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International Pop Underground

Baltimore Popfest creates a home for unpopular pop music in Charm City

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Paul Krolian, the organizer of Baltimore Popfest, has a sweet tooth for pop.


New York native Paul Krolian came to Maryland in 2005 to attend University of Maryland College Park and, after graduating, moved to Baltimore. And while he fell in love with much of the city’s underground music scene, there were things he missed about living around New York and Washington, D.C., and he decided he could do something about it. “I’m gonna start booking all the shows I wanna see here instead of complaining that all these bands I like don’t end up playing in Baltimore,” Krolian, 26, says in his Hampden home.

Namely, Krolian had a sweet tooth for pop and wasn’t quite getting his fix in Baltimore. “If you’re in a punk band or some kind of metal band, there’s always a home for that in Baltimore—or more of your fringe electronic or performance art things,” he says, surrounded by an eclectic collection of vinyl and cassettes that attest to his own varied niche musical interests. “Nothing against any of those, but those all have a concrete base here. But there’s a lot of bands that will tour the East Coast and will have a great show in Philly and New York and. . . skip Baltimore and play D.C.”

Scratching that itch was the genesis for the inaugural Baltimore Popfest, which will be held Saturday, April 6. The festival’s international lineup includes Jowe Head (of the legendary U.K. band Swell Maps) and the Glasgow-based Golden Grrrls along with several bands from Baltimore and across America. The show is being held at the Charm City Art Space, after the initial venue fell through, and Krolian is more than happy with the arrangement. “There’s a lot of good people that run there,” he says. (In the interest of disclosure, this writer also has an upcoming event booked at the Charm City Art Space and Krolian is friendly with CP calendar editor Brandon Weigel.)

From the start, Krolian had wanted to make Baltimore Popfest an annual event and has been emboldened by this year’s response to start thinking bigger, in terms of venues and bands, for 2014. “I’ve gotten a lot of interest from bands. I’ve probably gotten 30 emails from bands trying to get on this year,” he says. He’s happy to start small, with one day of music beginning at 3 P.M., but his models for the festival—like the London Popfest, NYC Popfest, and the long-running Athens Popfest—often run two or three days.

Of course, if you’re not familiar with those other cities’ indie-minded festivals, the phrase “Baltimore Popfest” might conjure images of, say, a 1st Mariner Arena concert headlined by Katy Perry. “The music that this is based around, it is, I guess, on paper, your more straightforward guitar rock. But it’s definitely not your most commercially friendly,” Krolian explains. “It’s very much your DIY indie-pop stuff. And the ‘pop’ in that is not, like, you’re popular, pop as in radio. It’s more your Velvet Underground idea of pop. If you were to put a home to where all this kind of music comes from, its origins are, I guess, the early ’80s in the U.K., with a label like Postcard Records, the Scottish label, and then the revival in the ’80s and ’90s through labels like Sarah Records and Slumberland Records.”

Slumberland Records in particular is something of a guiding light for Krolian, both aesthetically and personally. The label was founded in Silver Spring by Mike Schulman, who was a DJ at the College Park campus station WMUC before relocating the label to Oakland, Calif. More than a decade later, Krolian worked as WMUC’s business manager and live music director, where he cut his teeth booking bands, and became friends with Schulman. When Schulman approached Krolian last fall about booking a Baltimore or D.C. show for two current Slumberland bands, Sea Lions and Golden Grrrls, things quickly snowballed. “I’d had the idea for a long time; I’d wanted to do something like [Popfest]. But having these two bands touring and playing at the same time was like, ‘Oh, I could really set something up big around this.’”

After its ’90s heyday, Slumberland went through a dormant period that lasted until a few years ago. New York’s the Pains of Being Pure at Heart were instrumental in the label’s revival. Krolian had gotten to know that band’s frontman, Kip Berman, and when Popfest was coming together, he asked Berman to come play a solo set. So the Pains singer/guitarist, who will be billed simply as Kip, will come to Baltimore for a rare one-off performance without his band. Rounding out the lineup are bands from Philadelphia (Pet Milk), Virginia (Foul Swoops), and New York (What Next?), as well as a couple local Baltimore acts, Wildhoney and Crimson Wave. “There are other local bands I really like also that wouldn’t necessarily fit the aesthetic as much,” Krolian says, adding that he’s good friends with both bands. In fact, one of his roommates is Wildhoney guitarist Joe Trainor, who comes upstairs for a few minutes to chat.

“All of us had played in hardcore bands, but during that time, we all liked stuff beyond that. We all came together to try and play something completely different from hardcore punk,” Trainor says of Wildhoney, which played its first show only a year ago but has quickly gained respect in Baltimore, with an impressive self-recorded EP, and has a new 7-inch, due out this summer. “Still playing extremely loud but wanting to play pop music, basically just really gnarly pop music.”

Although Krolian looks forward to making Popfest bigger and better next year, he’s excited about how quickly this first one grew from a whim to a reality, often just by sending an email to friends and asking if they’re free. “That’s very typical of this scene of music, where it’s like, ‘Hey, do you wanna play?’” In fact, Krolian sounds proudest of Popfest when noting, “That’s the way I set up all this, I didn’t talk to a single booking agent.”

For tickets and more information, please visit Baltimorepopfest.tumblr.com.

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