It’s Sunday night at the Astrocade, a nightclub in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. Actually, nightclub is not the right word; it’s more like someone’s apartment. You locate the correct inconspicuous building, walk up the stairs to the right loft, pass through the kitchen area, and plant yourself in the living room, which is used as the performance space. It’s as close to a private show as you can get.
About two dozen people are at hand when the opening act, Philly legend Mikey Wild, belts out songs like “Chicks With Dicks” and “I Hate New York.” Wild was a cornerstone of the punk rock scene here before there even was one, as suggested by the title of I Was Punk B4 U Were Punk, his first full-length album after a quarter century of performing. Despite his place in local music history, however, Wild may be best known for his personal eccentricities. Some regard him as Philadelphia’s answer to cult figures such as Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston, and Roky Erickson, although others will tell you what to do with that comparison. In either case, his performance is not a freak show. Wild’s band, which a fan tells me is less hectic but dirtier sounding than the previous lineup, plays a relatively straightforward set, and Wild still seems like the guy you could bump into on Philadelphia’s South Street.
In contrast, the headliner seems to have arrived from another world entirely. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Mr. Quintron is a one-man dance band or—to be more precise—a two-person band, since Miss Pussycat accompanies him on maracas and backup vocals. Quintron complements his own organ playing with a mouth machine and the Drum Buddy, a homemade instrument that uses a flashing lightbulb and rotating metal can to create rhythmic noises. The performance conveys the sense of idiosyncratic self-invention invoked by outsider art, an impression driven home after the music ends, when Miss Pussycat presents a puppet show about a pair of pirates who search for an underwater dance club. Then the evening concludes with a demonstration of Drum Buddy effects, as Quintron proudly shows off the unique qualities of his invention.
Attacking each song with an unsettling manic intensity, Quintron plays alternative-roots-rock kitsch that he describes as the soul-jazz of organist Jimmy Smith crossed with the cartoon mayhem of Raymond Scott. But Quintron’s recent I.F. 001-011, a collection of rare 1994 material, indicates how far from Smith he can stray when he eschews funky keyboards in favor of answering machines. Smith’s notion of breaking with tradition was to use a 24-bar chorus on a blues song; Quintron sounds more like someone playing Metal Machine Music backward in hopes of a hidden message. And where Raymond Scott seemed like a particularly creative engineer working in the R and D department, Quintron comes off more like a self-taught inventor building instruments out of spare parts in his basement.
I’m reminded of Quintron’s piecemeal aesthetic a couple weeks later, when I see Stereo Total. As their Total Pop compilation indicates, this multinational, multicultural, and multilingual group has an all-encompassing view of pop music, drawing inspiration and sometimes songs from Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, Jacques Dutronc, Cher, Salt-n-Pepa, KC and the Sunshine Band, Slim Harpo, indie lo-fi, bad karaoke singers, and ’80s new wave. The weirdest thing about this mishmash is that it doesn’t sound particularly weird. The music is very accessible, and both the band and the audience seem to be enjoying themselves, even if guitarist-organist Brezel Göring (who also builds homemade synthesizers) keeps leaving the stage between songs.
While I’m trying to figure out how self-conscious the group’s naive amateurism really is, chanteuse Françoise Cactus introduces a cover song by referring to Hot Chocolate as an American group. A guy in the audience corrects her by noting that the group was British, which prompts a discussion between the band members and audience regarding Hot Chocolate’s national origin. During this conversation, it strikes me that indie-rock scenesters don’t like pomo acts like Stereo Total or Quintron just because they reflect an ironic attitude toward pop culture; they also like them because of the sense of intimacy created between the performers and their relatively small audience. The musicians may be playing drum machines instead of acoustic guitars, but it’s really just another version of the fundamentally sentimental attraction to the folk musician who expresses himself through his authentic—or authentically inauthentic—art.
Of course, indie-rock fans are notorious for embracing obscure acts while resisting those that have achieved popular success. Perhaps this is just another version of the old elitist hippie opposition to mainstream pop, or perhaps it is because many indie-rock fans grew up with a more private relationship with music. Old schoolers who came of age in the ’60s are familiar with a world in which the music they considered exciting and innovative was both popular and part of a cultural revolution. So they believe rock music’s vitality is based partly on its ability to move large numbers of people, view its significance in terms of a broader social context, and are somewhat suspicious of cult bands that don’t appeal to a mass audience or at least a clearly defined subculture. For many indie-rock fans, however, music isn’t a way to define their membership in a large social group or be part of a moment in pop history. Their musical background didn’t consist of songs that everybody else in school knew and danced to at parties; it consisted primarily of solitary listening, although eventually they may have accumulated a small coterie of friends who share this exclusive knowledge. When they think in terms of a musical experience that’s social, if they think that way at all, it’s less likely to be a mass movement than an intimate experience with a few like-minded souls, such as listening to a band in someone’s living room.
So it’s not surprising that they despise current teenpop, for example, even though they accept acts like Stereo Total whose music is based on a similar junk culture aesthetic. For the pop-oriented fan and critic, however, the critical questions about teenpop and similar trends are fairly obvious. Should we dismiss the merit of music that is considered trivial and commercial, even though all rock music was once viewed this way? Should we dismiss music that is “manufactured,” even though this category covers a wide variety of music ranging from the Beatles to Faust? Are music industry operatives as adept at manipulating kids as their detractors believe, even though kids have real needs that the manipulators have to address in order to make money? Is it wrong for a musical act to develop a performance shtick and cater to a target audience, even though indie-rock cult bands do it too?
Ironically, indie-rock cultists accept performers whose inspired amateurism and awkward gestures of self-expression are often more suggestive of adolescence than the slickly crafted music of many teenpop bands. Performers like Mikey Wild, Quintron, and Stereo Total speak for our musical id, the part of us that wants to break free from social constraints and notions of adult respectability. Perhaps this is more attractive to adults, who’ve had to come to terms with these social rules, than to the teenyboppers who are just starting to suss them out.