This year marks the 30th installment of the Noise Pop Music & Arts Festival in San Francisco. Independently organized since 1993, the inaugural Noise Pop featured just five bands—all of whom shared the same stage at The Kennel Club (now known as The Independent). Tickets to that show cost $5.
Today, the event spans 10 days and features over 140 bands spread across more than 25 venues throughout the city and in the East Bay.
Casual music fans scanning this year’s lineup may not recognize many of the artists scheduled to perform. Then again, back in 1998, it’s likely that many San Franciscans were unfamiliar with the Modest Mouse, who took the Noise Pop stage to rip through a set of loping and wry indie rock odes to life on the endless highways of the Northwestern United States.
Noise Pop has never been about catching all of the world’s biggest bands in one place. It is a festival for discovering your new favorite act.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of Noise Pop performers who wowed local crowds before they’d amassed a following large enough to land them on the Coachella mainstage.
1998 | Great American Music Hall
By 1998, Modest Mouse had released a handful of cassette demos, a trio of EPs and two proper studio albums, including 1997’s Lonesome Crowded West. But it would be another two years before their major label debut, The Moon and Antarctica (2000), and another six before their breakout radio-ruling single “Float On” from Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004). According to Noise Pop’s organizers, it was the biggest Bay Area show they’d played thus far.
1998 | Bimbo's
It’s true that the Flaming Lips had already been playing together for 10 years by the time Noise Pop was founded. It’s also true that by the time the Oklahoma City weirdos took the stage at Bimbo’s in 1998, they already had a certified hit. But “She Don’t Use Jelly,” from 1993’s Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, was the kind of anomalous breakthrough single that plenty of alternative rockers scored in the ’90s only to ultimately fade into obscurity. However, the band had yet to release their critically acclaimed 1999 record, The Soft Bulletin, and were still several years out from dropping what is widely considered to be their mainstream breakthrough, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002). So, one can easily imagine that when Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd enlisted members of the audience in their performance of “Boombox Experiment No. 4,” there were probably at least a handful of folks in the audience who were scratching their heads as they watched two of indie rock’s most revered musicians conducting an orchestra of portable tape players in a symphony of triumphant orchestral swells and fuzzy static.
Death Cab for Cutie
1999 | Great American Music Hall
It’s no secret that Death Cab for Cutie loves San Francisco. But back in 1999, that devotion may have been largely unrequited here in the Bay Area. At the turn of the millennium, Ben Gibbard and Co. were just another group of promising young upstarts from the Pacific Northwest—a region that mainstream radio stations of the era were mining for hard-hitting grunge tunes. Death Cab for Cutie helped turn the tide. By the time Transatlanticism dropped in 2003, alternative FM stations were paying a lot more attention to wistful and wordy guitar-driven indie bands and the burgeoning indie blogosphere was starting to introduce a host of bands like Built to Spill, Pinback and Grandaddy to a generation of sensitive millennial college students. Speaking of Grandaddy, that Modesto-bred band shared the bill at this show—Death Cab’s second-ever Bay Area show, according to the rock historians at Noise Pop. The band would play their first ever headlining SF show the very next year at the 2000 installment of the Noise Pop festival.
The White Stripes
2001 | Great American Music Hall
These days, Jack White is a bona fide elder statesman of rock & roll. But in 2001, the same year that his band would release White Blood Cells, the White Stripes frontman and founder of Third Man Records came to Noise Pop with plenty to prove. The garage blues duo of Jack and Meg White were still on indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry and were only just beginning to catch the wave that would carry them to the top of the alternative rock charts and spawn a seven nation army’s worth of imitators. Their headlining set at the Great American Music Hall was their biggest Bay Area show to date, according to the Noise Pop team.
New Sounds & an Evolving Festival
In 2001, the same year the White Stripes played Noise Pop’s Great American Music Hall stage, the Noise Pop Music & Arts Festival took a major step forward by presenting multiple shows concurrently throughout San Francisco. In the years that followed, the organization would go on to partner with Another Planet Entertainment to launch the Treasure Island Music Festival and host many more acclaimed artists. Grimes, whom many know for her glitchy and experimental electronic music (and others know as the mother of two of Elon Musk’s many children), played her first Bay Area show at the Rickshaw Stop as part of the Noise Pop festival in 2012—the same year Noise Pop launched its 20th Street Block Party.
While Noise Pop has often been ahead of its time in recognizing groundbreaking indie rock talents, the festival has been a bit slower on the uptake when it comes to rap music. But six years ago, Noise Pop organizers secured something of a coup when they booked one of the buzziest hip-hop artists of the year: Vince Staples headlined the festival in 2017, the same year the Long Beach rapper released Big Fish Theory. And last year, the Azealia Banks topped the festival’s bill.
The 2023 Noise Pop Music & Arts Festival runs from Feb. 20-26.
Nick Veronin can be reached at [email protected]