DIY Hustlers

Alex G, and Car Seat Headrest

“Don’t put anything out that you’re not 100% sold on. Make sure that you’re recording because you enjoy it and because you really want to. Record it because it’s a need for you…” — Alex G

Not all that long ago, Alex Giannascoli and Will Toledo were passing burned CD-Rs of their music around high schools, hoping to capture the attention of a few fellow teens. They graduated to college, and to releasing music on Bandcamp: Toledo uploaded his first album as Car Seat Headrest in 2010, Giannascoli his first song as Alex G in 2011. Fast-forward a few years and, for each musician, a dozen or so albums. In recent months, both have signed with major indie labels. Today, Alex G releases Beach Music as his recording debut on Domino Records; on October 30, Matador Records will release Teens of Style, Car Seat Headrest’s first album for the label.

These represent perhaps the dream trajectory of the indie musician: from bedroom project to prestigious record label (and, incidentally, the dream trajectory for Bandcamp, as both Matador and Domino are now on the site). Domino is the home of Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors. Matador is known for everyone from Interpol to Yo La Tengo. And in an ideal iteration of this career arc, Giannascoli and Toledo were noticed not for stunt antics or flooding the world with press releases, but for carefully honing their craft and building dedicated online fan bases. Each delves into the personal and confessional in a distinct musical style—Alex G leans toward the trippy and soft-spoken, Car Seat Headrest is distorted and visceral—but both represent DIY success stories in an ever-shifting industry.

I spoke with the musicians independently over the phone in recent weeks; both were naturally enthused about their new opportunities and in the midst of newly busy press junkets and tours. How does an artist toil away and find that kind of success? And what lessons might these unlikely cases offer for all of the other musicians in the midst of their own careers?

Alex G by Jeff Allen
Alex Giannascoli, photo by Jeff Allen

“It’s been such a slow, steady progression,” Giannascoli said. At the beginning, each new fan represented a small victory. “From the first person it felt really exciting,” he admits. Though he has been recording since age thirteen, Alex G released his first song, the hushed and darkly comic “Sandy,” four years ago as a student at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I started using Bandcamp and it just caught on. People showed it to their friends and stuff, and I guess from there it just grew.”

“I always knew that I wanted to release music,” Toledo told me. It began in childhood, when he came up with imaginary lists of songs for imaginary albums; as soon as he figured out that he could record music on a computer, he began doing so. The first Car Seat Headrest albums were uploaded song-by-song to Bandcamp, but Toledo realized that he was shortchanging fans who downloaded an album when it was only halfway done—and he decided he wanted to create a fully-polished product before he put it out into the world. Listeners trickled in slowly. “The first several albums, I could count the followers or the downloads on my hands. I’d be lucky to get a dozen,” he said. “The earliest stuff is pretty insular, so yeah, it was definitely a slow rise.” Early Car Seat feels emblematically exploratory, divided between collages of unusual sounds and the more focused energy he draws upon in Teens of Style.

Giannascoli began working with the Brooklyn-based community label Orchid Tapes for distribution of Alex G, but otherwise his process remained largely the same. The label helped attract press, though, and an audience gradually expanded. Perhaps the biggest leap to a new set of ears came when Mat Cothran, frontman of the prominent band Elvis Depressedly, discovered his page and shared it with his large fan base. Last year’s poppish DSU attracted a favorable Pitchfork review, and The Fader called Alex G “the Internet’s secret best songwriter.” Soon, labels began calling, and Domino represented the best option.

Car Seat Headrest found renewed energy when Toledo finished college in Virginia and moved to Seattle, where he found a core group of musicians who could consistently realize the project as a band. “For the past year it’s definitely grown a lot more,” he said. “One of the reasons being that I finally felt like I had enough songs in the discography that worked well live, and I had a lot of time to practice those and iron out the details. And the other thing was finding members who wanted to be in the band.” It was never entirely clear to Toledo—despite booking shows, emailing press, and seeking out new audiences as he continued to release more carefully crafted albums—how to leapfrog from a cult audience to a professional career. “It was kind of hard for me to get a foot in the door because I had no idea how to promote my material or anything, other than what I was already doing, which was just uploading and then emailing it around wherever I could. I didn’t really have any connections, but I always felt that I could get sucked into a larger network,” he said.

