Dust Off Your Flannel

Does the looming '90s revival presage a Nirvana-style breakthrough?

The sheer volume of music recalls the early days of punk in another way. Not because there were a lot of bands. Back then, limited distribution and difficulty discovering bands meant you really had to dig and become something of an obsessive. The same is true these days, though, for different reasons.

"With no barrier to entry, what it really means is not more great bands than there were in the late '80s; it means around the same number, but you have to wade through 20 times more bands to find them," says Jack Rabid of the '80s band Springhouse, now editor of long-lived iconic magazine The Big Takeover. "When it becomes a lifestyle — when your parents buy your gear and everything is done by Facebook and Bandcamp for free — it becomes harder and harder to stand out even if your music would."

At least you don't have to trust a critic, buy a CD or listen to the radio to discover a crappy band. Everyone's empowered to make up their own mind. And that seems to be working just fine for most people.

Nirvana's commercial breakthrough inspired a wave of alternative rock signings in the '90s.
Nirvana's commercial breakthrough inspired a wave of alternative rock signings in the '90s.
The original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited in 2005.
The original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited in 2005.

"Music is just as popular as it has ever been. It's just that people aren't paying for it anymore, so bands are forced to do things on their own now," says Supersuckers frontman Eddie Spaghetti. "And if you're going to make a living at it, you're going to have to get creative, for sure."

That may mean strange lineups — like former Squirrel Nut Zipper Stu Cole's garage-soul band Fantastico, which features two drummers, a singer/guitarist and two female vocalists. Or shambling rockers He's My Brother, She's My Sister, who boast (besides the harmonizing siblings) a tap-dancer playing a snare drum. Wye Oak's Andy Stack plays keyboards while he drums, and keyboard/violinist Andrew Bird is so proficient layering loops that he improvises whole symphonies in real time, even while playing solo.

In the end, it comes down to getting in front of people and giving them a reason to come. It's even truer today when touring is a band's lifeblood, but it's been that way before. Nothing can ever compare with a live show. "The only way to really feel the rollercoaster is to get on," Spaghetti says.

When Watt was in the Minutemen, they split the world in two halves — gigs and fliers. Anything that wasn't a gig was a flier — interviews, publicity photos, records, show fliers.

"They were all to get people to the gig, because that's where we felt we had the most control. The least middle men, less filter," Watt says. "Back in the old days, before the recording medium, you literally had to play it for people. Selling the medium as a piece of merchandise is only about 100 years old. All the other times, it was performance-based, so it's kind of like returning the minstrels to the people."

Though some bemoan the overabundance of musical product, Watt laughs: "You want it the other way around? 'Oh, no, I have too much to listen to, too much to decide if I like it or not.'"

Who's against competition? It may be responsible for the short shelf-life of recent revival trends — post-rock, garage, psych and shoegaze — leading them to succumb under the weight of all the quick-to-the-trough trend-hoppers. Those failures hastened fair-weather rockers on their way, as most seemed to have bought banjos or programmable drum machines and moved along in the last few years. More and more of late, artists are staking out their own idiosyncratic territory.

"It's almost a chance for rebirth, like we've got a clean slate in a sense you have to reinvent yourselves," says Rachel Kolar of He's My Brother, She's My Sister. "It forces you to be creative, because if there isn't a radio station playing a lot of good rock 'n' roll, it forces you, like, 'How can I still be heard? How can I still be noticed as being innovative, doing something that really speaks to the people but also advances our sense of what rock 'n' rock music is?'"

There seems little doubt that Nirvana wouldn't have happened had the majors not been actively seeking to capitalize on underground rock for years. The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Swans, the Pixies and Sonic Youth all had their major-label shots, but something about the band, the album and the timing clicked, making Nevermind a perfect storm.

"Nirvana really went for it. They had the machinery in place, and they really went for it. They made a great record — but it's a really great commercial record," Wurster says. "It was really produced, really pro-sounding. And the bands you mentioned, none of them made an album that sounded like that."

The times have changed dramatically enough that big-money labels no longer may be necessary to catalyze a revolution. (Though once it happens, you can be sure they'll be there, checkbooks out.)

It was Merge Records, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, label co-founded by Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, whose band Arcade Fire won the Grammy last year for best album. This year, Bon Iver (on Indiana indie Jagjaguwar) won the Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album Grammies for his chart-topping disc, Bon Iver.

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I hope not, I had a great time in the 90s. Even though the current 80s revival is stronger then ever it's still the 8th or 9th time that horrible decade has reared it's ugly head since the 90s ended.


For those of us alive and informed during the 80s it was a really crappy decade. The economy was shit, music became a prefabbed commodity(thanks to disco) and fashion was awkward. The problem with nostalgia is that reality takes a backseat while fantasy stand front and center with legwarmers on. These 80s revivals have taken the substance out of the decade and replaced it unabashed romanticism. There shouldn't be anything wrong with that but I can see this happening to a 90s revival or 2. The industry will get a hold of it and strip it down to it's exterior with no recognition of the meat of the decade. The 90s didn't save the world but it certainly changed it. I think the 'fuck you' creativity that was fostered then was reminiscent of the 60s.


The 90s weren't about flannel at all. That era was about music and music only. It was the industry that tried to make it a style. The clothes were a necessity to the climate in Seattle and the north. As someone that lived up the road in Vancouver at the time I couldn't relate to the bright colors and cocaine of the 80s. My friends and I would hang out on the shore and play guitars tell the sun came up. What style your clothes were wasn't important, they provided a function and flannel was the cheapest. Plus everything was grey and brown and wet so these clothes let us blend into the city. The last thing any of us wanted was to look like a bunch of Skittles in those bright clothes. Let us trudge along in the grey and life deafening drizzle. It's how we liked it.


The current 80s revival replete with banks like Ariel Pink making records as if they were the bastard children of an OMD/Spandau Ballet mating is played out. The majority of music was horrible, utter trash. Thankfully bands are starting to shift but now every 3rd band sounds like Mumford and Sons. Guh.


The 80s were a coked up, neon clad stock broker that came to define the 'me' generation. It was excess upon excess. A horrible decade that we were lucky to get out of. I hope the 90s don't get the same nostalgia paint job the 80s got. Oh sure, I'd love to see Black Happy tour around with Roots Roundup but you won't be seeing my stage dive anymore :)


@HoustonPress anything would be better than dubstep

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