Though the final products are drastically different, indiepop and punk actually began from the same do-it-yourself spirit. Both genres cling fervently to the idea that anyone can start a band, anyone can play a shows and any band can be your life. But while traditional punks chose a more abrasive approach, indiepop bands embraced softness, sensitivity and simplicity. As a result, indiepop is often wrongly dismissed as “adorable” or “fragile.” Though you wouldn’t know it from their lush and lovely new record Chorus, the Philadelphia band Literature has their roots in the punk and hardcore community. Knowing this, we decided to engage them in a spirited discussion about the DIY ethic, and why punk and indiepop are often seen to be at odds.
In an article in The Guardian, Slumberland founder Mike Schulman said, “Pop music is a legitimate expression of the DIY, punk, indie impulse.” How do you think indiepop and punk intersect?
Kevin Attics: I think the intersection can be traced back to all the labels and musical communities that popped up in the waning days of punk. Flying Nun, Postcard Records, the Paisley Underground…they were all invigorated by punk’s DIY ethic. The musical concerns were different, but the notion of creating informal channels to distribute music, often self-producing your work…punk fostered all that. A brilliant cross-section of the late ’70s DIY impulse dawning on kids across the world can be found in Hyped to Death’s Messthetics compilation series.
Tell me about your individual backgrounds in punk. I know Nathaniel and Seth both ran small imprint labels back in Austin. How have those concepts materialized in Literature?
Nathaniel Cardaci: Seth and I grew up in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, which had a big DIY punk scene that we both became involved in. For as long as I can remember, Seth was always into DIY music in some sense. He would have shows at his house that were more like ramshackle open mics and people would show up (myself included) and play for the six other people who showed up in his mother’s living room. He started the label Square of Opposition with Chris Regec before branching off and starting Natrix Natrix with Rhonda Turnbough. Later, when we moved to Texas, that expanded to become the NatrixNatrix House, an amazing space and house venue in South Austin that Seth and I and some other folks ran for a good five years.
Meanwhile, I had started my own imprint (Voice Academy Records) in high school and released a split 7-inch of me and my friend Jon Abbott. We self-recorded the whole thing on a 4-track in a basement. It really just seemed sort of like a rite of passage, something built into the culture where I grew up. That label continues today, and I still release tapes off and on. So naturally when we started Literature we knew the ins and outs of pressing a record and booking a tour and we knew we could do it all ourselves. We also knew how to keep it cheap — the first CD we toured with had four songs that we got pressed locally, and the covers were screen printed on card stock we just had laying around. When the band was conceived, we were in the throes of running the NatrixNatrix House, so we would literally trade a show in Austin for a show in another town with a touring band. It’s safe to say that Seth still has house shows in Philadelphia, still booking touring and local bands on his own terms. His new label is Keeled Scales, which has some great releases coming out soon. The DIY/punk stuff is about a form of artistic expression for us, that you can operate outside of established norms and do things authentically, the way that you want.
How did you work with Slumberland to make sure your fingerprints stayed on the record while you let them control the actual release?
Attics: We were corresponding with [Slumberland head] Mike [Schulman] while recording, sending him tracks and keeping him updated on our progress. We’d commute from Philly to NYC whenever we could to work on it; it was a brutal winter, so his enthusiasm really meant a lot. After sending him the finished record, we all became family, more or less. His input and guidance throughout the process of creating the album art alone…Slumberland worked with us to help actualize this thing we had in our heads. It’s the ideal working relationship; they pick up where we leave off. The truth is, it’s a whole community that is responsible for making a record and getting it out into peoples’ hands. We performed the songs and made the art, but we worked with so many fantastic people in the process…not the least of which was Gary Olson at Marlborough Farms…if you subtract any of them the album wouldn’t exist or would be completely different. That’s DIY; everyone banding together and doing their part to make something happen.
The indiepop community is known for being extremely inclusive. What sensibilities unite the artists and audience?
Attics: Passion for the form? Maybe it’s because I’m new to the East Coast, but it definitely feels like something is happening here. The sense of community is so strong. For instance, you have people like Maz from NYC Popfest whose fervor translates into an amazing conference that draws fans, musicians, and labels from all over the world. You have Matthew Edwards who runs Skatterbrain! Blog, a daily resource of the best stuff happening in the scene. People like that are so integral to the infrastructure. Musically, there’s such rewarding company. I’ll go see Expert Alterations play, be moved to dance, and go home and think, “OK, how did they do that?” It’s like a salon and we’re all keeping the conversation going, drawing from each other. Bands like Hurry, Wild Honey, Tender Vision, Ski Lodge, Royal Shoals…it’s an exciting time over here.
Indiepop people are always so eager to share their favorite music. Kind of going back to the intersection between indiepop and punk — how do you feel about indiepop being written off as adorable or fragile? I’ve always felt that people who make that assumption probably aren’t paying attention to the music.
Seth Whaland: A friend of mine recently posted on the internet, “I get real bummed when the concept of punk is limited to loud and aggressive music. All the great things you’re missing out on!” And so I know that we’re not a “punk” band, but there are lots of bands that pay their dues in a “punk” way and live their lives with respect to that DIY/punk, not just do-it-yourself but do-it-your-own-way philosophy. And that’s really the thing that makes music so exciting — to see how people present themselves and the things they care about, which is really what punk and DIY are all about. And lots of indie pop bands — and all genres of bands — are doing all the time. And that’s why it’s way better/more fun to listen to bands like that than bands on commercial radio. Because no matter how much big labels have the formula down to dial a hit in a song, it will never be as interesting as one or two or three or four or five idiots in their bedroom or garage or basement or space making the best music that they know how. I think that is what Literature’s about. We love music and do our best, in the DIY or indie pop or whatever community we’re involved in, to create the best songs we know how to.