If you're looking to take a crash course on the South Carolina indie-pop music scene, consider the Hearts & Plugs' Summer Shindig. With nine bands on the roster for a $10 show, you'll hear some of the finest that the Palmetto State has to offer.
Oh, and there'll be free scoops from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.
"It kind of seals the deal, I think," says Dan McCurry, founding director of the Hearts & Plugs record label. "If people are saying, 'I don't know the bands,' well, there's free ice cream."
Two-and-a-half years old, Hearts & Plugs has grown from a side project during McCurry's downtime with Run Dan Run (his rock act that will be reuniting for the Shindig) to a full-blown promotion and distribution machine. The label hasn't had any breakout national hits yet, but gradually, McCurry has put together a fine stable of local and regional acts, some of which sound like they're on the brink of Pitchfork stardom.
"I'd love to have bands with 10,000 followers on Facebook and junk like that, but that's not where we are necessarily, and I'm not gonna turn something down that's awesome," McCurry says.
Some of the label's first releases were from Columbia's the Lovely Few, a glitchy-sounding folktronica act that weds frontman Mike Mewborne's abiding obsessions with astronomy and the ornate compositions of Sufjan Stevens. All three of the band's Hearts & Plugs releases (The Perseids, The Orionids, and The Geminids) were inspired by meteor showers and are meant to be heard while stargazing.
Also on the lineup: Elim Bolt, the slacker-rock project of Johnnie Matthews, Jessica Oliver, and a rotating lineup of local bandmates. Lead singer Matthews knows how to use vocal reverb as an instrument unto itself, accentuating his low warbling croon with high-pitched yelps that slap back through the speakers.
Like many Hearts & Plugs releases, Elim Bolt's Dingy, Slimy, Scummy! was produced by recording wiz Wolfgang Zimmerman, who has been applying his signature pop sheen to countless Charleston indie albums at a storage unit recording studio on Line Street. Zimmerman also sits behind the drum set in Brave Baby, which, if we're going to get into the prognostication business, will probably be the first Hearts & Plugs band to hit the national scene in a major way. The band has packed out local venues and toured the East Coast on the strength of its 2013 debut Forty Bells, which features the sort of subtle instrumental flourishes — like Jordan Hicks' joyously bouncy bass lines and the guest horns on the title track — that separate professional pop acts from the merely interesting. It doesn't hurt that wistful songwriter and frontman Keon Masters is basically a walking ball of charisma onstage.
Another common thread between many of the bands is Nick Jenkins, a.k.a. Mr. Jenkins, a prolific experimental artist and drummer who will sit in on at least half of the sets during the Shindig.
One recent addition to the Hearts & Plugs lineup is Grace Joyner, who previously sang backup on Elim Bolt's Nude South. Joyner's timeless vocals and world-weary lyrics take center stage on her synth-laden debut solo album Young Fools, out May 13. In March, Asheville garage crooner Joe Chang also contributed a Hearts & Plugs debut, a self-titled album by his band Gold Light that features earnest love songs set to thoroughly retro '60s rock and R&B.
And then there's Michael Flynn, best known as one-half of pop-rock powerhouse Slow Runner, whose solo debut Face in the Cloud is due out July 15. As with his old band, Flynn's album features a lot of songs about girls, chintzy '80s synthesizer sounds, and show-stopping falsetto choruses. McCurry says working with Flynn, one of his college musical heroes, has been a personal thrill. "I've been a huge fan myself for the past decade, so it's really cool to be a part of this," McCurry says. "And I really like the album a lot, not just because I have to."
Listening to Hearts & Plugs' latest sampler, Highlights, it's clear that the label has begun to develop a signature sound. Specialties include sensitive-dude rock, reverb-y guitar, twitchy bleeps and bloops, and sublime pop songwriting. In describing the H&P sound, McCurry has said that he's looking for "some kind of pop sensibility," but he tries not to pin it down beyond that.
"Instrumentals are cool, yeah, but I'm really keen on 'Do you have a good song?'" McCurry says. "I don't like things that are too easy. Sometimes some of the pop stuff can just be like, 'OK, that's predictable,' and I'm looking for things that are refreshing."
Refreshing. Like a scoop of ice cream at a backyard cookout.