Tigerwave By: Phoebe A. Xavier

Tigerwave by: Phoebe A. Xavier

Over the past half decade I have gotten the chance to be a member of one of the most fun, chaotic & radical punk collectives in America: Rockford Illinois’ iconic Disastr House. When I got back to the house this past winter after a year on the road I was lucky enough to reconnect with many brilliant creative weirdos. I wound up spending most of my downtime with one of the founding members of the collective who had returned to the house during my absence, Tiger Whatola.

I had known him from my prior stints at the house and found his morose demeanor and cryptic, often truncated, expression to be both endearing and quizzical. But I had no idea what he meant when he kept saying “Midnight December 15th – that’s when the whole world changes.” I didn’t fully grasp it until after the day came and went, celebrated by a listening party at a friend’s house. His debut album was dropped that night on underground Vaporwave label Question Records. Based out of the UK, Question releases Vaporwave and Ambient music.

One afternoon the following week I got heavily stoned with Tiger and he played me the entirety of the album, which was titled “Jake’s Dead” by ‘Tiger and The Dubious Battle’. Over the winter I got to learn a lot about both Vaporwave and my friend’s music. Day after day we vegged out to Vaporwave at D House as I was put through the full gamut of what’s good and what’s horrible in the emerging genre. Ranging from remixes of old Sega Dreamcast video games to chopped and screwed elevator music the albums he showed me were weird As Fuck, to understate it slightly. Bizarre soundscapes reminiscent of shopping in K-Mart as a child and distorted warbly remixes of the weather forecast filled the house for two months straight.

Radio quality mastering, harmony & catchiness were nowhere to be found on most of these songs. At times the sounds were grating; it was very, very difficult to listen to in the wrong state of mind. I had to pause sometimes and question what we were listening to and why. What on Earth motivated anyone to produce such sounds and make the bold claim that it was ‘music’? 1

So I dove into the meaning and origins of Vaporwave to try to fathom it all. It is indeed a very unique genre of music. The best of it is incredible, the worst barely tolerable. I learned that at its’ core much of the vibe is about the yuppie aesthetic that emerged during the Reagan years. The over indulgence in commercialism that was anchored into the modern psyche in that decade is the heart of the ‘scene’. If you can call it that. The propagation of its’ popularity spread mostly through the internet until five years deep into movement it was pronounced dead – after MTV launched a major re-brand based on both Vaporwave & Sea Punk.

Cause MTV seems to have missed how anti-commercialism the music is. The reason it’s so damn hard to listen to much of it is because it was made to be unmarketable. Much of it is complete dead weight in terms of producing revenue. Because of the heavy reliance on sampling, the genre is rife with blatant copyright violations. The nearly superfluous parallel I drew was this: if the mainstream has co-opted punk music to the point they could market Avril Lavinge as a punk rock act because she wore a necktie w/o a collared shirt, then maybe punk is in fact dead. And mayhaps the funderful punk acts that still exist are the Punk Rock Zombie Apocalypse’s Daryl Dixon… but I digress.2

I got to talk to Tiger about how he wound up releasing an album with Question Records in my last few days before leaving to travel this spring and that conversation was as much a revelation as the discovery of Vaporwave itself. He had begun some of the songs that would eventually become the album at the house that the Disastr collective occupied before Disastr 1.0. One night a classical 2” tape recorder was found while digging through people’s trash. Originally mistaken for a bowling bowl, because of the case it was in, the machine was a “a super retro tape machine”.

The tape that came with it was of a guy doing his dishes & talking to his parrot while listening to jazz music. “That eventually got recorded over,” Tiger told me, “Back when I was learning how to use it I would use any reel I could find, sampling, playing it backwards, playing it sideways, recording over the samples. The whole process was fucking crazy.” Regular recording of the Disastr House shows allowed him the opportunity to learn the equipment well enough to start making songs with it.

Some time after he had begun to fiddle with his new equipment he was shocked to discover a close high school friend had died. His friend Jake had been in Band class with Tiger in school. Jake played alto sax, Tiger played guitar and bass. Choking through the emotions stirred by thinking back to those more innocent days, Tiger recounted to me how they had bonded through a shared interest in learning Incubus’ songs. He was a happy comrade in the fuckery that is being an adolescent post-y2k.

At Jake’s funeral it was discovered that he had been in and out of rehab several times in the months before his death. Unbeknownst to many of his friends he had been using heroin. He died on the night he got out of rehab for the last time. It was a horrible shock that caused deep melancholy & at the same time spurred Tiger to get to work on his music.

Through the pain of losing a dear friend to an abyss he didn’t know was lurking Tiger began his dubious battle. He would often forgo sleep and food to work on warping and manipulating sound. Plagued by the harsh truth of mortality he figured he could stay out of trouble if he just focused on the music. So he did. He had the equipment through which he could filter his feelings, making the entire album a cathartic creation.

