If you're not of a certain age or social subset -- as director Hal Hartley once put it, "white, middle-class, college-educated" and on and on -- you might not know a thing about this thing called twee. And if you're not obsessed by music, obscurantist, willfully infantile and smitten with all things Japanese, you probably don't even care.
But this loose subculture lives among you, in English-speaking countries and abroad (especially in Spain and Japan). Twee music and the twee lifestyle -- such as there is one -- are a refutation of all that we know about rock 'n' roll. For twee kids, who use the term with equal parts reverie, disdain and cheek, the subculture doesn't really have anything to do with actually, you know, rebelling or anything. Twee kids listen to an emasculated version of rock 'n' roll. They don't care much for sex or drugs. They favor puppy love over scary sex, prefer Japanese candy over beer and pot and like looking at postcards instead of going out into an intimidating, rainy world.
They clad themselves in tight T-shirts with "Brady Bunch" stripes and mix-and-match corduroy. They wear unfortunate bedhead hairstyles and thick glasses rescued, almost always, from the bottom of a cardboard box at the local Lenscrafters.
Twee kids are a lot like the punk rockers before them, but you could say that twee, since its erstwhile inception in the '80s, has always rebelled against punk. Back then, cornerstone twee acts like the Smiths and Marine Girls (an outfit featuring Tracey Thorn, who went on to become the singer in Everything But the Girl) eschewed the gutteral reactionism of punk in favor of the sweetness and light (and yes, craft) of naive '60s pop groups such as the Mamas and the Papas or the Association. At the same time, twee cops several of punk's do-it-yourself moves: There are twee magazines, twee all-ages shows, twee record labels and twee local music scenes filled with bands that can't really play their instruments -- or at the very least, bands that aspire to radically unlearn what has gone immediately before them.
And in that radical unlearning, that nostalgia for the great pop eras of the past, there's the one major and defining difference between punk and twee: Twee kids love Mom and Dad. In fact, if they could, they'd stay with them forever. I've seen several twee shows at family homes. Twee kids, instead of defining themselves against their parents, embrace a Jonathan Richman worldview: The Old World was better; love was pure and, more than that, less confusing.
Today, Belle and Sebastian, the dainty Scottish pop band, are the Beatles of twee, and their influence looms large over just about every group in the subgenre.
The Kindercore record label is the biggest purveyor of twee music and happiness in the United States. First an Athens, Ga., label, then a New York one and then very shortly thereafter based in Athens again, Kindercore enjoys a generous patronage through a manufacturing deal with California's Emperor Norton label and, as a result, has put out more high-quality twee product, pound for pound, than probably any of its competitors worldwide: March Records, Siesta (based in Spain), Matinee and a handful of others.
And there's apparently an audience for it, although it's hard to tell unless you do the books for an independent record store. Besides Belle and Sebastian, whose last record debuted in the '80s on the Billboard chart, no twee band moves the number of records it would take to, say, be even mildly attractive to a major label. But if you put all the bands into a genre, they can earn a small pile of cash for a little record store, just as punk bands do by hobbling along on word of mouth. In terms of whether twee bands and labels register on SoundScan, the service that tracks record sales, well, they don't. Moneywise, it isn't very much. But then again, the rock underground has rarely made millions for anyone until it ceased being underground.
And that's exactly why Kindercore was able to pull off Expo 2000 Athens, a five-day celebration of the label's take on twee. With 50 releases in all, Kindercore is big enough to have something like this and know that people will come to it, but still small enough to know that it'll know most of the folks who do.
That's because Kindercore, like so many of its successful punk and twee predecessors, keeps close tabs on fans. The Kindercore expo, with its $30 passes, was as much about thanking those 300 or so fans as it was about celebrating its own achievements (neither of the label's co-heads is even close to being out of the 20s) and showing off some new signings. All told, 30 bands played over the five nights, all but one of which were held at Athens' legendary 40 Watt Club -- the same club (although now in a different location) where bands like R.E.M., Pylon and the B-52's put Athens on the map more than 15 years ago. Of the 30 bands, roughly half hailed from or had significant ties to Athens. That made the Athens of Expo 2000 a rare sight in rock 'n' roll: a faded boomtown booming once again. The coffee shop a few doors down from the 40 Watt bore a handwritten sign, knowingly saying, "Welcome Indie Rockers!"
