The back cover of Rip It Off, the bombastic lo-fi record from the still-fresh-faced Columbus, Ohio, band Times New Viking implores fans to “please play loud” when listening. “Volume is a barometer for how much fun you’re having,” TNV keyboardist and vocalist Beth Murphy said of the mantra. And if that’s to be believed, then these days, there’s a big ol’ party going on throughout the underground punk-rock scene. From coast to coast across the United States, it seems bands are once again embracing the DIY mentality by heading to their basements or bedrooms and recording under what audiophiles may not consider the best of conditions.
“You could buy our sound at Guitar Center,” Tyvek frontman Kevin Boyer said, explaining the ease of recording. “Some people are gonna be turned off by the sound on it, but some people are just going to go crazy for the sounds … that were captured live or captured when things weren’t set up properly.”
While positive reviews roll in for many of these lo-fi bands, message boards and comments sections are ablaze with discussion about whether or not they go too far with their challenging sound. Jared Phillips, TNV guitarist, has a simple metaphor to respond to any such complaints. “You look at a painting — what kind of feeling do you get?” Phillips asked. ” ‘Oh, that is really well done. He painted that really, exactly realistically perfect,’ and that’s about it. I’m not saying that all polished music is like that, but I can see why people are talking about it — because it sounds so much different than what’s on the air.”
It’s a sentiment that’s shared by many of the bands that fit under the lo-fi banner, a sense that the tide is shifting away from the overwrought production they feel has dominated the radio waves for the past few years.
“There are lots of bands in the world, and there are lots of them that get lots of hype and they’re totally sh–. I think they need to get called out, because they’re totally poseurs. No one needs to combine emo and world music — come on, get real,” Psychedelic Horsesh– frontman Matt Whitehurst said.
Rebellion isn’t the only reason for the resulting lo-fi sound; the DIY mentality enters the equation as well. When it comes to recording with the budgets the musicians have, most times, they just have to make do. “It’s about poverty, but it’s about liking poverty. It’s about dealing with that and realizing that this is what I got, and I’m gonna use it the best I can,” said Kevin DeBroux, who plays bassist for Columbus’ Psychedelic Horsesh– and helms a side project called Pink Reason.
The speed of the recording process also causes the music to sound the way it does — each song is a “snapshot” of the music at that very moment. Punk veteran and Memphis, Tennessee, native Jay Reatard fully subscribes to this idea. “It’s kind of like a Polaroid of your music,” Reatard said. “It’s right then and there. And it’s quick and spontaneous. I think that’s how music should be made, because I don’t think you can book three months ahead of time for when you’re gonna be creative.”
While lo-fi recording has gone in and out of style many times before, these days, the Internet is allowing bands that record in their bedrooms and lofts to coalesce into an actual scene.
“It wasn’t a scene, but it became a scene when we started playing shows together because there was no one else to play with,” DeBroux said. “We all play together now, and we’re all friends, and we all like each other’s music and have a mutual respect for the songwriting. It’s lo-fi, but it’s about the songwriting, really,” Whitehurst said.
Despite the wall of noise, the importance on pop songwriting isn’t lost on any of these lo-fi bands. Dean Spunt and Randy Randall from Los Angeles-based No Age used pop music as a jump-off point for their work. “When we started the band, we discussed music, and one of the things we like … catchy songs, we like pop music,” Spunt said.
“I think that’s where you lose people, is if you get away too much from a pop song. You can add anything you want on top of a pop song, but when you get away from that being the base, you sort of lose people’s attention,” Reatard said.
The lo-fi movement continues to gain fans and momentum with every distorted beat, note and word. Just make sure that you listen to it loud. It’s the most fun that way.