The Indie Beat
-Essay by Katelyn Brunner-
There is no such thing as indie music. The genre reflects unique and varied production methods, bold guerilla marketing, and the eclectic tastes of diverse fans. Most associate the genre with lisp-y vowels and Iron & Wine-type acoustic guitar, but the term “indie” simply defines any release of music independent of a major record label. Indie music, for that matter, can include anything from surfer rock, neoclassical composition, throwback pop, and shout-y, angry vocals, to singer-songwriter albums featuring ukuleles. Some listeners even consider experimental electronica (Aphex Twin, Chemical Brothers, Audion, etc.) to fall under the label. The amalgam sounds collected under this broad category offer a stark contrast to the popular “top 40” hits that big record companies shamelessly peddle for jaw-dropping profits. Collectively, indie music can be said to comprise the “music of the people,” relishing a niche-driven applicability that directly influences community culture, and personally enriches the daily lives of individual listeners.
Cigarettes After Sex and SWMRS are two prominent, active groups in the scene today. Both are not only growing in popularity, but they have very different origins. A comparison of their sound, style and history provides a better picture of the “indie” spectrum. The groups represent two distant points on the metaphorical graph. Cigarettes After Sex was founded in El Paso, Texas, and has had many members and collaborators. The group has since relocated to Brooklyn, New York, and has deemed itself a “pop collective,” led by songwriter Greg Gonzales. Though Cigarettes After Sex formed in 2008, there have only been two formal albums released by the group (between which there are only 7 songs)—strange for an 8-year-old entity, and a self-proclaimed “pop” group, at that.
Their most recent release (Nov. 2016), a single titled “K.,” is a little less heavy than their previous songs, but still features a relaxed, rolling melody and Gonzales’ androgynous drawl. These surprise releases– generally of just one song– are typical of the group; however, Affection, released in 2015, has two tracks: “Affection” and “Keep On Loving You.” The EP was rumored to have been recorded in a stairwell “over the course of a night,” which is easy to believe, when listening. “Affection,” the title track of the album, has more than 14 million listens on YouTube. The band distributes their records through Bandcamp, and hard copies are available for purchase on their website.
Cigarettes After Sex aims for the mysterious in everything they do; even the inception of the group seems to be a bit under wraps. The “collective” model is not a popular one, but indie artists tend to be extremely willing to collaborate, especially electronic artists (e.g. SOPHIE and GFOTY). The culture of the indie genre is less a “stepladder of success” model and more a nurturing and supportive atmosphere. The fundamental method reflects the altered maxim: make music for music’s sake. That said, it’s still the music business and competition is fierce. Especially when there are extremely talented artists who are engaged in more than one popular project (Audion/Matthew Dear, for example). Cigarettes After Sex is unique in that they’ve had an amorphous and endlessly changing group structure, yet release music under a static name. Perhaps that is the influence of Greg Gonzales, but with the many contributors, one would think that Cigarettes After Sex would be advertised (however passively) as one new project after another.
Cigarettes After Sex plays what can be considered pop’s dark, sexy underbelly. The music is slow and churning, beautiful and haunting. The popular “Affection” paints a bleak picture of domesticity and romance. It begins with “I know what you say, I get mean when I’m drinking…” and though it’s clear that the two lovers in the song have a distinct and deep fondness, their music is tempered by everyday issues and frustrations. “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” (another single release) is similarly odd– the lyrics are a mixture of quiet comfort and perversion (literally). The vocalist mumble-sings, “…whisper something in your ear; it was a perverted thing to say, but I said it anyway. Made you smile and look away.” The chorus and the repetition of, “Nothing’s gonna hurt you baby. As long as you’re with me, you’ll be just fine. Nothing’s gonna hurt you, baby. Nothing’s gonna take you from my side,” makes it difficult to tell whether the track is reassuring or sinister. One gets the feeling the speaker’s partner is being corrupted, somehow. This kind of mildly frightening duality and the low, genderless vocals distinguish Cigarettes After Sex in the indie realm. A Pandora playlist links them as the indisputable heir to Radiohead’s moody trance. Ultimately, the sounds of that stairwell at night echo relatable chords and the group’s adaptability and openness to new influences endears them to their fans.
SWMRS is Cigarettes After Sex’s complete opposite. Their rowdy, noisy, punk surfer-rock defies the meditative and darker moods that dominate Cigarette After Sex’s sound. SWMRS origin story is rather ordinary by comparison, defying the underground image that Cigarettes After Sex covets. Composed of four young, James Dean-y boys who consider stylish leaning an art, the California-born group has released three full-length albums since their inception in 2004. They have had more mainstream success than Cigarettes After Sex; performing on Vans Warped Tour multiple times, and recording one of their albums with the help of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (who, granted, is the father of one of the boys). The band is also signed to a smaller, but prominent label: Fueled By Ramen. They’ve changed their name three times, due to a member leaving– and were previously known as Emily’s Army and Swimmers, before becoming SWMRS.
SWMRS most powerful and popular track is “Figuring It Out,” off their most recent album, Drive North (2016). The “woah” refrain and the singer’s Californian inflection, which gives the vocals a spoken-like quality, make this track a pleasant standout on the album. It’s very Green Day, very Blink 182, very tongue-in-cheek. The SWMRS are well-aware they’ve got something special. Unlike many punk bands, they are precise in their lyrical and musical delivery, and definitely (thankfully) know how to play their instruments. SWMRS are not only technically proficient, but they also know their audience extremely well. They sing about road trips, mix tapes, love, and Miley (Cyrus?), the punk rock queen– to shake things up. Though SWMRS can seem pretty basic from the outside, their songs are complex, there’s a definite mastery that’s obvious, upon listening, and the lead vocalist, Cole Becker, is lovable. The chorus of “Lose It,” a track about a lover (or former lover) whose affection for good music is ruining songs for the speaker: “Tell me why you had to have such a damn good taste in music, yeah– if all my favorite songs make me think of you, I’m gonna lose it,” is endearing. There’s zero doubt: SWMRS is fun. Their music makes you want to bob your head along with their cool (if occasionally cheesy), lyrics. Likewise, the boys are as talented as they are attractive. For indie, they’re pretty mainstream, but they still belong in the category; their word-of-mouth advertising strategy and utilization of social media (on their own accounts, mostly) make for a distinctly Do-It-Yourself strategy for success.
You’ll hear both these groups in places like coffee shops, boutique clothing stores, festivals– and anywhere a manager lets an employee put his or her own playlist on the house speakers. Artists often go for an internet-dependent grassroots marketing strategy: they market to their friends, who share the music with their friends, who become fans who share…etc. Subsequently, the indie genre is much larger than what one would expect. It’s everywhere, now that Spotify playlists can be public, YouTube clips are re-tweeted on Twitter, and headphones can be split up so friends can listen to a favorite song over lunch. (Just in case the café is playing Meghan Trainor.) Indie truly is the “music of the people,” and, in a way, more unifying than the overplayed “top 40.” We may not know all the words like we do to Adele’s 25, but we connect with the artist’s love and the passionate fans.
Katelyn Brunner is a freelance writer and copy editor in St. Paul, MN. Between work and personal projects, she is pursuing a Master’s degree in English from the University of St. Thomas.