People spend a lot of energy worrying about whether things are “a thing”. “Is X a thing now?” “I didn’t know Y was still a thing” and so, endlessly, on.
Well indietronica, very pleasantly, isn’t really “a thing”. It’s not a scene, it’s not something with clubs or events dedicated to it, it’s not a marketing bracket or a pseudoacademic category, it’s never anything that people would think to say they’re into. It sometimes feels more an agglomeration of things that have fallen between the cracks of cool, an ad-hoc arrangement of dweebs, dorks and hobbyists all finding quiet corners of the music world where they can get on with their own tinkerings unmolested.
And yet… for all the acts that are indeed tinkering in the shadows, making 7”s bought by 80 people, this is not fringe activity. There is a definite sound, or at least definite set of sonic components, here, and this has etched itself into the fabric of our culture. Say “indie-dance” to people and they’d most likely think the clunky, laddish festival grooves of Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, Kasabian – but actually, what started with a few goofy experimentalists in the late ’90s has turned into Hot Chip, Metronomy, The xx, Bat For Lashes, Trentemøller, James Blake: i.e. as close to a defining of the sound of the present as just about anything else.
That’s the pleasure of it all, though. Blurring into so many things – into the mainstream, into post-rock and noise, into old-school electronica and new-school post-dubsteppery, into every Tumblrcentric genre that’s come along since chillwave, even increasingly into hip hop – this area of music is nicely undetermined. For all that there is a recognisable sonic and emotional palette, and all that it’s easy to write off as nerdy and repressed, there’s still a whole lot of experimentation and intensity going on. It’s reminiscent of the days long, long ago when a play on John Peel was the holy grail and “indie” wasn’t a genre but an actual declaration of non-conformism. So here, in all their ever-so-white, ever-so-awkward, ever-so-miserable glory are a whole load of examples of indietronic goodness. Don’t even think about trying to dance.
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Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 1/37)
‘The First Big Weekend’
Glasgow is an important nexus for all this. Bill Wells, The Pastels, Future Pilot AKA… and Arab Strap. OK, the “tronica” aspect of their music generally amounts to just a ticking drum machine, but even so they laid down important foundations in their quirkily morose way. Also Aidan Moffat’s sad sample-looping instrumentals as L. Pierre (formerly Lucky Pierre) are pretty much faultless indietronica.
‘One Louder Solex’
Elisabeth Esselink named her solo project after a moped and made her first album on a 4-track, out of rickety samples from all the unsold detritus at the Amsterdam record shop where she worked. She is basically the soul of indietronica. She’s made seven albums now!
‘Windy Hill’ (Cornelius Remix)
Stephen Pastel is quite possibly the most indie man in the UK (although of course not for long if Scotland votes “yes”), and The Pastels have, incredibly, been going for over 30 years – but they continue innovating. Their 1998 Illuminati remix album is another foundational document, with the likes of Tortoise, Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine, To Rococco Rot all blurring boundaries as they stared out through their fringes. Cornelius aka Oyamada Keigo was absolutely huge news around the turn of the millennium, managing to connect the feyest of indie to the Beasties / UNKLE alt-hop axis. This remix is beautiful.
To Rococo Rot
The Berlin connection is big too – the well-connected trio To Rococo Rot originally released on Kitty Yo (home to the likes of Peaches & Gonzalez), shared members with Kreidler Music A.M., were produced by Move D, themselves co-produced and arranged Saint Etienne’s gorgeous Sound of Water album. TRR’s Robert Lippok, meanwhile, has released solo music on raster-noton and Gudrun Gut’s Monika Enterprise and Stefan Schneider has lately formed a working partnership with Krautrock/Kosmische legend Roedelius. TRR’s sound was always a gentle indie-introspective take on Krautrock anyway, as you can hear.
The Smiths sung by a robot. Could this BE any more indietronic?
‘Mnemorex’ ft. Momus
Berlin meets Glasgow. Features the phrase “horny hot hobbit” – what more could you want?
