You're sick of digesting mainstream, overproduced drivel from the likes of MTV and the local "be-caller-100" pop station. You'd like to be edgier and more "underground" - or at least you'd like to pretend you're both those things. The only trouble is, you don't know where to begin. Being in-the-know about independent rock music - a.k.a. "indie rock" - can seem like an overwhelming task. Indie fans often come across as if they belong to some sort of secret society, frowning upon all those poor, ignorant souls who just don't "get it" when it comes to music. Lies. We're here to tell you that you too can be a hipster. By learning the basics of what the indie phenomenon is all about, you should be well on your way to passing yourself off as a die-hard fan.

By the way, we should probably warn you that we're assuming you have at least some musical savvy. We're about to make lots of references to bands, albums and record labels that aren't exactly household names. So if obscurity scares you, save yourself the trouble and click here.


To begin a sham indie rock education, you might be tempted to think you should go buy some indie rock records. Don't be a fool. There are several personal actions you must undertake before bothering with the music itself. After all, part of being an indie rock expert is having the image that goes along with it.

  • The first thing you should do is alter your bathing habits. By no means does that mean you should develop a complete disregard for hygiene, but you might want to cut back on the frequency with which you wash your hair. The "bedhead" look is too obvious, but a modified bedhead with a greasy sheen to it will have you blending right in with the crowd at the indie rock show.

  • Next, think about your shirtwear. An old undersized T-shirt is a safe bet, but it should be some vibrant color - green, orange, and yellow are all good choices - never white or black. White is gauche, and black is too glamorous, too L.A. Generally speaking, the shirt should look like something you would find at a thrift store, but it shouldn't look like you bought it at a thrift store.

  • Got a nice car? Good. Lose it. If you want to be indie rock you can't drive a car that has fewer than 100,000 miles on the odometer and had an original sticker price of more than $20K. As a rule, money is antithetical to indie rock. Unless you are Matt Groening, it's hard to make piles of cash when you are a clever cynic (as most indie rockers like to think of themselves).


Now that you're dressed for the occasion, you next need to immerse yourself in all that is indie rock. Here is a brief history of the subject, which, fortunately for you young wannabes, is summarized here in ultra-abridged form.

The '60s

Were it to exist, The Indie Rock for Dummies book might put the roots of the indie rock tree in the Velvet Underground, a band that hit the scene during the mid-to-late '60s. As the rest of the world was into peace, love, and really good hallucinogenics, the Velvet Underground was taking the rock rulebook, tearing out the pages, and using them to wipe their butts. Their music kinda sounded like rock, but incorporated elements of social realism and the beginnings of punk and new wave. In short, the Velvet Underground was way ahead of its time.

The '70s

After the VU, the deconstructive proposition born in the bowels on New York's Bowery, quickly took the form of punk. Punk became somewhat successful/mainstream, so it had to die. That left a bunch of post-punk bands, many of whom (Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, the Pretenders) started getting airplay, and also became successful and (even worse) old. Post-punk bottomed out when the Clash made Combat Rock, a radio-friendly album that included such commercially viable songs as "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go."

The '80s

Sometime in the late '80s, the moniker of underground tunes changed from "punk" to "college music." This was not because only people in college listened to it, but also because the only people who played it were deejays at college radio stations. Anybody with a radio was free to listen, but not very many people did . . . until people realized that despite the weird names of some of these bands, they weren't scary like punks. In fact, a lot of college music was just pop music. R.E.M., U2, Camper Van Beethoven - they were college bands and they were harmless.

As many of those bands became popular, the powers-that-be at the college radio stations became a little bitter that "their bands" were taken away and given to the masses. They reacted by going a little harder and a little darker (a la Nirvana). That's when college music started to become known as "alternative." Again, the general idea was that it was an alternative to say, Tiffany or Bon Jovi or what you might hear on the radio (notice the pattern?).

The '90s

In the early '90s, Nirvana released Nevermind. As a result, alternative launched its own radio format, and paradoxically became mainstream. So the bands who were still an alternative to something that was getting airplay became (drum roll, please) "indie rock."


So what makes something indie rock? Good question. Unfortunately, there is no clear set of criteria that you can apply to make that determination; it is easier to define indie rock by what it isn't. It isn't successful, it isn't glamorous, it isn't sexy, it isn't insipid, and it isn't likely to get you laid. Nonetheless, getting to the point where you can identify those negative predications is going to take a little work. You might actually have to read a book or some magazines to get a sufficient feel for what qualifies as indie in order to pull this off.

