on Poptimism in the Indie Rock world; a conversation with Greys’ Shehzaad Jiwani
If you’ve paid any attention to the music criticism/journalism world (or Music Twitter) over the past decade or so, but more so in recent years than ever, you’ve probably come across Poptimism and several arguments both for and against it. Poptimism is essentially a fight against Rockism, the idea that rock (and, at least in recent years, often specifically indie rock) is more authentic than pop music. I’d argue that poptimism is a good, necessary thing. Beyonce, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake have released some of the most interesting music of the past few years, and in some ways it’s more important to discuss that in an “indie” (umbrella term) environment than it is to even discuss a new Radiohead album. It’s safe to assume that a serious music fan will at least check out a new Radiohead album, but if that music fan generally associates challenging, innovative music with “indie” artists, they may miss that Bey, RiRi and JT are a hell of a lot more challenging and innovative than some indie rock band who sounds like The Fall or Dinosaur Jr. And really, the idea that sometimes the “indie” community treasures certain mainstream records isn’t a new idea at all. From The Beach Boys to Fleetwood Mac to Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna, we usually come around on masterpieces that come from the pop world. The increased focus on this stuff that music critics have had lately just speeds up the process.
But as someone who will always be first and foremost a rock fan — and if you read websites like this one, you may be that person too — it’s a little disheartening to see most of the great rock records of today get praised less often or less significantly than the pop stuff. Everything is cyclical, and the music world has gone from favoring accessible pop to more challenging obscure music and back to pop over and over again. We’re in a time right now where pop is getting the most attention, but there’s no lack of exciting guitar-based music. White Lung are bringing guitar heroics and massive choruses to punk without sacrificing speed or aggression. Destruction Unit are putting on eardrum-pounding live shows that’ll trip you out but make you mosh. Kvelertak and Tribulation are finding exciting ways to mix classic rock riffs with extreme metal vocals and actually sound catchy doing it. The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die, Foxing and The Hotelier are making post-emo indie rock that’s cathartic, expertly arranged, and too modern sounding to be a “revival” of anything. Pinegrove, Hop Along and Waxahatchee are making folk rock with a punk/DIY twist. Japandroids, Cloud Nothings, Cymbals Eat Guitars and Beach Slang are making the argument that indie rock in the traditional sense still sounds timeless if you have a whole lot of heart (and a good drummer). The list goes on, yet still it somehow feels like all of this stuff is a little overlooked.
One of the criticisms that gets thrown at people who discuss this stuff, is that only music writers care about poptimism, rockism, or any argument surrounding what music is “acceptable” to discuss critically. At the very least, it matters to some of the actual musicians too. I recently spoke to Shehzaad Jiwani, frontman of the blistering, shapeshifting Toronto noise punk band Greys, who said this stuff affects him and his band too. Greys are one of three rock bands (along with Cloud Nothings and Speedy Ortiz) on Carpark Records, a label that’s known more for chillwave and dream pop than music like Greys themselves. Their second album, Outer Heaven, comes out today (4/22) and it’s a massive step forward from their debut. That album felt pretty indebted to a handful of noise rock/post-hardcore influences (think AmRep, Touch & Go, etc) but Outer Heaven is all over the place (in a good way) and not quite like any particular band. Shehzaad sings a lot more melodically this time around, and he switches back and forth from softer vocals to the shouts he became known for. The guitars have a lot more effects, but not in an overbearing shoegazy way. And while fast punk songs remain, there’s almost an equal amount of slower atmospheric stuff. They say they were listening to Brian Eno more than Drive Like Jehu while writing this one, and both of those influences pop up in interesting ways.
Stream their new record in full, and read on for my conversation with Shehzaad about existing as an abrasive rock band in this pop-centric time.
AS: People in music criticism/journalism like to talk about poptimism in the indie rock world. We get deep about it and have all these debates, and then usually someone says something along the lines of “I don’t know if anybody except music writers care about this stuff.” But you had said that as a musician it’s something that affects you and that you interact with. So what I want to know is how does this stuff play into your world? As the singer of a rock band who plays loud abrasive music for a record label that’s often part of the current zeitgeist, how do you confront this stuff?
