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Welcome to the latest installment of Performer’s Guest List, where we invite indie artists to select their favorite tracks in a given category. This week, King Median takes us through their favorite indie rock tracks from the ’90s. Want to participate? Email [email protected] for details.
King Median formed in Michigan after a few friends shared the music they like. Not long after, they started recording together in their dorm rooms and then released a slew of songs. In the past year, they released another EP and opened for Guster. Now, onto their picks…
“Cut Your Hair” by Pavement
This isn’t my favorite Pavement song. But this was my favorite Pavement song. And for many, it was the first song the mainstream public heard by Pavement. In 1994, the band refined the fuzzy art-rock off of Slanted and Enchanted into an indie rock sound that openly embraced classic rock. This was not only the uncoolest thing to do at a time when everyone opted for the grunge sound, but it was also deliberately uncommercial. They even launched a music video on MTV, which they chose to debase, too. Their amiable bassist Mark Ibold even sneezed out a cat, and Beavis and Butt-head would yell out “Try harder!” And during the last verse, singer Stephen Malkmus sounds like he’s repeating “Korea” after slurring “attention and fame, a career, career.” At a time of showy apathy (ahem, Smashing Pumpkins) and a lot of other bands cashing in for the “Seattle sound,” Pavement reminded us how absurd it is to take ourselves so seriously.
“Gold Star for Robot Boy” by Guided by Voices
I remember hearing this for the first time when I was about 15 and I admitted to my older brother in the car, “I could never write a vocal melody like that. How did they do that?” Robert Pollard’s answer might be writing. A lot. With over 20 albums from the late ’80s to a new one currently in the works, Pollard is a restless guy. But often this constant flow of songs results in either a memorable hit or a skippable miss. In this lo-fi song, the hit hits hard. The minimal drums with the occasional simple fill propels the track without overpowering the trebly guitar. The vocals sound sincere but not sentimental. Early GBV songs like “Gold Star for Robot Boy” made it perfectly OK to record imperfectly on home devices and four-track machines.
“Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” by Belle and Sebastian
In this song, Belle and Sebastian set self-aware lyrics to chord changes that sound like Pachelbel’s Canon, adding in vibraphones for light textures and horns to lift the song. In this album, too, their songs sound like the soft timbres of Nick Drake along with the clever songwriting of the Velvets. To which Stuart Murdoch comments in the first verse, “Nobody writes them like they used to / So it may as well be me.” Bands like the Beat Happening had shed the layers of machismo in indie rock, but Belle and Sebastian helped make this the norm with quiet reflections and witty songwriting.
“Heart Cooks Brain” by Modest Mouse
Isaac Brock sings about the dissonance between the brain and the heart in this track. Or, in less figurative terms: emotions run the other way of reason. Modest Mouse may not be the only band to bring philosophical questions into indie rock, but they do have a knack for them. Turntable scratches scrape along to drummer Jeremiah Green’s hi-hat stomping, entrancing us for 4 minutes. And just like the lyrics, Brock guides our brains into that state of “I’m on my way to God don’t know or even care” when he’s just “trying to get my head clear.” This, to me, is ’90s Modest Mouse in a single sentence.
At the moment, the members of King Median are refocusing their musical efforts into other avenues. But they have fun sharing their music and talking about what they’ve been listening to. Guitarist Ken Tsuchiya released his solo album earlier this year, and drummer Ryan Pate collaborates with regional artists, and his work can be found here.