The State Of New York’s Indiepop Scene: A Roundtable Discussion


“I don’t think any indie pop bands or fans really cried out for attention,” Clyde Erwin Barretto told the Voice in this week’s feature about the recent rise of New York’s indie pop scene. Well, they’re getting some.

The NYC Popfest, co-organized by Barretto, recently marked its sixth year of celebrating all that is jangly, haze-shrouded and jubilantly forlorn with a weekend that included local new jacks like Heavens Gate and UK imports like Allo Darlin’, while the similarly themed local dance party Mondo has been quietly going strong for eight years. And while the Lower East Side indie incubator Cake Shop has been hit with a number of unexpected legal difficulties recently, several of its most high-profile graduates have reached out to offer their support.

Events and clubs like these have helped create a fertile landscape for indie pop in New York, as seen by the recent success of outdoor-festival staples like The Drums and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. It wasn’t always thus. When the Voice talked with Michael Grace Jr. of the beloved sweaterclad post-punks My Favorite recently, he talked about watching his group getting overshadowed by buzzier acts. And while indie pop will likely never be a Hot New Sound like dance-punk or chillwave, it’s undeniably having a bit of a moment in New York. SOTC gathered some of the New York’s primary experts in the field—Barretto, Grace Jr., Mondo DJs Maz and Miss Modular, the Drums’ Jacob Graham, Cake Shop co-owner Andy Bodor, and Pains frontman and indie pop Padawan Kip Berman—to discuss the genre’s recent rise, what makes it so special, and what the heck the term “indie pop” means, anyway.

If you were asked to describe what indie pop is, exactly, what would you say? It can seem a bit nebulous at times, so let’s get something solid down here.

Clyde Barretto (Popfest): Well, it has been a nebulous concept for quite some time because I don’t think any indie pop bands or fans really cried out for “attention.” For me indie pop is, well, bands, music, fans, that were most likely influenced by the whole C86, Sarah and Factory Records era. And there’s just a particular sound and or feeling to it, a whole aesthetic surrounding the whole scene. There’s a vibe that you just “get.” I tend to see a lot of trends and styles that seem to have taken after it too without even knowing. And as they say “it is what it is.”

Maz (Mondo): Yeah, it’s hard to describe. It’s a relatively young genre—starting out in the mid-’80s in the UK. It was inspired by the punk rock/DIY ethos, and also by melodic ’60s pop. I think the spectrum of indie pop bands is more varied now than ever before, but they all share a similar philosophy. (Note: Both Maz and Miss Modular asked the Voice not to print their real names.)

What were the gateway drugs?

Maz: I started listening to music in the early-mid 90’s. Back then I was mostly listening to Britpop and indie rock. I was sort of obsessed with all things British. Bands like Belle & Sebastian, Orange Juice and The Field Mice led me into discovering the Sarah Records catalogue, and the lesser-known indie pop bands from across the UK and Sweden.

What is it about the style and community that you find so appealing?

Jacob Graham (The Drums): I feel like the sort of music we like has really only just really become popular again or even acceptable again within the past few years. But when we were younger, we were definitely more experimental with what we were doing and, y’know, just really kind of bizarre things: wearing capes and playing synthesizers and things like that. Maybe parts of me mellowed out in our old age, but we also got all the experimentation out of our system and are just pretty adamant about what we like and we can kind of stick to that.

CB: For me, there was a similar vibe to punk rock. The whole DIY mindset and just playing music because you love it and not just because it’s the flavor of the month is what drawn me to it. A lot of the fans truly do love the music and are loyal. I’ve met a lot of great friends and people throughout the years after having starting to listen to indie pop and that makes the community really appealing to me. It’s sincere.

Since you’ve started the Mondo Dance Night Parties, have you noticed an increased presence and popularity for indie pop artists in New York?