‘Physics of a Bicycle’
Try and pick a release to represent the Anticon collective and you’re opening up a portal into a whole other universe of indie-dorkdom. The insane flood of releases that Boombip, Doseone, Jel and all the rest of them put out – and are still putting out – is the kind of thing that obsessive fans could and probably do drive themselves nuts trying to keep track of. Though the Anticon crew came ostensibly from a hip hop background and ruleset, their introspective psychedelia took them well and truly into indie weirdo territory – into John Peel’s world, in fact, so it’s appropriate to choose a track from one of their Peel sessions.
‘(This is) the Dream of Evan & Chan’
Jimmy ‘DNTEL’ Tamborello teams up with Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie for, frankly, a big tune. So big in fact that they then formed The Postal Service, probably the first breakout indietronica act.
Fujiya & Miyagi
Whispering Brighton neo-Krautrock oddballs with a penchant for disturbingly banal lyrics and songs that all sound the same (in a good way), Fujiya & Miyagi bizarrely became a clubbers’ after-party favourite and are still going today.
One of the best guitar records of the early 2000s, The Notwist’s Neon Golden, closes with this sad, sad dream of a track.
‘Hendrix with KO’
First Dan Snaith was Manitoba, then he was Caribou, now he’s Daphni. He started mostly electronic and he’s mostly electronic now, but in the middle he had a lovely psychedelic phase with loads of vocal harmonies and two drummers – this is from the Up in Flames album, originally released as Manitoba, and it’s great.
Cute, fey, quirky – about as indie as it comes.
‘Leaving in Coffins’
This London duo were always deeply puzzling. Their songs were (and are – they recently reformed) intensely affecting and full of dynamite hooks, but they seemed to display minimal ambition and always undermined any seriousness with a load of funny noises and clockwork toys. But then again, this just gave them all the more character. Case in point: this completely heartbreaking song from their debut album, which will stick in your head for days after one hearing, nagging at your back brain like a sad memory.
Like an awful lot of Hot Chip’s work, this is quite annoying on paper (nasal vocals, kazoos (KAZOOS!), “I’m like Stevie Wonder but I can see things” etc etc), but works by sheer virtue of a) charm, b) skronky groove, and c) great tunes.
This is indietronica with grand ambition – Danish band Efterklang have about 600 members, including a full orchestra, yet somehow they retain (especially in their earlier work), the intimacy of bedroom laptop songwriters.
‘The Ghosts you Draw on my Back’
Iceland, of course, pours indietronica out of volcanic vents, and Múm made some of the best. If you can handle being serenaded by elves, this is deliciously odd and great.
‘Screen Love, Space and the Time Man’
Khonnor’s career could just represent the perfect indie-ousider narrative: at 16 he made a truly astonishing album, Handwriting, full of unique fusions of My Bloody Valentine noise, space-cadet electronic crackle and sensitive navel-gazing songs (tracks called ‘I was Everything you Wanted Until you Quit’? Oh yes!), a couple of EPs, a few online drips and drops, then quit music completely and now works on a building site in Texas. [full disclosure: Handwriting came out on Type, the label run by FACT’s John Twells]
‘High Come Down’
This Canadian crew were among the very few musicians outside the UK to take any notice of the indeterminate interzone between garage, grime in the early 2000s (so it’s appropriate that the band’s Jeremy Greenspan would much later end up on Hyperdub – as co-producer with Jessy Lanza on Lanza’s album). You probably wouldn’t know it from this, though, which sounds more like… well, a bunch of nervy white indie boys trying to be Timbaland. And it’s exactly as brilliant as such a thing should be.
The Shortwave Set
‘Is it Any Wonder?’
About as anthemic as indietronica gets. This lot were a junkshop-obsessed band from New Cross, whose next album would be produced by Dangermouse. You can see why he liked them: there’s serious sonic ambition and songwriting chops here – also a well of glorious miserablism a mile deep.
