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What the hell is lo-fi?

(Also discussing our latest album, etc.)


So, our third album has wrapped up its little run of promo now. We now have a new ‘most streamed song’: track 1, single “I’ll Miss This Headache” - which is nice; I wrote that song hoping it would be very “single-ish”. (That’s why I laboured over the title - originally “Stoppage”: bad single name. Who calls up the radio/goes to the record store and asks for “Stoppage”? I retitled it “A Walk Among the Eggshells” - not bad but it quickly felt a touch too pretentious. Thus, “I’ll Miss This Headache” = attention-grabbing, pithy, intriguing. The song got playlisted far more widely than any other song we’ve released.


We got our Spotify “Wrapped” - you know that infographic that artists have been plastering all over social media lately? Spotify’s payment in the form of flattery, a currency which even big artists seem to accept nowadays? Well, let’s just say I never anticipated we’d ever be so widely listened to, saved, playlisted, etc, so thanks for listening to us. It’s nice that we aren’t just whistling into the void - that some people are, against the odds, interested in hearing our songs. (Side note: don’t post your “wrapped” data, folks. Have some self-respect.)


The third album has been less reviewed (and, therefore, less ‘acclaimed’) but more listened to. Plays are a much better indication of quality than good reviews, in my opinion, so that’s fine by me. Listeners who continue to listen to it again and again clearly “acclaim” it: as a great band once sang, “Da prufe is in da puddin’”.


and if you don't eat your pudding, you can't eat your meat

The other single was “Boring Dreams”. I thought this one would do just as well*, but it didn’t. I don’t know why; it’s definitely among our best. A video might have helped. Maybe “Boring Dreams” just had too many ingredients outside of ‘LO-FI INDIE ROCK’, which is basically written on the Farewell Horizontal packet. The channels who’ve championed us in the past have usually worn their hissy, homemade, lo-fi hearts on sleeves, and this song might be too polished for them. The whole album could be: I worked hard to make it sound (to my ears) better.


*When I say “do just as well”, I mean, hit the 500 Spotify plays/200 Bandcamp plays area where our biggest songs so far have plateaued. Success on any level is relative, and yeah I realise that ours is microscopic.


That’s the thing about the word “Lo-fi”. I don’t even know what it means. It seems like a weasel word that lends itself to various, maybe even contradictory, meanings. What I think it’s SUPPOSED to mean seems different from how people use it.


Some of the playlists we’ve been added to describe themselves as lo-fi - and yet a lot of stuff on them isn’t far off Popjustice’s new music Friday playlist which, being pop, is produced with radio-friendliness in mind.


That there’s now a popular hip-hop subgenre called “lo-fi” (which I’ve never got around to listening to) only confuses the issue.

Unlike our usual “lo-fi indie rock” sound, “Boring Dreams” has programmed drum machine samples evocative of Phil Collins and Madonna and Def Leppard inspired lead guitar. Not highly “indie”! As for “rock”, indie artists barely use this word now, probably to shun self-righteous boomer nostalgia. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: rock is the new jazz.) “Lo-fi” is a debatable term, and I should know - I’m debating it right now! And “indie” is just as vague for the same reasons (“lo-fi” is to recording technology what “indie” is to an artist’s funding). Despite the bedroom acoustic/vocal feeling, most of the mix pulls towards a stadium or something.


“Fidelity” literally “faithfulness/loyalty”. Which probably means “Similarity to what the ear hears”. Therefore “high fidelity” = closer to what the ear hears; “low fidelity” = further from what the ear hears. This makes sense: Lou Barlow and Daniel Johnston’s hissy old tape recorders in the 80s obviously didn’t sound just like “a guy in a room” so much as “a tape recording of a guy in a room”. The medium stands between us and them, its technical shortcomings getting in the way: hiss, flutter, muffled high frequencies.

INFIDELS!

Obviously, this comes with the massive assumption that the PURPOSE of recording music is to capture the ‘real thing’ - to feel like we are ‘there’ and that the music is ‘really happening’.


And THAT’S where “lo-fi” gets STUPID. Indie super-engineer Steve Albini is famously “lo-fi”: artists seek out his “lo-fi” sound (see Nirvana, trying to boost/salvage their indie cred after their runaway success). Similarly, they’ll describe Neil Young’s major label records - created entirely on high-end equipment - as “lo-fi”. Albini is most famous for his distinctive drum sound, which sounds ‘roomy’. But more often than not, he’s described by people as “lo-fi”, who presumably confuse rawness with low fidelity, when the opposite would be truer.

