On Garcia Peoples’ New Album ‘Natural Facts’ And The Rise Of ‘Indie Jam’

Mariano Frisoli de Oliveira

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.

These albums represent some of the best and most exciting rock music to come out in 2019, particularly for those of us who were raised on indie music and eventually wandered into the forbidden jam-band wilds looking for something a little fresher than the countless post-punk retreads that have become endemic to left-of-center guitar music. For all of the wonderful and exciting ideas that punk introduced to music, subsequent generations of literalists have run the same set of cliches into the ground. Barked vocals, simplistic song structures, proudly limited musicianship, three chords and the truth — frankly, it just sounds tired a lot of the time.

“It feels like people are over the staleness of the indie rock that came out of 2000s,” says Mike Newman, co-owner of the Brooklyn-based label Beyond Beyond Is Beyond Records, who work with Garcia Peoples and other likeminded psych-rock acts. “To me, so much of it was just super sterile and boring. And in the political climate that we’re in right now, and all the fake sh*t that is in the world, I think people are really shining a light on what is real.”

Af their best, the indie jam bands not only offer genuine risk and unpredictable artistic gestures, but also a really fun experience for fans. In a 2017 appreciation of Phish’s historic “Baker’s Dozen” run at Madison Square Garden, in which the band played 13 shows without repeating a single song, I expressed hope that more indie bands would follow the example of their contemporaries in the jam world by changing up their sets more radically, and altering the ways they approach songs every night. In essence, I was wishing for more bands to make live performance, rather than recorded music, the focal point of their art, encouraging listeners to treat each gig as a must-listen experience.

In that regard, an artist like Ryley Walker seems like a dream come true. While the folk-rock guitarist has put out acclaimed albums such as last year’s Deafman Glance, his most greatest and most thrilling music can be found on the Relisten app, a repository for field recordings that’s a well-known resource among jam-band fans. Often working in tandem with the tremendous drummer (and indie jam regular) Ryan Jewell, Walker has accumulated a growing number of essential shows in the past several years, including an especially revelatory gig recorded in Fort Collins, Colorado last September highlighted by a stunning 15-minute version of the luminous, tempo-shifting rocker “Telluride Speed.” The wonder of exploring Walker’s live recordings is that no two versions of “Telluride Speed” ever sound alike. (Walker also sat in with Garcia Peoples at that aforementioned show in Queens.)

“I’ve been to a lot of great indie shows, but the fact that they lack experimentation and spontaneity really limits their fun and relistenable value,” says Brian Brinkman, co-host of the podcast Beyond The Pond. On his show, Brinkman and his fellow hosts frequently discuss jam-friendly indie acts like Walker and Garcia Peoples for an audience of predominantly Phish fans.

While the jam influence has helped some indie acts loosen their collars, Brinkman sees the indie influence on the jam world as a curb on some of the scene’s corniest pitfalls. “Indie bands who jam offer an alternative to the white-funk jamming that currently dominates jam bands,” he said, pointing to the range of music the indie jammers draw from that goes well beyond the one-note, party-hearty “funk vamping” common in mainstream jam circles.

For the record, Garcia Peoples don’t consider themselves a jam band, or even all that well-versed in the jam world. (When asked about Phish, Malach shrugged. “Not the hugest fan,” he said.) In the days when they were woodshedding before the release of Garcia Peoples’ 2018 debut Cosmic Cash, Arakaki and Malach recall going to New York City to see acts like McCombs and Forsyth, and feeling inspired by how they played improvised music in a recognizably indie rock framework. Malach doesn’t even consider the Dead a jam band. “They’re their own thing,” he said.

For those who instinctively recoil at the mention of the Grateful Dead, Phish, or “jamming,” Natural Facts should be a relatively easy gateway. All of the songs are around four or five minutes, and put the focus on amiable songcraft and gregarious choruses over interstellar explorations into the musical ether. But for those excited at the prospect of heading into uncharted musical wilderness, the record is just the first step into a larger world.

Natural Facts is out now via Beyond Beyond Is Beyond Records. Get it here.