That Was a Thing: The Brief History of the Totally Made-Up Chillwave Music Genre

Photo by Annabel Staff/Redferns via Getty Images

That Was a Thing is a series in which a Grantland writer goes in the way-back machine and dials up a pop-cultural moment from the past, examining it with the benefit of hindsight. 

In my dream, I’m writing this post from the passenger seat of a Pontiac Trans Am parked on a crystal-clear beach in the year 1984. On that beach, all of my best friends are grilling various grass-fed, lean meats. Elizabeth, the manager of the Urban Outfitters I used to work at, is there too. She brought a cooler of the most refreshing beer you’ve ever had in your life.1 Did I mention she’s wearing a headband? Of course she’s wearing a headband. There’s a dog there too: a scrappy little puppy named Benji. Benji’s a corgi/golden retriever mix and he loves to play fetch. I try to eat a free-range chicken sandwich, but there’s sand all over the bun. There’s sand in everything, and I don’t care. I don’t care about anything because I’m high.

The dream ends when I realize there’s no Wi-Fi and no Grantland in 1984. My dream is the dream of all fans of the music known as chillwave — to live a life of leisure in a deadbeat summer that never ends. The man Rolling Stone called Chillwave’s godfather, Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi, released a new album of straightforward indie rock called What For? on Tuesday, but he will be forever associated with history’s greatest fake music genre.

Chillwave was a term invented by thought leader/influencer Carles2 on his Hipster Runoff blog to classify a type of music loosely defined by summertime imagery, analog production, and heavy usage of samples.3 It really only existed from the summer of 2009 to the beginning of 2011, around the time when no one was sure how much of Hipster Runoff was a gag and how much was sincere tastemaking. In the music, you can hear the lo-fi, bedroom aesthetic of early Ariel Pink and the playful, beachy quality of middle-period Animal Collective. Projects like Memory Tapes, Com Truise, and Nite Jewel could have been thrown in with existing genres like shoegaze or dream pop, but by creating a term from nothing, it revealed how arbitrary and meaningless labels like that really are. It wasn’t a scene. It was a parody of a scene, both a defining moment for the music blogosphere and the last gasp. Sites like Gorilla vs. Bear and Pitchfork bought into it for a while, and sincere think pieces in traditional media publications like the Wall Street Journal asked, “Is Chillwave the Next Big Music Trend?”

It never could have been a proper trend, because it was transparently manufactured. The artists, many of whom had never even heard of each other before the “summer of chillwave,” started to rebel against the classification, realizing we’d all get wise to the joke eventually. Josh Kolenik of Small Black is quoted in that Wall Street Journal trend piece saying, “We were out the other night with the dudes from Neon Indian and we were joking about how we’ve created a scene that never really existed.” He also claimed that they introduced themselves to the other band because they “wanted to make chillwave jokes.” It was like a Russian nesting doll of irony. Bands whose success was tied to the explosion of a genre preemptively mocked that genre, even though the very existence of the genre was mocking them. I don’t even know who to feel sorry for.

Toro y Moi put the genre to bed for good with his second album, Underneath the Pine. It used real instruments and seemed to consciously avoid the slacker vibe of Causers of This. He went out of his way to distance himself from the chillwave label in the press, saying he had “gotten past that sound.” It’s now hard to take online micro-trends like PC Music seriously, because of the infamous legacy of chillwave. How can we ever fully trust again?

Still, it was a moment, even if it’s one that lasted only slightly shorter than Ryan Leaf’s career in the NFL. And, I hate to be that guy, but some of this music is really good. Let’s indulge our nostalgia for nostalgia and look back at the three greatest chillwavers of all time, listed in descending order of importance. I’ve also included a handy chillwave Spotify playlist that includes most of the bands associated with the genre, and a couple that are still carrying the flag. Come chill with me:

Washed Out

Washed Out is the name of a band/project fronted by Ernest Greene, a dude from Georgia who couldn’t find a job as a librarian after college, so he decided to make music in his parents’ house instead. Smart move, man. I recommend that option to all of my unemployed friends to this day. He couldn’t really sing, his lyrics were meaningless platitudes, and he’d never performed any of his songs live. He literally had to learn how to be a rock star after already becoming a rock star.

