Triumph of the Chill
Seattle's Chillwave Scene Is "Rising"— But Is It Already "Too Late"?
In 1996, the film Hype! documented the evolution of "grunge" from underground scene to critical acclaim to mainstream popularity to inevitable backlash, a cycle that will be as familiar as verse-chorus-verse to anyone who pays attention to popular music. But consider this: That film came out seven full years after the Seattle scene first broke in the international press via (former Stranger music editor) Everett True in Melody Maker. A decade and change later, and such a lengthy hype/backlash cycle is almost unimaginable.
Take the analogous arc for the vague and dubious new genre dubbed "chillwave" (or, if you prefer the pointy-headed Brits at the Wire, "hypnagogic pop"). Coined around July of this year, the fledgling sound received its would-be kiss of death in September—that's three freaking months later—in the form of a trend-collapsing Hipster Runoff post entitled "ChillwaveGate—Do u feel violated/misled by sample-based music?" which concluded with the blog's enigmatic author Carles declaring, in his usual clipped and scare-quoted cadence, "Searching for a 'new aesthetic' now that summer is over. Want a new 'movement' to 'get jacked up about'/listen to on my iPoddy." (Ugh—is the Decade in Music over yet?)
Seattle hasn't really been at the vanguard of a musical moment since grunge—the very geographic and cultural isolation that allowed that scene to gestate in peace has more often than not kept the city a year or two late to trends taking hold in denser, more connected places (cf. our late arrivals to electroclash, freak folk, disco punk, etc., etc.). But as the internet has alarmingly accelerated the hype cycle, it's also decentralized the way trends spread—or even removed geography from the equation entirely. If grunge were to happen today, it wouldn't need a bunch of bands living in the same city to reach critical mass; it would only require enough acts linked up online. (Or, to defer once again to Hipster Runoff: "Chillwave was a genre created by the internet, 4 the internet?")
Chillwave may prove to have the life cycle of a mayfly, but at least this time Seattle is buzzing along right on time, thanks to a nascent local scene that includes acts like U.S.F. (formerly Universal Studios Florida), Big Spider's Back, and Secret Colors. But let's back up a minute—hypnagogi-huh? Just what exactly are we blogging about here?
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). Animal Collective are perhaps its immediate ancestors. Neon Indian, Memory Tapes, Washed Out, and Ducktails are its current leading lights.
On some level, this stuff could be seen as a rebuke to the Day-Glo-dazzled, upper-drug-addled hipster hop and club-ready party music of the past year(s); whereas that stuff is extroverted and brash, chillwave is introverted and soft-spoken (grunge was to hair metal as chillwave is to Mad Rad?). Or it could be taken as an escape from the recent crop of rootsy, retrograde Americana—just as nostalgic as that genre but unbound from the strictures of tradition, a "post-" music that's made as much on effects pedals as it is played on "real" instruments. Taking the longer view, though, this sound draws on decades of music—notably such '80s punch lines as yacht rock and "healing" or world musics, but also shoegaze and ambient as far back as Brian Eno's coining of that enduring genre.
Utopian internet talk aside, Seattle chillwave does have a physical epicenter, a house on a block off Broadway where a couple of these bands either live, hang out, or practice. It's there that U.S.F., the duo of Kyle Hargus and Jason Baxter, meet to talk to The Stranger before rehearsals on a recent Wednesday night.
Hargus and Baxter met and began making music together when they were assigned to the same dorm as freshmen at UW, where both are now seniors wrapping up creative writing majors (did we mention the crap job prospects?). For the past three years, both have worked at the school's student-run online radio station, Rainydawg Radio, where Baxter is general manager and Hargus is music director (Hargus hosts the station's variety hours; Baxter hosts a specialty show called Floating in Space, which focuses on "shoegaze, IDM, dream-pop, ambient, drone—spacey music," an ideal incubator for U.S.F.'s sound).
