Ten years ago, Kaleb Asplund was living in rural Japan, teaching English during the day and schooling karaoke-bar patrons at night. But while the karaoke motherland offered songbooks thick with Western artists—everyone from Hall & Oates to Halloween—he couldn’t find anything by the indie-rock bands he’d listened to as a teen. Instead of belting out Modest Mouse, he had to make do with deep-cut ABBA or Carpenters tunes. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of that music,” the 34-year-old Wisconsin native says. “I wanted to do the songs I knew—the songs I sang in college.”
He wasn’t alone. By the early ’00s, thanks to American Idol, karaoke was in the midst of a slow-burn cultural transformation, having evolved from divisive lark to a (relatively) guilt-free nightlife pursuit. Suddenly, everyone wanted to publicly reconnect with the music from their youth. Yet for those who’d come of age reading MRR and mainlining the record label SST, the karaoke pickings were slim. On a good night, they might find “Punk Rock Girl,” or maybe even a stray Buzzcocks song. But the companies pumping out karaoke tracks in the ’80s and ’90s focused mostly on familiar, “Rump Shaker”–size radio hits. Anyone hoping to sing along with Fugazi or Pavement would have to do so in the car.
Which is why, after moving to Austin in 2004, Asplund and his wife, Hannah, started Karaoke Underground, an appropriately DIY crowd-participation show dedicated to punk and indie songs, some well-known (Black Flag’s “TV Party”; Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon”), others so obscure that even their biggest fans would likely need some on-screen lyrical assistance. There are currently about 550 songs in the Karaoke Underground library; Asplund digitally removes the vocals from the original songs, then adds video accompaniment. And though he doesn’t secure artists’ permission when committing their work to the karaoke canon, so far, no one’s complained. The duo was even invited to last fall’s Matador Records 21st-anniversary celebration in Las Vegas, where a group rendition of Pavement’s “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” ended with singer Ted Leo crowd-surfing along the stage.
For Asplund, Karaoke Underground is part wish-fulfillment, part culture-clash spectacle—a chance to throw together aggro hardcore lovers, wispy Belle & Sebastian fans, and even a few emo kids, and see what happens. “The people who are into this are going to have a personal connection to the song,” he says. “You may not love Crass or Bikini Kill, but you’re going to connect with the person who gets up and sings them, because it’s something they really love.”
By their own admission, the Asplunds weren’t the first to come up with the concept of an underground-themed karaoke night: New York’s Original Punk Rock/Heavy Metal Karaoke Band was turning patrons into part-time Ramones as early as 1999, and the Asplunds had taken their inspiration from a punk-rock karaoke DJ they’d seen in Minneapolis in the early ’00s. (“It was just MP3s and sheets of paper,” Asplund recalls.) There’s even a growing market for bootleg indie tracks on the Web, where karaoke jockeys (or KJs) trade homemade versions of “Waiting Room” or “Cut Your Hair.”
Karaoke Underground’s arsenal, however, is the sleekest yet; several songs even include homemade videos, which Kaleb and Hannah Asplund shot around Austin. Some are charming re-creations of the aimless, obtuse karaoke videos made famous in the ’80s; others are more ambitious, such as a clip for Modest Mouse’s “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine,” in which a series of household objects are overturned, revealing the song lyrics.
Of course, with so many songs, there are bound to be a few languishing gems in the Karaoke Underground catalog (“I’m still waiting for somebody to sing [’90s rockers] the pAper chAse,” Asplund says). And, in the same way karaoke regulars can be driven to madness by the overly familiar opening notes of “Dancing Queen,” there are a few perennials Asplund could do with never hearing again: “ ‘Rock Lobster,’ ‘Common People,’ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’—they’re there for people who are just randomly walking into the bar and want to get involved,” he says. “We don’t need to hear those songs again. But we will, and we will sing along and dance, because enthusiasm is what karaoke’s all about.”
Despite having to listen to countless, tipsy re-creations of his favorite songs, Asplund hasn’t lost any of his affection for karaoke—though he admits that some of the indie-rock hits he pined for in Japan didn’t wind up making for great sing-alongs. In college, he and Hannah bonded over their love of Modest Mouse’s “Polar Opposites,” and they made it their very first Karaoke Underground track. “We’d spent hours singing along to it in our dorm room with friends, drinking away our problems,” he says. “But it’s got this minute or so of instrumental at the end. It’s actually really bad for karaoke.”
Karaoke Underground appears at Rock Shop on Saturday, May 14