Tunng were thoroughly tied to that other early 2000s tronica – the folk variety – but they always a bit more than just that. Really they were, and are, a proper modern psychedelic pop band, and this Bloc Party cover they did is… well, modern psychedelic pop, in the indietronic mode.
I know, I know, who’s got time for Thom Yorke’s mitherings these days? But this is actually very pretty in its meandering, prickly sort of way.
‘Tiergarten’ (Supermayer Lost in the Tiergarten Remix)
Kompakt recordings always had an indie streak a mile wide, whether in explicitly shoegazey acts like The Field and Walls or in a whole heap of heavily New Order-indebted sad-techno. Rufus Wainwright, on the other hand, has always had an annoying streak a mile wide but here Superpitcher and Michael Mayer tamed it and managed to make one of the most beautiful records of the last decade. An absolute melter.
‘Where is Home (Burial Mix)’
Yes Burial is indie. Of course he is! It’s a shame he hasn’t remixed more indie bands as such, as this is one of his very best.
Raf & O
Superbohemian, super kooky, on a label run by a musician who’s played with Nico and Pere Ubu (see the Roshi record that follows) – the sort of record that makes it feel like John Peel is still alive, just a little bit. Raf & O do a nice line in Bowie covers too, well worth looking up…
Roshi ft. Pars Radio
Like the Raf & O, this came out on the GEO label run by Graham “Dids” Dowdall who also doubles up as “Pars Radio” to back the amazing Welsh-Iranian chanteuse Roshi Nasehi. And like the Raf & O, this is never going to be jostling with The xx to soundtrack the next BBC2 ident – but that’s just part of its staggeringly lovely charm.
Samuel & The Dragon
‘Diamonds on a Boat’
I actually introduced this duo, which is nice. Unfortunately they hated each other so much that they only managed to release one single before imploding. Still, it’s a very good single.
Bat For Lashes
‘What’s A Girl To Do’ (Plaid Remix)
Natasha Khan mystic-glam schtick maybe overshadows how great her music is sometimes, but she’s always had really interesting electronic touches. This remix makes for one of the most interesting blurrings of electronic/not-electronic as Plaid digitise the Phil Spector groove of the original into a fascinating bit of retro-future.
‘Even Though You’re With Another Girl’
The Last Resort was Anders Trentemøller’s biggie – and blurred mainstream house/techno into a hazy, shoegazey, David Lynch-y kind of world – but since then he’s got more indie by the day.
Hyperdub’s stab at the indietronic was kind of difficult for people to process at the time, especially coming in the wake of the more recognisably HDB-ish ‘Aidy’s Girl is a Computer’ – but actually Darkstar’s North album deserves re-assessment, as it’s basically very good.
‘You With Air’
Glo-fi? Chillwave? Bollocks mate, it’s all indietronica.
JB’s sound has settled so much into the mainstream, and his vocal tics have been so annoyingly imitated by so many, that it’s easy to forget how weird his music actually is.
Like James Blake, The xx are now so much a part of the fabric of things, that it’s worth reminding yourself what an odd proposition they really are as a mainstream act.
‘Sun in the Winter’
They make all their records in an attic in rural Carmathernshire, they’ve got a harp and the singer’s called Angharad Van Risjwijk. Forgive me for being a bit exoticist about this but that’s just brilliant, right?
‘Desired Effect’ feat. Fergus Cook
Glasgow’s new generation: very indie, very tronica, very good.
‘Beneath the Tree’
Where indietronica merges into the kind of ’80s chamber pop that Jessie Ware does so well, Sampha skulks in the shadows, being a bit introspective. Of all the slightly choked-up sounding sad boys currently shyly jockeying for position just to the left of the charts, I reckon he’s one of the ones that we’ll look back on most fondly.
It was only when I sat down to review Love Letters that it really occurred to me: Metronomy actually keep getting better and better. They do, right? This is great, and about as indie as it’s possible to be without covering your entire face with your fringe.