Whatever you do, don't read Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone is for housewives and teenage girls. In Rolling Stone you can read about Puff Daddy and Lillith Fair. That's the kind of fodder that feeds indie rock disdain. Spin - it's for poseurs. You might be best off flipping through a copy of Alternative Press. But don't buy it off the newsstand. Paying retail is not at all indie rock.

Familiarize yourself with the names of the indie record labels because seven times out of ten, if it's on an indie label, it's indie rock. Remember this name: Matador Records. Once cooler than Steve McQueen, Matador is now the Warner or Sony of indie rock, as its staff numbers about 30 people and its roster includes about 40 bands. Hardly small. In fact a few of their most popular artists (e.g., Liz Phair, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) have distribution deals with Capitol Records.

You know the drill: because Matador has become moderately successful, in many respects it's yesterday's news. So now, even if you've never listened to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (a.k.a. JSBX), you can act like you think they are passé because you know that they're on Matador. In fact if you've ever been around a music snob, you probably already know the phrase, "Yeah, their old stuff is better." It's a cliché, but in the case of JSBX, it's true. If you want to talk about them, limit the conversation to either their Extra Width or Orange albums, both of which, incidentally, are truly worth owning if you actually like indie rock. But if you do actually like indie rock, you probably own them already.

Other labels you should familiarize yourself with include:

And if you see anything on C/Z Records in the used bin, you might be wise to jump on it or at least read the name of the band on the CD so it will be familiar in conversation. Bloodshot is certainly indie but it ain't rock, but even if twang ain't your thang, you should still have respect for the label's adherence to general indie principles.

Unlike most major labels, which are as likely to sign a rapper as a teen boy band, indie labels are kind of like brands, meaning that they generally stay stylistically consistent. This is especially true when the label is young and small. For example, most of the early Seattle grunge bands were playing under the Sub Pop label long before David Geffen showed up in the Pacific Northwest with a checkbook and started playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with a bunch of depressed kids in flannel shirts. It's not so much the case anymore, but once upon a time, you knew that if you bought a band on the Sub Pop label, you wouldn't need a volume knob. (Oh, and as a brief aside: do not wax nostalgic for the pre-Nirvana Sub Pop days yet. It's still too early for that. You can, however, still be bummed out about what Island Records and Casey Kasem did to SST Records as a result of the Negativland/U2 incident.) The point is: if you can identify the sound of one band on the label, there's a better than even-money chance you'll be in the ballpark with the others.


If you look cool enough, eventually someone is going to talk to you and expect you to talk back; and if you open your mouth and say something like, "David Cassidy is really cool," you are liable to get the foo kicked out of you. And that would be really embarrassing because the indie rock world is populated largely by wussies.

So start somewhere safe: Sonic Youth. You cannot go wrong if you like Sonic Youth. Everybody in indie rock likes Sonic Youth, and those who don't are afraid to admit it. So you can talk all night long about what a genius frontman-guitarist Thurston Moore is, and nobody will ever think you are an idiot or don't know what you are talking about.

Once you've worn out all possible conversation topics regarding Sonic Youth, try these tips:

  • Know that the coolest indie rock band is someone nobody has heard of and is on a label that doesn't even exist yet. That's just the way it works. Of course you can't talk exclusively about bands nobody else knows anything about, and if you go to their shows, no one else will be there.

  • Don't invent bands. If you make up a name, you will give yourself away. You might think, "How can that be?" Again, that's just the way it works. So no cheating.

Depth, not breadth

If you want to look like you know what you are talking about, depth is more important than breadth. And you just need to be deep in one or two places. That is where something like the Trouser Press Guide might come in handy. It's cross-referenced so you can peruse through it and easily pick up information on bands related by history and specifically find out what other bands the members might have been in. That way, when you speak, you transcend simple knowledge by appearing to having a sense of history when you really don't.

For instance, you look up Built to Spill because you've read about them in some indie 'zine. You see that there is this other band cross-listed with Built to Spill called Stuntman. That's a bonus because Stuntman is still pretty obscure. Where you really rack up the points is by pointing out that both those bands arose out of Treepeople. You couldn't pick Treepeople out of a lineup, but you've just linked three cool bands from Idaho. That's right, Idaho. Who the heck is going to doubt your authority after that?

