Standard Fare Cause the Right Kind of Trouble
It’s often said the key to success is being in the right place at the right time. Standard Fare lives more by the old Buckaroo Banzai credo: “Wherever you go, there you are.” The British trio has been gigging for five years, mostly in the small town of Buxton and making nary a ripple prior to their overnight success. “We were playing with heavier rock bands and getting these sort of bemused responses,” recalls bassist and primary vocalist Emma Kupa on a World Cup Saturday from her newfound York, England home base.
It wasn’t until Kupa finished her studies and relocated closer to guitarist Danny Yow that things fell into place. The songwriters split the distance between their homes, set up shop in Sheffield, and stumbled upon the perfect environment for Standard Fare’s youthful, exuberant sound. “Darren at Thee Sheffield Phonographic Corporation (one of the hot local labels of the moment) liked us and kind of opened up this whole new world to us of indie pop promoters and fans that liked what we were doing.”
Suddenly Standard Fare found themselves part of a niche, filed snugly along the C-86 revivalist crowd despite their claims of knowing virtually nothing about those scenes, past or present.
“People were saying we sounded like these bands from the ‘80s, but we were children of the ‘80s and we missed all that,” Kupa reports, with her own sense of bemusement. “We had to look up the term C-86 on Wikipedia. We don’t really have any strong joint influences. Dan’s very much into his punk stuff. I’m into my older Fleetwood Man/Janis Joplin stuff, and [drummer] Andy [Beswick] is into Britpop and drum ‘n’ bass things. So we didn’t really know this whole indie pop scene was going on, or that it was referenced to C-86.”
They’re wise to latch onto whatever hook does the trick, but to these ears debut full-length The Noyelle Beat winds back the clock a few years further than those Throwing Muses/Shop Assistants comparisons, channeling the sense of discovery and heart-on-sleeve melodicism of bands like Orange Juice and The Undertones. Whatever influences the threesome brings to the party coalesce into a familiar-yet-fresh guitar pop stew that’s occasionally fueled by Yow’s crunchy but never shoegazey guitars, and is rarely twee despite Kupa’s sweet, lovelorn vocals. On a brief initial US tour this spring, Standard Fare shared a bill with the sympatico Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
“I really like the Pains – it was really cool to meet them properly at South by Southwest. I kind of wish I could hear Kip’s vocals more in their songs. The fuzzy guitar sound is cool but I have to kind of study the lyrics,” offers the ever-thoughtful Kupa, who invested a solid year playing solo at open mic nights to hone her confidence and stage presence yet remains unassuming, based on our chat as well as performance videos.
The Noyelle Beat sounds remarkably cohesive for an album recorded in fits and starts over an eighteen-month period. “By the time we made it to Sheffield we had quite a lot of songs. Darren at the label, he really liked us but he didn’t have much cash flow and wasn’t sure how we’d do,” Kupa admits. “So he got us in the studio for two days and we got five songs out of that.” A single from those, “Dancing,” got the web buzz brewing and also gave birth to one of the more charming barebones videos in recent memory. “Darren put that together quickly himself because we suddenly needed some kind of YouTube presence and had no money.”
His intuition confirmed by broader response, Darren put the band back in the studio for another two days six months later, and again six months after that. “So the album only took six days to make, but spread over eighteen months.” In the meantime US label Bar/None discovered the band online thanks to blog chatter, contacting them through their MySpace page. Since Emma was already heading to New York for a family funeral, she mixed business with displeasure and bam, Standard Fare had an American record deal. Along the way they’ve scratched together the funds for a video to another signature song, “Philadelphia,” that while hardly high-budget at least appears to have been budgeted.
Although Standard Fare is only now embarking on its first extensive US tour, Kupa is no stranger to these shores. She even has family in Atlanta, although she explains their August Athens Popfest date arose before she had the chance to weave personal considerations into the itinerary. Given a bit of backstory, the lovelorn yet geographically incongruous lyrics to “Philadelphia” begin to make sense. The song predates the bands. “It’s about a friend, it was quite a long time ago,” Kupa sighs, recalling earlier trips to the east coast. “My grandmother left Germany for England after World War II, meanwhile her sisters went to Atlanta and Israel,” indirectly explaining the “Now you’re in Iz-Ray-Ull” of the song’s refrain.
Kupa, who shares songwriting duties with bassist Yow but absorbs most of the spotlight, doesn’t shy away from the autobiographical approach. “For a song like ‘Fifteen,’ which is about having a crush on someone seven years your junior, I expected more outrage,” she shrugs. Kupa has enough self-preservation instinct to hedge her bets on lyrics like, “Lying in your bed, going ‘this isn’t happening,’” by adding the parenthetic “(nothing happened)” to the song’s titled to keep Protective Services at bay. Asked if her confessional songs have led to any awkwardness with their subjects or unwelcome prying from fans, Emma counters, “I guess it’s because we’re so polite that no one’s asked me any direct questions about them,” with the subtlest hint of “now don’t you be the first” warning.
Kupa’s lineage becomes all the more fascinating given her mother’s stint in Poison Girls, the agitpop rabblerousers fronted by a woman with one of the all-time great stage names, Vi Subversa (who Kupa endearingly refers to by her given name, Frances). “They started out as a theater performance group – I think they got naked and did some weird dance music thing in the late ‘70s and eventually got more musical. My mother was going out with Richard [Famous], the guitar player in the band [and Poison Girls co-founder], and he taught her bass guitar and she played with them the first few years when they were doing the pure punk stuff. But then my mom’s twin sister went off to India to do her PhD and my mom followed her. I’d always remember going around to Frances’ house because they had a full-scale Dalek in the living room.” The mommy track meant a downshifting rather than a retirement from music, however, for the woman whose Poison Girls alter ego was Bella Donna. “She’s been playing acoustic double bass in klezmer bands since she had me.”
“She’s still in touch with Richard – they’re good friends,” Kupa says of her mom. “When I was 12 or 13 he gave me an acoustic guitar, and he’s always let me play with his drum machines and electronics. He started me off, taught me the three chords from a couple of the Poison Girls songs. They inspired me to make happy music with honest lyrics.”
Standard Fare have reached that challenging in-between state where they’ve clicked with a crowd eager to hear the songs that got them noticed, yet the trio is ready to dive into the next batch. “We’ve been gigging most of these songs for quite awhile,” she allows without sounding beleaguered. “On the current album, we’ve literally played them how they sound live. On the next one we’d like to add some instruments, be a bit more ambitious musically.” Kupa mentions a desire to make use of her mandolin, an instrument recently anointed as the de rigueur accoutrement for today’s indie pop contender by no less an authority than The New York Times. Whether they know the scene or not, it seems indie pop is in Standard Fare’s blood.