Bedroom producers, such as the Weeknd and Washed Out, do just that: make music in their bedrooms. But home recording is nothing new. Bruce Springsteen did it in the 1980s, Elliott Smith in the ’90s. Even the Rolling Stones got in on the action, making Exile on Main St. in a French basement (reserving the bedrooms for other activities). This map pricks up its ears to what’s going on behind closed doors.
In 1971 the Rolling Stones exiled themselves from England to escape a 93-percent tax rate. The outlaw band set up shop in the Villa Nellcôte on the French Riviera, where, as bassist Bill Wyman put it, they had to “deal with the French milk” and other unpleasantries of homesickness. They began to record an album in a cramped basement, threading their equipment dangerously from room to room. “Everybody’s gonna need a ventilator,” Mick Jagger menaces on “Ventilator Blues.” There were fights and fires, rumors of debauchery and strange midnight work ethics. These factors, along with cavernous acoustics, contributed to the blistering sound of Exile on Main St.
A decade later Bruce Springsteen spent a few days recording demos for a new album in his New Jersey home. As with the Stones, Springsteen was influenced by circumstance: He’d been reading the often grotesque Southern Gothic stories of Flannery O’Connor and watching a young couple’s murderous rampage in Terence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands. But when Springsteen returned to the studio to flesh out the demos, members of his E Street Band convinced the Boss to release the set of songs as it was—as the spare and wild Nebraska.
Bruce Springsteen recorded Nebraska on a four-track tape deck—not exactly groundbreaking technology, especially in the 1980s, when heavy studio engineering was regarded as requisite wizardry. Throughout the album, Springsteen’s already gruff voice is further roughened by the scratchy audio: His bark during “State Trooper” reverberates, his howl on “Johnny 99” wavers. The unrefined sound adds to the haunting atmosphere of the album and the dispossessed characters that populate it—murderers, blue-collar everymen, a child who stares dreamily at a mansion from the lowlands of his factory town. In terms of recording possibilities, Nebraska inspired everyone from songwriters Daniel Johnston and Elliott Smith to couch-surfing guitarists and living-in-cars crooners who no longer needed a studio to make music.
While playing in the indie band Heatmiser in 1993, Smith made his first solo album, Roman Candle (released in ’94), on another four-track recorder. As with Springsteen and Nebraska, the raw tone suits Smith and his perennial sadness. “He was sick of it all,” he moans on “Last Call.” After he met with success, Smith upgraded to top-notch equipment, but he never abandoned home recording. He made his final album, From a Basement on the Hill, in a ritzy house in California.
The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. has a boozy rhythm: Mick Jagger slurs his vocals, and instruments battle it out in chaotic blues lines. The basement in Keith Richards’s rented French villa, where the Stones made the record, was famously overrun with whiskey and drugs—Richards regularly excused himself to inject heroin and nod off, while eight-year-old Jake Weber (now an actor) rolled joints for the band. Photographer Dominique Tarle remembers the time as “rock-and-roll heaven.” But in 1973, when Richards and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, went on trial for heroin possession, the dream of rock-and-roll exile crumbled; the pair was banned from France for two years.
For Elliott Smith, a world of drugs and basement recording sessions became a self-exiled hell. The lyrics in From a Basement on the Hill paint a stark picture of addiction and depression. The chorus of “Strung Out Again” goes, “I know my place / Hate my face.” In “King’s Crossing,” Smith describes syringes as “needles on the tree” and a drug dealer as a “skinny Santa,” singing, “Don’t let me get carried away / Don’t let me be carried away.” Smith committed suicide before he could finish the album.
Some musicians strive for the best sound quality money can buy. Think Steely Dan, Sting’s solo material, Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories. But many others abjure overproduction, which can sound slick and artificial, in favor of low-fidelity recording. The 1950s had skiffle, a bluesy, countrifed jazz played on milk jugs, washboards and other homemade instruments. But the 1963 release of the first compact cassette by electronics company Philips was a watershed for scratchy music. A series of bootleg recordings of Bob Dylan and the Band, circulated in the late 1960s, became so popular that in 1975 Columbia Records released it as The Basement Tapes. The Grateful Dead actually encouraged their rabid fans to record and distribute their concerts on cassettes. And recording on tapes allowed the 1970s hardcore punk scene to largely avoid the studio system, thereby confirming its antiestablishment ethos. But lo-fi went mainstream when Bruce Springsteen made Nebraska on a tape recorder, lending his songs a natural, spontaneous quality. (Rolling Stone called it Springsteen’s “bravest record.”) The lo-fi aesthetic appealed to everyone from such indie bands as Guided By Voices to Daft Punk, whose 1997 debut, Homework, is an homage to home recording.
