The Low-Key Legacy Of Duster, Your Favorite Indie Band’s Favorite Indie Band
Girlpool, American Pleasure Club, and more on the obscure space-rock trio's influence
Every time I’ve tried to explain how Duster has emerged as one of the most influential bands of the past decade, it sounds like I’m talking myself out of it. It’s an inevitable result of just talking about them objectively: The San Jose trio made two albums and an EP that could either be described as slowcore, space-rock, or lo-fi, but no matter how it’s qualified, their music embodies just about every stereotype of late-’90s indie rock as something slack, bashful, and completely marooned from pop. In fact, if someone completely unfamiliar with the aesthetic qualities of indie rock before, say, Funeral were to listen to a Duster album, there’s a good chance they’d call it boring and there’s not much you could do — the tempos are slow, the production is brittle, the vocals are submerged deep in the mix if they’re audible. The most edgy thing about Duster is the way they actively teeter on the edge of tedium.
It’s not like they’ve become a foundational band for a hot, highly-publicized subgenre or forced themselves into the discourse. After the band dissolved in 2000, multi-instrumentalist Jason Albertini released a handful of quietly received albums of classicist indie rock under the name Helvetia — 10 years ago Stereogum named them a Band To Watch — and he recently became a permanent member of Built to Spill. While Duster’s label Up Records was on fire in the ’90s, releasing certified classics in The Lonesome Crowded West, Featuring “Birds”, and There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, not a single note of Duster music has been reissued. In this context, Duster sure seems like the kind of band whose critical reassessment in 2018 might amount to this:
anyone remember late 90s space rock band Duster, on Up? I liked them and bought some of their records at the time, and now they are worth enormous amounts of money. Which is weird bc I never see them mentioned, ever
— Mark Richardson (@MarkRichardson) January 15, 2018
Mark Richardson is the executive editor at Pitchfork and the author of one the few archived reviews of Duster’s revered debut LP Stratosphere, which turns 20 this Saturday. He was genuinely surprised and pleased at the quick and thorough response he received from listeners and bands alike, telling me over email, “I don’t remember Stratosphere making a big impact at the time but I do think it was generally well reviewed, and I remember seeing mention of it in print zines as well as on sites like Pitchfork. But I don’t recall it being discussed much on message boards or at year end.”
We can take his word for it; a 3-star review at All Music Guide constitutes the only other piece on the record written before, say, 2012. “As a whole, though, I’d say Duster were quite obscure at the time,” Richardson says. “Certainly not anywhere nearly as big as someone like Quasi, who also put out a record on Up that year. But I remember a handful of people (including me) thinking they were special.”
“Not anywhere nearly as big as someone like Quasi” — for context, Quasi’s album placed 25th in the 1998 Pazz & Jop poll. If we refer to that list’s 2017 counterpart, with all due respect, the proverbial “next Duster” is currently not anywhere near as big as Priests.
But if we take the perceived and widely reported marginalization of indie rock as truth — as well as its retrenchment towards the sounds, dress code and attitudes of its late-’90s incarnation — then Duster is actually exactly the kind of band that would be a formative inspiration for fellow space cadets and stripped-down collectives popping up on Bandcamp and ultimately determining the course of indie rock in the past decade.
To backtrack a bit, in the same way some of your more principled friends might’ve seen 1998-1999 as the toxic, sludgy byproduct of the Alternative Nation gold rush — begetting post-grunge, nu-metal, Eve 6, etc. — the early 2010s might end up being deemed the same for indie rock, at least terms of optics rather than quality. Years after a boom period turned some indie favorites into unexepected hitmakers, the rise of EDM, Spotify, and poptimism as criticism’s primary language led to Justin Timberlake, Disclosure, Haim, Chvrches, and the dozens and dozens of imitators in their wake being seen as “indie” somehow.
Around this time, labels like Run For Cover, Orchid Tapes, Topshelf, Double Double Whammy, and Tiny Engines were starting to generate national attention — some more for their role in the reclamation of pre-MySpace emo that could at least be seen as a repudiation of this modern strain of indie elitism. These labels were also just as often amenable to bands who tended towards the slower, spacier, and grittier sound of late-’90s indie, such as Clique, Wild Pink, Hovvdy, Ovlov, Us And Us Only, and Peaer. None of this stuff was fashionable, but it slowly found an audience that gravitated towards a newly introverted, hazy sound centered around the melodic guitar clusters, uncluttered drumming, and foggy, evocative production that typifies Stratosphere.
Not surprisingly, bands either in or adjacent to this realm were the ones to embrace Duster most enthusiastically. “They are incredibly relevant,” states Harmony Tividad of Girlpool, one of the current day’s most relevant bands. “I think Duster’s music carries a true honesty and transparency that is being championed in this era specifically between social media and information accessibility.” In fact, it’s the lack of curation that Tividad feels works towards Duster’s advantage, as they’ve been basically untouched by the thinkpiecing, reissuing, and reunions that quickly leech the excitement out of any reassessment of the past.
How much that has to do with Duster’s own choices or a question of demand is up for debate. Richardson points out, “Up founder Chris Takino died in 2000, the year [second LP] Contemporary Movement came out, and the label never recovered from that. After his death it was mostly about keeping the existing catalog in print for a while, and eventually Up even stopped doing that. After that Duster pretty much slipped into obscurity for a while, it was never easy to find their records.”