Miss Modular: Yes definitely. I am always shocked when I go into a store and happen to hear The Radio Dept. I don’t think at that time (2004, when the parties began) people were really ready to accept a band like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart for example. Cool was in, awkward was out. That said, there are still a plethora of incredible bands that remain undiscovered by the indie masses simply because they don’t fit a certain mold. So we’re not where we’d like to be exactly–but this is what makes the indie pop scene so special.

Is there something about New York that makes it particularly well-suited to have so many indie pop centric events and clubs?

Miss Modular: I am not sure I agree that there are “so many” events and clubs promoting indie pop. I often have to explain to people what indie pop even means just to get a perplexed look staring back at me.

Maz: In some ways, it becomes easier to put together NYC Popfest each year because more people are aware of what the genre is… and what it is not.

Did you and the rest of the crew at Cake Shop set out to make the venue a home for these sort of bands, or did it just happen more or less on its own?

Andy Bodor (Cake Shop): Our name was taken from a Swell Maps song afterall. So yes, we did set out as a place to house that style of music which we felt for a time was a little under represented. At the time, Cause Co-MOTION! were setting their own trail and were really one of the only real crash-pop/art pop bands going in 2004… about a year or two later, Vivian Girls and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart were popping up and playing the club regularly.

With a lot of the bands, I know exactly where they’re coming from. So many of those bands started with one person and a four track, or I guess now some Iphone garageband app, on their beds. If they’re brave enough to go out and make a friend, then its two people on the carpet working out a hook or a harmony. There’s just always a need for a fresh pop hook, from all the music i’ve been exposed to, I still get enraptured in some new hook I haven’t heard before.

The name “Popfest” is somewhat amusing, because not only is what the festival presents not what most of America considers “pop music,” the artists you tend to feature are rarely considered the hippest new thing on the indie scene. How much of that contrast is on purpose? To what extent should we view the name ironically?

CB: Well, we don’t view it as ironic. If you think about the term “pop” in music itself, it is actually decades old pertaining to pop artists from the ’50s and ’60s. The artists from back then such as The Shangri-Las, The Beach Boys, The Ronettes, etc. have much more in common with the indie pop and twee acts that perform at New York City Popfest. Much more in common than what you hear on Top 40s radio stations. And today, some bands that have started out at our event such as The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and The Drums have become some of the “hippest” bands in the indie rock scene.

JG: it’s a brilliant festival because of that and I think what it really boils down to is that the festival isn’t really focused on genres so much as it is just pop songs. I think that if everyone was honest with themselves–and this is just my opinion–but I think that if everyone was really honest with themselves, that’s what people actually like.

Following up on that, indie pop is rarely an in vogue alternative sound (as opposed to things like disco-punk, garage rock, chillwave etc.) but it never really goes away, either. It seems like a sound and scene that is there for whomever wants it, year in and year out, trends be damned. Why do you think it has so much longevity?

CB: Each year there’s some new genre that is buzzing for a few moments maybe even a year or two. But indie pop and pop has been around for decades. The people who love indie pop love indie pop for years. We dig up the records from the ’70s. We go see bands who were around in the ’90s. A lot of today’s bands just tend to come and go, and the ethos of being DIY and passionate about what you do is what has kept us in the pop scene for all of these years.

JG: I mean, it’s been going on for 30 years now and it’s kind of like it’s stood the test of time, y’know? It’s really interesting to recall that because there are such wildly different genres happening within it, but it’s all kind of unified by that kind obsession with pop songs.

Michael Grace Jr. (The Secret History/My Favorite): The advantage of the indie pop scene is that it was born from that sort of punk and indie belief—indie concept—of believers and belief. So they come to the music with a sense of aspiration. They want to connect, they want to believe, they wanna form community. And sometimes that is kind of annoying and kind of smothering. But in other times it gives you a sort of foundation to kind of put a foot forward. So, y’know, I’m an indie pop kid even though you’re more likely to find me listening to David Johanssen solo record or like, uh, Erik Satie or something like that. I’m not listening to these strum n’ hum bands that much.

