Each spring over 1,000 international acts gather in Austin, Tex., for the South by Southwest music festival, where the hipsterati help determine the future of indie rock with their feet. Every band here is focused on building buzz by attracting a capacity crowd.
Well, maybe not every one.
Seattle sister duo Smoosh seem more concerned with chasing each other around the cramped backstage area of Maggie Mae's -- then again, Asya and Chloe are 13 and 11. Besides, they packed the club without trying.
Smoosh are leading a kiddie-rock revolution -- ranging from Vancouver's multigenerational Duplex! and multiplatinum covers act Kidz Bop Kids to reality shows and documentaries -- that's becoming increasingly popular among both young and old.
Toward the end of SxSW, another 'tween drummer proved a hit with the hip. The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, a self-described "indie-vaudeville conceptual art-rock pop band," have been playing the annual festival since 2001.
Father Jason Trachtenburg had an unsuccessful music career in Seattle until he started writing songs inspired by slides bought at garage sales, which his wife projects during performances. But what really garnered the quirky family band so much attention -- including an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, a tour with They Might Be Giants, an off-Broadway show and praise from hipster barometers Vice Magazine and on-line magazine Pitchfork Media, as well as The New Yorker -- is their adorably deadpan and surprisingly skilled 12-year-old daughter Rachel, who sings backup as well as drums.
Though Smoosh's parents are not similar scenesters, the girls' pedigree is even more impeccable. Asya writes the songs herself. Chloe was taught by Jason McGerr, Seattle Drum School instructor and member of indie rock stars Death Cab for Cutie.
Their favourite groups are Nirvana, Interpol and the Arcade Fire and not long after releasing the shockingly assured debut She Like Electric, the level-headed girls found themselves opening for Pearl Jam.
They've performed with this year's coolest and most acclaimed indie acts, including singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and dance-rock cheerleaders The Go!Team. Their music video has gone into rotation and they've been garnering props everywhere from People Magazine to Entertainment Weekly to Modern Drummer.
This month, Smoosh was featured on Vice Records' snarky single Do they know it's Hallowe'en, a well-meaning fundraiser for UNICEF that puts Smoosh on record alongside music's hippest artists, including Beck, Buck 65, Feist and members of the Arcade Fire, Sonic Youth, REM, Wolf Parade and Sum 41.
Oh yeah, the girls also recently returned to junior high. The point of the band "is not to get famous or get a lot of money," explains Asya (their surname is kept private) before their must-see showcase. Being indie means "you're actually making everything you're creating and you're doing it because you want to."
Onstage, Chloe drums better than The White Stripes's Meg White while Asya channels a chipmunk Tori Amos as she plays keyboards and sings emotional rock songs, adorable raps and self-aware ballads. The crowd cheers enthusiastically, even if, as Chloe noted earlier, adults "don't dance much."
In the late nineties, when the post-alternative implosion resulted in an influx of teen pop stars -- including ex-Mouseketeers Britney, Justin and Christina -- the indie crowd cried foul. But now even younger kids are enjoying underground acclaim -- the scene's latest darlings are Maryland's Eyeball Skeleton, comprised of JJ, 8, and Charlie, 10, with their dad Bill Brown on backup.
The current cultural swell first hit the mainstream with 2003's film School of Rock by generation-defining director Richard Linklater ( Slacker, Dazed and Confused), which may have been inspired by the real-life music program profiled in the recent documentary Rock School.
Earlier this month, MuchMusic began airing a British reality show, also called Rock School, in which KISS's long-tongued leader Gene Simmons teaches 10 classically trained boarding-school children how to rock 'n' roll all night. The series will climax with the kids performing alongside iconic metal act Motorhead.
Here in Toronto, auditions were held recently for another proposed reality show called Kids Wanna Rock, which is currently being shopped to networks. There's even a pair of girls rock camps operating in Portland and New York.
But this movement has been building since 2000, when an "outsider music" expert discovered The Langley Schools Music Project, recordings of a mid-seventies suburban B.C. school choir covering pop songs by the Beatles, Beach Boys and David Bowie. Released under the title Innocence and Despair, the album rapidly became a cult classic.
