Taking the Indie Life in a New Direction

IMG_1497Anyone following this blog (or should I say, anyone left still following this blog?) would know that I’ve been on a little hiatus from blogging. Ok that’s an understatement. The last post I made dubbed Arcade Fire the Kings of Indie following their “newest” release, Reflektor. Yeah, it’s been a while.

So, what have I been doing with my lengthy blogging sabbatical? Besides teaching, researching, and otherwise fulfilling my professorial responsibilities?

Take a look:


Yep, I’ve been traveling… a lot. My research and teaching have had me outside the U.S. for a good portion of the last two years…and it’s not letting up any time soon.  I’ve always believed that the “Indie Life” is one dedicated to exploring the under-explored, experiencing the in-experienced, and an altogether rejection of the mainstream. My travels with the Indie Girl and my Indie Kids have followed that tune.

So I thought, why not mix my 3 favorite things: My Family, Traveling, and Indie Music?

So,  I’ve launched a new endeavor for This Indie Life…an Indie Music meets Indie Traveling YouTube Channel called Expatriate Snippets. There, I post short quirky travel videos highlighted by some deep Indie music to promote great music and great places to travel.

I’ve also launched a corresponding travel blog at http://expatriatesmiths.blogspot.com, where I have been posting travel insights. I’ll continue posting on This Indie Life as well.

Subscribe to the channel, leave a comment, or like. I’d love to get your feedback. I’ll continue to post on this blog, but will also leave more in-depth insight on the


The Kings of Indie?

History has yet to conclusively decide who is the undisputed the king of rock and roll (hint: It’s the Beatles), but the race for the king of Indie may already be won (yes, I know I mixed my metaphors, just stay with me here). The last decade and a half has been the age of Indie. There’s indie everything: Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Indie Bluegrass, lo-fi Indie, hi-fi Indie, and an indie designation for nearly every country and language. Such is the grandeur of the movement toward rejecting the degradation of society from bane and vacuous mainstream pop music–which I call the “Indie Movement”.

But here’s the rub, with so many different types of Indie, is it possible to crown just one band king? Yes, yes it is.

There are plenty of worthy heirs for the kingship. But if we’re going to name one, it has to be:


Arcade Fire.

Here’s why:

Arcade Fire is a singular “Indie” talent because with every album they redefine what it means to be Indie. They’re not just writing low-fi songs that are an “acquired taste” (read: Categorical music that has dubbed Indie “boring”). They’re also not straddling the pop line–selling out a little to get radio playability while reserving their deeper tracks for the Indie enthusiast (The Black Keys flirted with this on their last album). And most importantly, they’re not just writing songs that inevitably have to do with overdone themes (i.e. lost love, lost happiness, new love, new happiness).

No, Arcade Fire is substance. They’re meaning and melody, without one overpowering the other. Their music carries an air that says, “We don’t care if you like this stuff. We like it. If you don’t, get out of the way and let us play”. Case in point: their Grammy performance in which they played Month of May as the credits rolled and producers cut transmission.

I found Arcade Fire with 2007’s Neon Bible. Black Mirror, Intervention, Ocean of Noise. They pushed “alternative music” further than any music I had ever heard. I dug into Funeral and was convinced, this band was unique. Three years later, I heard the Suburbs and I was converted.  Three years after their Best Album Grammy win, their newest album, Reflektor, only pushes the dimensions of “alternative” music further. They’re so far ahead of the pack with their musical innovation, it’s not even close.

To be honest, though, I wasn’t sold on Reflektor on the first and second listens. My first time through, I actually thought it was bland and unmemorable. And then I heard After Life and Joan of Arc, and I started coming around. The title track “Reflektor”–a song that originally disappointed me–turned me around completely. (Download it from IndieRockCafe.com for free here)

That’s the magic of Arcade Fire, and what makes them the kings of indie. They don’t monotonous mass produce radio-friendly hits that inevitably wear on you nerves after a few listens and end up driving you mad after a week. Their music is deep, enigmatic, and intense. It stays with you a fleeting memory and resurfaces like a forgotten memory. On Reflektor, none of the songs appear, at first listen, to be phenomenal, but each grabs you and pulls you in, until, without warning, you find the subdued beats and melodies echoing in your subconscious. Unlike overplayed pop songs you can’t get out of your head, it’s a pleasant experience. And the effect is not age discriminant. My pre-K son will often spontaneously start chanting the French echo chorus of Joan of Arc: Jeanne d’Arc even if it’s been days since he heard the song.

Reflektor is further proof that Arcade Fire push the boundaries of alternative music with their lyrical depth and mastery of melody (alliteration is awesome). No doubt, we’ll be seeing an encore performance at the Grammy Awards. Let’s hope this time the producers don’t cut transmission this time.

