What does “lo-fi” mean these days? There have been crappy-sounding recordings for as long as recording technology has existed, but “lo-fi” usually implies an aesthetic decision distinct from limitations of gear or skill. Dylan’s so-called basement tapes—a series of casual, ramshackle home recordings he made with the Band in 1967, widely bootlegged before a tidied-up selection saw formal release in ’75—are probably pop music’s first canonical example of lo-fi by design. In the 80s, indie labels like K Records and Flying Nun turned lo-fi into a genre, transforming listeners’ notions of what a “proper” recording sounded like—tape hiss might as well have been as another instrument, and the four-track became a sacred altar. Lo-fi was often a social or political statement as well as an aesthetic one, a way to stand up for modesty instead of excess, genuineness instead of artifice. The style has had its ups and downs in the decades since, but it’s got staying power: current bands like Vivian Girls and Wavves have made sounding shitty into an art form.
Campfires and Bird Names, current and former Chicagoans, are both players in the ongoing lo-fi revival. They use humble recording setups, foregoing professional studios in favor of four-tracks, laptops, or old tape machines in basements and apartment bedrooms. Part of the reason is certainly a lack of money—they all have day jobs, and their bands are signed to tiny independent labels—but they’ve also learned to embrace and even enjoy the intimacy and freedom to explore that comes with working on the cheap.
Bird Names are lo-fi maximalists, carving odd, ethereal art-rock out of strangely organic experimental soundscapes. Metabolism: A Salute to the Energy of the Sun (coming out March 8 on Northern Spy and already available digitally) is their most psychedelic and well-rounded album to date—this is music that was clearly labored over, as the band tried to make a huge-sounding record in tiny rooms. Campfires, aka Jeff Walls, is minimalist by comparison: the band makes fuzzy, raunchy, no-nonsense pop that sounds like the Kinks with a hangover and an AWOL engineer. On the forthcoming “Dusty Mansions” seven-inch (due early this spring on Small Plates), Walls is at his catchiest and trashiest.
Chicagoans probably remember Bird Names as a crowd of a band, but they’ve been a duo since January 2010, when mastermind David Lineal and multi-instrumentalist Phelan LaVelle (who joined in early 2008) started recording Metabolism. The couple moved to Athens, Georgia, in August of last year, though Lineal still considers Chicago the band’s spiritual home: “We spent so much psychic energy in the underground scene there,” he says. On the album LaVelle sings, drums, and plays guitar and percussion, while Lineal,v the main songwriter, sings and plays everything else: guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, noise, recorder, and on and on. Onstage they don’t even try to duplicate Metabolism‘s arrangements: it’s just drums, guitars, and voices, with no canned tracks. LaVelle calls their live set a “rootsy” rendition of the record.
Campfires is just Walls on disc, but for shows the band becomes a four-piece. Bo Hansen (who’s also in Heavy Times) and Nick Young take turns on drums and guitar, and Zach Lewis plays bass. Bird Names and Campfires got to be friends when everyone still lived in Chicago, and notwithstanding Lineal and LaVelle’s move they still sometimes play shows together—like Sunday’s date at the Empty Bottle.
Your music is very scrappy and lo-fi, where the whole thing sounds a bit “in the red” and bled together. Is that something you seek to achieve, or is it just a result of recording limitations that you make work in your favor?
It’s definitely something I seek to achieve, although recording limitations have their part too. On one hand, there are “happy accidents,” but more than that, recording is so accessible now that you can get sounds that you [aren’t] “supposed” to get in a studio. But if it sounds good to you, then that’s all that really matters with it. . . . My favorite recordings are almost all from a time when the equipment was just not that great, but they were pushing it as much as possible, and I think that lo-fi is a way to evoke some of the sounds from that time without being too derivative or spending a billion dollars copying Muscle Shoals or Decca’s studios or whatever.
Exactly. I find it really exciting that a lot of musicians these days are treating that approach—”lo-fi on purpose, not by accident”—as almost a badge of honor. They’re using the “studio,” whether that’s at home or in a more professional setting, to help redefine how things should sound.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the best parts about music these days, that it’s so open for people to make it sound like they want it, and that there is a receptive audience too—that it makes sense to other people. Although on one hand, it’s sort of funny to me how much attention is spent on [lo-fi] now, whereas it’s really been around for much longer. Like growing up listening to the Oblivians or Guided by Voices made getting really weird tape-type sounds seem like . . . well, not familiar territory, but it was like a green light to just do whatever with it.
If you had a million dollars or some huge recording contract where you could go in the studio and record with high-end equipment, what would your stuff sound like?