SZ: I don’t know if it’s a confrontation exactly, but it seems to me as if it might be a bit of an obstacle for bands like ourselves at the moment. Well firstly I should say, the idea of poptimism to me is inherently kind of a good thing because it sort of levels the playing field a little bit. And to me, that kind of hearkens back to film criticism, where certain publications wanted to talk about how Hollywood films were on the same level as art house films. I think that that is kind of an important thing, but it’s also important to maintain a distinction a little bit, because I think sometimes their functions can differ. Like a Hollywood blockbuster is not necessarily trying to communicate the same thing that an art house film would be trying to communicate. And I think that also translates to music, where bands like Sonic Youth or even current bands like us aren’t really trying to communicate the same things that, you know, Ariana Grande is. It becomes somewhat difficult for bands like us when the most amount of time and thought is given to someone like Taylor Swift, who is gonna get that attention anyway — like, every publication in the world could stop talking about Taylor Swift tomorrow and she’d still be Taylor Swift. So the obstacle is like, in this day and age there are already so many new bands and it’s so difficult to cover all of them, and it just sort of makes it even more difficult to find out about new bands because it’s easy to like pop music. If 50% of the real estate in music journalism is given to pop music, it’s easy for people to say “well, I’m just gonna listen to this ’cause it’s fun and easy to listen to,” and this complex strange guitar music that’s a little bit more challenging may fall by the wayside because people may not give it a chance because there’s not enough space to be covering all this stuff. And that’s not to say that jangly guitar rock hasn’t had its time in the sun or anything like that, but that doesn’t mean that it’s antiquated. I don’t think it’s less relevant by virtue of the fact that pop music is more relevant. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with covering pop music at all in any way, but it almost seems reflexive on certain people’s parts, where they’re sort of embracing the relative ease of pop music as if to say, “well this is great, Katy Perry is just as important as Swans or Pavement or whatever you wanna call it,” and that’s true! She is just as relevant, that’s 100% the case. But that doesn’t make something else totally irrelevant, if that makes any sense.
AS: You hear a lot of talk now about how “the kids don’t like rock,” they’re into rap or electronic music or pop or R&B, and if you want to know what the future is gonna be like you need to listen to the kids, not these aging people (usually men) who are just trying to keep alive the sound that they grew up on. But something I say a lot is that if you go see some of these bands who are considered more “punk” or “emo,” it’s almost only kids at the shows, and they’re singing every word and going wild and having a blast every night.
SZ: Yeah I mean at least in my experiences I haven’t seen a lack of kids at shows at all. People seem pretty down on guitar rock, but if it’s fun and if it’s vital to the kids, it’s always gonna be around in some way. It has less to do with the type of music and more to do with the personality of the band if that makes sense. I think that younger audiences don’t really discern between genre that much. You just like whatever you like and I think that’s one reason the whole poptimism thing even started. But for me what becomes problematic is if you just write off an entire genre of music, or like an entire instrument — you know what I mean? It’s like the guitar itself is such an antiquated thing in some people’s eyes, and I think that that’s going too far on the other side.
And I think there are still rock bands that resonate the way a band like Nirvana did with younger kids, I absolutely think that. Even people come up to us shows, and say “hey we saw you at this other show and we had never listened to…” you know whatever like Drive Like Jehu or Unwound or even Nirvana, and that’s awesome, you know? You’re supposed to have this gateway to other things, and I don’t think that just because it’s not in vogue or whatever means you have to write it off. It seems reactionary to me.
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AS: So in terms of kids interacting with rock music — so my personal was experience was I was about eight years old and I bought the first Now CD because it had the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls and stuff, and I ended up being totally blown away by the Everclear song on it, “I Will Buy You A New Life.” Which is not that edgy of a rock song but like, that was pretty much my introduction to alternative rock, modern rock, etc. With no perception of rock being cooler or more authentic than pop music, this Everclear song just hit me. Louder distorted guitars and faster tempos and more aggressive vocals just made sense to me. I couldn’t put that in words when I was eight, I just sang along and liked it, but me liking that sound kept being a trend. The next year I bought the Now 2 CD and fell in love with the Garbage song on it. So what I’m kind of wondering is, if it’s true that young kids aren’t getting into rock, what if they just aren’t getting exposed to it right now as easily as we were, and they would like it if they were hearing it?
SZ: I think they would! I really don’t see it being the case that an entire generation of people just wouldn’t like guitar music. I think if anything, they’re more diverse listeners. Because of the way you can listen to so many different things right now, I have to think that kids will just kind of get into everything. It is unfortunate that you only hear one side of things on the radio, but that’s not necessarily… like I feel like the ’90s was actually a pretty rare time where you’d hear alternative rock bands on those comps because that was pop music back then. Like Everclear weren’t Husker Du, they were a very popular rock band. I think maybe it will just take a little bit of time for us to figure out what kids are listening to right now. It’s like how the Deftones are now this critically accepted band, and we never would have expected that when we were kids.