The Essence of Indie: The Raw and Organic

There used to be a time when Indie meant something; when Indie was unknown bands with weird names that you heard on a college campus or sitting in a CD store in the $1 bin. But today, everything is “Indie” and we have more “Indies” than we know what to do with—Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Indie Rap, Low-Fi Indie, etc.. In short, Indie has become a meaningless add-on moniker to gives something credibility, as in “I’m not hipster”.

 I think it’s time to define Indie for what it is and what it means. We can’t use the technical definition–that the band is “independent or unsigned—since recognized indie bands are signed (see Cutie, Death Cab for). No, it’s time to define Indie by its unique lyrical and musical features. In short, what makes Indie, well, Indie, is its sound.

Though there may be many qualities that define the Indie sound, I think the characteristic allure evolving in today’s Indie song is its raw and grainy imperfection mixed with vocal harmonies that challenge the over-produced and orderly smoothness of mainstream music. The Indie sound is organic and challenges mainstream’s mass-produced sound with the feeling that the song could have been recorded anywhere and could change on any given listening. Case in point? The Lumineers’ Stubborn Love produced in a bus.

In essence, the Indie sound removes the barriers between listener and producer, and puts you in the experience of the music itself.  Rather than just singing along with a song, you get the feeling that your singing along adds to the song’s musical quality. (The Lumineers’ “Stubborn Love” is one such song). In short, the essence of Indie is its open-endedness in making music a co-created experience.

Some of my favorite Indie bands that demonstrate this organic edginess:

(Note: Some of these downloads are from Noisetrade, a free download site for promoting Indie bands. I highly recommend making a donation if you like the music.)

 The Lumineers

I have already mentioned the Lumineers, and their meteoric rise in mainstream might classify them as mainstream now, but, popular or not, their raw sound is Indie perfection.  Doubtless you know “Ho Hey” already, from its constant radio presence and last year’s Bing commercial.  My personal favorite is Submarines, but the entire album is worth buying.

Free Download: The Lumineers – Ho Hey; Slow it Down via Indie Rock Cafe

The Oh Hellos

I recently discovered this brother-sister duo on Noisetrade, and have been smitten ever since. Their sound is characterized by what I call an un-edited graininess to their vocal harmonies and musical arrangements. Their music is folksie yet tribal, and every song builds to an emotional avalanche at the end. They are a must-hear. See their track “The Valley” in the free download below:

Free Download: The Oh Hellos – Through The Deep Dark Valley (Album) via Noisetrade

Of Monsters and Men

Another well-recognized band, I’ve chosen this Icelandic marvel because of quirky chants that elicit singing along (as evidenced in numerous road trips in my Indie-mobile with 4 kids). What’s more, OM&M have some of the most intriguing subject matter for their lyrical productions, including Six Weeks, which is a recount of frontiersman Hugh Glass’s 6 week ordeal after a bear attack.

Free Download: Of Monsters and Men – Lake House via Indie Rock Cafe

Great Lake Swimmers

This one comes with a minor disclaimer, that I think their newest album went too mainstream folk/bluegrass (if there is such thing) for my tastes. But their Legion Sessions is a must-own for any Indie Collection. From the lyrical genius of Sill to the haunting undertones of Stealing Tomorrow from Today, this band clearly knows how to grab you emotionally and bury you in the music.

Free Download: The Great Lake Swimmers – The Legion Sessions via NoiseTrade

Other Favorites:

Freelance Whales – Generator 1st Floor

Thad Kopec – The World Was Young 

Sooner the Sunset – All Becaue of You 

The Walkmen – We Can’t Be Beat

Deadman’s Bones – My Body’s a Zombie for You

Ivan and Alyosha – On My Way

Jenny & Tyler – Fear Thou Not, Hold on Hope

Intimate Indie, or Tweeting with your friendly neighborhood Indie Band

I’m not the first to claim that the last decade has been the Indie decade. And it’s not just because companies are increasingly using Indie songs in their commercials. Nor is it the Indie sound (though both are arguably driving forces). No, the hallmark of the rise of Indie is the connection. Call me sappy, but Indie bands know that their popularity starts with their audience. It’s the intimacy of the small venue that puts them on the level with their fans. However, until the last 5-10 years, that intimacy was limited to the the small venue, the record store, or the zealous band member who builds popularity one fan at a time.