U.S.F. began in earnest only after the two moved apart and began collaborating by sending tracks back and forth to each other. In December of last year, while snowed in at their parents' houses in Edmonds and Magnolia, they recorded many of the tracks for their debut full-length, Ocean Sunbirds, in this manner. U.S.F. released their debut EP and played their first show in January of this year, and released Sunbirds in late June. By October 26, they had been featured on Pitchfork four separate times, twice for tracks from Sunbird, once for a remix of like-minded Florida act Blind Man's Colour, and once for an interview in the site's "Rising" column.
"Pitchfork approaching us was really cool," says Hargus. "I think it started with getting friended on MySpace by Ryan—what's his name?—Schreiber, the site's founder, then he Twittered about us, and they asked us for the record. It was definitely really cool and very unexpected."
If the attention was unexpected, it's not undeserved. Sunbirds is as fine and dreamy an ambient pop album as you could hope to hear this winter and a welcome synesthetic escape from the encroaching cold season.
"We started making Ocean Sunbirds during that crazy blizzard in December 2008," says Baxter. "It was super-deliberate, trying to be like a tribal, tropical electronic record. It's super-uplifting, lots of major chords, no sad stuff."
That deliberation is evident on track titles like "Capri Sun Caravan," "Ambien Fort," and "Haze Coasting," all of which reinforce a pretty specific aesthetic vision of the natural, the nostalgic, the narcotic. The largely instrumental album is also meant to land as a song cycle, with individual tracks interconnecting and bleeding into each other, and it does feel like one long, continuous expanse of sound. (A couple of vocal collaborations with Big Spider's Back and Alaskas break up the album.) It's easy and pleasant enough to sort of space out through the album's first half only to be woken from reverie by the occasionally thumping drums on tracks like "Haze Coasting."
Throughout, polyrhythmic percussion and indistinct vocal chants (the kind often meant to signify tribalism) blend with glossy, tinkling little keyboard melodies, soft synth pads, and smeared guitar loops. Because much of their music is loop-based, especially live, U.S.F.'s songs tend to gradually accrue, building to densely layered climaxes punctuated by sometimes abrupt, sometimes subtle dropouts and resurgences of sounds. Like all good ambient music, the album's impressionistic songs work as passive background as much as they reward active listening. (I first really listened to the album in its entirety while driving along the Oregon Coast, and it was a pretty ideal soundtrack.)
Since being featured on Pitchfork, Hargus and Baxter say they've noticed some signs of growing interest, such as increased MySpace plays and interest from smaller labels. "It's not like we have Capitol knocking on our door or anything," says Baxter. "But venues and bookers have approached us; some kid sent us a MySpace message and made a video for one of our songs, and that was really cool and bizarre."
Big Spider's Back (aka Yair Rubinstein) has also been getting some unexpected attention for his recent debut EP, Warped (out November 10 on Portland's Circle into Square Records). On October 12, BSB's song "Perfect Machine" was posted to Pitchfork. On October 17, influential KEXP DJ John Richards posted to his Twitter page calling the track his "new fav song... Beautiful electro moody pop on this 'warped ep.'" Two weeks later, Rubinstein was at KEXP for a live in-studio performance on the afternoon show, nervously explaining his unwieldy band name (a reference to some jazz musician by way of a Family Circus cartoon) and fielding host Cheryl Waters's fairly gushing praise. (As of this writing, BSB's Warped is number 54 in KEXP's variety chart; Neon Indian is up at number 7.) "It definitely took me by surprise," says Rubinstein of the sudden attention.
At five tracks in 18 minutes, the Warped EP is a slight offering, but it contains the most structured, songlike material of any of these acts. While U.S.F. hide vocal traces in the depths of their productions (or host guest vocalists), BSB puts his singing relatively front and center, albeit treated with generous reverb. There isn't much in the way of traditional verses and choruses, though, so much as there are just a few insistently repeated, then gently receding lines ("Again Agent" and "Spooked" are instrumentals, "Don't Make Me Laugh" has all of 16 words, "Perfect Machine" 18, and the EP's title track tops out at 30). If the lyrical content is light, it's counteracted by the album's flowery liner notes, a kind of short story describing what sounds like a bird dream of the Pacific Coast.