OK, so let's throw an example at you now: you read about Galaxy 500 and the two bands it spawned-Luna, and Damon and Naomi. Then, when you're at the indie rock show, you say:

"Yeah, DEAN WAREHAM is such a LOU REED and VELVET UNDERGROUND disciple. But it's funny because GALAXY 500 was more about the drone, but LUNA has more of the pop-strum feel of Loaded. So he's covered the gamut of LOU's influence in his career. I don't like DAMON AND NAOMI, though. They are way too Lo-Fi (Pause). You know, I saw LUNA open for VU in Prague back in the early '90s on their European reunion tour."


  • First, as in the previous example, you linked two good indie bands (Luna, and Damon and Naomi) to their parent band (Galaxy 500).

  • You referenced them back to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. That means you were paying attention in the history section of this article, and acknowledged the importance of VU enough to integrate them into your thoughts on indie rock.

  • You recognized the differences between Dean Wareham when he fronted Luna from when he fronted Galaxy 500, and you threw in another VU reference - this time to Loaded.

  • You were careful not to do too much work for your interlocutor. You left him/her an opening to say something like. "Yeah, but Loaded wasn't really a VU record, because John Cale had already left the band by then." You are on fire. If this is a member of the opposite sex that you are talking to, you probably just got yourself a date if you want it.

  • You dissed Damon and Naomi. Good. Don't be afraid to not like someone. But not only did you dis them, you also referenced an indie sub-genre (lo-fi) in your dismissal, and you did it without hesitation. Perfect.

  • You were not done, though. You go for legendary status. You were at arguably THE coolest show of the '90s. You not only knew about that tour, but you were there. Note: if you are currently under 26 years old and you reached for that last one, you blew it. You weren't in Europe when you were 18. You were clearly trying to look cooler than you were. No bigger sin in indie city.


You've got the basics down, now you need to fill in some of the gaps. Remember, you don't need to fill in all of them . . . you don't want to actually BE an indie rock expert because that's a lifetime of work, and you've got better things to do. You just need to fill in enough of the holes to keep people from prying further to see how many are actually there.

So here's what ya gotta do:

  • Familiarize yourself with The Elephant 6 Collective of the Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, and Neutral Milk Hotel. This is a group of bands who have taken up where the Stone's Their Satanic Majesties Request and the Beatles' Revolver left off. The Beatles and the Stones? That may sound mainstream, but these guys do retro psych-pop in a way that nobody with a Britney Spears CD would ever want to sit through.

  • Know about Minneapolis in the heyday of the '80s, when the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum (they used to be cool) were the underground holy trinity of rock. Drop mentions of the Replacements whenever possible. Oh, and also mention Peter Jesperson, even if you have no idea who he is. It doesn't matter. Just say something like, "Yeah, I hear Jesperson's got something new going on," then just bluff your way from there.

  • Finally it will be advantageous to pick one favorite band that just never broke despite their genius, someone like, say, Spoon. Do you own both Spoon records as well as the Soft Effects EP? Probably not because they are not easy to find, but if someone sees you in a record store (and it damn well better be an indie record store), that's what you tell them you are looking for. As for what you buy at the record store - CD or vinyl - you are free to go either way without really affecting your indie cred (that's indie-speak for credibility).

  • If you really want to do the extra credit work, pick a foreign country and school yourself in some of its bands. For instance, you can pick Japan and drop names like Lolita No. 18, Zoobombs, Melt Banana, Cornelius, Buffalo Daughter, Guitar Wolf, and Husking Bee. You should actually listen to one or two of them. That way you can make a judgment like, "You know, the Japanese bands are finally starting to move away from simple imitation of American music and are now starting to incorporate elements that are wholly original." But don't say that. That's our line.

  • One last minefield you need to navigate is what happens when an indie band jumps to a major label. No matter how cool a band is, this is bound to happen. Sometimes it doesn't mean much, and other times it is the end of the band. Again, Sonic Youth were cool even on DGC, but the Goo Goo Dolls, who did about the coolest Prince cover ever ("I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"), became something else when they went to a major label. Showing anything but disdain for that bunch of milksops will get you cast out east of indie Eden. Then there are cases like Dinosaur Jr. - Green Mind, good; but anything after Where You Been, bad. There is no science here; and without a good knowledge of the bands you are only likely to get into trouble.