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After 31 years, Noise Pop is the keeper of San Francisco's music soul

Tyca holding a guitar with her blond hair in the air in front of a noise pop banner
Marc Fong
TYCA performing at Zietgeist in San Francisco for Noise Pop 2023

At 31 years old, Noise Pop is technically a millennial. And like many in its cohort, the multi-day, multi-venue music festival has seen a lot of stuff: the boom and bust of San Francisco’s dot com era, the ebbs and flows of the local music scene, the devastation of COVID, and whatever you want to call the current era we’re in right now. The only constant through it all has been Noise Pop’s dedication to the Bay Area music community and their ever-evolving efforts to sustain and showcase the spirit of the local arts and culture scene.

“I guess we try to put the mantra of championing independent culture and looking at whatever is new and interesting and developing, also stuff that reflects San Francisco back through a certain lens,” says Noise Pop founder Kevin Arnold about the ethos of the festival. “We try to always keep a really strong eye on the local community, which has changed a lot and been through tons of challenges. But we find ways to champion local bands and build up the next generation and support that evolution.

The first-ever Noise Pop event was just a single-night affair held at The Kennel Club (now The Independent). There just happened to be a day open at the end of January and the booker at The Kennel Club asked Kevin if he wanted to put together a show.

“Basically that was the impetus. And at the time there was kind of the scene of local bands that were playing this sort of melodic, yet noisy and loud and kind of grungy music. This is like post-Nirvana days,” Kevin recalls. “The name just came out of a kind of Sub Pop-inspired definition or description of the bands that were there.”

That night was such a success that the following year, the bands were asking if the event was going to happen again. This time, the line-up expanded geographically to include bands from around the West Coast and spanned three days at Bottom of the Hill, which was new at the time and becoming a hub for the local music community. The sound of the festival began to expand too, and over the years, Noise Pop evolved from the melodic grunge of its beginnings to include a variety of scenes and genres.

Vince Staples silhouetted against an orange background
Martin Lacey
California native Vince Staples was the first hip-hop headlining act at Noise Pop's 25th anniversary.

“We definitely became a little bit more experimental and then explicit about it over the next five to ten years,” Kevin says about expanding the lineup in terms of genre. “Underground music culture, independent music culture, whatever you want to call it, has changed so much over the last three decades. So it's then been an effort to sort through everything, keep up, find the good stuff, and keep it interesting.”

Cut to 2024 and now Noise Pop runs for 11 back-to-back days at more than 15 Bay Area venues with more than 100 performances. This year’s line-up features big national names like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Mountain Goats, and Cherry Glazer, as well as underrated up-and-comers like Wombo and Kate Bollinger.

Plus, of course, it’s stacked with local artists including James Wavey, Tommy Guerrero, The Seshen, and Orchestra Gold. Looking at all the Noise Pop events, it seems the reports of San Francisco’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

“It’s a really interesting time. We certainly have lost some venues and there's some folks that aren't with us, but at the same time it's a pretty robust landscape for San Francisco,” says Kevin. “I think that everybody in a way is trying to hold on to that sort of cultural heart or something of that image of San Francisco as an art-supportive place and a place of creativity and rebellion.” And so no matter what this next era may bring to the local music community, it seems that as long as there’s a Noise Pop, the city will keep its soul.

Noise Pop's 2024 line-up
Noise Pop's 2024 line-up