Beer and Pavement

Is R.E.M. still indie?

Posted in Intersections, Manifesto by SM on November 19, 2011

So, I still mean to post daily. However, I forgot to schedule this post for Saturday. I’ll date it as such and still post something by the end of Sunday. Honestly, this was written. I just spaced on the scheduling and didn’t look at a computer all day.

I was listening to NPR the other day when this interview with R.E.M. aired. At some point, the band was asked about their transformation from indie to major or popular music. One of the band members (I couldn’t tell which one) remarked that they are still indie despite the fact they’ve been signed to Warner Brothers for nearly 25 years, a decidedly non-indie move to a major label.

How does that happen? Are they really indie? If so, what does being “indie” really mean?

I agree. R.E.M. is indie and probably always will be. It’s the same for Sonic Youth, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, etc. All of these bands have had their indie cred  questioned when they jumped to major labels, but this is simplistic and, quite frankly wrong. These bands have always been indie and will (hopefully) always be indie.

Why?

Being indie isn’t equal to being unknown or unsuccessful. It’s keeping that human, even soulful element that corporate acts just can’t duplicate in the music. The outcome might be “boring,” but there’s a clear, albeit subjective difference. The artists still maintain creative control and aren’t simply making music to make money. If they’re lucky, they make enough to live on (or better), but that’s not why they do what they do.

I’m sure that doesn’t make indie any clearer for you. It’s really complicated, rather subjective, and somewhat arbitrary. It has to do with the spirit of the music and the motivation for making the music. Typically, this hard to determine without having firsthand knowledge of a musicians inspiration or process. Honestly, it shouldn’t matter. If the music is good, it’s good.

However, for me, it does matter. I love music for the human, soulful experience that it is. I want music and all art to mean something more than aesthetics or entertainment. The craft, blood, sweat, and tears that goes into indie rock makes it more meaningful to me. I find anything corporate to be cold and sensationalized. Indie rock is authentic and artful. That’s how I like it.

This position helps explain some of my attraction to craft beer as well. As I’ve established before, craft beer has soul. It represents the human side of beer while BMC strips the creativity and humanity from what should be a soulful experience. This is where people’s beer epiphany happens. It’s that wow moment when craft beer suddenly makes sense to the drinker. It happens because of all the humanity and soul that goes into each glass, bottle, or keg.

An indie model works in craft beer as well. Look at Founders. The brewery was nearly going under when they brewed safe, approachable beers that they thought would sell. Once they realized that they were headed for bankruptcy, they decided to brew what they liked, what made them happy until they had to close their doors for good. The uniquely challenging ales that resulted appealed to people looking for something different from the corporate-dominated mainstream beer industry. Despite the brewery’s rapid growth and sustaining success, they are indie, just like R.E.M.

Indie is not necessarily about which label a band belongs to. It only partially has anything to do aesthetics. Indie is an uncompromising attitude toward art and craft that puts it’s maker’s vision before profit margins. So, in short, R.E.M. remained indie throughout their history. They didn’t try to please the mainstream for greater profits. They made music for their fans and, more importantly, for themselves.

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Gateway Beers (and Bands)

Posted in Beer by SM on December 22, 2010
Get it?

Image blatantly lifted from the blog I link to in the first sentence.

One of those beer and whiskey loving brothers[1] posed the following question:

Is Blue Moon good for craft beer, or is it a soul-sucking vortex of all that is good and holy?

Basically, the best selling “craft-style” beer[2] is Blue Moon. For the uninitiated, Blue Moon is hardly considered a craft beer. It is brewed and bottled by the monolithic Coors corporation, maker of all things rice adjunct-ed. So, crafty, Blue Moon is not. It is not the typical American industrial lager brewed with corn or rice, but that still doesn’t make it a craft beer.

