5 Musical Acts That Make Me Glad The Internet Exists
My last article was about some bands that I like that never had mainstream success, because my Very Important Opinions are everyone's business. The article before that was about why pop music is so monolithic. And now, at long last, I'm sure you want me to shut up about music.
Too bad! Just to punish your bad attitude, Guy I Made Up, I'm doing another article about music. This time, it's about bands that are so niche that they couldn't have actual careers before people could discover them through the Internet. First, some ground rules: I don't want this article to be like "check out this totally cool unknown band, they're called Sufjan Stevens," so I'm going to limit this to acts on Spotify that have under a million listens on most of their songs. Look, I love Kero Kero Bonito, but "Flamingo" has over fifty million streams so they're out. I'm also looking for musicians who aren't just doing a gimmick. The McDonalds-themed heavy metal group Mac Sabbath is definitely committed to the bit, but they're not exactly what I'm looking for in this column. Finally, the music has to be stuff that I actually like, not just stuff that's notable simply for its inherent weirdness -- the latter being too close to my personal brand.
Open Reel Ensemble: Repurposing the Crap in Your Dad's Basement to Make Music
You've probably been on this thing called The Internet -- either that or someone prints these articles out and mails them to your hermitage in the woods. If so: how's your manifesto coming along? Good? Well, while you're railing against the evils of the modern world, I'd like to take a moment to introduce you to Open Reel Ensemble. If you've been on the internet, you've probably seen some of their videos, like this one where Ei Wada, the Main Dude of this band, goes absolutely sicko mode on a fan:
(Sicko mode, right kids? It's the Fortnite for me! This iconic sound highkey hits different, deadass! Please don't "Logan's Run" me when you start getting elected to Congress.)
Open Reel Ensemble's whole deal is making music out of outmoded consumer electronics, which is a preferable alternative to the other thing outmoded consumer electronics usually do (see: giving children in Africa cancer). Part of what makes ORE so interesting is the technical aspect: there's something inherently amazing about using barcode scanners to make the kind of music that horny Germans did coke to in 2007 or using a CRT TV to make a glitchy-sounding guitar analogue. Just from an engineering standpoint, that's fascinating to me. And there's something kind of magical about the way art and engineering intersect with the Open Reel Ensemble's music. Which is, for the record, actually pretty good beyond just the media they use to make it.
But there's more to ORE than just the music and using the crap you found in an abandoned Circuit City to make music: there's a performance art aspect to them as well. Seeing a bunch of people manipulating magnetic tape with their hands to make music is incredible: hearing a cool electronica-adjacent song on the radio and then hearing a DJ say "hey that song was made by hitting garbage with a stick" is just confusing. Watching Ei Wada talk about his process gives us a glimpse into his unique style and sensibility -- part of what makes his music so interesting is the way he uses the instruments he creates to recontextualize nostalgia and subvert the trope of discarded electronics being the suffocating detritus of an urban hellscape.
Maybe you're too young to know what I mean by that. In the late 90s and early 2000s, as the ways we interacted with media evolved rapidly, there was a trail of obsolete technologies winding through the years -- just to name a few, there were cassettes, Betamax, LaserDisc, VHS, HD-DVD, 8-track, and little cartridges that only played sixty seconds of a song.
In those days there was a worry that the easier it became to record and share information, the less genuine and human that information became. (In retrospect that seems like kind of a quaint worry when we know that the real worry of easily-shareable information is that it turns Baby Boomers into Nazis who think WiFi is a plot by AOC to make white people infertile.) But in those days, you could go to the store and see an album cover using the green-and-slightly-darker-green color palette of The Matrix of a dude in leather fetish gear hanging upside down and being wrapped up by, like, a robotic spider made from old circuit boards in a web made of magnetic tape. "Damn," you would think to yourself, "this guy really Knows What's Up. He sees through it all, man. I am going to purchase this CD and play it in a little CD player that fits in the pocket of my gargantuan jeans, because it is The Nineties."
It's probably unintentional -- I don't know if Japan had that same particular countercultural moment that we did -- but I like how Open Reel Ensemble subverts that. These bulky, ugly machines cease being symbols of the increasingly-commodified human experience when they're in Ei Wada's hands. They become fun! Playful! Maybe even beautiful! And it suggests a question: can something that's old, that no longer fits in the world, something that's far outlived its usefulness still have a place in a capitalist society? It's a question that's been on my mind a lot recently, for no reason. No reason at all. Hey, did you know that this year I'll be turning thirty?
David Coffin (and Sea Shanties in General): Collaborative Songs of Horny Old Sailors Gain New Meaning
Sea Shanties are having a bit of a moment right now. I'm told that the collaborative features of TikTok make it ideal for sea shanties. You've doubtless seen some of the videos of Wellerman that have been going around. As I write this it seems that the meme frenzy around sea shanties has calmed down, but that's okay. Sea shanties will endure, like the sea herself. I understand why sea shanties are popular right now: it's human nature to work together, and COVID isolation has made even the most committed misanthropes such as myself crave a collaborative effort.
