Why Philly Is America’s New Indie Rock Hotbed

Words by Dom O’Connor

For the past 10 years, Philadelphia has felt like a hotbed of American guitar music – from the frontier folk-stonerisms of Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs to the earnest, heart-on-sleeve pop punk of Modern Baseball and Beach Slang.

Philadelphia is by no means a small town. But it truly feels like it’s punching above its weight in terms of constantly producing quality indie bands. So why is that? Local radio host and blogger John Vettese puts it down to three things: Affordability, location and a determined independent spirit.

Vettese – editor of The Key, a music blog based at public radio station WXPN, where he is also an on-air host – says Philly’s low cost of living and relative proximity to New York and DC has been particularly appealing to acts such as Waxahatchee and Screaming Females.

“Artists at a certain level can record and tour and live comfortably on that; just-starting-out artists can augment their creative income with some sort of flexible part time job.”

He says the ability for the city to make stuff happen is another huge selling point. The lack of under-21 venues has created a rich tradition of all-ages events in DIY spaces such as basements, warehouses, art galleries – even churches. “I mean, shit, we’ve got an indoor batting cage off of Girard Avenue that hosts DIY gigs at night. It’s ridiculous and awesome,” he says.

When Melbourne’s Camp Cope had a couple days off and no shows booked on a brief stopover in Philly earlier this year, the community rallied and two pop-up gigs were locked in: a solo show for singer Georgia Maq in a West Philly basement and a full band show at downtown venue The Trocadero Balcony.

“I caught the latter gig, which packed the room with literally less than 24 hours’ notice,” John says. “If something isn’t happening, we find ways to make it happen, and the latter happened because the show’s promoters got their start in the Philly DIY network.”

It’s also a large enough city to not be tied to one genre or “sound”. Sheer Mag’s good time riff-rock feels a long way away from (Sandy) Alex G’s genre-hopping experiments in songwriting, for example, and that variety contributes to its growing reputation.

Here’s a brief snapshot of what this indie city on the rise has to offer.

Sheer Mag

Need To Feel Your Love

On the title track from the garage punkers debut record, Sheer Mag have written their most overtly romantic song yet, trading in their usual fire for a midtempo, almost-ballad that makes use of guitarist Kyle Seely’s penchant for writing incredibly catchy guitar lines. The warm, DIY production gives Tina Halliday’s vocals the perfect amount of wounded heart, and it’s the first Sheer Mag song of note that legitimately grooves, taking the well-worn ‘disco sell-out album’ trope and wearing it as a badge of honour. An exciting progression for one of Philly (and indie rock in general)’s most likeable bands.

Proud

(Sandy) Alex G

The prolific Bandcamp hero’s new record Rocket is a perfect intro to his sizeable discography so far, and ‘Proud’ might just be the most accessible song he’s ever written. It’s a sweet, rollicking country song that chugs along with a writer’s eye for detail and an encroaching maturity in the production. There’s an affability in the drawling vocals, barroom piano and coo-ing backing vocals on ‘Proud’ that belies the obsessive nature of the lyrics. But that’s what (Sandy) Alex G does best, marrying the sweetness of his melody writing with dark character studies and a singular lyrical focus.

Up All Night

The War on Drugs

War on Drugs songs are usually meticulously planned and laboriously recorded, which is what makes the simplistic piano and drums motif used in the first minute of ‘Up All Night’ so different to their usual output. ‘Up All Night’ builds beautifully, never abandoning the central piano hook but using it to accentuate the fizzing bass and drum loop and frontman Adam Granduciel’s impressionistic lyrics. It all lapses into a classically atmospheric guitar solo midway through (a War on Drugs specialty) before a restrained, almost-ambient coda takes us home. The song’s celestial synths slowly fading away like an old, nostalgic memory.

Boyish

Japanese Breakfast

The songs of Japanese Breakfast – the solo project of Michelle Zauner of Little Big League – are generally as purgative as they come, and ‘Boyish’ sways with a vibrant lilt. It’s not just the Spector-ian drums or the film score strings that underline the song’s emotional resonance, but the way it opens up from the restrained verse to a cathartic chorus. It’s all swelling strings and pained magnetism, especially Michelle’s pained delivery of “Love me!” in the twangy, reverb drenched coda. A torch-song for a new generation, and a beautifully arranged murder ballad that feels like more than just a pastiche.

Corner Store

Girlpool

Recent Philadelphia transplants Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad write affecting, often bizarre character portraits with sudden lurches and jarring changes. ‘Corner Store’ starts with a bouncy, Wilco-esque instrumental and the pair’s entwined voices, not exactly in harmony as much as singing at the same time. And then there’s that lurch: a titanic, distortion-drenched explosion that ends just as quickly as it starts. Girlpool bring the song back to its formerly pleasant memory with another verse, but it feels less innocent this time, as if the entire nature of the song has changed. An example of this band’s knack for creating a mood and then obliterating it in an instant.

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