The four nights of music I attended revealed a group of awkward, beat-phobic kids getting turned on to what most of us in the world of pop music have known for a while: Dance music is really fun! They also demonstrated a label on the cusp of growing out of its Garanimals, and bittersweetly relishing every minute of it. Because as much as Kindercore's pop jones invites dinky, jangly twee bands, it was only a matter of time before the label invited in featherweight pop as a whole. And from the crowd, it looked like Kindercore at long last was stretching out its hands and accepting what it for so long had hinted at: a genuine love for pop in all its forms.
The 40 Watt looks like a lot of rock clubs in the South. It's a big, airy dive (way bigger than the dives you have to patronize to see rock bands in the North) that's part converted auto garage, part church basement -- and thanks to a tenuous tiki, Christmas lights and disco-ball dicor -- part "M*A*S*H" canteen. Budweiser and Shiner are only two bucks a bottle, and the bartenders look like Wilco: rock-scene lifers, and damn proud of it. It doesn't sound like much, but if your town doesn't have at least one place like this, you should probably move.
Pulling into Athens late, I caught the tail end of Wednesday night's Expo acts, including Japancakes, a local five-piece that is currently doing for the lap steel what Stereolab did for the Moog a few years back. Japancakes are one of the more hypnotic, sublime and even mature acts on the Kindercore label, which might explain why they pulled in a way smaller crowd than they deserved. As the band ran through a handful of the eight-minute epics that make up their "I Can See Dallas" LP and "Down the Elements" EP, a large video display at stage left revealed loops of silhouetted trees and telephone wires, shot from below at dusk in a passing automobile.
They were pretty good, but for my money, they didn't even touch the 8-Track Gorilla.
Simply put, the 8-Track Gorilla is just that: some guy in a gorilla suit with an old portable eight-track player around his neck, singing along in a deadpan Ben Stein voice over whatever tape happens to be catching his fancy at the moment. On this particular night, that meant some old Kinks stuff (including, appropriately enough, "Ape Man"), a rousing rendition of the Stones' "Happy" and a sexy duet of some "Pina Colada Song"-esque '70s tune with a saucy blond Goth chick that veered from strangely tender to nearly queasy making. The 8-Track Gorilla was not so much a proper Kindercore act as a joke that seems to have mutated far beyond whatever stoned fantasy provoked him into existence in the first place. Audience reactions to the guy -- whose set ran a full 40 minutes, just like the sets of the rest of the Kindercore artists -- vacillated wildly, but to me, watching a guy in a gorilla suit sing along with Keith Richards after being in a car for 13 hours seemed just about right.
I loved it, couldn't get enough of the guy -- I mean, Gorilla. And I wasn't alone. All week, my traveling companion, Martin, would wander around the 40 Watt Club, secretly staring at the hands of men to see if they revealed the 8-Track Gorilla's telltale black nail polish. It became something of a collective obsession for the both of us. Which, I suppose, is why we went down to Athens in the first place.
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Twisting, in the wind, by the pool
Sooner or later, even Martin and I knew that as our snickering about the man in the ape suit fell away we were going to have to socialize with our own kind. For once in our lives, we were in a town overrun with indie, a town where, at least for this week, striped T-shirts flew like freak flags and the stars in the sky from any direction spelled twee. For maybe the first time ever, soaked in the mid-August heat, there was a confederacy of twee. It was nerve-racking even just walking down the street and seeing people who looked just like me.
So imagine our surprise on Thursday afternoon when we went to take a dip in the hotel's pool and found, to our mutual shock, titillation and dismay, some kind of twee pool party. This made sense when you thought about it; unlike South by Southwest or the CMJ music conference, the expo held no daytime events. Where else were we going to go during the day? Still, this was alarming. One, twee kids have little, tiny bodies well into their 20s and carry for them a kind of skinny shame usually reserved for anorexics, which makes it hard to catch any sun at all. Two, to venture into the pool, which would mean at least in part removing the two layers of coverup clothing just about all of us wore, you had to strip quickly and quietly down to your swimsuit and get into the pool in deep enough water before anyone noticed you. This was all but impossible.
