Free Energy find themselves in a strange new world. A fuzzy, poppy, rock ‘n’ roll band inspired by ’70s acts like Big Star, Thin Lizzy, and The Cars, they grew up on rock. “Paul and I are both from the same small town,” says Evan Wells, who started the band with his brother Scott and their friend Paul Sprangers in the last decade when they all still lived in Minnesota. “It had this like pretty amazing classic rock radio station radio station. It’s called K-WNG. It’s everywhere. Every convenience store, it’s ever-present.”
Free Energy perform at the Bowery Ballroom on May 5
They worked hard at their music, started a band that did pretty well (Hockey Night), then, when that band broke up, started another and kept working. Before long, they were touring the world, playing with their idols (they both opened for Weezer on a recent tour and accompanied them on their Caribbean cruise), putting out critically acclaimed records and otherwise being pretty successful.
Lately, though, they’ve been feeling out of place. “We were playing with a band that was mostly backing tracks,” says Wells, describing a recent show. “The singer was, like, break-dancing on stage,” dancing along to a recording he’d made earlier, trying to distract the audience from the fact that he wasn’t, in the band’s opinion, actually doing anything. “And Paul’s like, ‘Are we dinosaurs?’ How are we in the same world, playing the same shows as these bands?”
Such is the problem of shredding. Bands who really shred — not punk or hardcore bands who can barely play their instruments, not bands who incorporate guitars into larger clouds of musical emotion, but bands who’ve made their name with guitar-based pop(ish) music and really fucking shred — are increasingly finding themselves at the margins of musical culture. In a cruel irony, it’s the extreme proficiency of bands like Free Energy, or their Philadelphia brethren Spacin’ or Purling Hiss, their total success at making a certain kind of music that’s doomed them. Their audience has fallen out from under them, even as they have perfected their sound.
Some people still come to these shows and buy these records, obviously. But, like the Republican Party, its devotees are aging and mostly white. In 2008, I saw a show from Danava, one of my absolute favorite bands. They make soaring, dramatic music inspired by the spacey heavy metal of the late 1970s: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath-era Black Sabbath and Hawkwind. I saw them again in 2012, and the same dozen mid-30s white guys were there. This lines up with how Wells describes the crowds at some of their challenging shows.
What’s replaced guitar rock in the culture? In a sense, everything else: vibrant singers, hip-hop, soul, tones that sound like flocks of electronic birds or crumbling glass towers, beats, chopped up past pop, samples of the production company slates from the 1980s. It’s the sound of a generation that’s grown up drowning in media. These bands’ strength is their lack of focus, their broad references to everything; sounds that stick to you as you fall through culture, like the silhouette at the beginning of Mad Men. The examples of these kinds of acts are legion: Autre ne Veut, Jai Paul, The Knife, Cold Cave, Ariel Pink (and associated projects). Popular rock acts? I can think of two: Kurt Vile (profiled here recently) and The Black Keys.
See also: On Free Energy’s “Dream City”
“It’s kind of a free-for-all,” says Ty Segall. Over the past few years, Segall has quickly become one of the most prolific and well-respected performers in independent rock, earning raves for his loose, shambolic records of hazy and loud music. I spoke with him while he was loading his blown-out amp into his car to take it to a repair guy. “It’s wild. I was at Coachella yesterday. Grimes played: it was all young kids, totally flipping out. For my music, rock ‘n’ roll-ish stuff, there’s definitely kids there, but also adults — people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. But watching Girmes and looking at electronic bands: it’s all kids.”
Things aren’t any better on the business side. Guitar Center was bought out by Bain Capital in the last decade, and has been struggling to pay its debt ever since. Fender, one of the world’s most iconic guitar brands, was gearing up to start selling shares on the stock market last year, but postponed those plans indefinitely over the summer. Sales of guitars themselves had been flat for years when they fell off a cliff along with the rest of the economy in 2008. They’ve been clawing their way back extremely slowly ever since, posting yearly growth figures like 0.8% in 2011, according to industry sales analysis group MI SalesTrak.
Even Free Energy have been pulled by this current. On their latest, Love Sign, they’re evolving beyond their fuzzy guitar roots to something more poppy. “We’re branching out more,” Wells tells me, “trying to incorporate digital elements into what we’re doing live.”
Sprangers goes even further. “If I read that a band was ‘guitar rock,'” he says, ” I probably wouldn’t listen to them. In my mind, I’ve seen all these bands where it’s these macho dudes with huge Marshall stacks playing really loud, repetitive, generic riffs, and that is the last thing that I ever want to listen to.” It seems an increasingly large percentage of the music-buying public agrees with him.
Free Energy perform at The Bowery Ballroom on May 5