AS: Right, I mean I was watching the video for “Minerva” on MTV and not discerning whether or not it was cooler than like, the video for “12:51″ by The Strokes. I was just like, both are cool.
SZ: Right, you just liked it all.
AS: Yeah. And Deftones are a perfect example of like, this is music kids actually liked in the early 2000s and late ’90s and people were saying that wasn’t good music at the time. But fast forward 15 years and those kids are critics, and they’re like “I don’t know man, it’s been 15 years and I still dig the Deftones.”
SZ: Yeah, I was listening to White Pony again pretty recently and thinking this is still pretty good, you know? It holds up, and they’re still a relevant band. I mean in a way you just answered the question. People might not be talking about indie rock as much but that doesn’t make it less valid than anything. I don’t think that anything that resonates with people is ever invalid.
AS: Of course.
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SZ: Like I may not like blink-182 but I can’t tell you that they’re not an important band because they’re an important band to a lot of people and that makes them relevant. Regardless of whether or not I like them or not. And regardless of whether or not some critic likes Katy Perry or some critic likes Stereolab, nobody is incorrect in a way. I mean I think there is such a thing as bad taste (laughs)…
I don’t think people are ignoring one type of music over another necessarily, but I do think that in time — exactly like you just said — people will realize that there’s a lot of really interesting noisy rock being made right now. Even stuff that isn’t part of this “’90s indie rock revival.” Even Viet Cong [or Preoccupations – Ed.], I don’t think that they’re particularly indebted to any one post-punk band. They’re doing a pretty interesting and unique thing. And it’s easy to compare rock music to other rock bands but I do think it’s somewhat short-sighted to say “this sounds like this so it’s not good.” I mean I definitely say that for a lot of things, like I think Vampire Weekend basically plays Paul Simon’s Graceland over and over again (laughs), and that’s an example of something that maybe doesn’t have a lot of imagination. But simply having an influence doesn’t make you irrelevant and doesn’t make you completely indebted to that one thing.
AS: So I recently wrote this article on BV about The 1975, and I guessed — and I could be so wrong because I’m someone who is not a young teenager — that they’re going to be a gateway band for young people. They openly associate with Taylor Swift and One Direction, but I think that they have this real rock image. The singer is this androgynous guy who performs like shirtless, in leather pants…
SZ: Like classically rock and roll.
AS: Yeah, and I like that he’s so rock and roll. I feel like some young person might see this guy because he’s only one degree of separation from Taylor and One Direction and stuff, and then the kid starts listening to The 1975 and then they find out that The 1975 are really influenced by, like, M83. And then they find M83 and get into them and find out that Anthony Gonzalez was really into shoegaze, and then they start listening to Loveless or something. All because they one time watched a 1975 video.
SZ: Yeah and I think that that’s totally going to happen and probably already does happen. Like for example, I was talking to an older friend and I was trying to explain that — for better or for worse — nowadays if young people want to find out what’s been deemed “cool” musically… Well okay let me start off by saying I think the ratio is probably about the same as it was in the ’60s of people who really give a shit about music and would go and buy every single by every band on the Nuggets comp or something. Like not every kid knew about those bands, but there was a percentage of kids who did know about all that stuff. And I think that that’s still true today. Not everyone is gonna care about stuff on that level but of course there are still people who do. And by virtue of that, you now have kids who are getting into music the same way that we did, whether it’s The 1975 or whether it’s like, finding out that Radiohead also did a version of the Bond theme song if you liked Sam Smith’s, but that could get you into that band. There are gateways all over the place and I don’t think that’s ever gonna change. But on top of that you also have this new trend of kids who don’t have to sift through garbage to get to the good stuff.
Now, I think this is good and bad. It’s very good because you have — like our bass player Colin is three years younger than me, and I grew up just before the internet and still had to sift through a lot of stuff to find what was cool, but he grew up a little later with the ability to essentially find out immediately what is cool and what is not. Now you kind of have those Ten Commandments records like all over the place. You knew that Loveless is a cool record before you even heard it, you know what I’m saying? Like you and I knew whenever we were getting into Sonic Youth, that they were deemed acceptable and cool and that every band that we like liked them. And that’s totally interesting to me because you have kids automatically getting into cool shit. Like I just worked with a band from Toronto called Casper Skulls, who are significantly younger than me, and they’re talking about like Jim O’Rourke and Harold Budd and Broadcast and Stereolab and all these great artists, but then I’ll mention a band like Failure to them and they’ll be like “oh yeah, we’re not into that.” And they made a comment like “oh maybe you like it ’cause you liked it when you were a kid,” and that was interesting to me, because it was like they didn’t even have to listen to that band as kids because they were just given the cool stuff right off the bat (laughs). And that’s awesome. I mean maybe the downside to that is that taste becomes a little big homogenized because it’s totally based on what is deemed acceptable. That sort of personalized taste may be getting lost a little bit because you just automatically know what’s cool, but at the same time you just inherit good taste and you can make good art from that as well. So I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, I think it’s just a thing that dictates the direction of people’s trajectory.