But those kids, their belief I think is kind of beautiful because, other subcultures that are interested in music, it really is about the fan and their clothes and their record collection as a sort of soundtrack for their aspirations of being cooler than other people. And indie pop is, if anything, an aspiration of being less cool. And I can respect that.

Does indie pop ever seem too willfully self-limiting? Are there drawbacks to ignoring the outside world and focusing on a more classical approach?

JG: There are always going to be people who appreciate it, but if you’re not mixing the drums quite loud enough, there’s always going to be somebody that says ‘well, you can’t quite rise above that because of that.’ That’s how it goes, I guess. But it’s kind of a choice to make. A band like My Favorite is kind of legendary for having this amazing sound, and I feel like 20 years from now, My Favorite will be more beloved than those sort of, like, newer new-wave bands from a few years ago.

In a way, it’s a business decision to choose to have longevity rather than be slightly more famous than you currently are or something. It’s amazing to look at bands like the Durutti Column, who have been consistently putting out albums for almost 30 years now and everything they’ve done is consistently good. They’ve never really been, like, a household name, but there are so many people who love what (songwriter Vini Reilly) does. That’s definitely… that’s the potential I want to be in.

What do you think sets indie pop apart from other genres?

Kip Berman (The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart): Indie pop is a self-sustaining community that’s never really been fully exploited or co-opted by the record industry (and probably never will be). Yes, Orange Juice had some chart hits, Belle and Sebastian played late-night TV and Teenage Fanclub were Kurt Cobain’s favorite two words for a while. But indie pop is inherently unpopular, despite sounding incredibly palatable, because it cultivates a healthy distrust towards the trappings of what mainstream “rock”—or even mainstream “indie”—represents. It’s inclusive in the way that punk was meant to be and has created a shadow world that can exist, however modestly, without sponsorship or mainstream critical recognition: its own festivals, online networks and media outlets.

Another aspect of indie pop that I believe allows it to have a consistent vitality is that it has the highest representation of female band members, club promoters, DJ’s and festival bookers of any non-gender specific genre (riot grrl, queercore, etc.). Think about a generic list of “10 Greatest Rock Bands of the 1990s” in a mainstream magazine. It would be a list of all men, with maybe The Smashing Pumpkins’ D’arcy, Tori Amos or Courtney Love as the lone eXXceptions. That’s a list of 40 to 45 musicians, with maybe 3 being sexed female.

The hypothetical indie pop list of that era would probably have a third to one half of the bands comprised of women, and many in non-“pink collar” positions like lead singers, drummers and guitarists. indie pop still has a long ways to go towards true gender equity, but compared to what is out there in “indie rock,” punk, hip hop, metal and hardcore, it has made the most progress in being gender-inclusive of any genre I can think of. The interesting part is, only mainstream pop and possibly folk comes to mind as places where female artists are represented equally to their male counterparts.

But because indie pop rejects macho posturing and has many women in leadership/heroic positions (Andrea from My Favorite, Amelia from Talulah Gosh/Heavenly/Tender Trap, Pam Berry from Black Tambourine, Elizabeth from ‘Allo Darlin, etc.), it is often perceived and denounced by mainstream or indie rock media sources in coded homophobic language. Words like “limp,” “soft,” “fey,” “crying,” and “sensitive” [are] the very opposite of what we’re taught “real rock” should be—namely a hard cock, aggressive guitar riffs, and screaming superficial bacchanalian odes to hetero-sex, drugs and the myth of the rock star. Don’t get me wrong, I’m into that stuff too. And there is no shortage of sex, drugs and transgression in the indie pop world. But I think indie pop’s perpetual distrust for the trappings of “success” has been self-fulfilling. Every time we do something that feels “successful” I feel like our indie pop friends likely grumble beneath their breath about how we’re not “indie pop” anymore. Maybe they’re right, And I totally get that—but I also get a thrill out of playing my limp, soft songs about sex and drugs on TV.

The Drums and Hospitality play 4Knots Music Festival on Saturday, July 14, at South Street Seaport.