Rubinstein's singing voice is a little mumbly, a little thin, reserved but not unable to reach the occasional high-altitude strain. The light vocal and metronomic piano melody of "Don't Make Me Laugh"—by far the catchiest thing here—wouldn't sound out of place in a Band of Horses song, if not for the backward-slipping background loops and the electrical vibration that stands in for a guitar solo at the song's understated apex. "Perfect Machine" backs stretched-out singing with chiming, slightly tinny chords submerged in warm jets of guitar. The title track begins with an oddly poppy loop—loping guitar strumming, golden bursts of background vocals, a fluttering flute—then the bass and snare rolls drop in, and the whole thing slowly fades out under a nagging vocal refrain.
Secret Colors (aka Matt Lawson) is, appropriately, perhaps the least known of this core group of acts, and his music is also the most ambient and introverted, sounding like nothing so much as local electronic-shoegaze producer the Sight Below, only without the steady if subdued 4/4 pulse. Secret Colors' most recent release, Infinite Wandering (available as a CD-R and initially as a now-sold-out limited-run cassette tape via British microlabel Bumtapes), is a half hour in seven tracks of billowing, gaseous tone-scapes with every edge so blurred as to make sound sources indistinguishable—a synth? A guitar? A chain of effects pedals? In any case, it's the most seamlessly immersive record of this bunch, although it's probably not destined for radio airwaves in anything but the predawn hours (however, he is performing at Rainydawg's upcoming anniversary show).
The flipside, of course, has been the backlash. Commentators on one prominent music message board (on an epic thread about Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, no less) savaged U.S.F. for hitting the chillwave talking points too hard in explaining that their band name was "based on memories of vacations—like an idealized version of childhood nostalgia." The mob's consensus was that nostalgia for old Nickelodeon shows was a pretty feeble basis for an attempt at a new musical genre.
"It's kind of a double-edge sword," says Hargus of the genre tag. "It's cool, because it had a lot to do with the amount of attention we got, honestly. We got compared to Ducktails and Sun Araw, and having like three or four of those bands to propel upwards with helped us. I have no problem being called 'chillwave,' but I would kind of resent people disregarding us just because of that label."
And as self-professed music geeks and college-radio programmers, they're also aware of how flimsy such labels can be. "If you really dissect the sounds of these bands—Best Coast, Ducktails, Memory Tapes, Delorean—if they'd come out maybe five years apart, there's no way people would lump them together," says Hargus. "It has more to do with chronology as anything else. If you ask someone what chillwave is, you're gonna get, 'Well, synth-based, maybe sample-based instrumentals—but not always—nostalgic, beachy. And at some point, you just start to get these abstract concepts to define the genre."
"I think we're both just surprised that chillwave happened so quickly, and that it's already in the snarky-backlash phase," adds Baxter.
"Genres used to last whole decades," agrees Hargus. "And it's like, it's been three months. It doesn't have room to grow the way, say, disco or other genres of past decades could grow and meander and become new things. It really is like just a way of saying, 'This is something that happened in the summer of 2009. Remember chillwave?' And what's really frustrating is that it's a genre that didn't come around until after our album was done."
Next up for all three of these acts—along with Alaskas, a one-man racket that's less chill than it is rambunctiously feral—is a collaborative record to be released on an as-yet-to-be-determined label (although they have some offers) in which all four acts will record songs together. For a second, this sounds like a massive undertaking (it's like the entire Seattle chillwave scene on one record!), until you realize that it's only just five people total, not all that unusual a number for a regular band. Looking forward, U.S.F. aren't worried about going down with the ship whenever the chillwave trend happens to tank.
"We're music nerds, we work at a radio station, so we're really on top of these trends," Baxter jokes. "We have every intention to keep making music, regardless," says Hargus. "That's not going to stop."