywood executive. This is Private Ryan and he plays rock n roll. I wanted to hug him and save him from the machine that was telling him these are the clothes you should wear, this is the sound you're going for, and this is what your soul should smell like. But anyway, here's the interview.

"So do you want to interview me for the article?"
"Um, yeah, let's do a quick one. So how long have you been playing music and where did you grow up?"
"Man, I'm an L.A. kid. I've been doing this for years since I was 15 or 16."
"What's the goal?"
"You know, to make it. To get it out there so people can hear the music."
"How do you feel about the record?"
"I feel it's great. I think people will really enjoy it. But you know how it is. you never know. Maybe we'll get lucky."

I never listened to their album but I must that admit at the time the PR machine for this band was in full-effect. I'd seen stickers for them on building walls around San Francisco, ads for them in music mags, and holy shit they'd run some pretty dominant banner campaigns on music websites. So I did find it possible that many people would hear their music and that some of them would really like the band. But why would they like it? Is it bad taste -- I mean do people really want another year full of angular riffs, New Order synths, dance rock drumming, and lyrics that claim to be passionate, honest, and meaningful? -- or is it because "trusted" media sources like Myspace tell them that they should digest Rock Kills Kid with a smile? At least their singer was a nice guy.

"Do you like the L.A. music scene? Are there bands you are into?"
"Yes I love music in L.A. It's great."
"What do you think of Earlimart?"
"Earlimart. They're great. Kinda like Grandaddy."
"What about Silversun Pickups? They're awesome."
"Um, I've never heard of them."

I couldn't even hold back my smirk. How could he live in L.A. and not even be aware of those bands? You know: the real indie stuff. Why hadn't the Mezzanine booked Earlimart to come and play? As I thanked him for the interview, Kevin came over and introduced himself, telling Jeff what a great show he played. When he walked away Kevin looked at me and asked, "Why the fuck were you talking to that guy? His band sucks."

Off to the toilet I went, presumably hoping to wash my hands of their insincere blood. Waiting ten minutes for a VIP bathroom struck me as backwards. Finally two attractive girls and a shirtless guy barreled out of the door with cocaine giggles falling from their mouths, noses, and souls. The party girls didn't even look at me and I almost got trampled as I tried to squeeze in. Some guy had been waiting behind me in line so I invited him in to share the facilities. "You take the sink and I'll take the toilet." He locked the door behind him and I realized it was the keyboardist/guitarist from Rock Kills Kid. Perhaps the fan mail had been a poor decision. Mid-leak, because I'm into keeping it real and all, I gave him a shout-out, "Hey great show, man."

He was cutting up on the sink counter. "Thanks bro. You wanna do a bump?"

I emerged from the bathroom arm-in-arm and exceptionally chum-chum with the keyboardist of a band that I didn't particularly like. I bid him farewell and felt around for Kevin's whereabouts. He was chatting it up with various people involved in the local music scene. Conversations circled around my head while ran through questions I should have asked the band or even just the keyboardist. What becomes of him, well-dressed and playing a part in a corporately-shaped indie success, doing coke and drinking beer for a living? Where is he in ten years? Certainly not doing session work for Steely Dan. But maybe he's backing up a mid-30s Julian Casablancas on a solo record produced in L.A. Yes, the Casablancas/Rock Kills Kid L.A. lost weekend of 2016. Pussycats revisited. Will I be at the after-party for their record release show or will I have moved on with the rest of the scene to promote and dance around another potential icon? Perhaps I can pencil both dates into my calendar of the future.

My overlong criticism of the scene must come off with suspect hypocrisy. Throwing stones and I was still there at the Mezzanine -- am I still there? -- plunk right in the middle of it all with a fresh PBR in one hand and ironic one-liners in the other. It seems fitting to recall such experiences as another year comes to a close and the corpse of my reason-to-be sinks a bit deeper into the earth. A girl I had met a few weeks earlier came over to say hello. I blanked on her name but I remembered she was in a band with a hot look, lots of local hype, and maybe three or four half-baked songs. She told me they'd already booked shows at some of the city's best clubs. Like the Mountain Goats said, "Shooting the sequel before the treatment's even finished." The scene was the main character and Kevin and I were just the willing details of another episode. We'd be back next week and perhaps even the next, waiting for producers to tell us to go someplace new. I turned and said, "Let's get the hell out of here."