Car Seat Headrest by Chona KatsingerWill Toledo, photo by Chona Katsinger

But then Matador founder Chris Lombardi discovered his Bandcamp page following an intern’s tip, and reached out. “What I was hoping would happen, basically, is that enough people would be passing it around that eventually it would be heard by someone who could do something about it,” Toledo said. Maintaining a strong back catalog online helped seal the deal. “I’m very lucky that that did happen; he said that he was just really into the experience of being able to find me and then immediately started digging into the discography and listening to all the old material.”

Despite their new industry prominence, the artists are now releasing records that represent the core of their original missions. Toledo has remained a tinkering perfectionist, the kind of musician who constantly returns to update old material. (His Bandcamp page instructs media to not link to early albums “BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT VERY GOOD.”) Teens of Style is a compilation of older songs that have been re-recorded, re-worked, and occasionally epically expanded. “I kind of meant it to be a window into my music… this is about getting exposure to a whole new audience,” he said. “The best way of doing it was to do a compilation of songs that I thought were strong, and also more accessible than the most accessible stuff that I’ve got.” Songs like “Something Soon” turn exquisitely on a dime from distant, hazy vocals to anthemic post-punk. And while retaining a sweeping scope, the songwriting on Teens of Style has turned away from the more meandering experimentations of his early albums; if it sounds less probing, it also feels more mature.

I asked Giannascoli if widening his audience might change how he thinks about his work; he told me, “I’m sure it’s affecting the direction somehow, but I make a pretty active effort to just try and keep it as true to myself as much as possible, and not think about it.” The biggest musical shift for Beach Music was that Giannascoli capitulated to Domino’s offer to have the album professionally mixed—the first time he has allowed the auteurist Alex G project to leave his creative control. “The max I want to collaborate with someone is just some more mixing like that… when I’m releasing it as Alex G, it’s really hard for me to collaborate with anyone, because it doesn’t feel right if someone else is contributing stuff and it’s using my name.” The album also developed differently due to his new touring schedule, with songs recorded intermittently rather than in a single go. “Don’t take me with you, I’m happy where I am,” he coos in “Salt,” atop a quirky groove—a metaphor as well, perhaps, for his artistic journey.

And though each project has involved a significant amount of hustling, online and off, both artists felt that the key to their indie success lay in building a strong musical catalog. Giannascoli recommended that emerging musicians send their material to as many outlets as possible, even just to get a tiny listing; Elvis Depressedly discovered his music through a blog before helping it reach a wider platform. But he also strongly advised that musicians not drift from their own interests, or self-satisfaction, in pursuit of listeners. He warned, “Don’t put anything out that you’re not 100% sold on. Make sure that you’re recording because you enjoy it and because you really want to. Record it because it’s a need for you—if you want to make good music, I think it has to really be a passion thing and not a ‘I want to sound like these guys’ thing.”

Toledo similarly emphasized the importance of authenticity and quality control: “Just keep doing what you’re doing, just figure out a way to support yourself. Beyond that, focus on improving your craft and making really solid efforts. Even if people aren’t necessarily listening to it right when you release it, if you make something really high in quality, then eventually people are going to catch on and start checking it out. I think you can’t go wrong as long as you’re putting out something that’s really the best you can do.”