However, that’s besides the point. Blue Moon’s status as mistaken craft brew makes it a prime candidate as a gateway to craft beer nirvana. Consumers who typically purchase cases of Budweiser or Coors, might take a chance on a Blue Moon. It’s light in color, not particularly offensive in flavor. So, it won’t scare anyone away. With some clever marketing, Blue Moon even feels like it could be a craft beer or the old-school “microbrew” to the craft beer ignorant. A beer with flavor that’s perceived as crafty might be a short jump to more ambitious brews, but I have yet to witness this effect. Let me illustrate…

Let’s just say that your PBR-guzzling bro orders the BM[3] at Friday’s or Chili’s or wherever BM is the most enticing option. He takes a swig (most likely from the bottle[4]) and holds the bottle out and inspects what he’s just dumped down his gullet. Cirtus. Bubblegum. This beer actually tastes like something other than beer.

“I might have to give some of these microbrews[5] a try.”

The night ends and eventually, your bro finds himself in the beer aisle with yet another case of PBR in-hand when he suddenly notices a display. On the display are some strange beers he’s never seen before tonight, before his craft beer revelation. They’re from exotic locales like Portland, San Diego, and Milton. The styles are even more interesting: India Pale Ale, Russian Imperial Stout, Saison with Brett. He realizes that these are the microbrews he was after. He drops the case and grabs what he thinks is a six-pack, only to find that it’s just a four-pack. That seems cool to him; this bro is low on cash after the trip to TGI Friday’s. Then he’s sees the price tag. “TEN FUCKING DOLLARS?!?”

Your bro carefully puts back the four-pack as if it’s his grandmother’s heirloom ceramic angels that he just super glued back together before she returns from the store. Then he eyes a bomber. “Hey, that’s like a forty. I love me some forties,” he thinks to himself. However, this “forty” is more expensive than the four-pack and has a cork in it. He nearly drops the beer before placing it back on the shelf, grabs his case, high-tails it out of the supermarket, and vows only to drink Blue Moon on special occasions, like eating at Chili’s.

And scene.

Of course, the vignette above doesn’t even address the surprise the craft beer curious experience when they do take a chance on a true craft beer. Imagine the same look the old dude with the bitter beer face from those ads in the early nineties upon a noob’s first sip of and IPA or DIPA in the neighborhood of 85+ IBU’s. Or think about that guy who drinks energy drinks instead of coffee because he doesn’t like the taste of coffee testing a big Russian Imperial Stout. Don’t even consider what happens when the craft beer ignorant try sours or Belgian beers. Forget it. This is not their father’s Blue Moon. If the prices don’t scare them off, the flavors will.

That’s why I think the best gateway into craft beer is…well…CRAFT BEER.

Take my gateway into craft beer, for instance. I started out on rice adjunct, industrial lagers like the rest of you. I tried to mix it up with a Rolling Rock[6] here, some Little Kings there, and maybe a Sapporo now and again. None of those beers satisfied and most imports of the day were skunked. Guinness and Sam Adams soon dominated my beverage choices by the end of college. After that, I often chose these beers or the periodic microbrew, thinking my palate was expanding but never really finding anything that challenged.

Then, the craft beer epiphany[7] happened.

I had ordered a sub sandwich to be delivered and figured I could wash it down with a beer. Of course, I didn’t really need a ton of beer, just a few before I settled in for the night. So, I sauntered down the street to the beer shop, the Pace-High Carryout. After looking around a bit, I noticed a cooler of these big beer bottles. Right at my eye level was a beer with a gargoyle looking back at me with the words “Stone Ruination IPA” etched on the bottle. I liked pale ales and the like and thought a couple of these bottles would do the trick for the evening. Plus, it seemed easier than lugging a sixer down the street.

Upon opening this beer and pouring it in the tumbler I once stole from a bar, the aromatic hops hit me like a ton of bricks. Then the huge malt backbone and tremendously intense hops pummeled my tongue into submission. How was this beer? Where had this kind of beverage been all my life? This was my gateway beer, not effing Blue Moon blandness in a bottle.