Where am I going with this? (There is a point, promise). If intimacy with its fans drives Indie, then the rise of Indie should be attributed to the ever-incrasing opportunity digital media provides for the fan-band connection. I had one such experience this weekend. A band with sounds similar to the ones I commonly laud on Twitter named “Pawns or Kings” reached out to me and offered me their music for my personal delectation and critique. Sure, this is similar to basic media relations, but this was anything but the basic press package one would expect. No, It was selective and personal. It was a conversation, and one that turned me on to their music:

Now, one Twitter contact won’t build anyone a fan base, but knowing HOW to use social media will. And Pawns or Kings is only the latest in a line of Indie bands I’ve interacted with that take advantage of social media to show their fans of their fans, including Sugar and the Hi-LowsTen Out of Tenn, Vinyl Thief, Nick Waterhouse, and Pepper Rabbit.

And you know what helps? That their music is innovative and enjoyable. And to their credit, Pawns or Kings’ music is just that. At times frivolous and others deeply meaningful and moving, I’ve quite taken to their music. I’m particularly smitten with “Sister of the Sun”.

So, check out Pawns or Kings, and then Tweet your favorite Indie Band and see how they do in building a connection with you.

When an Indie song isn’t…

I admit it. I, too, get excited by a retweet or reply on Twitter, especially if it’s a musician or band I enjoy. My most recent crazed fan experience was last week.

The musician: Nick Waterhouse.

The topic: This

Being too big an Indie aficionado for my own good, I can usually name the “unknown” song on commercials before they go all buzzy online. In fact, I’ve usually moved on from the song and am on to something else by the time I hear the song on the commercial. But the commercial usually reinvigorates interest for me. Thinking about this phenomenon, I posted the following tweet:


The response came almost immediately:


It had never dawned on me that what I call Indie probably has no meaning for (who I’d term) the Indie artist. Truth be told, Waterhouse’s music is probably more funk, soul, and R&B than it is traditional Indie (as might be defined by Juno and Nick and Norah). Truth be told, Indie is probably just as it sounds: Music from unsigned, independent bands, thus “Indie”.

But over the last few years, Indie music, in my mind, has become more about the sound than the band’s status as unsigned and “independent”. Case in point: bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, and Vampire Weekend are hallmarks of Indie music, but “independent” and unsigned, they are not. It’s the sound that defines the genre, and Indie sound is a rejection of the mainstream, sell-out radio-endorsed music that clutters the airwaves. It’s also broader than limiting it to one “type” of music (i.e. electronic, rock, etc.). The best indie is genre-defining and is often a fusion of multiple styles. (Take Mariachi El Bronx for example: a Punk and Mariachi fusion. Yeah, you’ve got to hear it).

So, to Nick Waterhouse, whose music is genre bending enough to be called Indie, I say: Indie music is innovative, musical style that rejects the mainstream…

….and that may or may NOT be, technically, independent.

Defining the Essence of Indie

Maybe you’re like me. Whenever I say I’m an Indie music fan, or I announce my favorite bands include Mates of State, The Great Lake Swimmers, and Freelance Whales, I am usually met with a confused expression. I have even met the occasional inculto who denounces Indie music as boring, low-fi dribble that is hardly listenable. Maybe Indie is an acquired taste, or maybe, most people just haven’t been properly educated beyond the Nick and Norah’s Playlists of Hollywood or the occasional television commercial:

Or maybe, most people have been brainwashed by the catchiness of the otherwise monotonous melodies and lyrical dribble of the so-called “radio playable” mainstream.

Of course, Indie-lovers will disagree with the mainstream mumbo jumbo that Indie is just low-fi boredom. But the problem of Indie may be even more complex for us aficionados. After all, ask 100 Indie fans what Indie is, and you’ll get 100 answers. Heck, ask one Indie fan what Indie and you’ll get 100 answers, or 100 bands, whichever comes first. Either way, none of the above helps anyone answer the question: How does one know if one is listening to Indie.

Strictly speaking, Indie music is music developed and produced by Independent artists (those either unsigned or represented by an Independent label). This definition presents a further problem: What if an Indie band is signed by a non-independent record label. Does said band thus forfeit its right to be Indie?

Of course, that’s ludicrous. So the only other answer is that there must be an Indie-ness to Indie Music—an essence that qualifies it as Indie. After all, Indie is neither Alternative Rock nor Bubble Gum Pop, but yet there is Indie Rock and Indie Pop.

Clearly, there is a need to conceptualize “Indie”. And, of course, it has to be more than whether the music was featured on the Juno Soundtrack or whether the band’s name looks like it was derived from random Wikipedia pages (i.e. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Ha Ha Tonka, and Architecture in Helsinki).

The heart of Indie may be in its rejection of the mainstream mundane, and though this has led to numerous permutations of what could be considered Indie, in this wake of musical revolution, some hallmarks of Indie may be notable, including its vocal variety, fusion of musical styles, instrumental innovation, and lyrical superiority to mainstream radio-playability.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be devoting this blog space to building a case for what constitutes Indie-ness, complete with legally FREE DOWNLOADS, which is also a hallmark of Indie. Stay tuned.