"I weep every time I hear the Langley music school doing the countdown in Space Oddity. I think it's incredible," gushes Vancouver singer-songwriter Veda Hille. "That's an early version of kids interacting with a culture that's supposed to be for adults. Maybe there's something particularly heartrending about that. We forget that kids have complex feelings much like we do, so of course pop music works for them."
Last year, Hille enlisted some friends and offspring -- including members of The Beekeepers and P:ano along with two 11-year-old girls and a three-year-old boy who help write, sing and play -- to form Duplex!. Initially a one-off for a storybook soundtrack, Duplex! evolved into an ongoing concern after releasing their debut Ablum on Vancouver indie imprint Mint Records, home to The New Pornographers and The Organ.
"When making this record, I thought about people who like indie music and have kids, of which there are starting to be very many," Hille said. Though popular with the under-six set thanks to anti-salad, pro-poo songs, Mint's rep has gotten this children's album on college charts and in indie publications. At one point, Amazon.com's music editors put it on their "Best of The Year So Far" list, nestled between rapper Lyrics Born and alt-legends Nine Inch Nails.
"I think it started from a reinterest in naive music, which is part of the backlash against the rise of the computer and our access to perfection," Hille says, adding she sells as many Duplex! albums as her new solo record at shows. "People have become interested in imperfection again."
They're also attracted to the authentic and often surreal spirit children can bring to the table, even when singing Top 40 tunes.
Children's music is dominated by Kidz Bop Kids, who have sold 4.5 million albums of kid-friendly cover songs on New York indie label Razor & Tie, whose other acts include Toronto garage-rockers Danko Jones. Though Kidz Bop leads are sung (badly) by adults while children gleefully shout along, the concept is reminiscent of the UK-based phenomenon The Mini Pops in the 1980s.
Not surprisingly, Winnipeg-based label K-Tel rereleased the old albums and recruited local children for last year's Mini Pop Kids. The first album sold 60,000 copies ("kids just love to hear kids sing," explains producer Tad Kojima, who keeps adults away from the mic) and they've already held auditions for volume two.
While hipsters haven't yet rediscovered The Mini Pops, the first few Kidz Bop records flew under the pop-cult radar too, until last spring when they cracked Billboard's Top 10 and sparked an Internet wildfire with their bizarre take on Modest Mouse's Float On.
"In some ways I appreciate that version a bit more because it's already a pretty happy song, but it gives an extra push. The little kids will do that," says Matthew Perpetua of popular MP3 site Fluxblog, who links the adult interest to the indie scene's current fixation on relentless joy. "There's that part where they're singing 'I backed my car into a cop car' and the kids are all 'Yay!' "
The blogosphere reignited a few months back with Kidz Bop's irrepressible video for Kelly Clarkson's Since U Been Gone, complete with Flaming Lips-style animal costumes, a shark microphone and moshing tykes.
"I can't imagine that anyone is actively courting hipsters and stoners," Perpetua says, "[but]they should probably embrace it. I don't know if they want to make Kidz Bop greatest hits of indie rock, but it wouldn't hurt to put a few hipster-leaning songs on every volume to keep that demographic interested."
No worries -- album No. 8, which came out in August, takes on Green Day, Gwen Stefani and, most intriguingly, Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out. It debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard charts, selling 67,000 copies in its first week.
Of course, Kidz Bop covers are ultimately novelties. What will be more interesting to see is what happens as young artists like Smoosh grow up, especially given the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" reputation of the business.
"[We]are not totally naive. Nor are the girls," their dad Mike says. "But none of those issues are unique to the music scene. They are as relevant in Asya's middle-school hallways. The girls will, at some point, make their choices about these things either at school or backstage."
Smoosh have just finished recording their follow-up album with Jason McGerr, completed before he left on Death Cab's current world tour, and it will be released next spring.
But until Smoosh fully enter the realm of teenage (and adult) angst, it's important to remember that despite their musical maturity, they're not there yet.
"I do wanna play music when I'm older," says Asya. "But I might not wanna be in Smoosh. I dunno. Whatever happens, happens."
Her little sister Chloe looks mortified. "You don't want to be in Smoosh?"
"No, I do wanna be in Smoosh -- as long as you're not in it."
"You're kidding, right?"