For indie rock bands of the Internet age, leading a new trend is a bit like whitewater rafting. Sometimes, you can catch a nice current and glide your way to Pitchfork Media's "Best New Music" section. Other times, you slam headfirst into a goddamn rock.
As relatively unwitting members of the distortion-heavy, DIY subgenre known as "lo-fi," the Columbus, Ohio, trio Times New Viking have been forced to navigate through their share of boulders of late, as the nation's fickle hipsters have begun to turn their Pabst-fueled fury on the very bands they were deifying a year ago.
"It's pretty frustrating," says TNV guitarist Jared Phillips. "A few years ago, we were just doing our own thing — we already had two records out — and then everyone was like, 'Hey, there's this awesome thing called lo-fi coming out of L.A.!' And we were just like, 'What the fuck are you talking about?' [Laughs.] Basically, these other random bands started doing something similar. It wasn't really a scene, but it got talked about that way. That's why we always wanted to try and stay a step ahead — talking about going into a studio and things like that. But sure enough, before we knew it, there's this huge backlash. People are saying, 'Lo-fi sucks! This shit needs to be over!' And then they put in parentheses: 'No Age, Vivian Girls, Times New Viking, etc.' Well, sorry. Not to sound pretentious, but we were around three years before a lot of those other bands existed. But, you know, what are you gonna do?"
In fairness, the Los Angeles-based No Age formed in the same year as Times New Viking — 2005 — and the true roots of lo-fi rock actually date back decades earlier, from the hissing tape on early Velvet Underground albums on up through the work of TNV's fellow Ohioans Guided By Voices. Nonetheless, Phillips does have a point. Times New Viking, perhaps more so than any of their contemporaries, never made an effort to align themselves with a "scene," even after achieving national recognition by signing with Matador Records in 2008. This is best evidenced perhaps by the band's decision to stay put in Columbus, foregoing the lo-fi spawning grounds in L.A. and Brooklyn.
"There's definitely a weird mix of pride and shame that comes with living in Ohio," Phillips says. "But it's just much easier here. I pay $500 a month rent, we practice here, and all my friends are here. We never really saw any point in going to New York and paying $10 for a pack of cigarettes when everyone else is doing that. Just seems like, if we did that, we'd get lost in the rubble of like 10 million other shitty bands. I mean, we were never super ambitious, you know? We just wanted to make records and have a jolly good time. Everything that's ever happened for us has just sort of happened the natural way."
Phillips says he and bandmates Beth Murphy (vocals, keyboards) and Adam Elliott (vocals, drums) originally embraced their ultra low-budget recording style (VHS tape in this case) not so much for financial reasons, but for control—or as he puts it, to "prevent other people from fucking it up."
Fortunately, the suits at Matador have made no effort to tamper with Times New Viking's approach, starting with the band's acclaimed self-recorded effort Rip It Off in 2008 and continuing with last fall's slightly moodier Born Again Revisited. (Moodiness is relative when you're talking about 15 two-minute noise-pop jams).
"We like working with those guys," Phillips says of their label, "but we're also the low man on the totem pole with them. So there's not any extra pressure on us so much as just an added opportunity. We're not stupid. We all realize we're in a position where if we make a really accessible album, we could probably do pretty well. The ball's in our court, more or less. I mean, at first, we kind of made a deliberate point not to change anything and just go on as we would have been doing it before. But now it's just like, how many times can you make a lo-fi record of one-and-half minute songs?"
Apparently, Phillips isn't interested in finding out, as he says Times New Viking is primed to head into a proper studio for the first time to start work on their next record. Whether or not they will shake the lo-fi brand and survive on the strength of their undeniable pop instincts remains to be seen, but Phillips certainly isn't losing any sleep over the reactions that await them.
"We always liked that people either instantly hate us or instantly like us, for whatever reasons. We always considered that a good sign. When people really hate your band, you must be doing something right."
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