It’s almost a given that any listing of nerd rock bands will begin with a naval-gazing debate over semantics. I, however, am mostly uninterested in sussing out the finer points of what distinguishes a nerd from a geek, a dork from a dweeb, and so on. Like a game of Dungeons & Dragons, that could stretch on for hours.
“Nerd rock,” which began as a means of describing a laughably niche subculture, is now used to classify groups as varied as GWAR and The Decemberists. That’s to say nothing of the legions of wizard rockers, time lord rockers, twi-rockers, and other subgenres tied to specific works of fantasy or science-fiction. When we can’t even agree on what the word “nerd” means (still a sore subject for the Portland Nerd Council), how can I possibly suppose to present you with this list of 10 nerd rock bands you should know?
Easy — by establishing some ground rules and not thinking too hard about it. Since this week marks the 40th anniversary of Devo’s seminal nerd rock album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, it makes sense to focus on bands that more or less followed in their path (that path being rock, punk, or new wave, vaguely).
That unfortunately leaves no room for the Chameleon Circuits and the Harry and the Potters of the world — artists whose entire raison d’être can be traced back to a single book or television series. It also excludes the nerdcore movement in hip-hop, led by rappers like MC Frontalot and YTCracker and enjoyed by nobody I know personally.
As befits a list with crate-digging intentions, I’ve also left out some of the more obvious touchstones in the nerd rock canon — your Weezers, your They Might Be Giants, your Mothers of Invention, etc. If you don’t see your favorite band among the following … congratulations! Your secret remains safe, and you’re probably a bigger nerd than the rest of us.
On that note, let’s take an intergalactic journey through the nooks and crannies of a particular kind of nerdom — the kind defined by loud guitars, infectious melodies, pop cultural minutiae, and a whole lot of unrequited love. Strap yourself in, because everyone knows seatbelts are for nerds.
Senior Staff Writer
When your band takes its name from a Princess Leia quote and goes on to compose the iconic theme music to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer … yeah, you’re probably a bunch of nerds. Thankfully, Nerf Herder belong to the most lovable caste of intergalactic dweebs, and their attraction to anthemic, three-chord pop punk is born in a desire to have as much low-stakes fun as possible.
And yet! Sometimes these dudes can be weirdly touching and wistful, such as when they’re lamenting the downfall of their favorite rock band (“Van Halen”) or reflecting on their glory days from the vantage point of middle age (“We Opened for Weezer”). There’s nothing elegant about singer/guitarist Parry Gripp’s nasally yawp, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t do the trick when you need it most.
Photo by Bernard Weil
My suspicion that Canada harbors the world’s best nerds can be traced back to the first time I heard Moxy Früvous (what a name!) and their hilarious anti-love song “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors”, in which the protagonist laments losing his lover to the charms of William S. Burroughs and Gabriel García Márquez.
Everything about this band is equally ridiculous, and the deeper you dive into their catalog, the more they start to resemble a ragtag group of unself-conscious buskers you might run into on the subway on your luckiest of days. As bizarre, meandering narratives like “The Ballad of Cedric…” and “The Present Tense Tureen” all but confirm, these guys are nerds in the theatrical sense, lending their loud and distinctive voices to a world in which everyone else sounds kind of boring by comparison.
Man or Astro-man?
Nerds love esoteric shit, and it doesn’t get much more esoteric than a spooky surf rock group from Alabama with an unquenchable thirst for space-age science fiction. Generally, Man or Astro-man? attract new listeners with some of the same tricks you’ll recognize from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures: slinky, taut single-note riffs weaving their way through a sea of reverb. But the surf rock and sci-fi influences are strong with this group, and they have enough of a sense of humor to cover the Mystery Science Theater 3000 “love theme” and treat the theremin like a legitimate musical instrument. If you’re looking for a good entry point to their expansive catalog, the 1994 compilation album Destroy All Astromen! is your best bet.
Most nerds who’ve heard of Freezepop probably discovered them while tapping away at a plastic instrument on Guitar Hero … which sounds about right. A Boston-based electropop band that skews more electro than pop, Freezepop lean heavily on robotic synths and keytars to get their musical point across, which may be why their sound so instantly recalls the early- to mid-2000s, when you couldn’t throw your Game Boy without hitting a “video game” rock band. In any case, tracks like “Less Talk More Rokk” and the disarmingly vulnerable “Plastic Stars” steer clear of sounding too dated — that’s what a killer melody will do.