How Remix Albums Helped Indie Rock Artists Get Through The Pandemic
The gloomy, intense post-punk of Ganser; the chaotic, hyperactive bedroom pop of Glass Beach; the contemplative, sorrowful slowcore of Julien Baker. Musically, these artists have little in common. But confined to their homes and denied traditional collaboration by the pandemic, all three had the same idea: This year, they each released remix EPs (or, in the case of Glass Beach, an LP) — songs from their most recent records, reshaped by friends, peers and heroes into various permutations of electronic music.
“We couldn’t really do band practice, and I think we were looking for something more concrete that we could work together creatively on,” says Glass Beach drummer William White. In March the band released the 18-track alchemist rats beg bashful, a remixed (and anagrammed) version of 2019’s the first glass beach album. Meanwhile, Julien Baker released the Little Oblivions remix EP in September, based on her February LP of the same name, and Ganser the Look At The Sun EP in May after their 2020 album Just Look At That Sky.
“I’ve been trying to be adaptable to the way this crazy earth changes,” Baker explains. Alicia Gaines, vocalist and bassist of Ganser, echoes the sentiment: “I guess we just operate well in a bad situation.”
Indie and alternative rock artists have released remix records for decades, all the way back to the Cure’s 1990 album Mixed Up. The dance-punk era appropriately yielded a few — Death From Above 1979 and Bloc Party each released remix LPs in 2005. In 2011, Radiohead released TKOL RMX 1234567, an LP of remixes from their most electronic offering, The King Of Limbs, that some fans hold in higher regard than the original album. But if remix albums aren’t a new phenomenon within indie rock, the pandemic has spurred a proliferation of the format, with artists who are smaller and less affiliated with the electronic world finding the time and a reason to dip their toes in. Aside from those spotlighted in this feature, artists such as Samia, Owen, and A Place To Bury Strangers have this year released or announced their own.
“The pandemic has given me time to think more about production, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in editing software that I wouldn’t have normally, learning how to be creative in a way I couldn’t access before,” Baker says. “More and more, I’m starting to think that arbitrary delineations between genres are inhibitive to creativity.”
Glass Beach are certainly inclined to agree. Their debut album is a wild hodgepodge of sounds — most tracks could be described as electro-prog-jazz-punk. “[Skrillex’s] Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites came out at a very impressionable time for me, and at the same time I was learning how to play ‘Smoke On The Water’ on guitar, I was trying to learn how to make dubstep,” vocalist and guitarist J McClendon says. “I got into making music surrounded by people who were doing electronic music — chiptune, future bass, nightcore, shit like that.”
Electronic music is something of a natural cousin to indie rock, given the DIY ethic and accessibility that feeds both. “There is so much commonality in, ‘Let’s just get some people together and we’ll play guitars and record it ourselves,’ versus ‘I’ll get a laptop and pirate Fruity Loops and fuck around with it,'” McClendon says. “I think these two mindsets come from the same basic impulse of ‘I’ll use whatever tools I have and make something myself.'”
“I’ve always been a laptop musician,” they add. “So in my head there never has been a clear line between [rock and electronic], because really everything that doesn’t go out of its way not to be is electronic.”
Going into 2021, the need was becoming clear to keep things ticking promotionally in the absence of tours or studio time for new original releases. “We take a long time to complete albums,” White says, “so Run For Cover were like, ‘If you do this, you get to do something creative, [and] you’ll have something out sooner so your fans are a little satiated for the long run.'”
“We can’t emphasize enough how this extended the life of our album campaign for Just Look At That Sky,” says Ganser drummer Brian Cundiff. Gaines elaborates, “[The remix EP] breathed new life into the album and kind of breadcrumbed people back to it, especially [after 2020] where it was really hard to take in new music.” Monetary compensation, all three artists emphasize, didn’t play much of a part in the decision — these are all digital-only releases and mostly they were paying out of pocket for the remixers to take part. But, as Glass Beach bassist Jonas Newhouse puts it, “the currency of attention that even starving artists feed off of” had become inflated in a newly intensified online atmosphere. “That at least was a factor, though it’s not why we did it.”
“It was much less validating and fulfilling to have my music mediated through a screen, where I can’t interact with anyone, and I can’t see people getting excited about songs,” Baker says. “Instead of just creating something for the sake of having content, I think it’s important to be like, ‘What would be fulfilling for me? What would make me happy and interrupt the cycle of endless self-promotion?’ The thing that makes it worth it for me is being on tour and meeting other bands and getting excited about musicians I love, and the remixes are a more meta version of that. It makes it more worthwhile than just more of me.”
“We had to pick something that felt very genuine for us,” Gaines says. “I think I would feel sick having someone work on our material whose music I didn’t enjoy or if I didn’t respect their work ethic.”
These are all musicians for whom community is vital. They’re not chart-toppers, and with the exception of maybe Baker, they’re not selling out huge rooms. They come from the womb of the DIY underground. “We have friends who have been working as long, if not longer, than we have in music, and we just happen to have had something moderately break through,” White says. “So when we had that position to put a spotlight on them, it was a no-brainer.”
For Glass Beach in particular, who had only toured once before COVID-19, the pandemic solidified the position they were already in — nurturing a community online instead of in person. They were perhaps more well-suited than anyone to seize this moment for non-traditional collaboration. “We didn’t ever really play live, I don’t think LA bands knew we existed,” White says. “So I didn’t feel like Glass Beach was a part of a scene. The pandemic forced people to find community through social media, and I definitely clued into that, and was looking for people to connect to — [like] Jhariah, and Pinkshift, and Nnamdi, and Bartees Strange,” all of whom featured on alchemist rats beg bashful.
