Like most kids, I grew up listening to Top 40. I listened to Casey Kasem’s (and later, Rick Dees’) countdown show every Sunday, if I could. My parents listened to a lot of ABBA and Neil Diamond, so that was always in the peripheral. That was pretty much how it was through the 5th grade, aside from one blip: some small time college band called R.E.M.
My brother introduced me to R.E.M. for one reason and one reason only: they had a song about Superman. It would be years before I even realized the song was a cover.
For some reason, once I reached middle school, I started borrowing tapes from my brother (yes, tapes). There was more R.E.M., of course. The B-52s. Depeche Mode. The Sundays. They Might Be Giants. Nine Inch Nails. Jane’s Addiction. Mostly “progressive” music that would either become or lead to “alternative” music.
I remember my friends at the time thought everything I listened to was weird.
I entered high school in the fall of 1990. That first year I mostly continued listening to my weird progressive music. I was an angsty kid, and at the time it was as close to angsty as I could find (aside from metal, but I didn’t know any metal kids, so it was a complete mystery to me. My metal phase would come much later).
In the fall of ’92, things changed. I was still angsty, and suddenly there was music for exactly that emotion: grunge. For about two years, it was the majority of what I listened to. I know it sounds stupid, but it spoke to me. It said the same things I was saying.
In the winter of ’93, I joined a band. We called ourselves oral groove (yes, lower case). Our biggest influence was probably Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, although I was clearly trying to be Eddie Vedder, at least for the first year.
Being in a band exposed me to more music (like the aforementioned Ned’s). Aside from the flavor of the day, we each liked different rock music, from metal to hair bands to hippie jam bands. None of us really listened to anything that might have been called punk rock, not really, not then. But we did seem to push each other to find new bands outside the growing alternative mainstream. The Afghan Whigs and Quicksand were two notable finds.
Grunge was the first cultural phenomenon I got on board with early on, and the first one I watched expand like crazy and ultimately become co-opted. I’m not saying I wasn’t part of that, but it was strange to watch. As grunge became alternative, it was watered down, and very quickly third and fourth generation bands were mimicking the same sound.
Alternative music also lacked the angst that grunge had. It veered into hippie territory. I was far too disgruntled for that. I had to look elsewhere.
I can still remember sitting in my parents living room watching the video for “Unsung” on MTV. Helmet were four dorky guys with short hair playing heavy music and I broke my cassette of their second album, “Meantime” I played it so much. The last part of my senior year, Helmet had unseated many of the grunge bands.
And then I graduated.
Musically, I took Pearl Jam, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, R.E.M., Weezer, Helmet, and the Afghan Whigs with me. Say what you want about Pearl Jam, but they were always the grunge band that got me. I didn’t have the refined pallet to appreciate Nirvana the way I do now.
I had a good mix going. Weezer hadn’t really taken off yet, but I bought their first album as soon as I heard “Undone.” The Afghan Whigs was a band that my friends and I absolutely loved, and that no one else we knew seemed to care about. It was the same way with Ned’s, although they were more of a pure alternative band.
Two bands happened to me the fall of my freshman year of college that completely changed the way that I thought about music. Those bands were Jawbox and Sunny Day Real Estate.
Oh, and I also started playing guitar. Suddenly I was much more involved in creating music, and if mainstream music had turned me off before, it was even worse now. The lack of integrity in mainstream music became very apparent when I started creating my own.
The final element of my musical awakening, if you will, came from a discovery that was, funny enough, facilitated by the internet. Back then the internet was, for me, mostly about BBS forums and record label web sites; there were no such things as MP3s. But internet gave me the information I needed for something very important: mail order records.
Armed with catalogs I’d printed out from web sites, addresses from the same, and a record player I’d had for at least a decade, I began my submersion into the world of underground music.