A chillwave primer

Pub date March 23, 2010


MUSIC Chillwave is atmospheric and can fill the background, washing over you and allowing you to float through the world, or it can work as foreground with drastic beats that make you dance. Chillwave relaxes and excites. You feel it all around yourself. It’s multifunctional: the perfect backdrop for walks through SF on blue-sky days, for dipping your toes in the sun-speckled sand, for stealing kisses with your lover, for dance parties. It’s faded and fuzzy synth-pop of blissed-out beauty.

The group of artists who’ve been dubbed “chillwave” or “hypnagogic pop” or “glo-fi” or whatever disparate adjectives you want to throw at them includes Georgia’s Washed Out, South Carolina’s Toro Y Moi, Denver’s Pictureplane, Brooklyn’s Small Black, New Jersey’s Memory Tapes, Texas’ Neon Indian and Los Angeles’ Nite Jewel (the latter two perform at Mezzanine Fri/26). Most of these acts emerged in the summer of 2009.

It’s difficult to categorize or unify a bunch of disparate artists. Unlike musical movements of the past, chillwave doesn’t spring out of a locale, like grunge did via Seattle. Instead, these bands share aesthetic similarities that were discovered via the Internet, rather than through a physical community in the old fashioned sense.

The “alt” blog Hipster Runoff recently wrote that the Wall Street Journal announced that it (HR) is the christener and thus, in some sense — but which sense? — the creator of chillwave. This meta-moment examines how hype and musical genres start and what, if anything, make them real.

Carles of HR pointed to overlapping aesthetic qualities and to the fact that these acts tend to be single musicians working mostly with a laptop. These artists blend guitar, synth, and vocals into a hazy amalgam coated in the effects and echoes of their lo-fi approach. Looping and sampling are common features, which makes chillwave highly referential, and casts a déjà vu sense of familiarity, like dusk’s repetitious shadow, over the music.

Chillwave sounds sun-bleached, like it was once bright but is now faded, and it plays on nostalgia and sentimentality, perhaps recalling an idealized youth. When you can hear the lyrics despite the layer of dust they’re covered in, you make out simple repetitions of phrases such as “don’t look back” (to quote Toro Y Moi’s “Blessa”).

Washed Out, a.k.a. Ernest Greene, lived by a peach orchard with his parents after he graduated from the University of Georgia because he couldn’t land a job. With much free time and open space, he spent late nights writing and recording music himself. This approach is common — chillwave is largely composed of one-person bands, individual musicians.

Which leads to another key point: chillwave’s DIY recordings and distribution. Seattle’s the Stranger proposes that chillwave is a reflection of our ailing economy, which has left college graduates with no job prospects or money, because this music can be made easily and cheaply. These broke musicians look back to a brighter, more sequined past, particularly to the 1980s, both for its sound — New Wave samples are common, as are shoegaze-style sound-walls and Eno-esque ambient moments — and perhaps because it is the era when most of these musicians were young. It’s a perfect combination of old-meets-new, of vintage and technology.

Washed Out originally expressed no interest in touring, partially a result of Greene’s ambivalence about how to perform his music in an interesting way. Eventually he decided to recruit a backup band, a decision Neon Indian also made. He got his friends/touring mates Josh Kolenik and Ryan Heyner of Small Black to join him at South by Southwest and now comes to SF for the tail end of his North America tour with them. Next he’ll be opening for Beach House, whose dream-pop is a clear predecessor to chillwave’s aesthetic.

Greene says that while living at home in Georgia. he made his tracks to help him feel good and to allow him to escape. Through WO’s pastel pop, we can enter clairvoyant-style into an enchanted world of pulsating beats, precise hooks, and hazy mantras. *


With Small Black, Pictureplane, and Young Prisms

Sun/28, 7 p.m., sold out (limited tickets at door)

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011