By Jade Curson
It’s hard to deny that there is nothing truly original in contemporary music. The instant accessibility of artist back-catalogues through the generations means that, if anything, the intertextuality of art is now easier than ever to identify. Can you remember the last time you listened to a song or album without recognising something in it from another artist? This is no slight on musicians today, as the process of borrowing stretches back through musical history – the line from Muddy Waters to Cannibal Corpse can be easily drawn within six degrees of separation. One of the most fundamental parts of creating art is taking existing work that inspires you and using it to create something new. New genres are forged from an adaptation of those already established or, increasingly, by merging them together.
Chris Keough is speaking to me from Long Island, New York. A community college student (“just doing liberal arts stuff, I don’t know exactly”) who cleans offices at night to make a living, he also makes catchy power-pop that manages to be both fun and self-deprecating, under the moniker Barely March. Earlier this year, he also found the time to put together a record that has proven to be a lowkey highlight of 2018 so far. Marely Barch is a smorgasbord of references to the artists Keough admires, and he has no hesitation in revealing his influences: Jeff Rosenstock, Weezer, Rozwell Kid. “I would even say a little bit of Motion City Soundtrack with a lot of the synth stuff,” he adds. “I would say [the influences] are very obvious. Bordering on theft.” He laughs when I present the idea – championed by Picasso and countless others – that all art is theft.
“Well then I made something that belongs in the Louvre.”
But that ‘theft’ may just prove to be the making of a great artist. Marely Barch is a satisfyingly ambitious first record with a depth and variety that a lot of bands can take several albums to achieve. Tracks like ‘Corduroy’, ‘Nervous As I’ll Ever Be’ and ‘Surf Wax Antarctica’ are synth-driven power pop anthems made for summertime road trips. But the album also veers into other, less upbeat territories. ‘Better Days’ manages to capture the thoughtful angst of Modern Baseball while adopting the stylistic affectations of skiffle music…but somehow still manages to be hugely enjoyable. ‘Thinking Emoji’ starts in with familiar Weezer-esque pop hooks, but segues into a different beast altogether – a solemn guitar line, bursts of static and pitched down vocals borrowed from 90s hip-hop. ‘I Was A Teenage Gary’ takes this mood shift and reverses it, starting out with an eerie, sparse musical landscape with pitched and layered vocals, before building to a guitar-driven conclusion that goes Full Emo – Keough’s frustrated refrain of “I don’t trust you as far as I could throw you / And honestly, my body can’t do what it used to” is a payoff as satisfying as you’d expect from Taking Back Sunday in their heyday. Keough cites Frank Ocean and Brockhampton as influences for those moments on the record, explaining that he had no interest in making just another pop punk record.
“The problem I have with a lot of emo or pop punk albums is that a lot of them sound [the same]…like listening to an entire album can be a chore because a lot of the songs sound very similar, and it’s hard to tell one song from another – oh, you just made a greatest hits album. And I don’t like to be put into a box, so if I want to make something of a different genre I’ll try to spin it so it works within the context of this album…you can’t make something new until you do something new.”
Given the ambition and understated complexities of Marely Barch, it seems preposterous that the record was made without the intention of anyone hearing it. Barely March started out as a bedroom project: the whole record was made using GarageBand on a laptop Keough borrowed from his mother, and without any expectations that those outside his social circle would ever listen to it. “I just wanted to put this out and have some friends listen to it. I thought like only 10 people would ever listen to it. And it just outta nowhere took off, people were sending it to other people…and this is the best case scenario because I get so anxious, it’s such a burden lifted off of me when other people do that for me and I don’t even have to ask them to. It’s grown more than I could have ever imagined.”
As he says this, the band Twitter page has recently grown to just over a hundred followers, and the record has around 200 monthly listeners on Spotify. That this moderate listenership constitutes something beyond his imagination demonstrates how easily this record could have slipped under the radar. Not that there’s much chance of that now – two days after our conversation, Marely Barch was favourably reviewed by Ian Cohen for Pitchfork. That fanbase could be about to increase considerably. So it’s truly horrible timing that the record just got more difficult to find.
“I had to take it down because we were mastering the album and I had an unmastered version up on Spotify,” he explains of the record’s sudden absence from the streaming service. “So I took it down and reuploaded the same day because they said there’d be no downtime. But I saw two days ago that they’d rejected my album artwork because I uploaded the wrong file. So I had to do it again, but it’s still not up.”