Of course, it took me a while to fully figure out this whole craft beer thing. It didn’t help that my local beer retailer had issues restocking their shelves. Either way, I was constantly in search of that big flavor and aroma Stone’s Ruination thrust upon me. The search never stopped, even after finding many, many fine craft beers. Bland beer did not make me a craft beer fan. Craft beer made me a craft beer fan.

The same goes for music[8]. My gateway band was Nirvana. Sure, I had flirted with the likes of U2 and REM, but it was Nirvana that exposed me to indie rock[9]. By the time I discovered Nirvana, they were no longer on Sub Pop, but Kurt Cobain and co’s feet were still firmly planted in the underground, choosing to tour with unknown indie bands, touting Dinosaur Jr on MTV and The Breeders in the pages of Rolling Stone.

I fell in love with indie rock because of indie bands, not bands marketed as indie or alternative. Bands who obviously came from and still supported the underground showed me a whole new world of music that corporate whores could not. Bands developed by major labels for the masses have never made me want to try out new bands the way indie bands have.

The point is that quality is not something one can fake through slick marketing or copying an aesthetic. You can’t beat the real thing, whether it’s music or beer. So, the next time you see your buddy reaching for the sixer of Blue Moon, direct him toward a Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca or Allagash White[10]. Or, really blow his mind with something else entirely, like an Arrogant Bastard or Maharaja. There’s no need to settle for the corporate thing that supposed to taste like the indie thing. Just go with the indie/craft product and we’ll all be happier.

Oh, and as an added bonus, there’s this.

Notes:
1The little one.
2Read “craft-style” as “blatantly ripping off good, hard-working folk trying to keep tradition alive while still innovating and stretching boundaries in order to keep beer real” as that’s really all macro breweries are doing by marketing “craft-style” beers. Check the ratings for such beers on RateBeer or BeerAdvocate. You’ll find that the copycats only resemble craft beer in marketing and image, not flavor.
3I used this abbreviation for Blue Moon on the Brothers’ blog comments and it was pointed out that a “BM” is also a bowel movement. Freudian indeed.
4Because if you drink mocro beer, you don’t care what it smells like. In fact, you may actually hate the smell. I always ask people who drink a good beer from the bottle if they would smell a rose through a straw. Drinking a beer from a bottle has the same effect. Why is drinking from a beer bottle so accepted, but if I drink straight from a bottle of wine or liquor, I’m a lush? Avoid drinking from the bottle if you want to enjoy the beer. Pour it in a glass.
5I use the term “microbrews” as this is what peopel mistakenly call craft beer. I don’t know when/where this started, but I remember first calling them “microbrews” back in the nineties. The problem with the term is that it insinuates that these beers are somehow just smaller versions of the larger macrobrews or industrial lagers. Aside from the crazy numbers corporate beer pushers produce, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, the macros are big, but their beers are not. Craft brewers brew the biggest beers and they are anything but smaller versions of Budweiser et al.
6At the time, Rolling Rock was still a pretty small, regional brewery. I thought I was drinking a microbrew at the time. Little did I know how similar they were to the big boys. Eventually, Rolling Rock was bought out by said big boys. The rest is rice adjunct history.
7Just learned this term in an interview by one of my favorite beer blogger/Buckeye fans, The Beer Wench. Her interview of The Dude from It’s a Fucking Beer is a must read.
8Sorry. This is where my argument gets a bit week. I still contend it applies, but I’m too lazy to really make it work. I’ll tie it all up with a reference back to the beer. Don’t you worry.
9This is a bit unfair to REM as they were and have always been a true ally to indie rock. I think it had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t old enough nor possessed the ability to know about REM and the bands they came up with. For me, they were not a good gateway as they were presented as something so separate from the underground, unlike Nirvana.
10Seriously. If someone likes a Belgian-style white ale/witbier that much, they should try what the style is really supposed to taste like. If they don’t like that, they should try other styles…or just quit pretending to like craft beer with real flavor.