The Garage Rock Class of 2011

A garage rock band on tour. Photo still courtesy of Scion A/V. Credit: Aaron Brown

So much for garage rock’s class of 2001. The White Stripes broke up, the Hives are on hiatus and the Strokes are angling for Best “Cars” Album of 2011, an award they might still lose to the real Cars, who release their comeback album next month.

From a mainstream perspective, garage is obsolete — the exhibit that follows grunge and nu-metal in the Rock and Roll Hall of Once-Big Things. But garage rock has never been “mainstream” music, and in the decade since that phony, media-constructed revival, a more organic one has taken place. This revolution hasn’t been televised, but it is the subject of New Garage Explosion!!: In Love With These Times, a documentary produced last year by Scion A/V in conjunction with Vice Magazine.

The film was born out of an email exchange between co-director Joseph Patel and producer Mike McGonigal. Discussing their love for bands like Thee Oh Sees and Davilla 666, they realized something garage fans don’t always like to admit: Today’s music doesn’t suck.

“I was talking about how it’s funny — some of these records that are coming out from these bands are my favorite music that’s come out in the last 20 years,” Patel tells the Hive. “And he was like, ‘Me too!’”

They’re hardly alone in thinking this a good time for rock and roll. Proof of garage’s growing popularity came in February, when 400 fans sailed from Miami to the Bahamas aboard Carnival’s inaugural “Bruise Cruise.” Headlining the four-day floating festival were the Black Lips and Vivan Girls, two bands featured in the documentary.

In selecting artists for the film, Patel, McGonigal and co-director Aaron Brown didn’t limit themselves to any strict definitions of garage. Patel interviewed everyone from lovably haggard Pacific Northwestern punk lifers Fred and Toody Cole — formerly of Dead Moon, now of Pierced Arrows – to shiny-happy Memphis twee-pop heroes the Magic Kids.

Interestingly, the White Stripes get only a passing mention, and the Strokes don’t factor in at all.

“[The Strokes] just didn’t seem like they carried the ethos of what being a garage-rock band is,” Patel says. “I like the idea of kids starting from nothing — not necessarily kids of privilege — and starting a band and just playing, and that’s what pulls them up.”

While he chose Blank Dogs and Vivian Girls to represent New York City, where he lives, but he might just as easily have picked Crystal Stilts, one of the city’s other standout acts.

Shake the Shackles by Crystal Stilts

Formed in 2003 after singer Brad Hargett and guitarist JB Townshend moved to Brooklyn from Florida, the Crystal Stilts make psychedelic Transylvanian surf music, complete with trippy, trashy ‘60s organs and vocals rendered unintelligible by reverb. The band was among the first in the borough to mix brooding rock with Phil Spector pop, predicting the rampant Jesus and Mary Chain aping that would follow.

“At that time, we didn’t feel like we were at the forefront, but we didn’t understand why there weren’t more bands doing that, because it seemed like it was really obvious,” Townshend tells the Hive.

With their excellent sophomore album, In Love With Oblivion, the Crystal Stilts aim for a brighter sound, dialing back the darkness of 2008’s Alight of Night. Townshend has been listening to a lot of ‘60s singles, and he wanted to reference both the concise pop and long-form experimentalism common among bands like the Rolling Stones.

“They would have a bunch of two-and-a-half minute songs, but then there would be a seven- or eight-minute song to rebel against the whole format,” Townsend says. “I like that. There was a little bit of that with the Chambers Brothers’ ‘Time Has Come Today,’ with that six-minute middle part.”

John Barrett, the creative force behind Mississippi duo Bass Drum of Death, has also been on a ‘60s-rock kick, pouring over music he discovered late, having spent his teen years listening to Nirvana.

“It all comes in cycles,” Barrett says. “In the past two or three years, I’ve been in love with the early Beatles stuff, early Stones stuff — just classic, perfect songs. Even some of the lesser known stuff, the one-hit-wonder bands from that era – the songs are pretty incredible.”

Barrett recorded Bass Drum of Death’s recently released debut, GB City, with just a laptop and USB microphone, layering guitar and drums himself. Like self-producing peers Ty Segall and Wavves, he hit on a skuzzed-out, hyper-catchy sound that falls somewhere between Nuggets and Nevermind.

“I wanted the recordings to be dirty and nasty sounding, but where you can hear everything,” Barrett says.

Young Pros by Bass Drum of Death

Patel credits advances in home-recoding technology with helping to foster the current garage resurgence. Although one section of the film finds Fred Cole showing off his vintage record lathe — the very machine, he says, used to master and press the Kingsmen’s 1963 version of “Louie Louie” — Patel says antiquated gear isn’t a necessity.

“I like that Ty Segall records both ways,” Patel says. “He records with the analog equipment and straight to laptop. I think it’s fine. I don’t think there’s a purist mentality where it has to happen a certain way. I think it’s good to see kids making music on their own no matter what method they use.”

Modern methods of selling music constitute another set of key differences between this latest garage boom and the one in the early ‘00s, Patel says. In New Garage Explosion, he explores the phenomenon of bands releasing special-edition singles and albums, hoping to entice collectors with colored vinyl, homemade sleeves and other extras. Artists and labels sell fewer copies, but since they’re able to charge higher prices, they tend to offset losses in other areas of their businesses.

“I think that’s really come into form in the last few years,” Patel says. “That’s allowed a lot of garage bands to flourish, where in 2001 and 2002, people were still figuring out, ‘Do we put out our own records, or do we sell them on iTunes?’ That was still being figured out in 2001. That distribution has been settled, and that’s allowed people to come out and be heard — and be heard by the right audiences.”

Many of these limited-run records make their way to eBay, where rising and falling prices are evidence of what Patel sees as the rapid hype cycle many bands now face. In the film, Vivian Girls bassist Katy Goodman recalls how early pressings of her band’s debut once commanded big bucks online, only to lose value later.

“If I want to know about a band, I can Google them and watch every video they’ve ever made and listen to everything they have ever put out within a couple of hours,” Patel says. “In that way, the discovery is almost the same [as it’s always been], but the pace at which everything happens is much quicker.”

Despite these challenges, Patel says the experience or being in a garage band today isn’t much different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. While bands like the Crystal Stilts and Bass Drum of Death will still slog it out in crummy vans for little or no money, and while the genre doesn’t demand virtuostic musicianship, it requires catchy songs and spirited performances. Even if the media latches onto another Hives or White Stripes, he says, the fundamentals of the scene aren’t likely to change.

“You’ll always have kids interested in garage because it’s a very universal thing: Let’s start a band and make some songs,” Patel says. “That’s never going to die.”

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