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Wreath Lectures

"What Are You Doing In There?" The Rise and Fall of Bedroom Music
Tim Burrows , December 22nd, 2010 08:55

"I'm gonna start a revolution from my bed," once sang Noel Gallagher. Tim Burrows, on the other hand, argues that those bedroom-dwelling music makers who were hyped to change the face of music in 2010 aren't as ground-breaking as many first thought...

2010 was meant to be the year of the bedroom recording, thanks to the swelling of a genre that has variously come under the umbrella of hypnagogic pop, glo-fi, or chillwave. The latter has stuck fastest, but all might be best described as "pop music refracted through the memory of a memory," as David Keenan put it in an article, published in Wire in August 2009, that coined the (since rejected) term, hypnagogic pop. It effectively heralded the beginning of the genre that nobody knew about, one that basically thrived on the evocation of fond dreams of the 1980s pop, film and advert music. The recreation of such sounds heard in the moments between sleep and waking – the woozy, longing bass lines, the the trashed guitar whimsy – all in a lo-fi fashion that has been fetishised since the Velvet Underground, the false prophets of the DIY scene (more on that later).

Although plenty of this music is exciting, it didn't quite cut it. At first there was something thrilling about the genre's appropriation of the different aural tropes – the overworked drum machine, the snyth lines stretched so far out that you could hear whole waves of noise splashing in their jagged ridges. In the best stuff there is something journey-like, akin to being transported in a calm, measured fashion across territory that contained hidden dimensions.

Yet the journey was never self-directed, and trod similar paths to to what went before. These fractured facsimiles have felt dusty, not revolutionary; to try and claim that there was something frighteningly new here was an error. Sure there have been some thrilling bits, but most of the good stuff can usually be pushed into another genres if you wish – Toro y Moi and Zola Jesus for example, or one of the genre's apparent originators, Panda Bear, could both be neatly filed away in quite a few other pigeonholes. But we have ended up at the mercy of a guttural splurge of Phil Spector facsimiles, and out of tune Brian/Dennis Wilson sing-songs through an over-compressed microphones, widdling guitar solos recorded on cassette Dictaphones, where the chief aggregator of the blogosphere, The Hype Machine, proclaims the interminably trad Best Coast as the most blogged about artist of our time. In short, we are beached in a climate of artificial heat.


"This reality is twisted, but for me it's really fascinating because seeing past the deranged hypnosis, or merging with it, can also represent our human potential," the experimental musician and hypnagogic hero, James Ferraro, told Keenan back in 2009. "So it inspires me in that way. KFC, TV etcetera are perfect examples of dark energy temples that alter people's reality in a psychotic way, but it also shows the power of dreams and it is a testament of our ability to plug into our dreams and experience them on Earth."

Part of me thinks this is why Bardens Boudoir closed in the end: Dalston's (quite literally) underground venue, where Ferraro played in 2007 in the guise of Lamborghini Crystal, was replaced by The Nest earlier this year. Perhaps it was cursed by too high a quota of colliding dark energy temples emitted by mumbling, laptopped and guitar pedalled bands, depositing bad vibes through the heady mix of self-consciousness and pre-gig fried chicken. The attempt to suggest that KFC – an admittedly necessary purchase at various kinds of time-poor/inebriated/frivolous states – has some kind of new age, transformative significance sums up the scene quite well. There is a refusal to look beyond what has been already experienced, a kind of kick back and ignore attitude that, if anything, does not make it unique. It makes it our cultural norm.

Much of the music is languid psychedelia, that fetishises a period which we should feel embarrassed to have been the product of – the 1980s and 90s – when Disney's Saturday morning cartoons pumped shoddy American consumerist values into the living room, amid advertisements for shopping centres that sold the merchandise that came with it, such as Argos and Toys R Us.

I begged my parents to take me to Lakeside shopping centre in Essex after being sat in front of that parade of movement and colour. For this writer – who, at 26, fits slap bang in the middle of the demographic, that should be making/buying this – much of it has felt like wallowing in a time that could have been, and still could be, left behind. A period in which the Special Relationship was sealed, right under our noses, and given legitimacy through cultural means, when Fukuyama's concept of "The End of History" might as well have been written on doormats and placed outside newbuild semi-detacheds of Thatcher's, Major's, and Blair's Britain: "The End Of History. Please Wipe Your Feet."