Truly Wonderstruck

Brian Selznick is really carving out a niche for himself. In the world of endless series books and feeble efforts to write the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games, Selznick has snuck into the literary world with true magnificence. Starting out as an illustrator for beloved kids’ books like Frindle and others, he nearly revolutionized the literary genre with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a mix of artistic brilliance with a riveting story. For the first time since I can remember, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, perfectly married art with words. Instead of using pictures to illustrate a story, he used pictures to tell some of the story. Add in a historical setting and (some) true events, and Hugo Cabret was a unique and wonderful work of art.

Still, I thought Hugo Cabret was missing something. In spite of its brilliance, there was some parts of it that could’ve delivered a better punch…It’s one of those, I know it when I see it type things. If it was a punch he was missing in Hugo Cabret, his follow-up “Wonderstruck” was nothing short of a thunderclap.

This time he weaves not one but 2 stories into one: the words for one character, and the art for another. Against an even more riveting historical backdrop, he takes the reader through a world that many people may never understand, the World of the Deaf. I’m a child of the 80s, where references to disabilities were either taboo or they were treated pretty blandly and almost forgivingly. People with disabilities were considered the “them” and the “us” should be sympathetic to their challenges. Nowhere was there understanding. Nowhere was there empathy.

Nowhere was there art of experience. At least, not like Wonderstruck.

I’m usually not this drool-over-myself-soppy about a book, but Wonderstruck is something else, Wonderstruck is the art of experience.It’s more than, “this is what the Deaf community has to deal with everyday”. It’s more than this is how we should be considerate of those with hearing disabilities. It’s “come into our world and see what you can learn from our experience”. Add in that it’s a story, a powerful narrative, brilliantly told with a historical context so under-recognized, but so moving at the same time. In short, Wonderstruck is brilliant because you not only experience the book, but you come away with a renewed sense of understanding.

In short, the book truly lives up to its name. Read the book, and you’ll be wonderstruck, too


Real Fiction

When I was a master’s student, I remember a professor waxing philosophical about the future of academia. In one of her lectures, she discussed the possibility of a degree concentration in Counter-History, in which scholars imagine history differently than it transpired, perhaps even contrary to actual events, in an effort to uncover new perspectives. Of course, some of this might be revealed in Cartesian philosophical orientation, but as of today, I know no doctoral program in Counter-History.

Though it may not exist in academia, I’ve found it to be alive and kicking in the literary world.

These days, it seems like a great novelist is more than a story teller. She or he is a historical analyst, an investigative journalist, and a first-rate researcher. A rich historical context, along with the possibility that a story could be “based on true events,” makes a story real and far more intriguing to read. Of course, none of this is actually new. Popular novelists have been borrowing from history for generations (Jo Rowling and Rick “Percy Jackson” Riordan commonly feature figures that exist historically, either in real life or in literature). But I’m not talking about borrowing from history, I’m talking about recreating history, and creating the mystery around the possibility of a new truth. I’ve found this gem of novel writing in two recent books: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and The Poe Shadow.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine B. Howe. I have to admit, I stumbled upon this book with quite a bit of serendipity. While waiting for the free samples at Cost co one day, I saw this book promoted on their table display. I judged the book by its cover (I’m a sucker for nicely designed books), picked it up and, after reading the back cover, rushed…to the library to get a copy. Brilliantly researched book by the descendent of not one but TWO condemned salem witches, which works great since it’s a book about the Salem Witch Trials. Many of the events and circumstances were real. The story, however, was not. Nonetheless, there was so much real about Howe’s book, I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl: I actually found this book, again, by accident. Howe had acknowledged Pearl at the end of her Physick, for his literary help on the book. When I later found the book, noticed Pearl’s name, and checked to make sure the title and picture on front were intriguing enough (book cover judging again), I was sold (figuratively of course, it doesn’t cost money to borrow a book at the library, though I do believe I had $.50 in late fees on it). In the Poe Shadow, Pearl takes the mystery of the last days of Edgar Allen Poe and builds it into a seemingly real-life narrative of the effort to uncover the mystery. Though some of his characters are fictitious, the argument he makes for what may really have happened the days before Poe was found listless in a Baltimore Tavern shortly before his death. With his cleverly spun tale, not only is Pearl’s book real, but in it he proposes hypotheses and demonstrates findings that are entirely new to the debate. So instead of writing an academic paper spawning a lecture series about Poe’s last days, he writes an ingenius narrative that is both compelling and unforgettable.

These are only two of a voluminous library of books that recreate history, taking literary liberties for both the good of the reader, and history itself. Through this genre of historical-based novels, writers put a new spin on history and keep the eternal flame of history’s many and varied stories burning.