By Dylan Grosz
You have to try in rock despite what you’ve recently heard on your alt rock radio. The rise of slacker rock acts like Mac DeMarco and Kurt Vile has communicated a more laid-back approach to the industry, through its subdued instrumentals and seemingly easygoing lyrical themes.
Born out of the 90s, our group of unconcerned slackers — not to be confused with my Millennial alma mater — draws heavily from the success of the first wave of slacker rock in the mid-90s. To wrap up nicely the progression from 90s slacker rock to its 2010 revival, the end of this article includes a playlist that explores the genre.
We begin in the late 80s. In reaction to the tryhard genres of hair metal and party rock, college campuses and youth culture reacted with the advent of grunge, beginning the fall of the saturated 80s genre. Crystal synths were ditched for muddy overdrive; high-pitched wails for emotional rasp; flower costumes for flannels. The rejection of the “sell-out” look and sound of 80s rock bands led to an acceptance of the seemingly haphazard, punky production of alternative rock’s first pioneers. Perhaps musical purity was not to be found in pristine production. By the early 90s, rock had been taken over, reclaimed. 90s rock had been dominated by grunge until the untimely death of cultural icon Kurt Cobain in 1994. The rock world was sent reeling, and while it tried to reclaim the classic grunge sound in its underwhelming, post-grunge resurrection (led by Dave Grohl), grunge’s aura of societal apathy and edginess was exchanged for more radio-friendly stadium rock.
Mere weeks had passed since the devastating death of Cobain and grunge when Beck’s incisive refrain, “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” climbed into the Top 10, a commercial triumph for a new genre in the making. Beginning in the early 90s in the underground — or as underground as music on sea-level college campuses can get — the obsession with aloof coolness imported from the Cobain rocker in part transformed into an idolization of the “slacker.” The slacker rocker was paradoxically detached yet socially accepted, lazy yet actively curating their cool aesthetic. Slacking became a superficial virtue among young adults, sometimes purposefully feigned to outstretch an arm begging for self-gratifying pity. The genre surpassed the sound; like 80s hair metal, a genre initially meant to subvert the rock persona became all about the character.
The basic genre surrounding the slacker vibe is anything but rigid. To preach their slacker sermons, early icons dressed down and crammed together genres that had previously lived apart; sometimes the energized lyrical density of rap was paired with low-tempo folk, or a simple soft rock song structure was hugged tightly by R&B sonics. Beck easily explored the most — from his major label debut “Mellow Gold” which mixed rock, folk, and hip hop, through to his last truly slacker-rock record in 1998, when he started throwing in a bit of psychedelic and electronics. In another sphere, Pavement, Ween and Guided By Voices more closely emulated the more direct alternative rock take of the early 90s slacker rock phenomenon across campuses, lending more of their sound to the lo-fi, guttural grunge that now preceded them. While their sounds widely differed, the slackers intersected in their discussion themes of recreational drugs, casual love and laziness, usually with pinches of sarcasm and absurdity.
However, since the the grunge phenomenon faded, leaving rock music more out of favor with culture and the charts, there was a slacker diaspora as the slacker persona grew out of favor, growing into overinflated pop and pristinely produced rock. Beck evolved out of it, sprawling into myriad genres, like funk and acoustic in 1999’s “Midnite Vultures.” Pavement pushed on until its 1999 dissolution, with later albums beginning to show the first signs of the slacker rock transformation. Songs like Pavement’s “Major Leagues” and Ween’s “Freedom of ‘76” presenting a laidback approach to the instrumentals as well, relaxing the guitar fuzz for a clean guitar approach with a more prominent, head-bopping bass and softer vocals. Almost prescient of the next decade’s revival of their genre, the former song ends with an uncharacteristic electronic epilogue of programmed 808 riffs, while the latter boasts a soulful arrangement of background vocals and instrumentation.
The 2010s brought a slacker rock revival, as seen in the commercial success of Mac DeMarco (a hazily-produced multi-instrumentalist with a smoking habit) and Kurt Vile (a folksy lo-fi rocker) and the further genre-defining work of Homeshake and Connan Mockasin. While 90s teenagers had the angst-driven grunge as their spokesgenre, the early 2010s found their solace in variations of R&B from the stylings of Beyoncé, Drake and Frank Ocean. Just as 90s slacker rock grew out of grunge’s heyday, today’s “new slacker rock” also draws from R&B’s success as a major influence; the “new slacker rock” puts vocals and lyrics further in the foreground against a silky instrumental backdrop, exemplified in Connan Mockasin’s “Feelin’ Lovely” and Homeshake’s new album “Fresh Air.”
Mac DeMarco’s former touring guitarist, Peter Sagar (stagename Homeshake) and Jerry Paper further blur “slacker rock” genre with their hip hop instrumental experimentation. While they no doubt inherit the off-kilter smoothness of Mac, there is no doubt some “jizz jazz fusion” in their heavy use of drums machines and much more keyboard-driven, synthetic production techniques that exhibit an even stronger hip hop/R&B inspiration.
But even among strict alternative rock listeners, the growing acceptance of Mac DeMarco’s less edgy yet sexier sound was accepted as the new slacker rock sound. The audience for these “neoslackers” has grown far past the 90s slacker college campus appeal, reaching the ears of high schoolers and mainstream radios alike. DeMarco’s self-dubbed “jizz jazz” consists of jangly, reverbed guitar with a vocal delivery that channels just enough Lennon and soul to deliver nasal, blurry, subdued emotion. Rather than listening to the straightforward punchiness of Dinosaur Jr.’s hard-hitting rock, new slacker rockers like Mac DeMarco perform from behind an indeterminate haze, singing soothing words into your ear from a distance.
While 808s and early Pavement records seem to have nothing in common, the wide variance in sound and style between 90s slacker rock and contemporary slacker rock all converge on a common vibe and lyrical theme about the slacker character that remains constant amid the continual redefinition of the “new slacker rock.”
Loser – Beck
Gold Soundz – Pavement
Tropicalia – Beck
I Am A Scientist – Guided By Voices
License To Confuse – Sebadoh
Feel The Pain – Dinosaur Jr.
Freedom of ‘76 – Ween
Major Leagues – Pavement
Freaking Out the Neighborhood – Mac Demarco
Doo Dah – Homeshake
Do I Make You Feel Shy? – Connan Mockasin
Another One – Mac Demarco
Chameleon World – Jerry Paper
Tesselation – Mild High Club
Every Single Thing – Homeshake
Feelin’ Lovely – Connan Mockasin
Secret Xtians – Unknown Mortal Orchesta
Warned You – Good Morning
Pretty Pimpin’ – Kurt Vile
Caramel – Connan Mockasin
Homage – Mild High Club
Give It to Me – Homeshake
Goodbye Weekend- Mac DeMarco
The Bread – Travis Bretzer
Never Run Away – Kurt Vile
Cab Deg – Good Morning
Relax – Vacations
Horse Hot Wee Wee Water – Mac Demarco
Contact Dylan Grosz at dgrosz ‘at’ stanford.edu