Tracing The Roots of Indie Punk
Since its inception, I’ve always been curious and a bit skeptical of the term indie punk. For some reason it’s always irked me whenever I heard it, having the same connotation as bubble grunge had to others when everyone discovered it via Spotify Wrapped. It seemed to be a product of a streaming age, where Spotify mints new genres with their popular “The Sound of” series. And then it just becomes accepted as a fact without any kind of questioning.
But it makes sense why the term indie punk came about. What was once an encompassing term was beginning to lose all meaning. For a younger generation, the word punk evoked the worst instincts of the first wave. So the idea of adding indie to punk is an important change. It creates a different lineage, one that is more modern, taking root in this century. Despite this being a common genre signifier among newer bands, there is almost no scholarship on it. As some sort of documentation, here are ten bands that are part of the lineage of indie punk, a genre that persists despite itself.
Trying to define to boundaries of any genre is always a bit difficult and bound to be imperfect and indie punk is no different. People already spend way too much time parsing what is punk and what isn’t. But if you asked me to try to pinpoint where indie punk begins, I would have to pick Lemuria. They were culturally punk, putting out records on Bridge Nine and Asian Man Records. They had that same DIY ethic that defines the genre, starting out playing basements and small clubs. But it was clear from the start of Get Better that Lemuria was reaching for something beyond the genre. There was a focus on pop songwriting that many bands didn’t even have the capability of pulling off. Calling them power pop or indie rock though didn’t feel quite right though. All of their fans came from the punk community, appealing to the diehard hardcore or “epifat” kid in equal measure. We just didn’t yet have the terminology in 2008 so just calling it punk would suffice for now.
A study of indie punk would be incomplete without a mention of its predecessor of orgcore. For the uninitiated, this was a descriptor for a certain strain of punk that descended from Jawbreaker and specifically FEST. It converged around the blog punknews, whose influence at the time was huge. The genre if you can call it one was pretty loose, including bands like Against Me!, Lawrence Arms, Dillnger Four, and too many others to list. If you want a deeper dive on Orgcore Miranda Reinert did an excellent article on it.
While I have a lot of love for that particular era of punk that orgcore is part of, it was not without its own faults. It was toxic in certain respects, breeding an unhealthy drinking culture and lacking introspection. These problems were manifested in the dissolving of Latterman, one of the most important bands of this scene. Singer Matty Jo Canino felt people were taking the wrong message from their music, failing to look inward at the failings of the modern punk scene. And continually trying to have these fights each night was beginning to wear Canino down.
In the wake of Latterman comes RVIVR, a band formed by Canino that is very much a response to the 00s punk scene. They updated the girls to the front approach of riot grrrl, which at times made them very divisive. It would result in the all too predictable response of “love the music but they talk too much”. These detractors ultimately didn’t matter to the band. The community RVIVR was creating wasn’t meant for them. They were trying to create a more inclusive scene, fighting the necessary fight so those that followed wouldn’t have to claw in the same way.
The Menzingers since their inception have straddled the line between various different communities. It’s partially thanks to living in Philadelphia during an extremely fertile time in the 2010s. The separation between the different punk subcultures wasn’t wide. They were all friends and on a similar path. This is really exemplified by the iconic album art of Just Married, which includes Tom May of The Menzingers and Augusta Koch of Cayetana. This closeness would result in a shifting of terminology over the next decade. The lines became harder to draw between what made something pop-punk versus emo and we have The Menzingers partially to thank or blame.
If we want to be accurate though The Menzingers were the natural successor of orgcore with a little twist, bringing in an Americana twinge that was at the time still novel. It wasn’t yet a tired trope that became a parody. And with On The Impossible Past, The Menzingers perfected that sound and would in turn influence the next wave of bands that would eventually get labeled as indie punk even if their music didn’t have any trace of indie influence.
Radiator Hospital started with a pretty simple premise: Sam Cook-Parrot had recently acquired a four-track recorder and wanted to try his hand at self-recording. It very quickly became a blender for all his influences, mixing his punk background with a love of Jonathan Richman and power pop to create something wholly his. This dichotomy would become a key feature for Parrot going forward. In his own way, it’s the truest expression of indie punk, using the genre as more of an idea rather than a distinct sound or box one must adhere to. You get to see his two competing instincts best on Something Wild, the debut record, and the first one made as a Philly band. There are still homespun acoustic tracks that harken back to the original premise of the band but are paired with the desire to be a loud punk band. It results in a whiplash that shouldn’t work but it somehow does. This dynamic would be abandoned for a bit in the following two records and would return to the band’s humble beginnings on Sings ‘Music For Daydreaming’ in 2019.
