I have been thinking a lot about chillwave lately. Namely, whether such a thing as chillwave actually exists — for it certainly sounds silly enough to be part of some massive industry in-joke — and how our generation could have possibly produced a musical genre predicated entirely on the notion of straight chilling. The people’s encyclopedia provides a surprising definition of chillwave as a musical iteration of Jacques Derrida’s notion of “hauntology,” which maintains that “society after the end of history will begin to orient itself towards ideas and aesthetics that are thought of as rustic, bizarre or “old-timey”; that is, towards the “ghost” of the past.” In chillwave, Wikipedia reports, “80s synthpop is filtered through a distorted lens, re-envisioning the era in a more vague and lo-fi sense.” Also according to the stub, Ducktails, Washed Out, Memory Tapes, and Nite Jewel count as bonifide chillwave, whereas The xx, jj, and Best Coast are simply “confused” with chillwave. So I suppose the designation must be specific to a certain extent; simply channeling 80s synth pop (xx), for example, or simply singing about the sun and naming your project after the beach (Best Coast), is somehow not enough.
I’ve also been wondering about the roots of chillwave, and whether it is not truly just a watered-down, ultra-namaste version of the “hypnagogic pop” genre David Keenan willed into existence in the Wire last August — but that doesn’t really make sense, because it apparently the term made its world debut on July 27, 2009, on Hipster Runoff (where, I might add, he was already kind of making fun of it). Earlier this month, the six-piece electronic outfit Excepter were billed somewhat half-seriously at the Knitting Factory as the “Chillwave Originators” — in reference to their “Vacation” 12 inch, which could be said to have crystallized some of the genre’s formal and thematic earmarks as early as 2004. And I frankly don’t even know what those earmarks are, though I like to think that I can hear them even as far back as the scorched guitar arpeggio on Public Image Ltd.’s “Poptones,” repeated ad finitum as John Lydon (ex-Johnny Rotten) intones ominously about “[Driving] to the forest in a Japanese car,” listening to “poptones” on a cassette — and then suddenly speaking from the perspective of a corpse. Did chillwave begin with an entirely different take on the word “chilling”?
Which all goes to show just how ill-defined and open-ended this thing called “chillwave” really is; to the extent that it does in fact exist, it is no more than a spontaneously generated repository for a generation’s viral dreams, a tag without a signified, a Wikipedia page that will always be in the process of rewriting itself. Last week, I was thrown for a small panic attack when an artist — Canada’s Lester Brown — sent me his new free MP3 album and the songs showed up in my Itunes under genre header “chillwave,” with a lower-case “c.” Adding to my complete and utter disbelief, the email was also openly addressed to about 15 other blogs that could be said to write on the chillwave tip. Does that mean that Visitation Rites has been a chillwave blog, without even knowing it? And is Lester Brown poking fun at chillwave, or is he making fun of us? Either way, I think his song “Feed Me Sea Weed” is pretty good anthem for the 21st century. Maybe that’s because it kind of reminds me of what John Maus might sound like if he stopped pitching his voice down an octave and wrote a satyric sequel to “Do Your Best” — one in which the song’s main character grows so enamored with the beach that he starts mainlining wakame and hijiki instead of pizza and slurpies. More than seaweed, though, Lester Brown’s unique brand of chillwave seems to live on a steady diet of chillwave itself. It may not be sustainable, but its results are facetious enough to actually sound sincere.
Lester Brown, “Feed Me Sea Weed” [Isolomania]
Download Lester Brown’s free Isolomania EP here.
Words: Emilie Friedlander