When they were growing up in Rutherford, New Jersey, Danny Arakaki and Tom Malach listened to the usual bands that indie rock fans cut their teeth on: Pavement, Guided By Voices, Silver Jews. You can hear those influences on Natural Facts, the loose and catchy second album by their band, Garcia Peoples. But what Garcia Peoples does on record is only part of the story — and perhaps not the most interesting part, either, even though Natural Facts is one of the year’s best and most likable indie rock releases.
For Garcia Peoples’ small but growing fanbase, the main attraction is the cache of live recordings available at places like archive.org and nyctaper.com. Unlike most indie bands, Garcia Peoples don’t simply run through the same rehearsed set every night. On stage, Garcia Peoples draws on the philosophy of the man who is referenced in their band name, stretching out their riff-y, psychedelic rock songs with long, improvised jams in the style of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Many times this means their shows — including an excellent gig that took place last month in Queens, NY — are made up of mostly new, extemporaneous music, anchored by the gorgeously trippy guitar interplay of the Arakaki, 27, and Malach, 29. The result doesn’t sound all that much like the Dead formally, but feels closely related in the spiritual sense.
“The Grateful Dead, they were all like bluegrass and jug-band dudes, and we don’t really have that element to us at all,” Malach explains. Instead, Garcia Peoples extrapolates ’90s indie rock, which is as ancient in 2019 as the folk and blues that originally inspired the Dead was in the late ’60s.
Garcia Peoples represents a curious bridge between two scenes that otherwise couldn’t be farther apart — the guitar-oriented indie scene, which has traditionally existed on a continuum with the sound and ethos of punk; and the jam scene, which was born with the Dead and carried forward by bands like Phish and Widespread Panic and the legions they inspired. While jam has sometimes made overtures toward indie, the indie scene has demonstrated an aversion to jam bands with a near-religious fervor, like pilgrims opposing apostates. Often, the indie world won’t even acknowledge the existence of jam bands. Take Vulfpeck, a jammy funk act from Michigan that in many respects scans as indie and yet is largely ignored by the indie press — even though they will be headlining a concert at Madison Square Garden in September.
While exceptions to jam-phobia have always existed in the indie world — quintessential “cool” ’90s band Yo La Tengo has adopted the Dead’s “two sets plus jams” concert structure for its shows, and will even open for Phish frontman Trey Anastasio in LA next week — the line between punk-worshipping indie and “hippie” jam music has been fortified over the years by godheads like Kurt Cobain, who famously wore a “Kill the Grateful Dead” t-shirt in the ’90s. Back then — when Garcia was still alive and the Dead reigned as one of the most popular stadium bands in the country — hating the Dead was a way of rebelling against overbearing boomer-centric culture. It was also antidote to excess, musical and otherwise, which punk opposed by propagating a much more Spartan set of musical principles. (Though, again, it’s important to note exceptions such as Greg Ginn, pioneering guitarist for Black Flag and an unabashed Deadhead.)
This anti-Dead attitude has noticeably changed in the 2010s, thanks to bands like The National — who spearheaded the sprawling 2016 Day Of The Dead tribute album featuring covers of Grateful Dead songs by acts such as the War On Drugs, Courtney Barnett, and Kurt Vile — and Vampire Weekend, whose forthcoming album Father Of The Bride has already set off jam-band alarms due to singles such as the noodly, guitar-heavy “Harmony Hall.” (VW’s Ezra Koenig has also displayed an impressive — if “impressive” is the right word — knowledge of the current jam scene on his hilarious Apple Music show Time Crisis, recently spending more than 30 minutes breaking down the song “Jamflowman” by the polarizing Vermont band Twiddle.) But The National and Vampire Weekend are still solidly MOR indie acts that have not — at least not yet — given themselves over fully to the jam. Nodding toward the Dead is more of an accent in their music than a way of life.
With bands like Garcia Peoples, however, the idea of “indie jam” seems to be gaining steam. So far in 2019, there’s been a bumper crop of standout albums by acts that otherwise have little in common beyond an inclination to meld all kinds of music — including indie, post-rock, folk, country, jazz fusion, and, yes, punk — and take it in adventurous and often improvised directions. These albums include the epic guitar workouts of Chris Forsyth on his just-released, career-best effort All Time Present; the furious, mind-melting psychedelia of Illegal Moves by Sunwatchers; the polyrhythmic mood pieces of Pure Imagination, No Country by the Dave Harrington Group; the rock-solid Garcia/Hunter-style songcraft of Cass McCombs’ Tip Of The Sphere, and the cosmic American soundscapes of William Tyler’s Goes West.