The Search for New Land

Deafheaven by Kristen Cofferphoto by Kristen Coffer

“After Sunbather took off, we put personal pressure on ourselves not to repeat ourselves… It was a conscious decision to change direction and explore different influences, because the focus on shoegaze in our sound has gotten blown out of proportion. We wanted to stand out because of our tight songwriting.” — George Clarke

Five years ago, two friends and bandmates from a popular Northern California grindcore band began tinkering with a captivating new strain of metal that fused the charred savagery of black metal with the ethereality of shoegaze. The duo—guitarist Kerry McCoy and vocalist George Clarke—dubbed its project Deafheaven, as an oblique tribute to pioneering dream-pop outfit Slowdive. McCoy and Clarke’s infectious concoction rattled the underground metal scene with a demo, and has since threatened to garner much broader exposure with an uplifting sophomore album showcasing palpable hooks alongside visceral riffs. Deafheaven’s second album earned critical acclaim from indie outlets, as well as accolades from highly respected metal tastemakers. In addition to Clarke and McCoy, Deafheaven is now rounded out by Shiv Mehra (guitar), Stephan Clark (bass), and Daniel Tracy (drums). For its highly anticipated third album, New Bermuda (ANTI-), Deafheaven boldly returns with an insular and darkly cathartic five-song, white-knuckle ride.

The trek to New Bermuda has been arduous. Along the way, McCoy and Clarke found themselves sacrificing for their uniquely heavy music, scrounging for meals with food stamps, living in severely cramped quarters in the Mission District of San Francisco, and losing bandmates to budgetary constraints. But with the band’s previous album, Sun Bather, positioning Deafheaven as the “it band” of the heavy underground music scene, McCoy and Clarke migrated to Los Angeles to bask in sunnier days. Meanwhile, Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke encountered a harsher reality.

“Moving to Los Angeles, I had hoped for a revolving door of benefits; it seemed like something of a paradise city,” Clarke reveals. “But I found the reality there daunting. It was like an ocean that dragged you under and swallowed you up before you reached an island. There were a lot of letdowns, unfortunately, so this album is more bitter and has a heightened sense of urgency.”

Deafheaven’s career has been one of those rare arcs in which a fringe niche band garners critical mainstream acclaim while maintaining its indie credibility. Sunbather received plaudits from NPR, ranking in its Favorite Albums of 2013 list, and topped Rolling Stone’s year-end poll, winning Best Metal Album of 2013. The quintet has also earned accolades from Pitchfork and Decibel. The band has toured extensively—nationally and internationally—with shows in Australia, Japan, Asia, Europe, Russia, the UK, and Canada, and they have appeared at festivals such as Bonnaroo, Primavera, Roskilde, Pitchfork, Fun Fun Fun, FYF Fest, SXSW, Basilica Sound Scape 14, Corona Capital, and ATP Iceland.

Deafheaven by Kristen Cofferphoto by Kristen Coffer

Hallmarks of Deafheaven’s aesthetic include scrubbed-raw vocals tucked deep inside sinister metal passages that hurtle dynamically upward until they seem to disintegrate mercifully, yielding to chiming and stately atmospheric soundscapes. Deafheaven exhibits a knack for letting up on the sensory assault just at the right moment. The effect is akin to the feeling of centeredness and release after a complete meltdown; the band’s musicality has a primal appeal.

New Bermuda is an intriguing entry in Deafheaven’s canon. It ditches some signature moves, and revisits the musicians’ early thrash metal influences while also taking pop-rock songcraft cues from unlikely sources such as Oasis and Wilco. “After Sunbather took off, we put personal pressure on ourselves not to repeat ourselves,” Clarke confides. “It was a conscious decision to change direction and explore different influences, because the focus on shoegaze in our sound has gotten blown out of proportion. We wanted to stand out because of our tight songwriting,”

The album’s title, New Bermuda, conjures dreams of exotic lands, but the burnished beauty of the album’s mix of thrash, compelling pop hooks, and disillusioned lyrics belie the grandiosity of its moniker. “There is a lot of alienation in the lyrics from being in an unfamiliar territory, personal life changes, depression, and trying to make sense of these various feelings of displacement through self-analysis,” Clarke admits.