Instead, most of us just sat by the pool, inspecting the badges on each other's backpacks, pretending to read and simultaneously praying for and dreading the moment when we'd all finally introduce ourselves on this, the first day of indie-pop summer camp.
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The Rushmore Players, aka Of Montreal
On most nights of the Expo, a band called Of Montreal appeared onstage as either themselves or as the backing band for another project on an average of twice a night. We saw principal members of the Athens group participating in sets by the Marshmallow Coast, Summer Hymns and the Great Lakes -- as well as during their own set, which bridged the gap between "Magical Mystery Tour"-era Beatles and dadaist high school theater. The band is part of the second wave of groups in the Elephant 6 collective of neo-retro pop bands. Engineered by the Apples in Stereo, the Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, the E6 collective is split mostly between Denver and Athens and is to indie pop today what Death Row was to hip-hop in the mid-'90s.
The omnipresent Of Montreal were both a blessing, when they worked and the bands they helped came off as something more than the total of their influences, and a curse, when it just seemed that Of Montreal's loopiness was getting spread thin. But either way, the Of Montreal bands seemed to be the most succinct statement of the brand of fresh-faced (if only marginally inventive) guitar pop Kindercore has been going after. In stark relief to the willfully juvenile stuff the label has been passing off for a few years with bands like Masters of the Hemisphere and Kincaid -- the former of which, for instance, has offered a free comic book with its new album, a concept piece that seems like a direct lift of the Jim Henson show "Fraggle Rock" -- Of Montreal delivered that kind of exuberance without any of the cringe-worthy infantilism that makes this kind of thing so hard to take for so many people. What's more telling about the level of craft in Of Montreal's flights of fancy is that, note for note, the music sounds even more youthful than that of their contemporaries, "Partridge Family" tambourines, junior-high nasal vocals and all. And yet, it doesn't grate; during their set, even the old farts in the crowd like me had to pogo just a little. I mean, these days, how many chances do you get?
And if the new signings are any indication, the label seems to be getting better and better. Norway's Kings of Convenience took the stage like a Euro Smothers Brothers, punctuating quiet, winsome tunes in the manner of Simon and Garfunkel or Nick Drake with a snappy stage presence that suggested, for the first time on the Expo stage, that here was a pair of guys actually interested in craft. Another new signing that debuted on Saturday night was San Francisco's Call and Response (C.A.R.), which invoked the Jackson 5 and the Mamas and the Papas way more than, say, early twee prototype groups like Heavenly or Beat Happening. Self-assured, sassy and with the chops and harmonies to match, Call and Response turned the earnest, honest approach Kindercore has been hammering away at for years into something that was heartbreaking, uplifting and pretty all at once: pure pop for now people.
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But does twee know how to party?
On any given night of the Expo shows, in my immediate surroundings I would see at least two girl flutists, two people curled up on any of the 40 Watt's gross couches, obsessively, manically "journaling," and one table full of people playing Mad Libs.
This does not a party make, and even though reports of kids filing into the bathrooms to vomit after drinking too many Red Bull energy drinks shot through with vodka were many, the Expo kids seemed seriously laid-back, verging on what I saw in some eyes as downright despondency. This fell in line with the collective message I was getting after seeing so many of the Kindercore bands: Kindercore records are the records Belle and Sebastian fans are listening to when they're not listening to Belle and Sebastian.
But how much of this is a pose? It seemed as if any chance the kids got to rage, they took it on, no questions asked. I saw it during Of Montreal's raucous (if cute) set, during the Four Corners' big-rock pastiche and even -- although I could be reading too much into this -- during what I saw as the 8-Track Gorilla's glorious (and apt) rewrite of rock history. Something in twee bubbles under, and that something is the sex and freedom of rock that twee so coyly tries to repress.
