Geek Rock: When Geeks Became Cool

Cover of the Weezer album Make Believe

There was a time about twenty years ago when I felt disconnected from rock music. I’d been a fan of new wave in the early to mid-eighties, but that style had come and gone. For whatever reason (actually, I’m sure there were several), I never got into hair metal, which ruled the late-eighties and early-nineties. I was starting to worry that I was getting too old to enjoy rock! Fortunately, it was at a time when mainstream rock was making a transition, moving from hair metal, arena bands to alternative, grunge bands. Poison and Mötley Crüe were out, while Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots were in.

I liked grunge, for the most part, but I still wasn’t quite musically fulfilled. Then, on the heels of the grunge movement came Weezer, which were roughly classed as an alternative act, but otherwise shared little with the new dominant rock idiom, which had come out of the Pacific Northwest wearing flannel shirts and Doc Martens. No, Weezer was anything but grungy. Instead, they were more like a throwback to a different generation altogether, sporting short hair, black-rimmed glasses, and fifties fashions. If the truth be told, I’ve loved Weezer ever since I first heard the refrain “Oo-ee-oo, I look just like Buddy Holly, oh, oh, and you’re Mary Tyler Moore.”

It wasn’t long before I heard the term geek rock, or nerd rock (as it’s known in some quarters), was being used to describe a crop of new bands that, while not upending the supremacy of grunge, were carving out a nice little niche of their own. Weezer was part of that crop. Now, while I don’t know the etymology of the term geek rock, my first brush with it was in the mid-nineties. That’s not to say that the term didn’t exist before then, or more importantly, that there weren’t rock bands already around who could be described as being such.

I’m not going to claim that the great Buddy Holly was the first geek rocker just because he had short hair and wore black-rimmed glasses. That description would fit many males in late-fifties America. No, among the bands having a right to claim membership among the founding fathers of geek rock would be Devo, Talking Heads, and XTC. All three of those bands, who came along in the late-seventies, received such labels as art-pop at the time. So, what makes a rock band a geek rock band? Well, like many music tags, the term is somewhat amorphous. Nevertheless, geek rock tends to be very melodic, multi-part harmony is common, lyrics are often wry or whimsical, and the use of keyboards is pervasive. What really sets geek rock apart, however, is the presentation. Geek rockers don intentionally anachronistic clothing, accessories, and hairstyles. And, like their grunge brethren, they favor minimalist stagecraft, attempting to purvey a more roots-oriented approach.

The mid-eighties brought such bands as They Might Be Giants to the fore of the emerging geek rock movement. TMBG began as a duo, with guitarist John Flansburgh and accordion/saxophonist John Linnell sharing vocals and accompanied by a drum machine or with prerecorded backing tracks. They first got noticed when they set up Dial-a-Song, a phone service feature in New York City. A recording contract came shortly thereafter, as did backing musicians, although those additions have been rather transient through the years. In 2013, TMBG released their eighteenth album (three of which were surprisingly successful children’s albums) and they remain a popular touring act.

Cover of the Barenaked Ladies' album Everything to EveryoneGeek rock really became a “thing” in the early to mid-nineties, when several bands gained fame on alt-rock radio. Like They Might Be Giants, Canada’s Barenaked Ladies started as a duo, with Ed Robertson and Steven Page starting as an acoustic folk/pop act in the late-eighties. They were a hit north of the border by the early nineties, having expanded to a full band and having gained renown for their humorous live shows. By the mid-nineties they were becoming a regular presence on U.S. alternative radio, eventually moving into the mainstream and registering the number one hit “One Week” in 1998. Also like TMBG, they later recorded a children’s album. They may be best known today, however, for providing the theme song for the megahit TV series The Big Bang Theory.

Weezer hit the scene with the release of the album Weezer, usually referred to as The Blue Album, in 1994. The Blue Album was produced by The Cars’ Ric Ocasek – whose band was a bit on the geeky side themselves. Following a year-long tour, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo proved he was the ultimate geek of the music world by dropping out of the music scene and dropping in to Harvard University, where he eventually earned a B.A. in English in 2006. Two decades and eight albums later, Weezer is still king of the geek rock hill.

You never know what musical genres will find their way into a song by Cake, whose unique vision is a mash-up of styles tied to ironic lyrics delivered in a deadpan manner, along with their secret weapon: a most brassy trumpet. Cake has released several seemingly unlikely alt-rock radio staples such as “Rock'n'Roll Lifestyle,” “The Distance,” and “Never There,” as well as one song, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” which served as the theme music for the cult TV series Chuck.

Just judging by their name you can tell that The Presidents of the United States of America (or PUSA, or The Presidents) aren’t exactly serious. In fact, they came up with their own term to describe their musical subgenre: absurd rock. I’ll, however, “Lump” them in with the more acknowledged geek rock subgenre. PUSA was formed in Seattle in 1993 when boyhood friends Chris Ballew (lead vocals, basitar) and Dave Dederer (backing vocals, guitbass), who had been working as a duo, added drummer Jason Finn. A basitar, by the way, is a two-stringed version of a standard bass guitar that Ballew originated, while a guitbass is a three-stringed version of an electric guitar that Dederer created to accompany Ballew’s innovation. The beauty of both instruments is that a finger across any fret results in a chord. Their highly successful 1995 self-titled debut was the first of five critically-praised albums.

Cover of the Ben Folds Five album LiveThe irony-drenched Ben Folds Five (they’re actually a trio) is a power pop band without a lead guitar. That’s because singer Ben Folds pounds out the lead instrumental lines on his piano. Folds, who has described the band’s style as punk rock for sissies, is more wiseass than wry or whimsical, as are lyricists in other geek rock bands, but just as humorous all the same. "Battle of Who Could Care Less" and "Brick" are among their songs that have stood the test of time. The trio was a unit from 1995 until 2000, when they split to pursue other projects (Folds was soon “Rockin’ the Suburbs”), but they reformed in 2011.

Perhaps Fountains of Wayne has had the misfortune of coming along in the wrong era, because their brand of power pop, heavily influenced by sixties-vintage British melodic pop, is among the best ever produced. If not for the surprise hit “Stacy’s Mom,” from their third album, Welcome Interstate Managers, their entire output may have been relegated to dusty cut-outs bins long ago. Even so, the work of the songwriting team of Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger (who also has many high-profile producing credits, including They Might Be Giants) doesn’t get near the attention it deserves.

Although the heyday of geek rock has passed, many of the top bands from that period remain active, while a new batch – including OK Go, Motion City Soundtrack, and Nerf Herder – have come along in the past decade to mine that same vein.  Whether they’re old artists or new, geek out with albums from the Des Moines Public Library, where we have your favorite geek rockers waiting to amaze and amuse you.