“I’m really pissed off about it…I mean it’s entirely my fault, but one of the songs got put on an official spotify playlist and now it’s not on there. I gotta get those streams!”
The record may be out of action on Spotify for the foreseeable future, but for now it’s still available for streaming and download on Bandcamp. For fans who prefer the old-fashioned concept of owning tangible objects though, Marely Barch will also soon be available as a physical release, having been picked up by fellow newcomers Halloween Records (who self-describe as “a recording/co-op label thingie”) started by Telethon vocalist Kevin Tully. While it’s not surprising that someone jumped at the chance to put out a record of this calibre, the story of that partnership isn’t one that’s heard too often…
“Kevin found the album because we’re both in a Jeff Rosenstock shit-posting group on Facebook. A few people in that group got together to do a tribute album where we just do cover songs. I did a cover of some Antarctico Vespucci song and I put it in there, and Kevin saw it and then he looked at some of my other stuff and then he just adds me on Facebook and says ‘Hey I love your album, I wanna put it out on my record label’.
“And I had no idea who he was, just like oh it’s some random guy who probably makes some shitty music, and then I went and checked out Telethon and those guys are fucking awesome. It is a real treat. But yeah we’re working on physical releases some time in the future. And by ‘in the future ‘ I mean he said ‘do you wanna do something physical’ and I said ‘yeah ok’. They’re handling the ‘everything’ side and I’m doing nothing. So it’s a pretty good deal. And the best part is I get to keep the money.”
Finding a record label through a Jeff Rosenstock fan-page might not seem like the most likely of meetings, but for Barely March it seems like a natural fit. Rosenstock has had a heavy influence on Keough’s relationship with music, both as a fan and an artist. “I first heard Jeff Rosenstock in 2015 after We Cool? came out and the second I listened to him I was like, this is the music that I’ve always wanted to listen to, and it’s been here my entire life. I don’t mean to sound super dramatic about it but that was the moment my life changed.” Musically, Rosenstock’s influence can be heard throughout Marely Barch – catchy hooks layered with synths; upbeat punk songs juxtaposed against lyrics about anxiety, heartache and the disappointing minutiae of everyday life are very much a Rosenstock trademark. It’s telling that Keough’s cover of ‘Bonus Oceans’ from Rosenstock’s early demos, fits in seamlessly amongst his own compositions.
There are also some clear parallels in the production of the record. Rosenstock is as known for his DIY ethic as he is for the music itself, and Keough has demonstrated a similar approach to recording and releasing his music. He recently made the first Barely March music video – using a free trial of some editing software.
“I spent like 10 hours in it because I don’t know what I’m doing,” he laughs, “and then when I tried to render it, you can’t render anything longer than two minutes. So I had to cut the video into two pieces, render it in two pieces separately, and put it back together in IMovie. And then I found out it renders with watermarks all over the place. So in the video there’s spots where I not-so-strategically covered up the watermarks.”
The next logical step, surely, would be to play some shows. Given that Keough had no expectation for these songs to be heard, he’s yet to get a band together and play these songs at all. But as the record starts to gain an enthusiastic following, there is suddenly a demand from fans. Keough seems keen to take that step, even if it might be a bit outside his comfort zone.
“I’ve played with other people before, but I haven’t really been in a band with other people before. I’m just really shy and I don’t know how to talk to people,” he admits. “I definitely want to go out and play shows for [this record]. Even if I got a message from one person saying ‘hey I want to see this live’, that would mean the world to me, and I’ve gotten multiple people – more every day – saying that. I’m in the very early process of getting a band together to play some shows this summer.”
Battles rage on in forums and industry boardrooms about whether the internet is saving or destroying music. But while there are endless arguments and counterarguments to be made about the financial value of art, or about intellectual property, it’s impossible to deny that the increased interconnectivity of all things has allowed a new wave of artists to be plucked from obscurity and given a platform for their work that would not have been possible 20 years ago. It has provided endless freedom by allowing aspiring artists to self-release their work, instead of being dependent on being seen as a marketable commodity to major labels. Just as importantly, it allows fans to discover a wider range of their favourite music through word-of-mouth on a global scale. Barely March may have started out as a bedroom project, but with the record picked up for release by a label, critical approval and a steadily-increasing fanbase, it suddenly seems like it has the potential to be a much bigger venture – that is, if Keough can ever get the record back on Spotify.