It is a culture that subliminally, apathetically wills on the closure of recording studios, happening more regularly due to rent increases or record downturns, so that this new DIY method can spread. Yet there is no excitement in the collapse of the last remnants of a music industry, as what you have left then is this atomised, stretched out mass of singular entities, sponging of their "mom" to make "awesome tunes". Even if they live in Surrey.

The overwhelming commonality between the bands, no matter where they're from, is the location of the culture's beginnings: California. And more specifically, California in its most bombastic, over-egged era, the 1970s and 1980s. The problem about the Americanisation of the scene in the UK is not some kneejerk, parochial reaction – "they come over here, take our gigs" – it is more the false consciousness that comes with the songs that are created that grates. It promotes a lack of any kind of drive to reflect a certain, personal power or authenticity.

If you've got any kind of inclination to be a musician, at least try and derive something from your own situation, right now, whatever it is. Or you end up here:

Vivian Girls with Male Bonding on Sound Opinions from WBEZ on Vimeo.

US girl trio Vivian Girls and UK boy trio Male Bonding are not particularly 'chillwave' (though the former have been included in a few lists) but I think their version of 'Perfect Day', recorded earlier this year, signifies some kind of end point that the current DIY surge has reached. In their hands, the song wilts into a lazy longing for a plenitude that cannot exist. The reason Lou Reed and the Velvets are false prophets of the DIY scene is that they were not DIY. Yes, they positioned themselves beneath the mainstream, but only by colluding with it, playing high society balls, and using the hottest NY artist of the period, Andy Warhol, as a ladder. That Reed remained relatively low-key until Transformer, produced by David Bowie, brought him to the attention of a wider audience, was down to the challenging aspects of the Velvets, not the small ambitions.

Ariel Pink enjoys a comparable position to the Velvet Underground in that he is, above all others, seen as the linchpin behind this disparate bedroom scene, but between the two there is a chasm in sentiment and quality. The Velvets used irony sparingly, as counterpoints to offse thrilling dirge, wild, cataclysmic noise and beauty. With Pink, it is laden so thick that these ears have trouble distinguishing it from parody.


Some termed chillwave a "post-genre genre" which has to be one of the most desperate scrambling to define something that might, or perhaps should be, pretty indefinable; it turned out to be a scene sculpted by the bare hands of writers who wanted a scene. Yet surely the most exciting thing about the instant culture that the internet has brought with it is the avoidance of genre. Let us proclaim the end of genre, of utopias, clearing the ground for more albums that could count Benjamin Britten, J Dilla, Einsturzende Neubauten and Britney Spears as influences. Hidden by These New Puritans, the obvious album of the year, is a product of toil in many spaces; the bedroom, the studio, outside and in. They are an aggressive, ludicrous band for aggressive, ludicrous times, who scrimp every penny they can muster from record sales, gigs (even high fashion modelling) to find a way into a studio to use the best instruments, orchestras, and choirs they can. Their recent Hidden tour, that saw the band take a childrens choir, the Britten Sinfonia and a huge Japanese taiko drum was propelled by an indie (as in independent) attitude, but not a modern indie (as in lazy) attitude.

Edwyn Collins was astonished at the C86 scene that he and Orange Juice had apparently helped create in the early 1980s: he could not fathom why these bands would want to fetishise the out-of-tune-ness, the crackles, the wobbliness, that Orange Juice had created in their early days. For him, that period was necessary, but ultimately he and the band improved as musicians to end up at the sublime point in which 'Rip It Up' reached Top Of The Pops. The current DIY scene will go down as the C86 of our age, and hopefully might just represent a calm before the storm, the last moments of an introspective indie slumber before the cuts start to bite. The hazy Polaroid aesthetic peddled by artists such as Washed Out makes hypnagogic pop the aural equivalent of the Hipstamatic print, the iPhone app that has become an all-conquering presence on Facebook. It's a good trick that can send a picture of you in your home, town or city back to a mildly warped version of an imagined past – just avoid catching those tell tale, 21st century glimmers in the background.