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Slacker Rock: The Casual Rebelion

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Slacker Rock: The Casual Rebelion

Pictured - Pavement in in 1994. Photograph: Gie Knaeps/Getty

The term slacker gained a large amount of traction in the American lexicon in the early ‘90s, used to describe a youthful group of people who found themselves relatively disinterested in conventional paths to life. The term definitely had a derogatory nature to it, with the older generations alongside the more conventional populace viewing this disinterested or differently minded youth as lazy, apathetic and selfish. The outcome for those considered slacker’s was far from the expected outcome, resulting in an interesting cultural movement in the US filled with creativity, a DIY mentality but most importantly a new, post-80s worldview, which was significant following a decade of homegrown American conservatism. In short, the slackers couldn’t care less about conventional paths to life, and the result exposed itself in one of the more intriguing sides of ‘90s alternative rock. 

Within a short time of the spawning of slacker counterculture, the term "slacker rock" popped up across the US, describing a style of music made of a lo-fi aesthetic paired with catchy melodies, deadpan vocals, minimalist production, and a complete, refreshing lack of glamour. Mainstream North American music by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was overflowing with makeup-wearing hair metal and hard rock bands, glamorous pop stars, and keyboard-wielding synth-pop bands. Top records were heavily produced, with an immense amount of financial backing, arena tours, and MTV at the top, with pop culture heavily tied to music. However, the slackers were not very interested and instead were crafting a style that was completely different, brand new, and unsuspectingly ahead of its time.

On one side of the rock spectrum in the late '80s, you had Guns N' Roses, Poison, and Motley Crue, putting on spectacular performances in stadiums across the world filled with fireworks, light shows, expensive costumes, and of course, eye makeup. On the other side, you had Pixies and Sonic Youth, playing in small and mid-sized clubs across the US, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies. The latter side of the spectrum was quite appealing to up-and-coming musicians more interested in the underground alternative of the '80s, characterized by well-put-together, catchy, DIY records followed by authentic and intimate live shows. The records of late '80s alternative groups like Pixies, Sonic Youth, R.E.M., and The Jesus and Mary Chain, to list a few, cost pennies compared to the massive, commercialized records of the mainstream rockers, and most importantly, the musicians held a massive amount of control over their content, and that’s what interested the slackers.

The early ‘90s saw a string of alternative rock subgenres appear, perhaps most noticeably grunge. Running parallel to grunge, though, was slacker rock, which gradually but certainly captured the spirit of a lot of young Americans. Throughout the ‘90s, bands like Pavement, Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, and Built to Spill entered the world of alt and indie rock with perhaps the most casual approach to music in the decade. Of the bands to find themselves associated with slacker rock, none received more praise and eventual attention than Stockton, California’s own Pavement.

Pavement connected with an underground niche of listeners, many of whom were engulfed in what would have been considered the slacker lifestyle. Pavement's sound was one of witty and ironic lyrics, backed by decisive and memorable guitar playing. Pavement's musical style was also one of significant lo-fi sensibilities, especially with their earlier EPs prior to their debut album Slanted and Enchanted. The initial EPs were marked by a rough, unpolished quality with a feel that they were casually and enjoyably recorded. The band's first EP, Slay Tracks: 1933-1969, was recorded at the Stockton home of Gary Young, Pavement's first drummer. According to guitarist Scott Kanberg, “You go into his house and it's stuff everywhere, old dogs lying around, big pot plants everywhere, and Gary tells us that he got all his equipment by selling pot! It was us going in and pretty much just laying down the songs with a guide guitar and a detuned guitar through a bass amp, and then we'd play drums over the top.” From start to finish, the EP was ready to go within two days, including mixing and tracking. Pavement only had 1,000 copies of the EP pressed, anticipating a minimal release, but within one year, the EP had essentially become a collector's item for Pavement fans, selling for between $500-$600. The success of the underground initial EP made it quite clear Pavement was about to take the underground rock world by storm, which they did.

Over the next ten years, Pavement clearly established themselves as the faces of slacker rock, alongside being considered one of the best, if not the best American Alternative band. Their first two albums, Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain are both considered near perfect albums by indie enthusiasts and are considered among the best indie rock albums of all time. The bands desire to casually innovate with post-punk and noise pop to produce a new, mellow rock sound was met with acclaim from critics and listeners alike. Following the second release, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain the band started to develop a more polished sound, different from the first five years of Pavement. The following EPs and records were not quite met with the same enthusiasm and acclaim of the early recordings although their initial slacker and eclectic style was never abandoned by the group. 