If we wanted to really try to figure out what we mean when we say indie punk, I’d look at Swearin’. It’s a combination of 90s Merge Records and modern punk. They even covered a Guided By Voices song. The first EP was drenched in distortion, feeling like their own version of Kerplunk. There were pop songs there, you just had to go through all this muck to find them. It’s most apparent when listening to “Kenosha”, a quick two-minute song that revolves around the lyric of “I hope you like Kenosha so much you stay there”. Their self-titled record was a bit cleaner but just enough to where the vocals are easier to pick out. They would break up in 2015 and reform in 2018 to release my personal favorite record of theirs, Fall Out Into The Sun. And with it they were able to make a full jump into the indie world, releasing it on Merge Records.
Just as emo was undergoing rehabilitation around 2013, punk was beginning to be taken a bit more seriously by critics. This was mostly thanks to the thankless work of a few, especially at the VICE music site Noisey. They were able able to slip in coverage for smaller bands through premiers, which were not yet a norm. The impact could be a little more substantial than it is in the present day, where it feels like another cog in the music promotion machine. One of the beneficiaries of this era was Chumped, who was at that time an unknown punk band from Brooklyn. Very quickly after releasing their self-titled debut EP in 2013, they went from a band that formed to have fun to becoming a scene favorite. The songs that comprised the EP still hold up almost ten years later and are what comes to mind when I think of indie punk. A song like “Something About Lemons” is thoughtful, fun, and endlessly repayable.
Unfortunately, Chumped had an expiration date that was quickly approaching even if the band members didn’t know it. Too much had happened too fast for the band. It had gotten to a point where it was no longer fun anymore. They never had ambitions to make it a full-time band so what was the point of keeping it going? Chumped was just one chapter for all the members and it was never meant to last forever. One record and an EP were more than enough for them to leave their mark.
There tends to be a strong east coast bias in these kinds of historical pieces and I am not immune to that. The west coast has many bands from the 2010s that rival what was happening elsewhere (That Summer Vacation record is perfect). While Hard Girls never reached the same level of notoriety as Joyce Manor, their impact is just as noteworthy. A Thousand Surfaces in particular is on par with a lot of the best records from this era. It just requires a bit more of your attention than using it as background noise. Their songs weren’t as immediate, with albums only really coming into focus after a second or third listen. Mike Hugenor is a nimble guitar player, not always making the choice someone else would make. The lyrics weren’t as simple and straightforward. It would, unfortunately, slot them into the “band’s band” category or a cult favorite, the ultimate backhanded compliment. It’s an unfair position to put a band in, especially one who has created some of the best records in the young indie punk genre.
PUP has always toed the line between being lovable and irritating. Stefan Babock’s lyrics have a sad bastard quality to them, voicing the negative self-talk that most people could relate to. It’s an update to what we saw in the 2000s with orgcore but wrestles with mental health in a healthier way. While this may sound weighty, the act of listening to PUP is the opposite, joyously howling against the uncaring void. It’s ultimately music that’s meant to be experienced with a bunch of other sweaty bodies bouncing off of you.
I can still remember with a bit of wistfulness when Camp Cope released their self-titled debut in 2016. Almost immediately this became a classic in the pop-punk circles I ran in. Singer Georgia Maq on record was a magnetic figure. Without her, these were simple, stripped-down songs that could easily pass a listener by. With Maq at the center, these songs became transfixing. This may sound like hyperbole but live sets bear this out during her first couple sets in America. The shows would take on a communal atmosphere where Maq and fans traded off vocals, elevating a live performance to an ecstatic experience that I know I spend my time chasing for.
The next record would feel like the natural successor to RVIVR, taking more aim at injustices in the scene. It’s especially apparent in “The Opener”, reminding you that these same problems that were addressed earlier in the decade have never really gone away. This verse below says it better than I could ever do.
You worked so hard but we were just lucky
To ride those coat-tails into infinity
And all my success has got nothing to do with me
Yeah tell me again how there just
Aren’t that many girls in the music scene
The story of indie punk could have just been told by tracing the career of Jeff Rosenstock, starting with the formation of Bomb! The Music Industry and ending with the release of his 2016 record Worry (Please can someone write this book already!). Those ten years in between those two events saw punk mutate into something completely different. His pre-solo career was extremely DIY, from the creation of Quote Unquote Records to purposely not making merch. It was only with his run with Side One Dummy that the positive critical reception happened. And it was capped off by a legendary Pitchfork set in 2017, with the words “listen to Laura Stevenson” taped to his guitar. The ten-year war to get people to take punk seriously in critical circles was finally won. Coincidentally, it's around this time that we see the word indie punk start to become a common phrase, thanks in part to the Spotify playlist “The Sound of Indie Punk”.
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