The higher the fidelity, the deeper the frown.


Not that everyone would agree Alibin’s sound is hi-fi. Trent Reznor got tired of hearing people describe Albini’s drums as “just like being in the room” because, he correctly observed, it doesn’t actually sound like you’re in the room. AT ALL. If you’ve ever heard a drum kit in front of you, you’ll know it’s not so punchy and deep. Most albums have awesomely huge drum sounds, not ‘real’ ones. Trent’s annoyance was such that he went and proved his point by recording some drum samples in many different rooms with nothing but two microphones, like two “ears” (example, albeit a highly cut-up 'sampled' one). Steve Albini freely acknowledges that what he does is not absolutely “hi-fi”, because all audio mixing is smoke and mirrors.


And that’s where it gets even MORE stupid. Within a mix, NOTHING sounds real. Even if what the microphones captured was unprocessed (no reverb, compression, EQ), you’d still have a sound that is a distortion of reality, due to the locations of the microphones in the room. We only have two ears, and we can’t change their position. Nobody has 28 ears, placed strategically around the room one inch from a snare drum, a bass speaker, or a singer’s mouth.


The closest thing you’ll hear to this might be jazz trios or orchestras recorded with a spaced pair of microphones in stereo. These sorts of records sound so free of contrivance and artificial flavouring compared with most rock stuff I listen to. For example the drums on Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” (some of the most sampled drums in hip-hop history FYI) were recorded (or reamped?) in a god damned STAIRWELL. Hence that awesome reverb. But it’s safe to assume that the whole band didn’t play live in the stairwell, recorded with two microphones (and I’ll leave out the concept of overdubbing as being antithetical to “high fidelity” or else this rant will never end). When Robert Plant’s trademark voice-gasms fly through the elvin skies of “The Battle of Evermore”, he’s actually just standing a few inches from a microphone in a soundproofed/isolated spot in a studio/castle.


So much for “hi-fi” - and, therefore, so much for “lo-fi”. We’ve never really heard any recording that sounds close to what the ear hears before. Everything’s “lo-fi”; the term literally describes all music, and so the term is useless.


A Lauren's-eye-view of us recording

But obviously, in the world of music nerds, “lo-fi” is something people agree exists. Are we it? Or, to quote the tree-saving child molester, “What about us?” Can Farewell Horizontal claim to be lo-fi if we record into 24-bit WAV files? I do own a four-track cassette recorder, that evokes that early Daniel Johnston/Lou Barlow lo-fi sound, and I’ve used it occasionally - but computer’s just way easier and sounds better. David Byrne’s book How Music Works has a great chapter discussing the pitfalls of the idea of lo-fi as a cheap signaler of artistic credibility, i.e. low-quality recording = high artistic cred. I admit to being charmed by this; that’s precisely why I bought the four-track! It’s the audio equivalent of getting a tattoo or piercing or a Black Flag T-shirt.

I'm cultured and alternative, my T shirt says so

Simply, we call ourselves “lo-fi” because our stuff is truly DIY and lacks the polish of most records out there. Further, it is literally lower in fidelity than most because I radically alter the sounds (especially my voice) to carve each song into its coolest shape. In reality my voice is crazily bassy, but on recordings it’s a thinly melodious wheeze due to harshly filtering out the low end, kind of like ‘the phone effect’. Our instruments and recording equipment are decent, and we make high quality audio files, but those files are then recklessly and amateurishly hacked up in mixing - in a good way, I think. The drums sound different in every song even though we rarely change anything about them on the day. It’s all post-production. What you hear is SO far removed from an “authentic” performance, but it works. I believe it IS authentic (“faithful”), because it’s as true a picture of the song as I can make happen in the physical world outside of my brain. So who knows what the hell it is. But I reckon if there IS such a thing as “lo-fi” then we are it.


TLDR: all of us going around calling things lo-fi and hi-fi = we’re basically full of shit. It’s a signifier of identity: I’m with THIS crowd, not that crowd. Just more nonsense scene politics driven by a (sadly pathetic) human desire to be different, when all evidence suggests we are all almost identical. To awkwardly loop back to the original point, if “Boring Dreams” didn’t get more traction due to its style, well, I guess that just shows the lack of imagination we have as music fans, keen not to give something new a chance until we’ve classified it as permissible to like it first. Not that I’m not guilty of this attitude or anything. If it failed on its merits (or lack thereof), well, I’m okay with that.