Pictured - Stephen Malkmus of Pavement with The Jicks (Photograph/Julio Enriquez - 2018)

Pavement completely epitomized slacker rock in the ‘90s and created a massive legacy. Frontman and guitarist Stephen Malkmus can be credited with some of the best lyrics of the ‘90s. His witty, ironic, and cryptic lyrics were just as noticeable as the band's unusual song structures, both dissonant and jangly sounds, along with their authentic DIY mentality.

Running parallel with Pavement was Dayton, Ohio's Guided by Voices, fronted by Robert Pollard. Guided by Voices can be most easily identified not only by Pollard's unique voice but also by the band's heavy lo-fi tendencies, much more so than Pavement. Over the last 35 years or so, Guided by Voices has released well over 1,000 songs, the most notable coming from their praiseworthy mid-‘90s albums Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. The band perfected the craft of creating catchy, often short and quirky rock songs reminiscent of punk and mid-80s indie influences. The impact of Guided by Voices has been felt for decades with bands like The Shins, Modest Mouse, and Spoon. In The Shins' 2017 single Mildenhall, listeners can hear an eerie similarity to Guided by Voices' My Valuable Hunting Knife, especially in the drum loop

Pictured - Guided By Voices - "Guided By Voices Are Still the Masters of Creepy Cool" - The Talkhouse (photo: Michael Lavine)

Apart from Pavement and Guided by Voices tearing up the underground in the ‘90s, in Los Angeles, Beck was doing his part in the slacker rock scene. Beck’s musical style, in a similar manner to Pavement, can be characterized as DIY music backed by deadpan vocals. Although post-2000 Beck departed from the slacker rock style to an extent, in the early and mid-‘90s, Beck looked and sounded the part. Beck’s 1994 single Loser has become the anthem of slacker rock. Beck’s vocals on Loser sound somewhat of a subtly atonal Bob Dylan-like talking blues sound, while lyrically being mostly nonsensical. Beck’s impressively unimpressive vocal delivery captured the attention of a lot of listeners inside and outside the mainstream. Although the song established Beck as the center point for slacker culture, Beck himself was not too interested, “Slacker my ass. I never had any slack. I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. That slacker stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything.” As we said earlier, the whole terminology of slacker culture was initially meant to be insulting and dismissive, and it’s not surprising someone would not want to be its focal point.

Establishing itself alongside slacker rock in the early ‘90s was the Seattle-grunge sound. Although the two styles have their noticeable sonic differences, the sensibilities between the genres went hand in hand. Aside from both being heavily engulfed in a DIY attitude, they both formed as a rejection of mainstream rock sensibilities. Both the grungeheads and the slackers were disinterested in the larger-than-life personas of pop stars and glam rockers and instead favored a much more personable, relatable persona. The casual wardrobes donned by the slackers and grungeheads instantly made these musicians immensely more relatable, and that boded well for them. Apart from the physical style characteristics, the lyrical matter between grunge and slacker rock was not all that far apart either. Both genres delved deeply into themes of alienation, detachment, and everyday life, although the grunge guys certainly took a more direct, in-your-face approach. With both styles of music originating at the same time, and coming from a similar place inside, they both provided a relatable outlet for millions and millions of young listeners disinterested in mainstream music.

The laid-back ethos of slacker rock left a massive mark on indie music but has since lived on long beyond its early ‘90s peak. Contemporary indie artists like Mac DeMarco and Courtney Barnett have borrowed much of the slacker rock sensibilities, noticeably in both artists' lyrical delivery. Monotone and relaxed vocal delivery has become a well-received technique in modern music, thanks heavily to Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. Alongside the vocal delivery, the tendency to record at home or have the artist play a large role in the mixing is very evident of the DIY mindset of the slacker rock genre.

Pictured - Mac Demarco (Weekly Dig/2014)

The slacker counterculture, born from a sense of disillusionment and nonconformity, blossomed into a formidable cultural force, resulting in some of the finest rock music of the ‘90s. The impact of Pavement, Guided by Voices and Built to Spill has carried well into the 21st century with artists perfecting and embracing the concepts surrounding the slacker sound of the ‘90s. In particular, in the late '90s and early to mid 2000's there was a direct effort by indie artists to essentially not just copy the slacker rock sound, but skip the middleman and just try to sound like Pavement. This can be heard realy well in early Modest Mouse and Flake Music (which became The Shins) in the'90s and later Alex G and Deerhunter in the 2000's. Regardless, although the sounds of slacker rock are of a more casual persuasion, the musical concepts were adavanced and intricate, the guitar work was pristine and catchy and the lyrics were incredibly clever. Those artists inside the slacker rock genre turned the term slacker into something incredibly positive, and gave a sense of worth to a lot of people who were not lazy, but simply disinterested in social and musical norms. As we look back now, it's clear that what was once dismissed as a lack of ambition or disinterest was, in fact, a profound statement on living and creating art in a world that too often values style over substance. 

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