I've been a fan of sea shanties for a long time, and there's a few reasons why. The sea has always fascinated me, which is weird because I'm from Indiana. There are plenty of wonderful shanties out there -- a particular favorite of mine is The Real McKenzies' version of "Barrett's Privateers." But if I had to pick a favorite singer of shanties, it'd probably be David Coffin. Sir or madam or other, do you have a moment to hear the Good Word about our savior David Coffin?
I intentionally linked a semi-impromptu public performance rather than a studio recording because I felt it better captured the shanty spirit. It's as authentic as the average person is willing to get without risking death by albatross bite or dolphin robbery. So, as you saw in the video, David Coffin is a nice older guy who also appears to be a giant. When he's not menacing British lads who climb into his castle to steal his magic goose, he directs several music programs and also educates children about early music with a focus on maritime songs. I have to imagine that after being exposed to a blast from his mighty, salt-stained voice the kids all develop deep wrinkles, beards, and a crippling grog addiction. Because wow, what a voice he has. His voice is powerful enough to crush mountains into dust and soothe the ferocious bear unto tears. Upon hearing his voice bees willingly give up their honey and the most toothsome of infants are lulled to sleep. I heard that David Coffin can sing up storms and croon away monsoons but he chooses not to because when he sings at the seashore hundreds of horny mermaids beach themselves trying to find him.
Listen to this, where his voice is amplified by good acoustics. It's full and fine and rich, like old scotch. Right now there's a fellow shanty-lover reading this and rolling their eyes that I'm talking about Coffin when there's so many talented shantyers on the internet -- to this hypothetical person it's like I'm raving about this great new band I just discovered called "The Beatles." Coffin is such a meme in the shanty community, in fact, that when he appears in the 2019 film Blow the Man Down singing the titular shanty he literally winks at the camera. Coffin is great and the fact that people are going to give me crap about writing about him proves my point about why the internet has been great for music -- there's whole communities of angry nerds yelling at me in every subgenre you can imagine, no matter how niche. And I, for one, think that's beautiful (and not just because I've found ways to irritate so many new people).
Dengue Fever: Reviving a Genre that Was Nearly Lost
This is about a band I'm a fan of, not the mosquito-borne illness that kills approximately 40,000 people every year. (I'm definitely not a fan of that.) Anyway, before this riff gets any darker, I want to give you a top-down explanation of Dengue Fever because I think you'll understand them better if I first explain where they're coming from.
Let me give you a little history lesson. You've probably seen movies that take place during the Vietnam War. In these movies there's usually some Creedence Clearwater Revival or Beach Boys song juxtaposed with the American Empire committing crimes against humanity. It's true that the servicemen stationed there did enjoy the burgeoning American rock scene, because the average American soldier there was basically a child sent to fight a war nobody but Kissinger understood. There's a common belief that the average age of an infantryman in Vietnam was 19, a misconception which many warhawk types will eagerly dispel -- the average age was actually 22, which is clearly a much more reasonable age when people begin to have perspective (Note for those under 22: here, the author is demonstrating sarcasm. If you don't understand what he means, wait a few years and then reflect on the person you were when you were 22).
But this isn't a story about Vietnam. The thing about radio waves is that they can travel pretty far except for when you're stuck in traffic and your car doesn't have an aux cable and good God, is it enshrined in the FCC's bylaws that every song on the air that MUST be at minimum 25% percent Post Malone??? So the radio stations that were set up for US bases were broadcasting 60s and 70s rock all throughout Southeast Asia, where they were picked up by curious listeners in neighboring Cambodia. For twenty years, there was a vibrant new form of rock thriving in Cambodia that combined psychedelic surf with traditional Cambodian folk music.
Then the Khmer Rouge seized power and destroyed as many Cambodian Rock records as they could, even killing the most prominent musicians in the genre. Pol Pot? Turns out he wasn't a super good guy. The genre was largely forgotten. This is where, at last, the band Dengue Fever comes in. They're a contemporary band based in Los Angeles making new music in the Cambodian Rock tradition. They're by turns funky, chill, and dreamy. And their music videos usually have fun 60s-style editing effects to capture the feeling of a genre out of time -- some of them are even done in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Really, all that's missing are teenagers dancing like their nervous systems are firing sporadically from an anti-hippie gas that Nixon commissioned from DARPA.
In an age before the internet, I wonder if there ever would have been a resurgence of interest in the Cambodian Rock movement. Would it even have been possible? There were some surviving records, and people who remembered the music, but without the collaborative abilities of the internet I think that Cambodian Rock would have been little more than the subject of theses of ethnomusicologists. Instead, people were able to make entire bands and albums and songs out of a musical style that was almost wiped from history. I wish the internet could be more that and less forums of lonely men saying that seeing a nonwhite cartoon character gave them no choice but to blow up hospitals.
