Damn hipsters: Is Atlanta falling prey to its indie cachet?
Too often, bands from Atlanta have to find success elsewhere before getting the recognition they deserve in their own back yard.
For more than 20 years, Shannon Mulvaney has been an Atlanta music fixture. Since the mid-'80s he's lent his bass-playing talent to dozens of local punk, indie, grunge and otherwise DIY bands. You may have heard of some of them, like Anna Kramer and the Lost Cause. Others, you most certainly have not.
And therein lies the problem. Too often, bands from Atlanta have to find success elsewhere before getting the recognition they deserve in their own back yard.
"Even when I started playing with Magnapop in the '80s, we were roundly ignored in this town," Mulvaney says. "We had to go as far away as Europe to play shows, and as soon as magazines like Melody Maker and NME started saying that we were good, all of the sudden Atlanta loved us and people came to our shows."
It's a phenomenon that's plagued Atlanta musicians for far too long. And it seems to suggest that the city just doesn't care about its local independent rock bands. At least, not until Pitchfork, Vice or some other outside bastion of hipster culture tells us that they're the best thing smoking.
In the recent past, acts such as Cat Power and Prefuse 73 moved to New York before gaining Atlanta's widespread respect. But in today's fast-paced, blog-eat-blog world, bands like the Black Lips, Deerhunter, and Gentleman Jesse and His Men have proven that you don't have to move away; the cool hunters will come to you.
This month, the Brooklyn-based hipster handbook Vice magazine parades through Atlanta with an onslaught of publicity to coincide with the release of the new Black Lips album, 200 Million Thousand, on Feb. 24. In addition to releasing The Vice Guide to Atlanta (in the tradition of popular releases like The Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll), it will also co-sponsor the epic Scion Rock Fest at the Masquerade Music Park on Feb. 28. The lineup brings 30 of the country's premier metal bands, including Boris, Neurosis, Atlanta's own Mastodon and more, together for a free concert. The idea behind the three-pronged marketing blitz is to cast a wide net over Atlanta's masses – and alert them to what's going on right in front of their eyes.
"I have spent a lot of time in Atlanta and you literally cannot spill a sweet tea and not have it splash on at least four guys who are in bands," explains Vice Records' Online Director/Creative Director Christopher Roberts, from his office in Brooklyn. "The music scene there is ridiculous! Compared to here it's relatively cheap to get by. Practice spaces are aplenty and there are bands everywhere."
Roberts goes so far as to say that a scene like Atlanta's needs a benefactor like Vice to offer a coherent view of what's going on. "When you're caught up in it, it's hard to have that third-eye perspective on what's going on around you."
That third-eye view, according to Roberts, shines down from New York, giving Atlanta the validation it craves.
Surely, it behooves Vice to capitalize on our nagging need for outside affirmation. If anything, its carpetbagging customs have upped the ante for the local music scene in ways it couldn't have done on its own. By signing the Black Lips and facilitating all of the drama the band has caused the world over – most recently in India when the group had to flee the country after allegations of indecent exposure – it's no exaggeration to say that Vice has bolstered Atlanta's reputation on the international music radar by way of New York's taste buds. But why does it have to be this way? As Atlantans, is our concept of what's cool and praiseworthy so homogenized that we need a branding campaign by outsiders to spoon-feed it to us before we'll accept it?
Over the last decade, bands like the Hiss and Snowden have all received national and international attention. Snowden signed with Washington, D.C.-area imprint Jade Tree and toured the country extensively. The Hiss signed with Polydor Records' Loog imprint and was handpicked by Oasis' guitarist/songwriter Noel Gallagher to open for the group on some European tour dates in 2003. The band was getting more attention abroad than it was in Atlanta. And when their would-be celebrity status lost steam outside of the city, there was no ground support on their home turf.
Other cities have had cohesive music scenes shape a large part of their identity. Just up Ga. 316, Athens was the fertile crescent of American college rock in the late '70s and early '80s. Seattle had grunge in the '90s. For most of the 2000s, Omaha, Neb., of all places, became an indie-rock mecca. But Atlanta seems to lack the sense of cohesion around which a defining scene can be built.
"What's the difference between Atlanta and yogurt? Yogurt has an active culture!" says Mulvaney, who also works at Criminal Records. "There is plenty of unity and communication amongst the small subsets, the little labels, like Die Slaughterhaus and Rob's House, and it seems like the hip-hop community is connected and supportive of each other, but beyond that, there are only loosely knit associations. Atlanta has been searching for an identity the entire time I've been playing music, but it has always felt like a halfway point for people who are on their way to somewhere else."
Heavy metal in Atlanta has suffered the same complex. For years, metal bands toiled in the trenches with little fanfare. But soon after Mastodon was nominated for a Grammy in 2007, a newfound buzz enveloped the scene, giving a boost to long-standing acts such as Athens' reincarnated Harvey Milk, and emerging metal bands Zoroaster and Withered.
One local band scheduled to play the Scion Fest is Apocalyptic Visions. The group's founder and frontman, Sam Cuadra, has been making harsh, death-afflicted metal in Atlanta since the mid-'90s. Unlike Mastodon or other local metal groups, Apocalyptic Visions is the only act in town that relies on a slew of theatrical effects during performances. The band is outwardly mean, confrontational and antagonistic toward audience members.
It exudes an intimidating vibe every bit as menacing as Mastodon, yet after a decade and a half, the group still grinds away in obscurity. "It is an uphill battle for metal in this town," Cuadra says. "There's a glut of bands that are legitimately awesome.
"We put our all into every show that we play, always. Since this Scion Fest is a big one, we will work extra hard because there are potentially a lot of new fans there. But I don't think it will change the pecking order of anything around here," he says. "When we start playing at 12:15 in the afternoon, the people who are there early enough to see us will look at us, look to the right, and then to the left, and move on to see if something cooler is happening somewhere else. That's just the way people work."
But Cuadra's jaded evaluation personifies the larger problem. "I'm not antagonistic toward Vice but I am antagonistic toward the mind-set and the lazy inertia that people carry out in their lives," he says. "People don't go check out new shit."
That goes for him, too. "I don't ever go see anybody's bands, and I have no use for people who go see shows to make friends and make sure that everyone likes the same kind of music and is ready to get on board the awesome train together. Fuck those people."
The specter of Vice could play a large part in determining the outside world's view of Atlanta's music scene. Unlike Seattle, Athens, Omaha, or any other city that's earned a reputation as a distinct musical town, Atlanta hasn't typically lent itself to being easily packaged and sold. The various music scenes here, like the lay of the land, are a tangled mass of inroads woven together without rhyme or reason. Whether they can be reconciled remains to be seen.
But perhaps they shouldn't be, suggests Mulvaney's musical cohort Anna Kramer, who believes the urge to sum up the city's scene leaves less room for those on the fringe. "It makes it easier to create a fake sense of reality – like there is only one band that counts, and whatever someone else is doing doesn't count," says Kramer. "It's not true. That can never be overemphasized."
With so much hype and a media blitz like the looming Vice invasion, it's easy to jump on the bandwagon. But the eye of cool culture never keeps its gaze fixed on one place for too long, and trends – especially when it comes to popular music – never last forever.
"It's nice to hear someone from outside your scene tell you that you're cool," says Mulvaney. "But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't mean a damn thing."