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Genre Profile: Chillwave

By

Musicican Ariel Pink of Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Michael Buckner/Staff/Getty Images Entertainment
What it Means:
Chillwave is a genre that may mark the first-ever musical movement born, based, bred, and eventually backlashed against on the internet.

Chillwave effectively 'coalesced' in 2009. Rather than growing out of a local musical community or old-fashioned live-performance tribalism, the rising trend came from largely-solo artists working, in isolation, in parallel. There were no geographic ties, only online ones. At a time in which burgeoning vaults old video clips on YouTube were tinging the internet nostalgic shades, a host of humans seemed to stumble upon one singular sound, simultaneously.

That sound was heavily influenced by Panda Bear's incredibly popular Person Pitch LP, and by the degraded-tape tone popularized by Ariel Pink. Both of those bigwigs made memory-haze music playing on cultural/personal notions of nostalgia, and their hazy, lo-fi productions flirted with 'summery' tone.

Chillwave raided old sound sources ripe with both nostalgia and kitsch —cheesy '80s pop, new-age synth muzak, early Nintendo-system soundtracks— and reworked them into compositions playing with the very concepts of time and memory.

If that sounds too complicated, basically: warped, washed-out samples from ironic sources delivered with a kind of laidback, stoner's intent. Music made by people on computers, uploaded onto the internet, then disseminated, discussed, and appreciated almost entirely online.

How it Sounds:
Chillwave sound sources are, usually: synthesizers, keyboards, samples, and half-mumbled vocals steeped in remembrance. Often, there are languoruous, dangling, 'summery' guitar sounds and (usually sampled) steel-pan percussion; and the music is routinely packaged in faded beachside photographs, with song-titles summoning an endless, lazy summer. But, like lo-fi, the overall sound of production is, in many ways, the music's most important element.

The sound is inspired by old VHS and audio cassettes: wobbly, hazy, hissing; as if the music itself is degradging, like old magnetic tape. It's a dubbed-down aesthetic; a bootleg of a bootleg, edges frayed and fluttering. On "Good Hold," a song by one-man-band Toro y Moi, a '60s-ish piano ballad warps into semi-coherence and tape-drag; deliberately recreating the sound of a cassette left in the sun.

As member of the band Ghosthustler, Alan Palomo utilized the Nintendo power-glove —a piece of once-cutting-edge technology fallen to comic, childhood nostalgia— to make sound; on "Terminally Chill," he used whole rippling, rainbow arpeggios of arcade-game bling and squelch.

Chillwave is, in that way, the sound of people robbing the graveyards of dated technologies from the distant past; hearing 'warmth' and 'humanity' in once-high-tech sounds and gizmos.

Genre Misconceptions:
Perhaps that it's actually a real 'genre,' as we've traditionally come to know them. No chillwave bands have identified themselves as such, and none made music with the intent of joining a movement. Until bloggers/critics united them, chillwave's 'founders' didn't know each other at all; Small Black's Josh Kolenik telling The Wall Street Journal(!) the bands "created a scene that never really existed."

Where the Name Came From:
The eternally-ironic, painfully-cool blog Hipster Runoff coined the term as a joke (though they subsequently became paternally protective of the joke genre they'd midwifed).

Of more concern is that chillwave was the name the world, somehow, settled on. The first attempt at creating a 'genre' from the movement came in English experimental-music bible The Wire, whose David Keenan called the new sound hypnagogic pop. Others latched onto dreambeat and glo-fi, but eventually chillwave prevailed.

"I guess the worst ones just jump out at you a lot more," shrugs Washed Out's Ernest Greene, whose music will, now, be stickered with this awful name forevermore.

When it broke:
Wearing its reputation as an internet phenomenon, it's no surprise that chillwave rose up, was identified, and broke out in the space of, like, five minutes. In the middle of 2009, Keenan's Wire article, Hipster Runoff's chillwave 'joke,' and Pitchfork's obsession with this brand-new sound all seemed to happen in the one instant.

In a highly-digitized culture, a sense of 'crossover' seemed instantaneous: major newspapers (or, at least, their online annexes) recognizing the new movement, Neon Indian making music for Mountain Dew's 'Green Label Sound,' and many chillwave principles quickly being added to outdoor-rock-festival behemoths.

When 2009 ended, Neon Indian was lodged in countless album-of-the-year countdowns for his debut LP, Psychic Chasms, Memory Tapes had been embraced as commercially-accessible remixer, and Toro y Moi was obviously due for a 2010 breakout. Chillwave's class-of-'09 were graduating; the endless summer was over, and now music was their job/s.

Defining Albums:
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, The Doldrums (2004)
Panda Bear, Person Pitch (2007)
Washed Out, Life of Leisure EP (2009)
Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms (2009)
Toro y Moi, Causers of This (2010)

Current State:
That depends on whether you're taking a macro or a micro view of what's, to many, still a micro-genre. For most, it would be almost impossible to define a 'current' state in a nascent niche like this; given how quickly things —the sound, the ideology, the perception thereof— could change in the eternally-fickle, trend-driven blogosphere.

Of course, in that realm, there may be a different perception. Peer into the dark hearts of the hipsters who both made, popularized, and then abandoned this music, and you already feel like chillwave is all over. The sound of 2009. Music obsessed with the past that is, already, fast receding into memory.

Yet, the 2010 crossover and near-mainstream acceptance of the genre's totemic Godfather, Ariel Pink, suggests that the chillwave wave hasn't crested quite yet. For all the blogospheric fervor mid-2009 (Pitchfork declared it "the summer of chillwave"), only Neon Indian appears to have really gained anything approaching commercial traction thus far.

Plus, the genre's recycled nature can, in theory, make for endless artistic permutations. Nostalgia is, after all, a most perennial of human emotions.

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