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Mahogany Presents: A Quick Primer On Philly Shoegaze

In a fine example of the fates aligning, Philly will bear witness to something of an Unofficial Shoegaze Weekend over the next few days. On Friday, July 8th, Nothing plays Union Transfer Friday, July 8th with Citizen, Culture Abuse, Mary Lattimore + Jeff Zeigler. Then, on Saturday, July 9th, Mahogany plays Johnny Brenda's Saturday, July 9th with Weekender and The Morelings. With many of these acts garnering acclaim locally and internationally, we asked our friends in Mahogany to provide some valuable context: Why shoegaze, why Philly, why now? Behold, their very reasonable answer.


Though "shoegaze" is a somewhat derogatory qualifier in music even today, it is actually one of the few continuously-metastasizing movements in the pop idiom. Initially a rather short-lived but enthusiastic burst of noisy, '90s UK neo-psychedelia most typified by the now-ubiquitous My Bloody Valentine, today's interest in the sound was actually borne of a crest of a rather hard-won body of critically-acclaimed work by now-familiar names like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Cocteau Twins — culled from the ashes of post-punk, but with the ethos of DIY craft and individualism still firmly in place. 

But why shoegaze in Philadelphia? Situated just far enough away from the ever-shifting façade of New York, with hard-working Jersey there to remind you that your dreams can be short-lived, Philadelphia has the perfect ingredients for both the true-grit sonic sculptor and the listener who lives for art:

• Plenty of blasted urban wasteland and hauntingly empty space
• Stunning vistas with dawns, sunsets and cloudscapes seemingly crafted specifically for headphone introspection
• Scrappy upstart showspaces and stalwart venues — and their hardworking sound engineers, promoters + staff
• Almost shockingly well-stocked record stores
• A requisite influx of beautiful and curious young residents begging for a good singe of the cochlea

Hence, at some point every Philly music lover turns their ears (and heart) to shoegaze, and perhaps it comes to define their most romantic and idealistic self — a self that is special, and often rightly hidden away for want of protecting the gauzy, pastoral ideals invoked by the genre — though, as we all know, Philadelphians feel as one and are capable of making those crucial rare appearances in the most-needed hours.

In some respects, the shoegaze genre can often (annoyingly) guarantee a built-in audience, just like any other genre — EDM, heavy metal, country — but like most genres, and beyond the MOR offerings, it is in fact the storied and even oddball acts who lend definition to the tributaries branching from said musical river.

With quite special, but historically-speaking, initially limited-appeal groups like Lush now making reunion rounds, and shoegaze-inflected studio technique present in releases from artists as aesthetically disparate as Tamaryn and Lana Del Rey, the lovingly subtle and now considerable influence of shoegaze on both pop music production and performance is here to stay, particularly in consideration of the enduring union of guitar and electronics.

However, before we explore the local currents of these aural tributaries, we must approach both the myth and resonance of Philly shoegaze in its 'IRL' genus. Much of the root shoegaze following in Philadelphia coalesced as a result two key 20th century concerts (there were others, but these stand out the most in the minds of those whom we spoke with).  Like the Sex Pistols' 1977 appearance in Manchester, those who say they saw Slowdive in Philadelphia at the TLA on August 15, 1993 might count much larger than those who actually saw them, but the core group who was there has gone on to book more than one local shoegaze show, or found other creative inspiration in that moment — you know who you are. Many who were lucky enough to have seen Spiritualized in 1995 have remarked that it was "like finding God," and one friend has told me that "everyone there either started a band or a heroin habit." The proverbial aural drug — immersive sound — is truly a mind-altering experience. 

It's fair to say the chief brick-and-mortar proponent of '90s shoegazing was the still- sorely-missed Spaceboy Records on South Street, where the lure of the import aisle beckoned us to explore antidotes beyond grunge and Britpop, and to indulge in The VerveRideChapterhouseThe Boo RadleysLevitationMooseFlying Saucer Attack and their ilk, with their contemporized appropriations of Mod, Psych, even Northern Soul — styles which still hold interest for savvy Philadelphians. Today, you can find yourself some of that Spaceboy spirit at shops like Long In The Tooth on Sansom and Marvelous on Baltimore, for starters.

Wait. How did all this Brit influence filter into our plebeian Yankee sensibility? you ask. Well — in a painterly, sensual way. In a loving, posi-vibe way. Much like Thomas Eakins or MFSB, shoegazing musicians endure genuine scorn and suffering to know true joy — but a lot of good Philadelphia people treasure the best, and choose to acknowledge the truth of the effort and investment of the artist — so it all works out. Philly knows. That's this shoegaze jawn, fam.

Cool. But where did all this influence first bear fruit in our fair town? you press. Even now, few endeavors approach the myth, the incomparable wit, the scope, and the brash, whipsmart brilliance of local indie-gaze darlings Lilys as both a production tour-de-force and highly evocative, ever-shifting live entity. If you didn't catch Kurt Heasley and friends in reunion performances earlier this year, peerless gems like the recently reissued 'Eccsame The Photon Band' and 'In The Presence of Nothing' (which your humble authors hold as more sophisticated, deft and varied than 'Loveless') soar to such effortless perfection, they easily remind us that, in a world of telescreens, a day or two spent absorbing these albums in seclusion will leave one forever all the richer and more sensually informed. True trailblazing. Amen.

The Asteroid No. 4 also initially burst forth from the same heady last days of '90s college radio and Magnet/AP coverage of burgeoning local US scenes. Continuously trekking through territory and time with a string of strong releases, they've since relocated to the West Coast and maintain a committed following. A cherished act with understated, longstay power,  and heading out this month on string of shows including the Portland Psych Fest and a night with Dinosaur Jr, the best is yet to come.

A decade ago, in the very tender and naïve time of Myspace and Blog Rock, otherwise known as the "Sparks Era" (cue Cut Copy, Justice, CSS), a now-well-known Philly producer explored Kraut-inspired, synth-laden territory within his fantastic and underrated dreampop-fueled project Relay (later Arc In Round). Jeff Zeigler, who most know as having risen to produce the likes of Kurt Vile and War On Drugs, has also more recently produced the creamiest crop of local shoegaze, lending a sensitive hand to each group as they develop their individual sonic signature. With harpist Mary Lattimore, Zeigler plays Union Transfer on July 8 with reigning kings of noisy Philly 'gaze, the incomparable Nothing, whose success in which he's had a considerable hand.

Zeigler also brings us Mercury Girls (now with a great 7" on Slumberland) and The Morelings, opening Johnny Brenda's on July 9th with Weekender for the enigmatic Robin Guthrie-producedMahogany — who've emerged recently from constructing their new studio to sign with Saint Marie Records (Bloody KnivesMark Van HoenThe Bilinda Butchers) — while remixing both Russian dreampop act Pinkshinyultrablast and Liverpool Psychfest-bound NYC soulgazers The Veldt.

Tom Lugo's Stellarscope is another important and unstoppable entity in Philadelphia shoegaze, ascending out of the 'underrated' category lately with upcoming shows (hopefully a local date announced soon) — and A Sunny Day in Glasgow report that they're working away at a new record which you'll certainly be enjoying later this year.

As Ben Franklin would probably have said, smilingly: Are ye yet convinced? This is but a primer — the story of 'the sound' continues to unfold, and there's much more history to unpack. Quite literally rocking on the cusp of experimentalism and form, Philadelphia shoegaze has the heart and vision — and the earnest qualities of skepticism, skill and shyness — to melt the heart, warm the spirit, and fire the mind's sweetest desires.

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