Shugo Tokumaru: Chill Japanese Dreamfolk
Shugo Tokumaru is ... hard to define. He might fall under the folk umbrella, although when people hear "folk" they usually picture a guy with a guitar sitting on a stoop in Greenwich Village singing about how off LBJ's vibes are. Tokumaru is by no stretch of the imagination the weirdest music I've ever heard (or even the weirdest music I listen to regularly), but really challenging music tends to be hard to find, even by internet standards. His music is really listenable, at times even poppy, but I'm not sure exactly how'd I categorize it. He kind of reminds of Daniel Johnston, but only, like, in spirit? And his music can be so different song to song it's hard to pin him down. Here's the first song I heard by him that got me hooked:
Tokumaru is a multi-instrumentalist who plays all the instruments. I don't just mean on his records, I mean all the instruments. He claims he plays over one hundred instruments, plus he does all of the recording and mixing himself, plus he animates many of his own music videos. That's a level of self-reliance I only demonstrate when deciding to teach myself major home renovation because actually getting apartment repairs done requires calling someone on the phone, which as all Millennials know is an unspeakable nightmare.
As I've said, Tokumaru's music defies easy categorization. He exclusively writes lyrics about his dreams. It's endearing and induces a feeling of coziness. It's adorable. I want to cuddle his music and knit it a little hat? That said, I don't speak Japanese. I have no idea if that's what the album exactly is about. It could be about the horrors of war or it could be about how much he loves to beat unattended children in the park with rebar. It's almost certainly not that, though. (As far as I know.)
Life's a lot easier as a musician when your art fits into a certain genre. It's easier to promote, it's easier to find a community, and it's easier to find collaborators. That's partly why there's so many flourishing subgenres of metal, be it pirate metal or samurai metal, or dinocore. Those all probably wouldn't have been more than jokes before the internet, but I wanted to focus on Shugo Tokumaru for two reasons. One is to illustrate how we can find music from around the globe without having to visit the cramped record store with a WORLD MUSIC bin, which is 99% New Age meditation mixes that sound like someone occasionally throwing wind chimes at a whale. The second reason is that it's cool to find someone who is just absolutely doing his own thing. The internet may have made the term "outsider art" obsolete. If Henry Darger was alive today he'd be negotiating terms with Disney for turning In The Realms of the Unreal into an eight-picture deal.
A Hawk and a Hacksaw: Old Music in a New Way
There are many bands that are ecstatically making music that our great-grandparents heard, but I'm going to be focusing on just one of them here: A Hawk and a Hacksaw.
A Hawk and a Hacksaw makes music that might broadly be called Eastern European turbofolk. As far as I know they mostly do original compositions, although I did once briefly have a nice chat with band founder Jeremy Barnes where he told me that many of their songs were taught to them by elders of remote villages throughout Europe. I have no idea if he was messing with me or not, though. Their music runs the gamut from uptempo Roma dance songs to flamenco to Turkish-style Aksak to captivating accordion dirges. It sounds like music half-remembered in a goulash-induced nightmare while sleeping in a Hungarian hostel.
I love this band. I've seen them live twice, which is an experience I'd strongly recommend. One of the times the show was small and intimate -- just Jeremy Barnes on accordion and his wife Heather Trost on the Stroh violin, an instrument that looks like it was taken from a high-budget steampunk film about dirigible wars or something.
The other time I saw them they had a bunch of people playing instruments from all over the world, including a guy whose entire job seemed to be wearing a Baba Yaga mask and dancing in the audience. It was easily more raucous than most hardcore shows I'd ever been to. People unfamiliar with the music see a gangly mustachioed man get on stage with an accordion and feel wary about what they're about to hear and end the show begging him for music recommendations. It's incredibly gratifying to me, just as an observer, to see people finding an entirely new rabbit hole to fall down.
If you've heard of A Hawk and a Hacksaw before, it's either because of your familiarity with Shakespeare or because founding member Jeremy Barnes was also the drummer for indie iconoclast band Neutral Milk Hotel. He started AHaaH after living in an area of Chicago with lots of Eastern European immigrants, where he bought a Ukranian folk record from a thrift store as a goof and accidentally changed the trajectory of his life. Which kind of goes back to the point I was making earlier -- the internet has made it so much easier for people to fall in love music they likely never would have heard before, since not everyone has a local Ukrainian used goods store.
Which brings me to my final point. One of the best things about the Internet is its function as a media archive. Between the billions of cat pictures there exist records of uncountable movies and TV shows and albums and songs. There was a time, not too long ago, when media archivists struggled with the idea of preservation. An archivist could record the last surviving master of the Serbian Anus Flute on Betamax and then put that in a vault in a library in a college somewhere, but then what? It's preserved, sure, but it's hardly accessible. But now that we're all connected, once something is posted publicly, anyone can listen to it. Suddenly, there's a boom of people all over the world discovering the wonderful world of music from the 1800s (see: sea shanties) or antique pornography or learning about Austro-Bavarian mocking songs. The internet is often thought of solely as something which exclusively churns out new content, but that's not entirely right: it's just as much about discovery as it is about rediscovery.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter looking to get staffed. He is also 33.3% of the podcast Bad Movies for Bad People, the world's first comedy podcast about movies (available on all major podcast platforms!). He is on Twitter.
Top image: Davidcoffin.com, Electronicos Fantasticos/YouTube