D.I.Y. and hi-fi have rarely gone hand in hand. From the muscular crackle of Black Flag to the basement anthems of Guided by Voices, the sound of indie rock has long been the proudly noisy product of four walls and a four-track recorder. As laptops have replaced boomboxes, the aesthetic has endured, with bands embracing digital fuzz as a signal of both outsider cool and a thin wallet.
But with the late-2000s lo-fi boom that launched the hissing careers of acts from Best Coast to Toro Y Moi sinking deeper into blog archives, a number of former noisemakers are stepping into the studio and polishing up their production. With Best Coast’s Jon Brion-produced, Capitol Records-recorded The Only Place out this week, we rounded up the band’s Bobb Bruno and four other acts with bright, Tide-clean new albums — plus a veteran indie producer — to find out why they’re leaving their bedroom days behind them.
How did you do your first recordings?
Bobb Bruno (Best Coast): Most of the early Best Coast stuff was done in my bedroom on a Zoom digital 16-track hard disk recorderâ€¦I could have made us sound clean and I already had a decent amount of gear, so it was always Bethany [Cosentino]‘s choice to make things more lo-fi.
Dylan Baldi (Cloud Nothings): The very first Cloud Nothings recordings were actually in my parents’ basement on my computer that I got for school. I was just going straight to GarageBand [software] with one microphone. I was excited to even be able to make music at all.
Frankie Rose (Frankie Rose & the Outs, ex-Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls): Everything that I’ve ever done has started incredibly lo-fi. A lot of it just had to do with what I had available to me, resources-wise. The first Vivian Girls record, we made that for $800, we spent two days in a studio. It was because we paid for it ourselves.
Chris Coady (producer, Beach House, Smith Westerns): When I was growing up there was a Tascam Portastudio and everyone got oneâ€¦For a lot of people, what would ordinarily become a demo would become a band’s finished album. You had bands like Ween and Guided by Voices, who were doing self-made, home-recorded albums.
Frankie Rose: That was music journalists, to be honest. I think during that time, a lot of people were making all kinds of different music, it was just something that people grasped onto.
Having done well with that style, though, why go more polished?
Frankie Rose: I realized I wanted to be doing something else. It became really clear that I had to rethink what I was doing, what was inspiring me.
Ramona Gonzalez (Nite Jewel): With [One Second of Love], we wanted this to sound beautiful on vinyl. I had been listening to a lot of instrumental electronic musicâ€¦what I really liked about that was taking electronic instruments and recording them in the best possible way, so you really get all the textures from the instrument as opposed to a two-dimensional texture.
Evan Abeele (Memoryhouse): The plan was always to get into a studio. We were very set on waiting it out until we were able to really do that. I wanted it to sound like the records I loved when I was a kid, or the records I loved in college, like Fleetwood Mac.
Dylan Baldi: I just really wanted someone who would make the recordings sound like a band playing, because there’s not really a whole lot of recordings coming out right now that sound like that.
Has there been any backlash from doing something that might be considered less “indie”?
Frankie Rose: As far as I can tell, people who like the last record love this one more.
Bobb Bruno: We didn’t worry about staying true [to the older sound] at all. I’m a big fan of Jon [Brion's] and had spent a lot of time watching him work in studios before, so I knew what it was going to sound like.
Evan Abeele: I sympathize with people who really loved Memoryhouse as a lo-fi thing, and I really loved that too, but I think that that moment is past. And I know that that was a very, very divisive move, for a band that came from the roots that we came from, but I think that it was the right choice.
Chris Coady: It used to be, in the ’90s, nobody wanted to sound too mainstream. People wanted to sound like the Pixies. I think because mainstream music is totally in shambles now, and you have Arcade Fire and Bon Iver at the Grammys… People are much more open-minded to making something that could be accepted by a large audience.
Ramona Gonzalez: The radio, the music doesn’t sound that great, production-wise. It’s actually like, what popular music is doing is doing indie kids a favor by sounding so crunchy and crappy that indie kids don’t have to be incredible producers to get noticed.
What’s next for you? Do you think we’ll see more bands steering toward cleaner recordings?
Ramona Gonzalez: We do have more at our disposal at this point in time. I’m excited to [get] a nice vocal mic.
Chris Coady: I think for now the pendulum is maybe swinging in the way of a polished sound. Every indie rock band there is is releasing an album this year and a lot of them have done the lo-fi albums already. I would guess we’ll be hearing a cleaner version of those bands.
Bobb Bruno: I don’t think of it as a trend, I feel like this happens because people get more confident in the abilities and want that to be heard: clearly. They realize it doesn’t need to be buried under a ton of distortion or reverb.
Frankie Rose: I really do believe that you can go spend $300,000 — [laughs] I couldn’t, maybe someday — and get the best producer in the world and you can make a piece of shit album. It doesn’t matter what the fidelity is if you have good songs.