It still isn’t, and if you do find one, it’ll cost you — vinyl copies of Stratosphere have recently run from $165-350. One is currently on sale at Discogs for about $615.
I hadn’t discovered Duster until I started seeing it pop up in intra-band discussions on Twitter and as a “RIYL” in PR one-sheets from bands that mostly seemed to be from Philly. They never seemed to be included in any kind of decade or genre retrospective, and Stratosphere didn’t make Pitchfork’s recent lists celebrating the all-time best shoegaze albums or the greatest albums of 1998.
“I got into [Red House Painters and Low] when I was 12 or 13,” notes Sam Ray, mastermind behind Ricky Eat Acid and American Pleasure Club. Those are the giants of slowcore, the ones whose Spotify plays number in the millions. “I didn’t find out about Duster until I was 19 or 20. My friend P.J. (from the band Girl Scouts) had posted the song ‘Cooking’ on his Facebook, and both me and my at-the-time lone bandmate, Eric, fell in love with it.”
Unlike Low or Bedhead or Codeine, Duster never sounded fully-formed. The first track on Stratosphere is an interlude that presents Duster as a late adapter of that odd ’90s infatuation with astral lounge music, a lo-res take on Air or Stereolab. And then the guitars come in on “Heading For The Door” and… Oh. It’s a feeling I’ve had when filling other blind spots in my awareness of ’90s indie — that dog., the Breeders’ Pod, EndSerenading — that sense of recognition: this is what all these bands are trying to do.
“I’ve tried hard over the years to extract whatever magic I can from their inscrutable sound,” Ray notes. “Whether it’s a way to make guitars sound older, warmer, more decayed, or the way one or two lines of vocals recorded with the quality of an old answering machine message & sung just barely out of key could completely change the meaning & atmosphere of what would otherwise be a very-good but rather straightforward instrumental post-post-rock song.” He admits that A Whole Fucking Lifetime Of This closer “The Sun Was in My Eyes” is all but an overt Duster homage.
Stratosphere doesn’t come off like a lost masterpiece, but rather a bundle of ideas to be explored, tweaked and perfected — something that inevitably feels more exciting for curious artists than a codified classic. “Each track seemed like it was recorded in a different space with different instruments or different equipment,” says Peaer leader Peter Karz, who claims to soundcheck with Stratosphere highlight “Topical Solution.” “The production variety allowed the musical material to really shine, with the lo-fi quality substantially adding to the inherent nostalgia and guiding the listener through the lengthy record.”
Tividad concurs: “I guess what makes the music so magic is how much space there is for it to become yours.” It’s easy to hear that sentiment echoed in the work of Girlpool and their peers. Hovvdy has dubbed themselves “pillowcore” and their recent Cranberry condenses Duster’s spacier post-rock excursions into homespun, sungazing pop. Ovlov puts their astringent vocals to the fore. (Sandy) Alex G’s zonked-out eclecticism goes towards even more distant vistas. Girlpool maintain the gorgeous guitar cross-hatches while focusing on very specific moments rather than warm and fuzzy evocation.
But damn, do those warm and fuzzies speak. “To me they were defined by the beauty of their guitar sounds,” Richardson muses. “They had other things going for them in terms of building a mood and constructing songs, but the guitar tones on their records are just insanely gorgeous. One of those bands, like Yo La Tengo or Galaxie 500, where I can listen to simply to luxuriate in the texture of the guitar/amp interface, and that’s enhanced by how low the vocals are.”
Therein lies the apparent contradiction of Stratosphere: An album that sounds so rickety and Scotch-taped can still evoke a kind of emotional luxury. Of course, maybe a synonym for “emotional luxury” is nostalgia. After checking out Stratosphere from a fan recommendation, Katz recalls, “It felt like the kind of music I had been looking for for a long time. The perfect soundtrack to my stoned mid-college sleepy contemplative years.” Tividad associates Duster with a similar age in her life, discovering the band when she was 18 and driving through Los Angeles for 30 minutes at a time at 2 and 3 AM when the city becomes “misty-aired…and pretty majestic.”
I find a nice bit of irony in Katz’s statement given that Duster existed during my mid-college years and I wasn’t listening to them or really much that sounded like them — this being 1998-2000 and all, I was much heavier into mainstream rap and quasi-edgy alt-rock like Placebo and Eels. And yet, when I listen to it now, it really does sound like being in college in 1998. It’s the same wistful feeling elicited by just about any indie rock from that era — Yo La Tengo, Sparklehorse, early Modest Mouse — all borne from the kind of slapdash, intuitive experimentation that preceded an era of knowing omnivorousness, a brief respite from the mannered professionalism of the next decade and the tinkering of Bandcampers whose ideas outpace their know-how.
“Duster brought me a new appreciation for the ‘feeling’ of music… listening to their music really helped me learn how to follow my feeling instincts rather than brain instincts when writing,” Tividad states, and it’s about the most apt compliment that can be given to a record whose appeal is almost entirely tied into its uncanny ability to nudge the listener to get on their emotional level. “The songs feel like someone just following exactly where they are supposed to go but it is never typical or what songs are expected to do but they are just so right in a way that is almost alien to all of our minds because it feels so close to the heart constantly.”