AS: I do think knowing all these records are cool before you even hear them does homogenize things a bit in a negative way. Because you’re told over and over again who the great bands are, and because they don’t change, I tend to be pretty uninterested in new bands who come out that sound like cool ’80s bands. Because I’m kinda like, I went through my phase of discovering those bands, I spent a long time listening to the ones that meant something to me personally, and when I started hearing people around my age form new bands and play exactly that type of music, I basically thought, “oh so you had a really similar experience to me, but you’re just not an original songwriter and those bands were, and all I really gain from your record is that you like the same bands as me.”
So I do think that can be negative. But on the other hand, to go back to the “indie criticism” world for a second, when early Pitchfork said that Sonic Youth made the #1 absolute best album of the ’80s, that was a statement. Like whether or not Daydream Nation is the best album of the ’80s, saying it is means something more than just liking it a lot. And I think that list, or other lists like it, is a big part of why that band has lived up so well with younger generations — because of how obvious it was that you needed to hear that record. And even as recent as the mid-2000s, it was so easy to go on blogs and realize you should be listening to Arcade Fire or Wolf Parade or whatever, who were certainly not — like I think in 2005, the year Wolf Parade’s first album came out, Mariah Carey had one of the top-selling singles of that year. And I would say in 2016, that first Wolf Parade record feels a lot more relevant than whatever hit Mariah Carey had in 2005. But if you look at some of the critic lists of last year, you’re actually more likely to find Top 40 pop artists than a rock band who wouldn’t fit on the radio. I think there’s a place for both, and I think one of the best things about the internet is that music listening has become more about niches. That said, like Taylor Swift gets her #1 record and her Grammy win and her arena tours, but like you said earlier, if every critic stops writing about her tomorrow, she’s still gonna be extremely famous. But the music critics who focused on obscurer stuff than Taylor Swift, those were the people you would learn about a band like Sonic Youth from. So what I wonder is, is it easy for kids right now to learn about a more challenging rock band, or is it kind of impossible because the majority of critics are focused on things like following along with the elaborate rollouts for pop albums?
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SZ: Yeah I mean the only reason we even know about the bands we referenced like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine is because the tastemakers told us to listen to them. I don’t need to be told by a cutting edge pop-culture website that I need to listen to the Rihanna record, you know what I mean? Like I’m gonna hear it, it’s gonna be everywhere. Like give it a review, certainly, but maybe give a little more lip service to the bands who don’t really get to have the kind of attention someone like Rihanna does.
AS: Even more importantly than whatever critics say, I think the only way we could even have this conversation is if there’s truly an overlooked indie subculture at the moment. So everything is cyclical, right? Like when things got super poppy at the end of the ’80s, it was the perfect time for a band like Nirvana to take over. And of course Nirvana weren’t the first band to do what they were doing. Husker Du or The Replacements had been doing it and that type of music just kept bubbling up until it finally burst with the whole grunge thing. And then I think that happened again in the early ’00s during the boy bands/Limp Bizkit/Sum 41 era, and you got bands like The Strokes who felt like a breath of fresh air, or Modest Mouse and the White Stripes seeing actual huge success, or even Sigur Ros. Sigur Ros seems like way too weird of a band to break right now, but they kind of came at the perfect time to be an anti-commercial-sounding band and leave a huge impact. Pretty much every year for the past four years, I’ve been feeling like a weirder, or more abrasive, or more challenging rock band is gonna break through and put that music back in the spotlight, but it never fully happens. The most acclaimed rock band of the past few years is probably Tame Impala, and I like Tame Impala’s last record but also Rihanna covers a song from it on her new record. They’re kinda closer to the R&B/pop thing right now than they are to a rock thing. So what I wanna know is, do you think there’s a cohesive indie subculture bubbling up all over again right now?