The first opportunity for fans to hear Deafheaven’s new material was through the focus track, “Brought To The Water,” which the band has been debuting on summer live dates. The track is grinding and graceful. Whereas Deafheaven in the past has reveled in the jarring dynamics of opposing aesthetics—black metal’s weight juxtaposed alongside shoegaze’s airiness—this time the contrast is less about abrupt shifts and more about thoughtful songwriting. Chorus hooks feel like logical conclusions to roiling verses. “‘Brought To Water’ really introduces a new chapter for the band. We took out a lot of the shoegaze spaciness and focused on writing concise melodies,” Clarke explains.

Other impactful moments are “Come Back,” which opens ominously with elegant, mournful melodies preceding relentless, dexterous drumming and chugging guitars. Here, a clever arrangement makes seemingly incongruous mood shifts smooth.

The album’s final track, “Gifts From Earth,” is one of New Bermuda’s most satisfying surprises. The composition evokes the crushing sadness of Metallica’s “Fade To Black,” while recalling the dark sensuality of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration. It’s the closest Deafheaven has come to an alt-rock ballad. “I was apprehensive at first about that one because the pop sensibility was challenging and difficult,” Clarke admits.

New Bermuda was tracked to tape and produced by longtime creative ally Jack Shirley (Downfall of Gaia, Whirr). The record is more of a band effort than any previous Deafheaven release, featuring input and instrumental contributions from all five of its members.

At the center, however, Deafheaven will always be George Clarke and Kerry McCoy. Their bond has held strong for 12 years, and only been further cemented by Deafheaven’s long strange trip. “The band started purely out of boredom. We jammed together in bands for years, but things were starting to feel stagnant. We had a rehearsal room and an acoustic guitar and began jamming with me drumming with my hands on my legs,” Clarke details. “At the time, we had no plans to take this music seriously. It took off by itself and we haven’t stopped. It’s been about being stubborn and training yourself to be okay not knowing what’s coming next and not having a backup plan. It forces you to find ways to persevere.”

Lightning Through the Clouds

Youth Lagoon

“If you write dark lyrics and you really embrace this whole ‘heavy persona’ full on, it kind of loses it. There has to be a bit of contrast to make something interesting.”

A few weeks ago, Trevor Powers, the 26-year-old songwriter who performs as Youth Lagoon, posted a video of himself on Twitter. Standing in what looks like a suburban living room, Powers flaps his arms and shakes his hips to a reggae groove playing in the background, his black curls sticking out under a bright pink hat. “Dancing isn’t about looking good,” he deadpans above the clip, “it’s about looking damn good.” Watching the video, it’s hard to believe that he’s the same guy who wrote and orchestrated Savage Hills Ballroom, an album oozing with harsh nihilism and dread, sung mostly in an agonized and pained voice. But that contrast reveals the magic at the heart of Powers’ third album: while themes of death and despair pervade its lyrics, they are constantly countered by sparkling melodies and Powers’ inventive, curveball arrangements. Instead of bouncing off each other like oil and vinegar, these extremes interlace to present a complex portrait of a musician who manages to have a blast in the studio despite the multitude of dark thoughts weighing on him. Savage Hills Ballroom operates like a Trojan horse; it appears as a colossus of mourning and sadness, but as it worms its way into your ear, you realize that you’re listening to one of the most exuberant records of the year.

Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than on “The Knower,” which begins with Powers croaking, “Everyone wants to think that they won’t grow old, but they keep aging,” in a voice that threatens to crumble into nothingness before a full cast of instruments, including a stately trumpet, appear. Suddenly, the track that began as a defeated, miserable dirge has swelled into a full-fledged explosion of colors and tones. “If you write dark lyrics and you really embrace this whole ‘heavy persona’ full on, it kind of loses it,” Powers explains. “There has to be a bit of contrast to make something interesting.”