Ha ha! It would totally sound the same—or not exactly the same but similar. I mean, there wouldn’t be like random bass frequencies that fuck people’s speakers up, but for the most part it would be the same. It’s been sort of dismaying to see how many people are like, “What we really want to do is make a superclean record.” Well, maybe not dismaying—it’s their own deal, but it misses out on something about lo-fi that is the key thing for me.
What is it about “clean” that’s so, well, dirty?
Well, the thing that has always drawn me to lo-fi is that it communicates way more than just a song structure or the lyrics or whatever. Somehow when it’s done right or done the way that a person happens to like it, there is a whole deeper level there—like looking at a hand-drawn illustration versus like a total commercial-design sort of clip-art thing.
Right, or Pixar versus old Disney movies.
Or someone’s handwriting versus a font.
My favorite thing about your songs is the way you balance noise and melody. The quality of the recordings can be harsh, but they’re still extremely hummable tunes—”Dusty Mansions” in particular is really catchy. Do you think noise and melody are by nature at odds with each other?
I don’t think they’re at odds exactly . . . that’s a good question, though. I think that a melody isn’t really an objective thing; I think that people can hear something amazing in almost anything. So there are melodies that like everyone gets stuck in their head, and they’re awesome in that way, but [the music] can get pretty harsh, and if people have an ear for what’s going on, they’ll still get it. Like one-hit wonders are cool in some funny way too, and I have nothing against strong pop melodies at all—actually I love them, but I think people are able to pick up on things more finely than that. Sort of like what we were saying before—now that music is so democratic, there’s more opportunity to explore the range of what people can tap their toes to or hum along to.
I know you self-produce most of your music. Is that the case with Metabolism? How would you describe your recording setup and your process of getting things onto tape?
Lineal: Yes, this album was self-produced. We recorded some of the album in the bedroom of our apartment in Chicago. It was right above our landlord, so we had to be quiet. But we recorded most of it in the basement of our friend’s building in Chicago.
Is that a bitch, recording in your apartment?
Lineal: A little bit. [But] we’re used to home recording, to a setup where you can reach 20 different instruments from one seated spot.
When you guys write a song, are you already thinking about how you’re going to record it? Does whether you’ll be tracking in your bedroom or in a basement influence the way you write? Does that limit you, or does it enhance it somehow?
Lineal: The songwriting process is recording oriented. Writing a good song is one thing, but projecting the aura of the song is essential to us. It enhances it, I think.
LaVelle: Recording is a huge tool in writing. The four-track is an instrument, a suggestion. At least for demos. You get in a huge padded studio and it maybe loses character.
Are there certain things you would try if you were in a big padded studio that you otherwise couldn’t?
Lineal: [Home recording] means we can spend five months of days recording and rerecording. I’ve never recorded in a studio. It might be nice to have an engineer that’s all business.
LaVelle: Yes, all the stakes are lower—you can puke it out and experiment. I recorded in a studio once. I was afraid.
Lineal: It’s money also. We’re used to making albums for almost no money.
LaVelle: The four-track makes you be creative for sure. Like our second track is broken, so we’ve been bouncing or recording tracks backwards, and that makes some things happen that otherwise wouldn’t.
Lineal: It changes the process, the metaphor that you manipulate sound with. With a four-track, you can always bounce ad infinitum. But the difference is you have to plan in ways you wouldn’t otherwise. You record things in a certain order that changes what the whole thing is. OK, so the recording of this album went like this—we started on [an] eight-track quarter-inch tape machine for the base tracks and then moved to digital. Which was the most we’ve used digital/a computer. Our last album, Sings the Browns, we had a 16-track tape machine, and we didn’t use computers at all—not even to mix with. Which was crazy.
Let’s say Bird Names play the lottery and win a million dollars. Would you look into a fancier recording setup? How would your new album have been different if you’d had a little more money to play with?
Lineal: Maybe I would want to work in a studio. Or maybe experiment with studio musicians. Or buy a solid tape machine with a lot of tracks. Or buy some better instruments or pedals. Most of our equipment is junk.
In trying to describe your sound, I landed on “lo-fi on purpose.” It feels deliberately messy, not messy by accident.
Lineal: I wanted it to be very textured, and in a deliberate way make feelings to augment the feelings of the songs.
LaVelle: There’s no way Bird Names wouldn’t sound lo-fi. This is probably the cleanest Bird Names yet.
Lineal: Honestly, I don’t know what it sounds like, and I’d believe you if you said many things about it. It’s a very intentional record.
LaVelle: That’s kind of the aesthetic that we subscribe to . . . playfulness is messy.