Greene released his first EP, High Timesonly on cassette. At the time, part of the charm of Washed Out was its interest in obsolete technology. It sounded like it was banged out on an old Casio and recorded inside of a panic room. The only way he could have made a hipper record is if he composed it all in Tails and the Music Maker on a Sega Pico. Greene’s most popular song (and what could be called the defining chillwave song), “Feel It All Around,” is best known as the theme song to Portlandia. The song uses a slowed-down sample of the 1983 track “I Want You” by Italian disco warbler Gary Low. “I Want You” is an absolutely horrible song, and Low sounds like a horse choking on a handful of marbles. I’d imagine he gets a residual check every time Portlandia airs, which is astounding to me.

Best Song: “Feel It All Around”

Currently: Touring a lot. This guy is like the chillwave Phish. No idea when a new album will come out, but I bet it’ll be some Peter Gabriel world-music shit. Since chillwave ended, Washed Out has doubled down on the neo-hippie boho thing. His last album, 2013’s Paracosm, is the soundtrack album to an Anthropologie catalogue, and I’m OK with that.

Toro y Moi

Causers of This, the first Toro y Moi album, always stood out from the other chillwave records because Bundick could sing and his lyrics carried a bit more weight. “Blessa,” the standout track from Causers, was an ode to the aimlessness and malaise of college graduates in the post–Great Recession era. It’s not poetry, but it was a step up from whatever “Feel It All Around” was supposed to be about.

Best Song: “Blessa”

Currently: Supporting his new album. It’s not great, but the lead single, “Empty Nesters,” is pretty stellar. He lives in Oakland, which is not a very chill place.

Neon Indian

Neon Indian is Alan Palomo. After two failed electronic nostalgia projects, Ghosthustler and Vega, he stumbled upon his alt classic, “Should Have Taken Acid With You.” The song is about a time when Palomo blew it and didn’t take acid with someone — his greatest regret. I assume Neon Indian was just a means of reconnecting with this person and eventually taking acid with them. Hopefully that worked out.

I tried to pinpoint what the difference between Ghosthustler, Vega, and Neon Indian was. All three projects were electronic tributes to the 1980s. The only variation I can see is Neon Indian had way more references to summer than those other two. In the summer of 2009, people were way into summer, I guess. Whatever it was, Neon Indian blew up. The project’s first full-length album, Psychic Chasms, was one of chillwave’s defining records, despite having some of the dumbest lyrics of all time.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 5.47.49 PM

Yes, those are real.

The second Neon Indian album, Era Extraña, came out in the fall of 2011, well after the Great Chillwave Crash. By then, the tastemakers had moved on. I saw Neon Indian DJ at a Vice party at SXSW two years later. He seemed lonely, but that’s probably just me projecting.

Best Song: “Deadbeat Summer”

Currently: Neon Indian contributed a new song to the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack called “Change of Coast.” Unlike Toro y Moi and Washed Out, Neon Indian hasn’t evolved much past chillwave. He’s allegedly hard at work on a new album for 2015.

The World’s Chillest Spotify Playlist

Chillwave is ostensibly dead, but the artists are still out there making music. In addition to Washed Out, Neon Indian, and Toro y Moi’s post-chillwave work, Small Black also released a new album in 2013 that had an expansive, broad sound that seemed like a play for mainstream success that never came. There are also superficial traces of chillwave in bands like Purity Ring and Phantogram, and that seems appropriate for a genre that lived and died on being superficial.

Filed Under: Music, Chillwave, Toro y Moi, Washed Out, Neon Indian, Glo-Fi, Ariel Pink, animal collective, That Was A Thing

Dave Schilling is a general editor at Grantland.

Archive @ dave_schilling