It feels particularly meaningful for these three albums to be used to celebrate community during isolation, given that, while all were written before the pandemic, each deals with the theme of isolation in its own way. the first glass beach album looks at loneliness and disenfranchisement; Just Look At That Sky at existential dread and suffocating anxiety; and Little Oblivions at addiction and disintegrating relationships.
“It was definitely interesting once we were all locked inside of our houses, thinking about songs that were yet to be released and going, ‘Wow, these lyrics are hitting slightly differently than we even meant to,'” Gaines says. “Especially ‘Bags For Life.’ That was imagining what the end of the world would look like on the internet, and then we all went through that. So it was really cool when we got that remix back [by Andy Bell’s electronic project GLOK], to see such an optimistic spin on it.”
Of the dark moments explored on her record, Baker says, “[For] at least a handful of people that worked on [the remix EP], those parts of my life are no secret. They were around. And it feels really vulnerable, to turn that over to somebody, and trust that they are going to treat it with the same preciousness. [But] I felt like I could do that with all of these artists, and it was really beautiful to see them take care with the things that they did.”
Thao Nguyen of the recently disbanded Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, who remixed Baker’s “Ziptie” as well as “The Contours” on Owen’s The Avalanche remixes, speaks to the remixer’s side of that trust: “It is such a privilege to have access to the bones and flesh of the song, and to be given the freedom to reinterpret someone else’s work. People invest so much of themselves into their songs. It’s an intimate experience, to isolate someone else’s vocals, to sit with someone else’s thoughts.”
A remix is a unique form of collaboration in that it’s something of a conversation — two separate voices interpreting the same elements. This too was an exciting way to connect with others in a way that only creativity can allow.
“It’s very cool to see ourselves put through somebody else’s mind,” Gaines says. “You’re seeing a bit of how they think, and you can tell what their DNA is in your own song. I think when we’re looking to the future, with how we collaborate with somebody, [we can] go, ‘Oh, you know what, I really like this aspect of their character and their voice.'”
Baker agrees: “It’s like, if you asked five people to draw a chair, they’re all gonna look different. And so it’s neat to see people reimagine the songs, because it’s a window into their creative brain, and they’re able to access ideas I wouldn’t be able to. It was beautiful and kinda freeing.”
Interpretations of the tracks ranged from low-key IDM tweaks to all-out club transformations. Bartees Strange in particular showed his versatility, remixing Glass Beach’s “Bone Skull” into pulsing house and Ganser’s “Emergency Equipments & Exits” into gnarly industrial. He’s also worked on recent remixes for Illuminati Hotties, Samia, Phoebe Bridgers, and Hannah Georgas. “I love making songs more dancey,” he says. “I feel like danciness can be a missed opportunity in a lot of indie rock.”
Meanwhile, Glass Beach were especially excited by Nnamdi’s version of their song “Orchids,” which turns it from an MCR-esque power ballad into an almost unrecognizable trap-beat affair. McClendon says, “I love that one because it is not precious with the song at all. I feel for a lot of people, especially if they’re remixing a song they respect, there’s a reverence for it that can detract from the reinvention that could go with it. And I love how Nnamdi’s just like, ‘Fuck the original key, fuck the original chords, just Melodyne it to a completely different melody.'” (“A remix can be as abstract as you let it,” comments Nnamdi, who has also remixed Owen, Half Waif, La Dispute and Noga Erez. “My ultimate goal is reaching as far as I can without straying so far that the original track has lost all of its presence.”)
McClendon goes on, “I subscribe to the idea that everything is a remix, and trying to take complete ownership over your art like it sprung out of a vacuum fully formed does not make sense to me. [Remixing] is great for the art conversation and for progressing music, and it deepens the sense of community, feeling like the songs can be a shared thing. I think art is what happens between the artwork itself and the person experiencing it, and that’s always extremely individual. And having those different perspectives not only gives people a starting point for their own expression, but also deepens the meaning of the original work.”
Baker voices a similar thought: “Music is just the assemblage of notes and sounds, and people can dismantle that and rebuild it however they want. It’s a very reciprocal act, it’s not just me putting art into the world expecting it to be taken as canon. It communicates what is possible to create out of art.”
Now that live shows are opening back up (Ganser and Baker were both on tour during our conversations) and it’s a little safer to get into a studio with a collaborator, remix projects like this may not be quite as necessary. But the spirit in which they were created and the new possibilities they’ve shown these artists remain.
“It’s taught us to be bold, and given us confidence in our own work,” says Gaines. “That people, if they respect your work, will wanna work with you.”
“Releasing an album of your own is a very individualistic act,” White says. “But the nature of remix albums is collaboration, it is celebration, it is the joy and excitement of people who respect you and want to work with you, and you trusting them and appreciating them. It is a time where a bunch of musicians get together in a way that does not feel competitive and it doesn’t feel like we’re pitted against each other. That space is much more joyful and more supportive than the way the industry wants musicians to treat each other. I think remix albums exemplify the true nature of musicians and music.”
“We’ve made it, we’re alive, and we’re working with these artists that we admire,” Gaines sums up. “It’s strange to have such good fortune under such circumstances.”