SZ: I think that it absolutely is happening. It’s happening in local communities. I mean we’re on a label in Toronto called Buzz Records and we’re part of a community that has not just our label, but a bunch of other labels like Telephone Explosion and Hand Drawn Dracula. We’re all part of a greater community and all those labels have their own characteristics, and that kind of thing is happening in cities all over the world, certainly in cities all over North America. And each of those scenes have bigger bands that travel elsewhere and spread the word about their scenes, which frankly is exactly what those underground bands in the ’80s were doing. And it’s simply a matter of waiting for someone who’s like, the age Michael Azzerad was in the ’80s. Because remember he wrote Our Band Could Be Your Life 20 years after the book starts, so he’s writing it from a perspective where he could see the dots and connect them between those bands. Right now it’s impossible to do that because we don’t know the trajectory of these bands, and we’re not as familiar with these scenes, because it hasn’t been written in stone and it hasn’t been mythologized that way. Like I absolutely, from my perspective as both a touring artist and a local artist, see it in Toronto. There’s very, very, very vital music coming out of here. I think a lot of the bands doing it here are some of my favorite bands regardless of me being friends with a lot of them. I genuinely love every single band on Buzz, I go to their shows not because we’re friends but because I enjoy their music. And not just our label. I go to see The Soupcans whenever they play here because I think they’re one of the best punk bands in the world. And I go to see Odonis Odonis because I’ve never seen a band that sounds like Odonis Odonis before and every time I see them they blow my mind. There are bands like that in almost every city, you just have to look for it. And those bands will hopefully get to a point where they get to travel and bring those styles to other cities, the exact same way that Black Flag did with the bands on SST. You know, they’d bring them out on tour or you’d hear about them because you bought something else from the label. And you do that now with labels like Don Giovanni or Run For Cover or Topshelf, the same way you would with Sub Pop or Touch & Go. And I think that is very much alive and happening currently, and you just have to pay attention to it. And I think that young people are paying attention to it. People come up to us at our shows in the states — and remember Buzz Records is a tiny label from Toronto — and people in New York ask us about it all the time. Like I see people in New York wearing Teenanger tee-shirts, and people in Kansas will ask us about Dilly Dally, and people in Seattle will be like, “oh do you know this band The Beverleys?” and it’s like yeah I recorded that band, these are our friends.
And it must happen with other bands too. When we travel, people wanna know about Toronto and we’re happy to talk about it, and I have to imagine that when Big Black were touring in the ’80s they absolutely were talking about the Touch & Go bands and the Chicago scene. And any band from Olympia that toured around then were probably extremely proud to be from Olympia, like the K Records bands. And I’ve seen that with the bands on Buzz too. A friend sent me a text the other day saying they saw two kids talking, one in a Greys shirt and one in a Dilly Dally shirt. And that to me is exactly what you said. These are kids who are very much aware that these things are happening and want them to happen. These communities speak to people.
Philadelphia’s got such an amazing scene too. You’ve got Ranch Records bands like Gunk and Spirit of the Beehive and that kind of thing. Those bands are amazing. And when we play with those guys, it’s like oh this is just like Toronto. You see those communities in every city. They’re not doing it to become rich and famous, they’re doing it because they love it and because they have to do it, and that’s precisely the reason that those bands we look up to did it 30 years ago. And I could not be more thrilled to live in a time right now where it’s like, it’s ours. We’re the young people doing these things and kids are listening to us, and maybe the next generation will have that Nirvana band. But there’s no point in looking for it… or actually maybe there is a point in looking for it because maybe you’ll find that band in your community, and that’s always the most exciting thing. Discovering that thing that could be your life.
Greys will begin a tour soon that includes a record release show in NYC on Monday (4/25) at Alphaville with Washer, The Cradle and The Hot Flood (which, full disclosure, I am a member of). Tickets for that show are on sale.
Greys — 2016 Tour Dates
April 22 — Allston, MA @ O’Brien’s
April 23 — Philadelphia, PA @ First United Church
April 24 — Washington, DC @ Comet Ping Pong
April 24 — Brooklyn, NY @ Alphaville
April 26 — Cleveland, OH @ Mahall’s
April 27 — Detroit, MI @ PJ’s Lager House
April 28 — Kalamazoo, MI @ Millhouse
April 29 — Chicago, IL @ Mousetrap
May 13 — Toronto, ON @ The Garrison
May 27 — Sudbury, ON @ The Asylum
May 29 — Winnipeg, MB @ Handsome Daughter
May 30 — Saskatoon, SK @ Vangelis
May 31 — Edmonton, AB @ The Buckingham
June 1 — Calgary, AB @ Broken City
June 4 — Seattle, WA @ Black Lodge
June 6 — Portland, OR @ Valentine’s
June 8 — San Francisco, CA @ Hemlock Tavern
June 9 — Los Angeles, CA @ The Smell
June 11 — San Diego @ The Merrow
June 13 — Denver, CO @ Hi-Dive
June 14 — Lawrence, KS @ Jackpot
June 15 — Chicago, IL @ Subterranean