The ‘anti-folk’ movement was started by disgruntles young New York City musician, frozen out of mid-’80s Greenwich Village folk venues for being ‘too punk’. In subsequent years it became a global underground trend defined less by the nature of the music than by a noble, knowing, DIY approach and an insouciant attitude to the mainstream record industry. A quarter of a century later, anti-folk remains ‘the Schrödinger’s cat of musical genres’, suggests Rhiannon Parkinson
Although for some, anti-folk will always refer to a specific cabal of New York City lo-fi troubadours, for others it applies to purveyors of various strains of contemporary folk and DIY indie rock. Indeed, anti-folk, perhaps uniquely, is a term used to simultaneously describe both an oddly specific and yet incredibly diverse area of music. With the inexorable rise of the ‘new-folk’ movement over the last few years (another broad church which embraces Joanna Newsom, Fleet Foxes and Tunng as readily as Laura Marling, Noah And The Whale and Johnny Flynn), lazy mainstream music journalists started conflating anti-folk with, well, folk, when describing anything with an acoustic guitar and a whistleable melody. Often these artists had no specific connection to, or expressed any of the values of, the original anti-folk movement. Indeed, to classify a band as anti-folk today is to engage with a minefield of paradoxes, so any view of such artists (mine included) is bound to be somewhat subjective.
As popular legend has it, the first coinage of ‘anti-folk’ to describe a sound or movement occurred in the mid-’80s and is usually credited to the New York City musician, Lach. It was a designation designed to remove him and a group of likeminded NYC musicians from the snobbish, insular and stagnating folk clubs in the city. Angered by the rules that seemed to govern that said scene (and having been told his music was “too punk” to play at a regular folk venue) Lach started his own ‘anti-folk’ night (the ‘Antihoot’) at a downtown club, The Fort, and launched the first New York Anti-Folk festival, a direct response to the established New York Folk Festival. These gatherings went on throughout the late ’80s and well into the ’90s, always staged at the Sidewalk Café in the East Village — still, perhaps, the venue most associated with anti-folk. While Lach was responsible for the term ‘anti-folk’, one man alone cannot be credited with creating the associated musical style which is, by definition, extremely diverse and individual.
Many widely recognised musicians who latterly transcended the anti-folk community — including Beck, Michelle Shocked and Regina Spektor — gained their reputations and experience by playing at the Sidewalk Café as part of Lach’s anti-folk shows and open mic nights. His Antihoot (albeit under new stewardship, as of this year) is still a part of New York City’s thriving anti-folk scene —purveyors of a sound and style which is thought by many to be the definitive anti-folk signature, with strong influences on and connections to other bands internationally. This collection includes Jeffrey Lewis, Adam Green (previously of The Moldy Peaches), Dufus, Schwervon, Huggabroomstik, Cheese on Bread, and Prewar Yardsale.
While the genre (if, indeed, that’s what it really is) originated in New York City, there are flourishing ‘scenes’ all over the world, particularly in Europe. The UK’s anti-folk scene is distinct and is, by and large, more focused on self-consciously twee indie-pop music, often having little of the ingenuity and originality of the New York movement (although there are exceptions). Even within the local scenes there are contradictions. For example, the Wave Pictures are a London-based band, and perhaps would be expected to play the tried and tested twee-pop favoured by the capital’s anti-folk crowd, but they don’t. Instead, they play good old-fashioned rock’n’roll-inspired pop music, while touring internationally with mainly non-British bands. The role of anti-folk as a gateway to an international music network, rather than a self-insulating clique, is one of the movement’s defining philosophies.
Indeed, with the amount of variety within the sound, structure and location of the music, the only key element of ‘anti-folk’ that makes it more than just a collection of random musicians is the philosophy behind it, which is, simply put: “Do what you can with what you have”. It’s not about fancy recording studios and shiny guitars, nor is it about trying to be purposefully crappy or inept, but about creating something original and (more importantly) genuine from the resources at your disposal.
For the mainstream music press, anti-folk has generally meant folky singers with acoustic guitars, but this is only one aspect of the musical aesthetic. Actually, the sound of ‘anti-folk’ is completely inconsistent. While acoustic guitars and clever wordplay are essential ingredients for many artists considered anti-folk (for example, Kimya Dawson and Diane Cluck), the genre also encompasses much more experimental folk (Dufus), twee-pop (The Bobby McGees), mainstream singer-songwriters (Regina Spektor, who has played with Dufus and often toured with other anti-folk bands such as Only Son), a classic pop sound (Herman Düne, the Wave Pictures), and of course those artists who cover all areas, most notably Jeffrey Lewis.
Certainly many, if by no means all, the anti-folk artists share a distinctively lo-fi approach to making records. This is partly a result of the understated aesthetic of the style but, equally importantly, it is a sound that results from recording with limited means. That is not meant to sound apologetic or condescending; it’s simply the DIY ethos of the genre.
In many ways, anti-folk is simply a series of contradictions. It is a New York scene played out internationally. It embraces guitar-wielding folkies and rock bands alike. It’s an underground movement with mainstream members. It is the Schrödinger’s cat of musical genres: it simultaneously exists and does not exist. While that conclusion makes attempting to define anti-folk all but impossible it is, no doubt, a genre very much worth discussing. By definition it will always be forward-looking, exciting and inspiring; connecting the listener to other bands, genres and movements, globally.
Rhiannon Parkinson selects the best of the anti-folk pantheon…
Jeffrey Lewis: Arguably the most important musician classed as anti-folk. Manhattan born and raised, Jeffrey was a stalwart of the ’90s Sidewalk Café scene and despite a steadfastly DIY approach, he has steadily built a huge international following (seduced as much by his fanciful comic-book art works as by his confessional, bedroom-folk anti-anthems). Jeffrey has gained attention from the popular press in recent years and continues to make intelligent, exciting, heartbreaking, unique music.
Recommended album: City and Eastern Songs (Rough Trade)
Stanley Brinks: Previously Andre Herman Düne, of the band Herman Düne, Berlin-based Stanley has since stopped playing with his brother David, but continues to tour, write and release relentlessly. Depending on what pseudonym he is playing under, his music varies between calypso-influenced melancholy and despairingly beautiful guitar pop. Recommended album: Cooks (Radbab)
Coming Soon: French band (also play with Kimya Dawson and Angelo Spencer in Antsy Pants) made up of friends, brothers, sisters, boyfriends and girlfriends having fun. Recommended album: Ghost Train Tragedy (Phantasm Imports)
The Wave Pictures: London based three-piece, usually referenced alongside Jonathan Richman, Hefner, or Herman Düne, often all three. Recommended album: Sophie (Smoking Gun Records)
Diane Cluck: American born Cluck is definitely on the folky side of folk, she’s the real deal. Her songs will seem particularly familiar to fans of Laura Marling. Recommended album: Macy’s Day Bird (Important Records)
See also: Antifolk Volume I — a compilation album released by Rough Trade in 2002, featuring music from many of the great New York anti-folkers, including Kimya Dawson, Jeffrey Lewis, Paleface, Ish Marquez, Adam Green and Turner Cody.