At the heart of “The Knower,” and almost every track on Savage Hills Ballroom, is a bulletproof vocal melody. While Powers’ voice often got lost in the maximalist jungle of his last album, 2013’s Wondrous Bughouse, now his melodies serve as focal points, lighting the way forward. Powers cites the Beach Boys, John Denver and the Carpenters—music his dad played for him growing up—as much of the inspiration for his vocals, and those artists’ steadfast commitment to melody is on full display here. (In 2011, Powers covered Denver’s “Goodbye Again,” for Sirius Radio—with the addition of some strange synthesizers, it wouldn’t sound out of place on Savage Hills Ballroom.) “No One Can Tell” culminates in a chorus, sung in falsetto, that I suspect Janet Jackson would love to get her hands on, and the titular lyric of “Free Me” is destined to lodge itself in your head with the persistence of the best of Top 40 pop.

These melodies appear all the more radiant against the backdrop of perplexing sounds and textures that Powers crafted with the help of producer Ali Chant in Bristol, England. “Again” is grounded in a gurgling synthesizer, eventually cut through by unexpected, deep slashes of howling noise, while “Highway Patrol Stun Gun” features another synth, this one pulsing and flashing like a deathly strobe light. Even the album’s two piano-led instrumental tracks, “Doll’s Estate” and “X-Ray,” are underscored by the unsettling, throbbing tones of a vintage variophone, which adds an element of surprise and menace to the elegant cadences of the plinking keys. “I like making things sound clouded—having a substantial melody or any musical idea and putting it behind drapes, and making people work for it a little bit,” Powers told me before ceding that this album is “a little more upfront” than his past efforts. That may be a bit of an understatement; even the most alien sounds on Savage Hills Ballroom feel urgent and immediate, charged with the same intensity as the bright yellow letters on the album’s cover.

Youth Lagoon

Pop music has a long history of disguising sorrow as sweetness. Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” led by a gentle xylophone, still inspires stadium crowds to scream in orgiastic glee even though it’s about being driven to suicide by a miserable job; the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” conceals morbid fear within a huge, bombastic arrangement; the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” still ranks as one of the most beloved pop songs ever, even though it’s creepy as hell. Why? Because we get bored otherwise. There’s a reason people make fun of bands that become caricatures of any single emotion. Human beings are complex, and we think contrasting thoughts all the time. On Savage Hills Ballroom, Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers captures that complexity effortlessly, producing an album that not only demonstrates a heightened sense of maturity, but refuses to relinquish, for even a moment, a giddy, youthful curiosity.

Solace in Sound

Safia Nolin

“When I’m really, completely sad—I guess it’s stupid—but whenever I’m sad and I want to feel better, I try to write a song.”

“This is so weird because I don’t know what happens after that,” said Safia Nolin, with a hint of anxiety in her voice. I had asked the French-Canadian singer-songwriter about her plans following the release of her debut album, Limoilou, out today on Bonsound. “I feel like it’s the end of the world right now,” she added. “I’m going to, like, die soon—I guess?” Nolin chuckled, bleakly.

It was not the reaction one might expect from an artist who has recently experienced a biopic-worthy rise to semi-stardom in the Quebecois music scene. As a teenager, Nolin dropped out of high school and decided she wanted to learn to play guitar. “I was kind of poor so my brother got me an old, fucking piece of shit that was the worst guitar ever,” she told me. Nolin started off playing covers and uploading them to YouTube, gradually began writing her own material, and then decided to enter a talent competition in Quebec. She won best song, and one of the judges worked for Bonsound, which led to a meeting that eventually birthed Limoilou. Perhaps more importantly for Nolin, the contest opened a new world. “I had no friends, I had no life,” she said with a laugh. “I went to this concert and I got a bunch of friends and a new guitar. I found what I wanted to do with my life.”