So on Friday night, when attention turned to Kindercore's two new groups -- groups that you could actually dance to -- it wasn't hard to imagine a block-rockin' beat falling in the forest. I imagined twee kids like the guy one of my friends called Badge Museum -- with his perfectly symmetrical display of buttons bearing the logos of his favorite bands -- politely acting as though they couldn't hear the beat. But it was just the opposite. The five-piece guitar-house band called VHS or Beta took the stage in blue plastic suits, staring indie pop in the face while brandishing a vocoder and electronic drums -- the kind the guy in New Order used to play. A quiet descended over the crowd and people started to nod at first. Within a few minutes I swear I could see feet moving and one massive thought bubble hovering over the crowd: "Oh, we get it. And, just between us, we are so very glad to finally get it."
A dance party sponsored by Electronic Watusi Boogaloo, an Amsterdam breakbeat label, opened up a few doors down an hour or so later. The Expo crowd all but ran into the warehouse space. A wall broke and twee went dance; Kindercore turned a corner and you could feel the kids turning with it.
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The maddening crowd
So far, Kindercore has been able to sell a fairly idiosyncratic vision of what it considers valuable music. And to move along in this strange epoch of the music industry, the label has been pretty adept at consistently refining what it is and what it is not.
As noble as those efforts are, in the meantime it is stuck with a lot of deadwood, bands lacking the same kind of inspiration. Unfortunately, just about all of them played at Expo 2000, right alongside the bands that could help the label make something of lasting importance for people who don't work at record stores or at college radio stations.
But while those bands allowed the Expo to be a more complete event, by the last night my head began to hurt. When that headache split open and I had left the club, a fairly obvious realization hit me: There is nothing that I've heard on the Kindercore label that has made much of an effort to touch me on an emotional level. For as nakedly ambitious as the label is, it still adheres pretty rigorously to the tenets of twee: that nothing should make you cry unless it is in the name of sheer sentimentality, and furthermore, in no circumstances does the music want to make you do what rock 'n' roll is supposed to want you to do: to fight or fuck.
Kindercore is a label with plenty of Herman's Hermits and no Rolling Stones. But it's trying.
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How to make friends and confound people: Boy-band revisionism
In all of this, if you didn't care about the music; if you thought these pasty white kids and their bullshit bands were repellent; if you didn't see the sense in all the hoo-ha about what a genius Brian Wilson was and saw no need for so much inept tribute laid at his feet, here and now in the summer of 2000; if, not to put too fine a point on it, you were a bartender at the 40 Watt Club and just wanted to make your money and go home, thank you; and if you were not really looking for entertainment, you had to hand it to Kindercore for at least one thing: When it invited anyone in the whole pop world who wanted to have a look-see into its home and head, it had the balls on the biggest night of its shindig to pull a total goof on itself.
Especially for the Expo, Kindercore constructed its own stable of boy bands. Not some retro goofiness like the Wonders in the Tom Hanks movie "That Thing You Do!" but the real, sweaty, icky, present-day faux-sexy thing. Adding to a world of Backstreet Boys and 'N Syncs, Kindercore presented on Friday night From U 2 S (pronounced "from you to us") and N2 Her (pronounced, uh, "into her"). It was one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen in my life.
Starting out by clearing the stage and setting up a movie screen to show a "Making the Band"/"Behind the Music"-styled mockumentary on how the groups came into existence, label co-head Ryan Lewis approached the mike to introduce the proceedings as if they were yet another band on the label. "Well, we know a lot of people have been dying to see these guys, so without further ado ..."
And that quickly, the Spinal Tap of boy bands took the stage: There was a clean-cut one, a dirty one, a half-naked one, a tiny one. And they had dance routines! Like so much teen pop, the music tracks accompanying the boy bands were a weird mix of Celica-thumping Miami bass and synth-driven, up-tempo trip-hop -- until you realized that the songs they were singing were misappropriated indie anthems: Unrest's "Make-Out Club," for From U 2 S, and for N 2 Her, Pavement's "Summer Babe," with sections of Stephen Malkmus' deadpan lyrics recast into a Jay-Z-esque rhyme.
Everything Kindercore wanted to or could have said about itself got said on Friday night: that it was above all, like the Immediate label that put out fresh, sunshiny pop in the '60s, simply "happy to be a part of the industry of human happiness," and that, once in a while, sweating the details pays off.