Like so many indie-rock fans, James Larson didn't see “shitgaze” coming until it was too late. The local music scenester is the most recent victim of a new and potentially debilitating strain of indie-rock douchebageritis reportedly caused by listening to bands like Times New Viking, Psychedelic Horseshit and Pink Reason, all of whom hail from Columbus, Ohio.
“I usually only buy stuff on vinyl, but this chick at the Destroyer show said I had to get [Times New Viking's Rip It Off] immediately,” Larson says. “I downloaded a few [songs] off iTunes and I thought that the files were corrupt because there was so much distortion—you couldn't understand anything they were saying. It sounded like they recorded the album in Steve Albini's garage with a boombox. It was so awesome.”
Larson may think it's awesome, but music authorities and health officials alike are concerned that the shitgaze sub-genre (named for it's resemblance to shoegaze—the lo-fi alt-rock genre that combines high distortion with underlying melodies—and because, well, it sounds shitty) may be a new low for even the most snobbish indie-rock fans.
“It's just further proof that these morons will buy anything and think it's good if enough people tell them it is,” says a local record store owner, who preferred to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals. “I remember I said that I didn't like Tapes ‘n Tapes and they totally wrote about boycotting my store on their blogs. It was really scary.”
How shitgaze came to be is shrouded in mystery, widely attributed to the band members being too stoned and drunk to remember. Their nonchalance reveals that, in addition to an absolute lack of music ability, they're completely unapologetic about releasing this potentially dangerous musical strain into the community.
“Uh, we started a rock band just sorta as a hobby,” Times New Viking drummer/vocalist Adam Elliot recalls. “We had never played much music before. We'd go get drunk, have a good time and then record a song.”
Psychedelic Horseshit singer/guitarist Matt Whitehurst seems to actually be proud of his band's lack of musicianship.
“I got invited to play at some really horrible hippie festival and they told me that if I got a drummer I could get a later slot,” he says. “I'm like, ‘I think I might just get a bunch of people that don't know how to play instruments and we'll all start playing.' My buddy was like, ‘Yeah man, we can call it Psychedelic Horseshit' And I was like, ‘Yeah, dude.'”
Initial blog postings about shitgaze bands warned of the music's possible threats. After watching Horseshit and Viking in concert, British blogger Lee Smart wrote, “It's almost as if the band has gone out of its way to completely undermine every musical convention ever proposed.”
And while San Diego music blogger Scott “Cat Dirt” Pactor initially championed the band for sitting “squarely within the indie tradition that we all know and love,” close friends and associates who complained to Pactor about their bleeding ears tell CityBeat that he's acknowledged he has a problem and is seeking treatment.
Adding to the viral spread of the music is “tastemaking” Web site Pitchfork Media, whose critics have raved about shitgaze shows and albums. Already walking a thin line between arbitrary criticism and full-on indie-rock wankery, authorities in Chicago (where Pitchfork is based) are beginning to believe that enough is enough.
“At this time, there's no substantial reason to believe that this music is a health hazard,” says Naomi de Plume, a spokesperson for Chicago's task force on shitgaze. “But you know that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer has seizures every time he hears Mary Hart's voice? We're starting to see a lot more incidents like that resulting from this music, so we're monitoring the situation closely.”
Consequently, De Plume says Chicago authorities are considering a quarantine zone around the Pitchfork offices, but have thus far held off for fear of any damaging effects on neighboring businesses.
“The affect of that many skinny guys in glasses and scarves all in one area playing that music?” De Plume says. “It could cripple the neighborhood and make places like nearby Wicker Park unsafe for small children and animals.”
One person who has seen the debilitating effects bad indie rock can have on a community is Dr. Susan Danym, head of the Centers for Disease Control's Binaural Committee in Atlanta. An audio expert, Danym says that, while usually harmless, the music can sometimes have long-lasting effects.
“Everybody remembers the great scare Athens [Georgia] had back in the '80s,” Danym says. “People are still suffering from the effects of that. Some have even passed it onto their kids. You can see it in the emaciated, young crowd at the 40-Watt Club. And don't even get me started on grunge, honey.”
While representatives from shitgaze music labels like Matador and Siltbreeze would not comment on the music's hazards, Horseshit's Whitehurst claims that his band's name is, in fact, “a definition,” and concedes that the band's music really is “crappy pop songs with too many influences and too much circus rap going on.”
Pressed on whether or not the music poses a legitimate danger to children and animals, Whitehurst hesitates.“I don't know, I think my little brother likes it,” he says. “But he's, like, 10. So maybe 10 years old is cool. Animals, I don't know about that. I always wondered if animals hear music the way that we do.
“I think cats have something for reggae,” Whitehurst continues, before pausing, thoughtfully. “I don't know what I'm talking about.” Times New Viking and Psychedelic Horseshit play on Tuesday, June 17, with Fabulous Diamonds at The Casbah.619-232-HELL. www.myspace.com/timesnewviking, www.myspace.com/psychedelichorseshit