By Phillip Morgan
When most people hear “Atlanta” and “music,” their initial thoughts are probably something more in line with Lil Jon or Outkast. Seldom does anything resembling indie rock really enter the conversation, and if it does, it’s probably R.E.M. (or Manchester Orchestra if they’re below the age of 30). It certainly doesn’t help that historically the mid- to large-scale local music venues like The Masquerade and The Drunken Unicorn have favored more metal and hardcore-leaning bands and electronic acts. Between that and the city of Athens’s increased focus on catering to the UGA students next door, you’d probably conclude that any fledgling punk or indie rock underground in Atlanta had dissolved by now.
You’d be wrong.
Due to lack of support from the majority of the larger local venues, the punk scene has sunk its roots into every nook and cranny of the city that will take it. Most of the shows are in smaller, under-the-radar venues like WonderRoot, Under the Couch (AKA the Georgia Tech Student Center), Mammal Gallery, and YOLKSpace–small spaces that reward participants for subjecting themselves to such cramped conditions with extremely intimate performances from both local and touring acts. There’s even hope for more punk and indie shows at larger venues now, with former WonderRoot booker and Places to Hide frontman Kyle Swick recently taking over booking for The Drunken Unicorn and promising more all-ages and 18+ shows and, mostly importantly, an expansion of focus on local indie and punk acts.
Meanwhile, the suburbs surrounding the city, known collectively as the Atlanta Perimeter, have become the home of numerous house shows. These spaces serve as lifelines from the Atlanta indie scene to the people who live in the farther-out suburbs like Kennesaw and Marietta and for whom venturing out to the city for shows isn’t always a feasible option. Typically, the people hosting the house shows are either in bands themselves or are closely affiliated with one, and the shows provide people (mostly high-school and Kennesaw State students) in these more removed areas the chance to experience and get involved in the Atlanta indie scene from afar. Some house venues have gotten so popular that they’ve become actual music venues in their own right–most notably the garage of Sea Ghost front man Carter Sutherland. Over the past couple of years, the house has become notorious for its exceptionally weird atmosphere and unorthodox performance antics (which shows up in the band’s surreal, sometimes downright absurd music videos). The venue’s eccentricity steadily draws in a number of kids from the Marietta/ Kennesaw area and serve as another small but stellar place to for Atlanta punks to play.
Both Sea Ghost and Places to Hide represent one side of a clear divide in the sound of most Atlanta indie and punk bands. Theirs is the realm of fuzzy pop-punk-inspired indie rock in the vein of fellow Atlanta locals Gold-Bears. Their affinity for keyboard-backed jangly melodies sit just above a thin layer of buzz, while painfully urgent vocals lurk behind of wall of distortion. This distinct sound makes the bands perhaps the best example of this style in its purest form. Places to Hide harbors a lo-fi pop-punk edge, but theirs comes with a bit more grit and features more aggressive songwriting that feels deceptively simple–until you discover they can shift from a moaning whisper to a raucous, fast-paced howl at the drop of a hat. Sea Ghost similarly like to play with tempo within simple song structures, but they’re much more relaxed in their approach. They ease off on the bright fuzz in favor of a cleaner, darker guitar tone that gels more naturally with their lower-range vocals and spooky keyboards.
On the other side of this divide are heavier acts that draw a sizeable chunk of their influence from older indie acts in Atlanta like Manchester Orchestra and O’Brother. While none are direct rip-offs (far from it, in fact), they do share several qualities with the former two, namely in vocals that jump between manic howling and warbly emo musings, grungy guitars, and complex song structure and rhythms. Bands like Microwave and Fairlane are more obvious about their influence, but they also inject some punky hyperactivity into their music that gives them an urgency that their predecessors’ slow-burn atmospherics could never match. Fairlane in particular distances themselves from these influences with their much darker tone, moodier melodies, and fuller vocals that lean more towards melancholy than frustration. Word Travels Fast, on the other hand, are of a completely different breed. Their brand of emo and punk has all the bludgeoning drums and rapid-fire, mathy guitar riffs of prog-metal. Their sound is barely holds it together under wobbly wailings of heartbreak and complete and utter failure, and it dares you to do anything but hang on for dear life.
Despite the trend to choose between one of two key aesthetics among Atlanta’s indie bands, no other rival factions have formed, and neither side is trying to prove how un-punk the other is. On the contrary, most of the bands know each other personally and enjoy each other’s music, so most of the local Atlanta and Perimeter house shows don’t worry too much about who’s playing with whom where. Given that there aren’t nearly as many bands active in Atlanta as there are in other DIY music-friendly cities, no one really has any room to be picky about who’s playing a show with them. Most people are just glad that there’s still decent underground music in Atlanta and revel in the traditional post-show outings at “primetime” Waffle House (usually between midnight 2 a.m., when the really crazy people are working). It’s a tightly knit community that bonds over the simple fact that really no one else in the city (and pretty much the rest of the state, except for Athens and Savannah) is doing what they do. With all the new faces drawn in from the suburban house shows and the promise of larger venue options at The Drunken Unicorn, Atlanta’s punk scene is on track to keep growing and maturing. It’s either that, or the country fans win. And that is unacceptable.
Sounds to listen to: