08 July 2010

For your summer listening schedule, try something a bit different

Before I get down to business, I just want to mention that in my limited experience I have not come across a genre (or sub-genre) name which has stirred more negative emotion.

Not the music, but the name itself.

Here are some of the reactions before we get into the meat of the subject:

“So is that what they are calling this type of music now?
I don't really care for a name but I really like this music, it is awesome to relax to.”

(From the “somethingawful” music forums: http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3299544 – just check out the name of the thread)

“I really don't know and you probably have no idea what I'm talking about, but I think it's a sh*t name and it makes very little sense when you listen to all the bands that are generally lumped into the… category.”

(Edited by me, found at http://cohenburg.blogspot.com/2010/01/i-like-this-chillwave-song-and-maybe.html - the ellipsis was also put there for suspense purposes even though I’ve already given everything away)

“Maybe it’s something that could grow into a real thing. I wish they’d come up with better name if it’s going to be a real genre.”


I found another example (which the website appears to have been tainted by a bug, so I won’t direct you there) where four or five paragraphs were devoted to how pretentious the name of this genre is and how much they cannot stand it.

Well, if you look into the history of this genre, and the name given to it, it all appears to have come out of satire.

Daniel Addler, whose wonderful article http://bygonebureau.com/2010/02/03/license-to-chill/ which deconstructs the genre, gives his take on how the NAME of this genre came about.

“Before it became divisive, the term “chillwave” was just an offhand joke. As far as I can tell, the moniker was devised by hipster critic extraordinaire Carles, author of the blog Hipster Runoff. In this deliciously sardonic post, Carles considers then-enigmatic bands like Neon Indian and Washed Out and observes:

a ‘new band’ can’t have too strong of a ‘personal brand’….It’s too easy to ‘not take a band seriously’ if you see pictures of them, and they look like dweebs/people who are ‘trying too hard.’ It seems easiest to have a chill project, that is somewhat ‘conceptual’ but also demonstrates that ur band has ‘pop sensibilities’ or something.

“He settles on categorizing these artists and their contemporaries as “chill wave,” because it is “dominated by ‘thick/chill synths” and feels like it’s “supposed to sound like something that was playing in the background of ‘an old VHS cassette that u found in ur attic from the late 80s/early 90s.” (For anyone who takes Hipster Runoff seriously, just consider that other candidates for naming the new genre included “Conceptual Blog Core,” “BroWave,” and “Forksh*t”). Although the tone of the post (and indeed, the entire blog) is mostly one of bemused detachment, beneath the surface is a world-weary cynicism toward, and mockery of, the obsessive naming and categorizing of all things new.”


This is the name which has caused all of this passion.

Just the name has done this.

The music itself can also turn opinions in a heartbeat.

Addler’s piece points to some pretty negative reviews of chillwave artists found at the blog cokemachineglow (http://www.cokemachineglow.com/record_review/4856/washedout-hightimes-2009). Before one review even starts, the criticism of the genre comes out.

“Another glo-fi record, another review lamenting the subcultural stagnancy indicated by ____’s unanticipated blogospheric popularity. Twenty-somethings across America combat suburban bedroom ennui with a 4-track and a Myspace page; ravenous bloggers descend, disseminating bootleg rips of cassette-only releases and trumpeting the month-old monikers of their creators; and then when this stuff finally falls upon our jaded critical ears, we quash all hype blithely because suddenly Washed Out or Wavves or Memory Tapes or Best Coast or Gold Panda or Ducktails or whoever-the-f*ck-else is nothing less than a portentous affront to standards of good taste, a serious err on the part of all hyping parties to get behind the wrong zeitgeist.”

The New York Times even got into the fray with Jon Pareles (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/22/sxsw-glow-fi-draws-the-biggest-crowds/) writing, “It’s annoyingly noncommittal music, backing droopy vocals with impersonal sounds–a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop they’re not brash enough to make. Which doesn’t mean that, sooner or later, one of these bands won’t stumble onto a hit.”

Now, with showing some of the criticisms of the genre, let’s show some love to these artists.

Audiosuede (http://audiosuede.com/genre-watch-chillwave/) shares his love for the genre by saying:

“What makes chillwave so interesting to me is that it expresses a deep and uncompromising melancholy that is absent from most of the indie scene. I can’t remember the last time I heard a song from an indie band that expressed genuine sadness without it being filtered through irony and/or cleverness. The sadness of chillwave is made palatable by the use of dance/hip hot beats as well as pop music chord progressions. In others words, these familiar sounds are being used to deliver an unfamiliar emotion of desperation and loss. While sadness is at the center of a lot indie music, chillwave takes it step farther by not pulling back or deflecting it with irony or cleverness. Chillwave dives into sadness and revels in it. In this way, chillwave could be linked to the Expressionist movement in painting, where the entire canvas is consumed by the emotion of the subject (the most famous example being “The Scream” by Edvard Munch). Or perhaps a better connection would be to the Romantic movement and it’s obsession with death and loss. It may be even a unification of the two, where the expression of loss consumes the beats and chords so that they slowing sway as they fade away.”

The Village Voice (http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/archives/2010/03/in_defense_of_c.php) chimes in by adding:

“That chillwave is now a bonafide scene, including not just a few stragglers here and there, but small labels full of them, suggests a tiny but significant shift in sensibility. As in: 'Hey, let's cut the bullsh*t. New age, on its own terms even, can be pretty good.' And though chillwave's nostalgic for new age and other unthinkably "bad" aspects of the '80s, it doesn't necessarily revere them--Pareles' "half-remembered Top 40" jab is about right. The formal aspects of these almost-familiar sounds are important, but the focus is really on the weird, deeply personal byproduct of hearing them, two hazy decades ago, at age ten. Not so much the Mike & the Mechanics tape your dad used to listen to with you but how that tape felt. And how it feels now. And how those now/then feelings conjoin and clash to make something slightly, appropriately off.”

And one final bit of love I’ll share with you comes from commenter freezeout from the rhythmism message board (http://www.rhythmism.com/forum/showthread.php?p=1713958) who writes, “i happen to love this sound. it's very 80s (especially the percussive elements), vintage, and modern..all at the same time. dreamy,summery, and overall just pleasant to my ears.”

Whew, now that all of that is over – it’s time to get back to what we were here for: Chillwave.

In doing research for this article, I came across Carles’ blog at Hipster Runoff where I found links to the New York Times blog which went after the acts which played at SXSW, and also a Wall Street Journal piece covering the genre.

If I’m going to do an attempt of an article on chillwave, I’ve got to go to the source (http://altreport.hipsterrunoff.com/). And this source took me to both the NYT and the WSJ articles.

The Wall Street Journal piece featured interviews with Ernest Greene (Washed Out), Josh Kolenik of Small Black, and Dayve Hawk of Memory Tapes, and seems to take a favorable tome of the scene

Garin Pirnia, who wrote the article “Is Chillwave the Next Big Music Trend” for the Wall Street Journal (http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2010/03/13/is-chillwave-the-next-big-music-trend/), adds, “Whereas musical movements were once determined by a city or venue where the bands congregated, ‘now it’s just a blogger or some journalist that can find three or four random bands around the country and tie together a few commonalities between them and call it a genre,’ said Alan Palomo of Neon Indian.”

This seems to be how John Jagos, who goes by the moniker brothertiger, became a part of the genre. I asked him by email “why chillwave…?” and part of his response was, “I never made music with the intent of being put in the category of chillwave. It all started when blogs were posting my music and mentioning how it sounded like Washed Out and Toro Y Moi. And, seeing that this has been a recurring theme, I've come to just accept it.”

We’ve seen how the genre came to be, ummm, clumped together, now what is the Chillwave sound like? What are the tell-tale signs of the genre?

From Pirnia’s article, Ernest Green says, “It generally has an ‘80s influence, which is definitely pretty heavy in my stuff.”

Addler quotes the Stranger who describes it as http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/triumph-of-the-chill/Content?oid=2709147:

Sonically, this stuff is generally as mellow and relaxed as its name implies, hazy and soft, with lo-fi washes of guitar, synth, and voice all blurring together; delay and echo are common traits, as is looping and the use of samples. Aesthetically, it’s bright but faded, beachy and pastoral. The genre’s great unifying theme is a kind of fond nostalgia for some vague, idealized childhood. Its posture is a sonic shoulder shrug, a languorous, musical “whatevs” (perhaps inspired by the bleak job prospects, especially for would-be musicians, in our current crap economy).

There is another part of this sound that comes before the sound even hits your ears. It’s the “Do-it-Yourself” factor.

Jagos says,

“Most of the chillwave acts that I know of record themselves on their own. I, for one, record with some pretty low-end equipment, but I'm still able to make a good sounding track with the right software.

“This aspect influences my music obviously in the way its made. It's easy to tell when a song isn't made in a world-class recording studio, but I think that the point of the chillwave sound is to stay far far away from that. When I make music, I aim to make it sound like its coming from another decade, like the 80s or early 90s. I'm all about the throwback feel. I think of chillwave as a "new disco" in a sense. Before anyone considered me to be "chillwave," I considered my music as just that: new disco.”

For this article I asked Tyler Bates, who goes by the name The Letter Box Project, about the DIY aspect and he states, “I do feel there is a very large DIY aspect to chillwave music in general. For the most part, we're dudes in their early 20's who record out of a small apartment or house. I taught myself how to record and mix music on Logic 2 years ago and have just recently gotten to a good understanding DIY recording. … I think the DIY aspects of recording make my music more personal.”

With the “blogger lumped together” sound of Chillwave, there are some definite themes which come with the genre as the earlier quote from The Stranger states.

Bates sums up his influences and take on the subject matter when he put it this way:

“…personally I think chillwave represents what I and other musicians my age grew up with. We were 80's kids who played Nintendo, watched VHS tapes and still listened to cassettes for a while. A lot of the sounds and influences that chillwave encompasses show bits and pieces from that decade. I suppose you could say I'm also a fan of vintage sounding equipment and analog instruments. As far as subject matter is concerned, I think we all have a little piece of us that longs for our childhood; those vacations to the beach, and all night video game sessions with our school friends. Chillwave is nostalgic music for a nostalgic generation. These 20 somethings are becoming our modern day hippies and are taking over the music scene, much like the psychedelic movement in the late 60's. With lyrics about taking acid, chilling with your bros, and going to the beach have been around for decades, but I think what makes it special is that its "us" living it. Our elders lived through the summer of love and psychedelic music, and a lot of what chillwave and its sub- genres are doing right now is similar to the mind set during the 1960's.”

Jagos’ shared the personal themes which he incorporates that include “love, hate, fear, hope, and pure joy into my songs. Really I just write songs about living life to the fullest and enjoying it. I feel that I have a very peculiar song-writing process. The music-making comes first. Then I decide what the song should be about based off of how the music sounds emotionally.”

From the small amount of exposure I’ve had on this genre, these two wonderful takes sum up the feelings I get from the front. It’s more than just running sounds through the computer, there’s a simplicity embraced by the genre which I find refreshing.

To address Pareles’ stance that the music is “annoyingly noncommittal”, I will take part of my interview with Bates to rebut this point in which he told me that, “I feel a strong sense of bonding with my songs through the recording process as well. It's usually just me in my bedroom jamming with myself, and over time the songs become an extension of who you are. In that way, many of my songs are very personal in tone and theme. I think the sense that most chillwave musicians record in this manner almost instills a sense of family, a big chillwave think tank if you will.”

Addler ends his article with some final thoughts:

“And, as suggested in the very first quotation found in this article, perhaps the genre speaks to a widespread ennui felt by the newly job-seeking (or newly jobless). The fact that these factors aligned so well also helps explain the rapid pace at which the chillwave dialogue progressed. When the “next big thing” — musical or otherwise — grabs our attention, we would do well to remember that whatever trend, no matter how arbitrary, derivative, or manufactured it may seem, is the outcome of a great many complex parts, that only time and distance can reveal.”

To help finish my article, I’ll hand it over to John Jagos who shared with me this refreshing piece of honesty in regards to his music:

“I've never considered myself an awesome songwriter, but it seems like people are enjoying the music, so why stop?”

After you take a listen to his music you hope he never does!

Chillwave, glo-fi, what have you, to me, is a form of pop music I’ve been looking for. It takes the minimalistic measures of a lot of electronic music I love (chillout, trip-hop, downtempo, dubstep), strips it further, adds simple lyrics and brings us that sound which helps me relax (to take a meme shared earlier in this piece). Will Chillwave be around for a long time? As Addler states “only time and distance can reveal.”

Chillwave has survived at least more than a year to make it to where it is now. Maybe in a few years, when we hear more artists from this genre taking larger steps, we’ll be able to reflect back and remember when we all discovered this emerging genre.

Yes, it has a name derived through a tongue-in-cheek process, but the music is what moves you.

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