Indie-Rock Success So Sudden, It Actually Hurts

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ask Nathan Williams about his big break and he might tell you about the recent skateboarding accident that put his wrist in a cast for the next seven months. He certainly won't tell you about a big break for his band Wavves. There was no such thing. Success -- or the illusion of it -- came instantly. "My first show was in front of 700 people in San Francisco," Williams says.

Over the past 11 months Williams has generated a level of attention unique to today's mediascape: An all-at-once, big-bang kind of success that took Wavves from his San Diego bedroom into the greater indie-rock consciousness. But after that breakneck ascent, Williams is suffering a backlash that feels just as unique. Under a crush of attention -- good, bad and sometimes really ugly -- Wavves' trajectory poses the question: Will the hair-trigger pace of the blogosphere extinguish our most promising artists before they have the chance to find their voice?

Backstage at Washington's Rock & Roll Hotel, where Wavves performed earlier this month, Williams describes 2009 as "really stressful." The 23-year-old singer-guitarist stares off into space -- his gaze somewhere between freaked-out and burned-out. "I mean, I'm just some [expletive] kid," Williams says. "When I thought about playing music I never thought about any of this."

Since forming last year, Wavves has released two albums of lo-fi punk tunes, where sunny melodies are buried in a smog of distortion. After bursting onto the blogscape late last year, the band has earned hosannahs from the New York Times ("scrappy, energetic"), the Los Angeles Times ("raw, jittery,"), Rolling Stone (three stars) and Spin magazine (four).

The accolades come with a stunning asterisk: Wavves has existed for less than a year.

Noshing on soggy pita chips and nursing a Tecate, Williams looks back on the past 11 months as a do-or-die sprint with all eyes on him. "There was no time for me to suck in basements," he says. "I didn't have that."

Scott Plagenhoef, editor in chief of Pitchfork, sees it as a trend. "Bands don't get to incubate and work out a lot of things," he says over the phone from Chicago. "Particularly if they get a lot of attention."

Oddly enough, most of the hype surrounding Wavves originated with Pitchfork, the dominant indie-rock Web site whose blessing can help sell thousands of records -- and whose dismissals can send young hopefuls into indie oblivion. In March, Pitchfork awarded Wavves' second album with its "Best New Music" tag and invited the band to play a show it was curating at Spain's Primavera music festival in May. Once Williams stepped on that Barcelona stage, everything changed.

"It was one of those things where I was completely overwhelmed, basically, by the whole situation," says Williams. "And somewhere in the back of my head I probably was thinking, I can get out of this, at least for a short period of time."

Onstage, Williams seemed disoriented. He couldn't play his songs. And when he wasn't bickering with drummer Ryan Ulsh, he was dodging bottles and shoes from angry fans. He later apologized for the blowup on his blog, writing, "Mixing ecstasy valium and xanax before having to play in front of thousands of people was one of the more poor decisions I've made (duh)."

Pitchfork responded the next morning with a headline that would echo across the Internet: "Wavves Self-Destruct in Barcelona." Indie sites Brooklyn Vegan and Stereogum pounced on the story, and their reader comment sections quickly turned rancid.

"happy it didnt take longer for everyone to realize this band sucks," said one commenter on Brooklyn Vegan.

"maybe that dude Nathan will die of a drug overdose," said another on Stereogum. "that would be sweet."

When asked why he thinks he summoned such harsh snap judgments, Williams looks away blankly. "I'm surprised that anyone listens to anything I do at all."

* * *

This intense new strand of backlash follows the rosier, nascent years of the indie blogosphere -- a time when artists made direct contact with fans and blogs merely directed traffic. The quick success enjoyed by groups like Tapes 'n Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah may have been fleeting, but at least it didn't come with all the name-calling suffered in recent years by the likes of Vampire Weekend and Black Kids.

Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper's magazine who lives in Baltimore, documents the phenomenon in his recent book, "And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in a Viral Culture," asserting that the way we discover music has been altered forever.

"It used to be that the hype cycle would invent a one-hit wonder," says Wasik over the phone. "It would be sort of orchestrated by radio station or labels -- by a kind of promotional machine. But what you see today is that the action of all these people out there writing about bands and following them and try to sniff out the next big thing -- [it] creates more and more of these tiny sensations."

The impact has been felt most acutely in indie-rock and hip-hop, two genres with ravenous fan cultures that subsist on a steady diet of next big things. But as the blogosphere expands and the notion of consensus splinters, it becomes harder for a young act to become a full-blown sensation.

"You can't even hope for that kind of universal blog buzz acclaim that you might have gotten in 2006 when everyone was talking about you -- if only this week," says Wasik. "Now it's hard to say everyone is talking about anything."

That's where controversy comes in. An artist missteps, misspeaks or misbehaves. Bloggers glom on to it. The chatter congeals into buzz. And the page views soar. Indie Web sites clearly understand this principle. Says Plagenhoef, "The Wavves stories were the most popular stories on our Web site for some time."

* * *

The trend isn't exclusive to indie-rock. In June, hip-hop blogger Jay Smooth posted a video on his Ill Doctrine site called "Operation Ignore Charles Hamilton." In it, Smooth asked fans to tune out the antics of Charles Hamilton, an imaginative young rapper who has earned fans with his provocative rhymes and enraged detractors with his provocative behavior -- everything from insulting the mother of deceased producer J Dilla to uploading a physical confrontation with his ex-girlfriend on YouTube.

"I wasn't really trying to psychoanalyze this kid, but everyone else was coming with bats and pitchforks," says Smooth over the phone from New York. "I wanted to put something out there that explained the humanity behind his situation."

Smooth tried to tamp things down. "I do feel like we should try to remember that he's probably just a kid who can't help himself," he said in the video. "I think we should try to show him just a little bit of compassion."

The criticism of Hamilton has waned slightly, but his career continues to unravel. He disappeared from the Internet in June and his contract with Interscope Records was terminated in September. Hamilton hasn't spoken to the press, but his manager Le'Roy Benros defends the rapper's behavior. "Charles is just a different kind of guy," Benros says over the phone. "He just knows how to spark people up. . . . I don't think he does things to get attention. Maybe sometimes."

* * *

Back at the Rock & Roll Hotel, Williams continues to stare off into oblivion. The only time he doesn't look like he's getting a root canal at the DMV is when he's talking about music. "The thing I love most is making records," he says. "I just have a bunch of ideas in my head. . . . And when I have time off that's the first thing I think about." (Wavves' third album has already been recorded and awaits release.)

That hyper-prolific approach is what made the Internet such a powerful tool for independent musicians in the first place, but the storm clouds of backlash can be tough to shake. After months of trash talk in the press, Williams and his friends were involved in an altercation with Jared Swilley, bassist from Atlanta's Black Lips, in a Williamsburg bar in the wee hours of Sept. 26. The fight sent the blogosphere back into gossip-spasms. Stereogum's 12-word post on the incident received over 10,000 page views. Wavves was back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

But onstage at Rock & Roll Hotel, that bad mojo appears to be a purely phantom reality. The only heckle lobbed at Williams is a backhanded compliment, praising new Wavves member Zach Hill: "Your drummer is too good!"

Hill's precision gives the band's fuzzed-out aesthetic an undeniable jolt, and Williams rides the beat with a bratty panache. During one break, he dares the crowd -- about 200 people in all -- to try and beat him at an arcade game in the club's upstairs bar. "If I win, you give me $400," he says. "If you win, I give you my guitar."

The crowd Oooooohs at the stakes and Williams peels into the next song, a beautiful mess of noisy power-chords.

After the show, he heads upstairs to face his challengers. Nobody shows up.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company