Whatever you do, don’t call it ‘chillwave’

Blog-centered scene draws upon 1980s nostalgia: synthpop, shoegaze, cassettes

by Shawn Despres

An online buzz began circulating last summer about a new style of music being created by underground acts in the United States. Labels used to describe the hazy tunes included “hypnagogic pop,” “glo-fi” and “chillwave.”

Despite being the cheesiest of the three (although glo-fi is a very close second), the last has become the popular tag for the sonic trend, eliciting a fair share of chuckles from those lumped together under it.

“I hate the term chillwave,” says Matthew Mondanile, the man behind New Jersey’s Ducktails. “I do think it is funny, though.”

“It’s just a goofy way for people to get their heads around a whole new group of bands who approach songwriting a bit differently than the last generation of indie-rock groups,” adds Josh Kolenik from New York’s Small Black.

So what exactly is, ahem, chillwave? At its core, it is melodic, blissful electronic grooves influenced by 1980s synth pop and shoegaze. Often self-recorded on laptops, the use of different effects and filters add a lo-fi, psychedelic edge to the songs. The mellow dance tracks are suited well for sunny afternoons spent reminiscing.

“I grew up in the ’80s so it’s not so much that I’m attracted to that time as it’s just a big part of my personal experience,” explains Dayve Hawk from New Jersey’s Memory Tapes. “I think most of my emotions are tied up in the past so it comes through in the music I make.”

“Nostalgia is a huge part of American culture especially from my generation,” says Ducktails’ Mondanile. “I’m interested in expressing memories through pop music and having people’s sensations tingle.”

Bands such as Ducktails, Georgia’s Washed Out and Seattle’s U.S.F. have upped the ’80s vibe by issuing music on limited-edition cassette tapes. All hope to work more with the format, which is experiencing a small resurgence in different indie-music scenes.

“We think cassettes totally help heighten the nostalgic feeling in our music,” says Jason Baxter from U.S.F. “That was part of the intention with regards to releasing (2009′s) ‘Ocean Sunbirds’ on cassette. It’s almost a different album on tape — it’s swampier and squishier.”

“Tapes are the best,” Ducktails’ Mondanile says. “They are physical. They warp out of speed. They come in a little box. I love them.”

Over the last 12 months, chillwave practitioners have seen their stock climb quickly. They were raved about by bloggers and hipsters early on, but now the mainstream media has been paying greater attention as more acts leave the comfy confines of their bedroom studios to play live.

“It was really hard to believe that people would be into this weird music,” admits Washed Out’s Ernest Greene, one of chillwave’s most hyped acts.

“It was really exciting getting instant responses on the Internet from people. I never dreamed of doing this as a career. It has certainly been a crazy year.”

Memory Tapes and Washed Out originally expressed little interest in performing, but with demands for their talents increasing they have started touring. Both appeared at March’s massive South by Southwest (SXSW) Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, which showcased a number of other chillwave bands including top-rated peers such as Small Black, South Carolina’s Toro y Moi and New York-based Neon Indian.

At SXSW there was a downtown billboard with Neon Indian mastermind Alan Palomo’s mug plastered on it. Washed Out is just as revered, so where was Greene’s giant advertisement?

“Maybe that will happen next year, but I’m not sure how I’d feel about it,” he laughs.

To its credit, chillwave shows no signs of losing steam. Washed Out and Small Black just completed a joint European jaunt and Memory Tapes is going in July. Small Black’s eponymous EP was issued domestically by P-Vine Records on June 2 and they may gig in Japan this year. Memory Tapes is visiting Australia in September and Washed Out is headed there in December and both hope for concerts here around those dates as well.

“I think a lot of these bands will surprise you with the diversity of their sophomore releases,” says Small Black’s Kolenik. “There is lots of talent percolating in these waters. Time will tell if that music still fits under the chillwave banner or if it evolves into something else.”

Hawk is nearly finished recording his Memory Tapes followup to 2009′s “Seek Magic” and likely will preview it during his upcoming shows. He wants to continue to toy with the sounds of yesteryear, but is digging deeper than the ’80s for influences.

“My new album is a bit more organic, the sound is less electronic and the songs are more concise,” Hawk says. “I wanted to make a record that had something in common with the music that inspired me to become a musician in the first place. I grew up listening to a lot of ’60s pop 45s on my Fisher Price turntable so it draws from that sound.”

It’s still too soon to determine if chillwave will be a passing fad or has the staying power to become a properly recognized subgenre. If it does go the distance, it won’t be the first musical offshoot to be given a ridiculous name. Odds are it won’t be the last either.

“It kind of reminds me of how ludicrous the term ‘shoegaze’ must have sounded to people in the late ’80s,” says Yair Rubinstein of Seattle’s Big Spider’s Back. “Now the term just rolls off people’s tongues.”