Nolin’s ambivalent response to her recording debut might be expected, though, if one has heard her music. The thirteen exquisite songs of Limoilou focus on death, isolation, and poverty—both fiscal and emotional. The French lyrics are laced with vivid and mythic metaphors for these austere sentiments, summoning strange realms. Limoilou opens with “Les excuses,” in which Nolin sings, unaccompanied, a winding and broken melody: “I mistakenly learned that people disguise themselves/They wait for death under church roofs.” Philippe Brault’s piano enters in the background, but the focus remains on the voice; following a moment of silence, an ominous, explosive wail: “When desire burns our gods/When death breaks his vows/When reason cleaves in two/Swallow your bones, apologize to fire/Swallow your water, apologize to fire.” The final lines are a homonymic play on words, between os (bones) and eaux (water). Closely miked in the studio, the production leaves air so that you can hear the crackle in Nolin’s vocals and, in later tracks, the stiff tactile sounds of fingers sliding across guitar strings.

I asked Nolin about her songwriting process, and she offered a frank response. “When I’m really, completely sad—I guess it’s stupid—but whenever I’m sad and I want to feel better, I try to write a song,” she said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t—it’s mostly when I feel sad. I’m feeling really shitty…I go into my bedroom and try to write something. Really, it sucks; but sometimes, it works.”

Safia Nolin

What has emerged from those private moments feels far from cursory on Limoilou. Each song is delicately woven, with words that wrap complex emotions in powerful poetry. On “La laideur,” (“Ugliness”) Nolin builds invisibility—“I took pleasure in disappearing,” she intones—into a haunting groove.

And the studio has carefully enhanced Nolin’s songs without distracting from them. “It was really simple,” she said of the recording process. “I was sitting on a couch, without headphones, and we were all playing live…I wanted that vibe of Listen, these are my songs. I didn’t want it to be overproduced, I wanted it to be super natural.”

For Nolin, that naturalness comes with musical baggage—of both genre and nationality. Picking up a guitar and singing in a confessional style can quickly pigeonhole a young musician into the category of singer-songwriter; and even more so in Quebec, where the tradition of French chanson looms large. “You have to work really hard on your lyrics, but sometimes I wish I could just do music,” she said. “It’s more like the things that bands can do.” Nolin seeks a balance between the language of bands—what she meant by “music”—and that of French song. Much of Limoilou succeeds in finding a voice within that dynamic, as in the interlaced instrumentals of “Technicolor” or the angst-ridden rock of “Si seulement.”

A French lineage comes across in more lackadaisical songs like “Noël partout,” which, with the title “Christmas everywhere,” one might assume is festively cast. But instead, Nolin describes a desire to celebrate the holidays anywhere—on a boat, a plane, in Spain, on Saturn—but at home. “Valser à l’envers” (“Upside-Down Waltz”) best embodies and pushes through any opposition between chanson and band, building from hushed confessional to the anthemic roar of the chorus, with spindly guitar as Nolin holds together the contradictions of intimacy: “Take me by the arm/Don’t touch me.”

“I’m twenty-two but I’m pretty sure I’m thirteen,” Nolin told me. We had spoken for less than five minutes over a fuzzy phone connection, but she already seemed as ready to discuss her interior world as she is in her songs. “I don’t feel like an adult, but I guess the thing that makes the album a narrative is the sense of being lost, and confused, and sad. And poor. I know it sucks. Being poor.”

In the music video for “Igloo,” the song for which Nolin won that life-changing competition in 2012, we see the songwriter shopping at a thrift store. She trudges through the empty, snow-ravaged streets of her hometown—“I wander like an amnesiac phantom/Through the cursed streets of Limoilou,” she sings—and arrives home. She welds her purchase, a pair of speakers, to the top of a gigantic igloo constructed of discarded audio equipment. It’s a poignant image, and a fitting one for an artist for whom music was a path away from isolation, but whose songs gaze intensely upon it.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,885 other followers