In 2008 The New York Times published an obituary for the audiocassette, entitled “Say So Long to an Old Companion.” With CDs and then iPods, there was no longer a place for the hiss and whine of spooled tape. Even audiobooks, the last stronghold for cassettes, were making the transition to newer, cleaner formats. But in the words of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Atlantic City,” “everything that dies someday comes back.” For the cassette tape, resurrection came pretty quickly. Since 2009, Mirror Universe Tapes has been releasing new material on cassette. Based in Charleston, South Carolina, the company has snagged some of the leading members of the “chillwave” movement, including Toro y Moi, Washed Out and Memory Tapes (!), for whom lo-fi cassette recording works perfectly for their brand of hypnotic, melodic and nostalgic electronica. Washed Out (a.k.a. Ernest Greene) says that to create his music’s atmosphere, he has to “degrade the sound a little bit.” (Recording and endlessly rerecording onto tape, incidentally, is how Fleetwood Mac achieved the sound of its 1977 masterpiece Rumours, albeit by accident.) Today cassettes are a throwback fetish for audiophiles. September 7, 2013, was declared the first Cassette Store Day.
In 1970 legendary producer Phil Spector held so much power that he completely remixed the Beatles’ album Let It Be, adding ornate orchestral flourishes and choirs. Paul McCartney held such a grudge about this that he rereleased the album in 2003, stripping it bare of Spector’s overproduction. Today everyone seems to be a producer, and remixing is commonplace. Electronic musicians continually rework songs by adding new beats and overlapping synth effects. Washed Out, for example, embraces the remix culture, taking on his peers’ songs and asking other producers to remix his singles. Even rock bands have dabbled in the form. Tame Impala’s music sounds as if it were made in the acid rock heyday of the 1960s, yet the Perth, Australia, band released electronic remixes of Abbe May’s “Mammalian Locomotion” in 2010 and Daft Punk’s “End of Line” in 2011. Additionally, there’s a growing trend of tribute albums that remake classic songs from scratch. Chimes of Freedom (2012) contains 76 tributes to Bob Dylan, and the same year both Washed Out and Tame Impala covered songs for a Fleetwood Mac tribute album. These days, nobody lets anything be.
Nobody knows if Elliott Smith would have liked his last album, From a Basement on the Hill. Because producer Rob Schnapf and Smith’s ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme completed the record’s production after Smith’s death, there was considerable debate about whether it should have been released at all. One thing is certain, Basement on the Hill sounds appreciably different from Smith’s previous five albums. Gone are the sweet, Beatles-esque melodies. Starting with the album’s distant, out-of-tune opening notes, the songs range from ominous to sinister to hauntingly lonely. On the final song, “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” Smith sings, “It’s raining in my heart.”
Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is another multi-instrumentalist who writes, sings and records at home. Like Smith’s, Parker’s music is somewhat backward looking: Tame Impala is known equally for psychedelic face melters, propelled by fuzz bass and overdriven guitars, and quieter songs with low-key vocals. Many lyrics on the band’s 2012 album Lonerism wouldn’t be out of place on a Smith record. “A beautiful girl is wasting my life,” Parker reflects on “Music to Walk Home By.” On “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” Parker’s plaintive voice—like Smith’s—evokes a young John Lennon.
In 2009 Ernest Greene was producing music out of his parents’ house. He released a cassette-only album (limited to 200 copies), posted tracks online and captured the ears of the music world. Dubbing himself Washed Out, Greene joined a small band of upstarts known as bedroom producers who spurn traditional recording studios. Most bedroom producers make music on computers loaded with inexpensive software, and they all seem to have one another’s backs. Producer Mike Volpe, known as Clams Casino and based out of his New Jersey bedroom, remixed Washed Out’s 2011 song “Amor Fati.” Also that year, Clams helped produce Echoes of Silence, the third album of another boudoir craftsman, Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, who sings a jaded strain of post-R&B. After uploading three tracks to YouTube in 2010, the Weeknd shot to fame, partly because the mystique of a solitary genius working out of his bedroom was irresistible. In reality, Tesfaye was in bed with at least one other producer, Jeremy Rose, and the Weeknd was a fully team-backed affair. Nowadays, no one wants to seem packaged. If major record labels ever hope to regain their cred, they’ll need to find ways to lure musicians into the studio.