Low fidelity. The natural antithesis of high-fidelity. The name lo-fi was popularized in the late 1980s, as a catch-all for a growing number of punk-inspired musicians recording songs on very cheap, at-home equipment. The outsider artist Daniel Johnston was one of the first to embrace recording directly onto a cassette deck; but, given Johnston also obsessively filmed himself and his family, and also took to recording his conversations, perhaps that was more a product of his personality than anything else.
Yet, when artists like the Mountain Goats, Nothing Painted Blue, Refrigerator, Chris Knox, Alastair Galbraith, Lou Barlow, and Guided by Voices embraced the limitations of home cassette recording, the genre took off. Lo-fi became an extension of the punk-rock spirit, a liberating way of working for those who didn’t have the cash to sink into professional recordings. Lo-fi is DIY at its best.
How It Sounds:
Bad. And that’s the point. Though many lo-fi artists weren’t doing so by choice, merely using whatever materials and resources were at hand at the time, the genre represents the embrace of limitations. Room tone, tape hiss, bleeding tracks, in-the-red levels, and incidental sounds are all welcomed on lo-fi recordings, conveying a reality so often airbrushed out of commercial-pop’s hi-sheen fantasies. In many cases, the sound of these recordings is so poor, in the technical sense, that the sound-quality becomes an active, alive element of the music.
The inspiration for lo-fi comes from the field recordings of ethnomusicologists like Harry Smith and Alan Lomax. Working in the early-20th century, with ‘portable’ recording equipment that now seems prehistoric in its cumbersome weightiness and poor sound-capturing, Smith and Lomax set out to document all the musics of the known world. This meant that they often recorded native folksingers in single takes on location. Listened, in hindsight, the crackles and hiss of the recordings give them historical weight; songs coated in the dusts of time, haunted by the ghosts of the past.
It’s no surprise that many lo-fi musicians have referenced pre-war blues recordings specifically. Beck —who, long before Scientology poached his brain, was actually a lo-fi troubadour— covered Skip James on his 1994 album One Foot in the Grave, an album recorded by Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson that was enshrined in Smithsonian Folkways lore.
You'd think it'd be hard to get this wrong: if it sounds like it's recorded onto a broken answering-machine, it's lo-fi. If a band spent six weeks in a studio with a producer who used words like "warm" and "punchy," it's not. Yet, not all lo-fi artists are acolytes of their anointed genre, many later lamenting that, even if their records may've sounded bad, they were trying hard to sound as good as they could.
Where the Name Came From:
Without doing an etymological study, I'm going to suggest that, as long as there was high-fidelity —or hi-fi, as it soon became— lo-fi always existed, the term forever lurking as an unofficial other. The question, then, is: when was it popularized? That's up for debate, but many point to, um, Lo-Fi, a show dedicated to home-recordings, broadcast on New Jersey's legendary community radio station WFMU, for focusing the disparate strands of underground cassette-culture into a movement with a singular identity.
When it broke:
This is also up for debate. Maybe it was when Beat Happening released their first album in 1985. Maybe it was when Liz Phair or Beck were blatantly sold as lo-fi to the press even though their widely-released, commercially-funded records sounded shiny and expensive. Or maybe it was that infamous moment when Kurt Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston t-shirt to the 1992 MTV VMAs.
Some might suggest that the recent rise in readily-available digital-recording software has made lo-fi a thing of the past; it no longer difficult to be clearly recorded. Except, there’s evidence that this digital era is, conversely, kickstarting a new lo-fi movement.
In 2004, a young Los Angelino known only as Ariel Pink arose out of Los Angeles, sounding like he’d just beamed in from outer-space. Pink identified that, in these online times, magnetic tape was no longer a recording tool, but an instrument. Pink had spent years locked up in his house, squirreling away unending collections of cassettes in which he'd dubbed the tapes, over and over, losing quality with every copy, until whole songs swum in a self-administered lo-fi soup.
At the time, Pink seemed like a total renegade, a lone iconoclast harking back to the tape-trading days of his childhood. Yet, since Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label took Pink's Haunted Graffiti series public, there's been a growing yearning for lo-fi fug in the American underground.
Raucous Portland racket The Thermals are a true lo-fi band; their founding songsmith Hutch Harris a longtime devotee of the Mountain Goats whose former project, Hutch & Kathy, kept alive the old lo-fi flame. But there's a whole new generation of bands —acts like Los Angeles noiseniks No Age and Abe Vigoda, blog-beloved New Yorker hipsters Crystal Stilts, bratty scuzz-rockers Times New Viking, and mysterious, post-Pink one-man-band Blank Dogs— whose devotion to bleeding analogue recordings seems like an individual rebellion against the easy clarity of computer recording.