Winter Guide: New Vikings, Old Times

Dan Picasso

It's not what you say, but how you say it. It figures that the reminder would come from a band partially named after a font.

Times New Viking, composed of three ex-art school students from Columbus, Ohio, revive a brand of indie rock that, if not dead, has certainly been dormant for the better part of this decade. Their world is one of expertly obfuscated pop—hooks so deeply submerged in harsh tape effects and dissonance as to risk drowning. And their song titles follow suit. Exhibits A and B: "Imagine Dead John Lennon" and "Fuck Books."

You'd think that a newly minted contract with revered indie label Matador Records might have mellowed Times New Viking, or at least gotten them to reconsider their recording techniques. But you'd be wrong. This is a band that counts moving from a four-track to an eight-track as a major achievement. Rip It Off, their forthcoming Matador debut, was recorded entirely in guitarist Jared Phillips's basement in Columbus, just as their previous albums were. And all songs were still pretty much recorded within four or five times of first playing them. Their one apparent concession this time out: "We actually re-recorded a few songs instead of just taking the first version we had," says drummer Adam Elliott.

Times New Viking's insouciant approach to songwriting and recording might seem bizarre in an era that has seen indie rock become increasingly concerned with making grand statements—concept albums, duets with Bruce Springsteen, etc. But their methods are perfectly in keeping with what indie rock was at its inception. It's easy to forget that indie rock got its name because at one time it was music exclusively released by independent labels. Artists resided on those labels not by choice, but because majors would never dream of releasing what those artists were peddling. The albums were products of these conditions—recorded on shoestring budgets with limited resources. They sounded like shit and the fans loved them for it.

For these first-wave indie bands, grand statements were impossible. And while many of today's indie elite, thanks to their forebears' successes, can put out albums every bit as professional as their major-label counterparts (and prefer to assume that doing so represents indie rock's natural progression), Times New Viking instead subscribe to the notion that the production and mixing are not so easily separable from indie rock itself. "The word 'indie' now is thrown around so loosely," says Elliott. "Something a little weirder than Christina Aguilera is I guess what people call indie music." For Times New Viking, to play indie rock without the grainy, lo-fi production is to rob it of its very essence. This was music defined by the struggle to be heard, captured brilliantly on genre landmarks like Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted and Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand.

Befitting a band that so venerates indie's golden era, Times New Viking was born after a Rapture gig. "We had our first practice after we went [and saw them] in Columbus," says Elliott. "We were so mad and angry that kids liked that music that we went home and wrote our first song on our album—'Lion& Oil.'" Scanning the lyrics, you won't find any overt jabs, but "Lion& Oil" makes its point anyway. In fact, the band's entire debut, Dig Yourself—essentially a collection of basement demos—none too subtly mocks the slick, prevailing dance punk of the day by being everything that something like Echoes was not—unruly, disorganized, and aggressively insular. "Starting out, our influences were [bands like] Pavement and Swell Maps," explains Elliott. "But we became more influenced by not being like certain bands."

Dig Yourself might have forever remained a local demo had it not been for the intervention of a man by the name of Tom Lax. Lax founded the Siltbreeze label in 1989 and went on to release lo-fi gems from indie-rock luminaries such as Guided by Voices and Sebadoh. But gradually, disenchantment with indie rock's modern derivations set in, and by 2005, Lax hadn't released an album on Siltbreeze for two years. Most assumed he had retired the label. But apparently he was just waiting for Times New Viking. "We basically convinced him to start up his label again," says Elliott. Lax put out both Dig Yourself and the band's equally disheveled follow-up, 2007's Present the Paisley Reich. And thanks to Times New Viking's continuing encouragement, Siltbreeze is once again a going business concern. This past year, Lax released a total of nine albums on the label.

Given the band's close relationship with Lax, making the move to Matador was not an easy one. But it was necessary, according to Elliott, to "allow more people to hear our records." Distribution issues, it turns out, still plague smaller indie labels like Siltbreeze. Fortunately, there are no hard feelings in either camp. "We still get all the Siltbreeze records in the mail," jokes Elliott.

What remains an open question is how the wider audience will greet Times New Viking's caustic version of indie rock, a version in scarce supply in recent years (and scarcer if you exclude Pavement reissues). It's a question the band seems to have pondered themselves, if the song "Relevant: Now" is any indication. They just don't pretend to know the answer.

TIMES NEW VIKING will be coming through the Twin Cities on tour this winter

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