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5 Essential Characteristics of the modern Indie-Rock Band

Updated on February 27, 2015
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I'm a lawyer and mother of two from New Zealand. I have a passion for the written word and am interested in lots of topics (esp. Travel)!

And I will stumble and fall

I'm still learning to love

Just starting to crawl

(Say Something)

— A Great Big World

First of all what's this strange creature called 'Indie Rock'?

and from whence did it emerge?

Before poking merciless fun at this genre, perhaps I'd better define what I mean by 'Indie Rock'. Starting with the likes of R.E.M and the Smiths on college radio in the '80s, and in the US, bands like Husker Du, the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr, these bands were a visceral reaction against the mass produced, studio synth pop infusing the '80s decade, represented by bands such as Wham, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode.

Who can forget the iconic bands of the '90s - Oasis (with 'Wonderwall') and Pavement, and in the UK 'the Fall'?

Raw, powerful, and unapologetic, they pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable musically and socially. To begin with, these bands emerged on the underground scene, or were associated with small, low-budget labels. In the '90s, grunge represented the main outgrowth of these bands, and in the 2000s, increased commercial success led many critics to question the continued relevance of this movement in fulfilling its 'countercultural' purpose.

What are some exponents of the genre today? Think Death Cab for Cutie, the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Black Keys, the Killers, or the Arctic Monkeys.

Death Cab for Cutie

Jason Mraz

#1: Young white guys with guitars

OK, I hear you say, there are many girl bands also - Peach Kelli Pop, Kan Wakan, and Only You, are just some of the names springing to mind. But I maintain that the commercially successful indie-rock bands are largely dominated by WGWGs (white guys with guitars). This genre isn't the place for the African-American, or other ethnic groups I'm afraid. Said white guys must also conform loosely to the following dress code to qualify as indie rockers:

  • Black stovepipe jeans
  • Black or dark jacket (can be fur or wool-lined inside)
  • Leather jacket (retro, '70s style is good)
  • Long sleeved, button up shirt (can be plaid, but more often plain, in muted colour)
  • Man scarves -tied in any fashion
  • Zipper sweat-tops with hood
  • Doc martens or other skinny lace up boot

Hair can be styled a number of ways, but usually isn't long. Fedoras and other cute little hats are also de rigeur for these chappies (think Jason Mraz).


The WGWG 'Indie' Look

#2: Angst (that German word for which there's no translation)!

Angst, angst, and more angst. The indie-rock band must take this this word, run with it, and make it their own. Their music must exude it, and band members must ooze it from every pore. It doesn't matter whether they have any reason to feel miserable at all -in fact, most of them come from happy, stable, middle class, suburban families, whose worst problem is choosing between private schools to send their little Joe or Josephine to. However this is entirely beside the point - band members (and especially the lead singer) must make it seem as if their life is an endless cycle of misery, depression, lost love, alcoholism, drug abuse and death. For those are the fodder of great lyrics, and great lyrics lead....to indie record deals!!

#3: Weird music video settings and props

The third absolute requirement for the self-respecting indie-rock outfit, is ensuring their music videos are set and produced in the weirdest, most eccentric locations imaginable, and/or that they have weird, disturbing or disgusting subject matter in the video. Sometimes ordinary settings are used, but if so, then the video MUST be in black and white, or have some weird visual effect. Examples include the whole band playing inside a closed storage locker (the Strokes, 'You only live once'), Smashing Pumpkins 'Tonight, Tonight' (scary bouncing aliens), Tool 'Sober' (the horrifying brain man), Marilyn Manson 'The Beautiful People' (horror themes), and the list goes on. Mind you...there are also many indie rock videos showing the lead singer strolling down a long road singing (usually in the country, or some creepy industrial area). So the bottom line is...you won't see angels floating on pink clouds in these videos (or if you do, they may be transgender angels wearing fishnets and clown make-up)!

Nine Inch Nails -Closer

Cut your hair -Pavement (1994)

#4: Deliberately weird themes and lyrics

Indie-rock songs tend to be one of three things: either angst-filled, weird/bizarre, or sardonic/self-mocking. Here are some great examples:

"Cut your hair" (song by Pavement) -music video set in a barber's shop, goofy send-up of rock n roll pretensions;

"Bleeding Out" (Imagine Dragons) - angst

"God is an Indian and You're an Asshole" (Modest Mouse, self-explanatory)

"Sacrilege" and "Despair" (two singles by Yeah Yeah Yeah from their latest album, 'Mosquito')

"I was Born a Unicorn" -The Unicorns (of course)!

and tra-la, drum roll, for the weirdest of 'em all.....

Pink Floyd - Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In a Cave And Grooving With A Pict

Song lyrics you'll never forget:

  • "Oh, the razor blade, Wish it would snap this rope, the world is in your hands, Or it's at your throat" (The Strokes, 'Razorblade')
  • Marky got with Sharon, Sharon got Sherice
    She was sharin' Sharon's outlook on the topic of disease
    Mikey had a facial scar, and Bobby was a racist
    They were all in love with dyin', they were doin' it in Texas (Butthole Surfers, 'Pepper')
  • "Self-help, pure race, Old Testament to walk the line. Makes the healthy go insane Oh what a wonderful, wonderful life." Pretty in Decadence
  • Come ride with me, Through the veins of history, I'll show you why God, Falls asleep on the job -Knights of Cydonia




How well do you know your indie bands?


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Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys)
Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys)
Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, now dissolved)
Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, now dissolved)
Julian Casablancas (The Strokes)
Julian Casablancas (The Strokes)
Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie)
Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie)
Dan Auerbach (Black Keys)
Dan Auerbach (Black Keys)

#5: Uber cool front man: The High Priests of Indie Rock

Last but by no means least, if an indie-rock band is the 'cake', then its frontman/lead singer is the icing on that cake -the 'make or break' element that gets the girls screaming, and the guys going nuts in the mosh pit. Here are a few of the best:

#1: Stephen Malkmus (Pavement): this guy talks in metaphors and song lyrics "there's no need to be a Debbie Downer unless it's called for", and is endlessly wry and sardonic. Pavement may be the best indie-rock band there ever was, and damn, Stephen still knows it!

#2: Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys): Not only a great songwriter, but also an emerging short story writer. Once said he'd have become an English major had his band not been successful. One of GQ's 'Best Dressed Men in Britain' for 2015, and a cool cat!

#3: Julian Fernando Casablancas (The Strokes): It's hard to get cooler than this guy - devastatingly good-looking Latino features, leather jacket and shadz, he's famously press shy. His music was inspired by the Doors and Velvet Underground, and he's trained in classical music theory. He's also working on building the perfect folding electric bicycle!

#4: Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie): Famously dated, married and divorced actress Zooey Deschanel. Formerly a vegan (and now pescatarian), he states he was influenced by beat poet Jack Kerouac. Has a lesbian sister and has been a vocal advocate of gay rights.

#5: Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys): Auerbach and drummer Carney knew each other from the age of 8, and are now part of the world beating duo 'Black Keys'. Auerbach sees himself as a blues musician first and foremost, and is influenced by blues artists such as Robert Johnson and Hound Dog Taylor. Recently announced he is engaged, and having a baby with his fiancée Jen Goodall.


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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub about indie rock. I've heard of the black keys, who are from here in Ohio, and the strokes. But the rest are new to me. Voted up for interesting!

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      As long as there is rock and or roll there will be posers who go far.

      How does the saying go? Something like: Sincerity is key. Once you can fake that you've got it made!