When it was all done he selected the 12 tracks that felt right to him as the completion of an album. He left them untitled, after a fashion. In fact each track is identified by a series of underscores. One for the first track, “_”; two for the second track, “__”, and so on. Together the collection of songs is very unique and at times abrasive. To me it was easy to see how the project got picked up by a Vaporwave label, though Tiger often disagrees.

The record was finished four years ago when Vaporwave was just being invented, though he didn’t know of the genre at the time. So I understand his hesitance to claim the album as that. Nonetheless the tracks themselves and Tiger’s attitudes towards distribution were very much colored with the zeitgeist of the genre. Lacking perhaps in ‘yuppie’ charm, the album drips in an anti- commercial sentiment.

The first track starts us off with a subliminal flapping/slipping sound that seems to just be the tape reel spinning endlessly, perhaps improperly spooled. It goes on for longer than you expect it to possibly last before shifting to a darker, murkier sound puddle that beats on any feelings of hope or happiness you might have. It ends just in time, shadowboxing with the listener’s expectations. Placing us squarely on the runway with the second track, one of the select uses of Reason/REdrum. This melody builds and unwinds three times on a twenty minute meandering through well orchestrated, dance-able layers of tone and rhythm.

There are a few tracks that pair off thematically including overly distorted sounds that test the listener’s nerve and a set of brief interludes that feature Tiger ranting like a madman in the alleys of the city. He used a Sony mini disc audio recorder to capture his screams of rage and confusion as he wandered the cold streets of a near dystopian West Rockford. “You had to tape the lid shut cause the latch was broken,” he told me, “Hold it shut or tape it. But when it had tape it was hard to switch the discs.” The visceral raw emotive power of those tracks make them standout as pinnacles of demented genius. You may have to hear them yourself to understand what I mean.

My absolute favorite track involves a meta prank of sorts that did not start as a prank. Again to me this is all very Vaporwave, even if Tiger didn’t intend it at the time. For the fifth track, Tiger set a beat and some guitar/bass to a conversation he recorded over a local Rockford CB channel. It starts with him asking the people on the channel if anyone knows “how to fix a wobbly potentiometer?” For the next five minutes the men on the channel flounder foolishly trying to spell, define or claim expertise on potentiometers. It wasn’t meant to be a troll session though, he really needed help. “The knobs were fucked on my micro Korg synthesizer,” he admits grinning.

Another highlight of the album features a repeated sampling of a young neighbor stating his name “Jovan” over and over again until the brackish melange of samples gives way to a pitch shifted rap verse based on a real life experience one of his friends had. Tiger recounted to me how the story had first been told to him when testing the pan capabilities on Music Maker for the PS2. Initially he had two friends talk at the same time on either side of his mic to see how the pan worked when recording. On the one hand was the story that began “walking down the street eating BBQ chicken” on the other a friend gave an eloquent description of how beautiful the wind sounded at that moment. I am amazed at the process that went into all this. Tiger smiles again, “That’s how shit gets written, riding lawnmowers.”

Once it was done, he didn’t intend to distribute it online initially. Instead he would leave the CDs with just “Jake’s Dead” typed on plain white paper as the cover. He wanted to offer it open sourced without taking any credit to himself or any stage name. About ten of them were left around town in really crazy places. Odd spots in libraries and restaurants in which they might go undiscovered for months or even years. “Even then they might have just gotten thrown out,” he concedes.

But in the last year, completely on accident, following links on Bandcamp, Tiger stumbled upon Virtual Reality Sports Institute, a staple of what is Vaporwave. The genre called to him. It was invented while he was producing Jake’s Dead. It shared themes with his music. It was downright mystifying, somewhere between a joke with no punchline and a death sentence with no justice. On a whim, while stoned, he submitted his album to Question Records. He did not expect to hear back from them let alone get picked up by them. But by the end of 2015 Jake’s Dead was being featured as a highlight on “This Week in Vaporwave”, a now defunct YouTube show.

It’s clear to me that he feels odd about it all. Unsure if it is better or worse that his music is now floating all over the web. “I’m in the wrong genre. I feel it’s a great failure to put ‘Jake’s Dead’ in a Vaporwave category,” he says, “The idea of Vaporwave is about the aesthetic. We could make these songs and they’d be themselves with or without Vaporwave. Where would we be then? I’m not sure.”

“If anything that album captures a pretty dark time in my life pretty fucking well,” he continues, “My opinions, I’m not really even trying to play the game, at least the opinion game. My favorite Vaporwave? I like a very, very small 1⁄2 a percent of what is Vaporwave. Vektroid is some shit. Telepath has a sweet thing going on…”

He trails off, thinking about other things. Hanging out with Tiger, you get the feeling there’s always a lot on his mind. To me it feels like the opposite of the Big Lebowski – instead of taking it easy for the rest of us, Tiger may be constantly stressing and worrying about the shit everyone else keeps ignoring. I’ll miss my friends while I’m out on the road, but I know I’ll have this album to listen to till I get back. A lot of people won’t ever be coming back though, like Tiger’s old pal Jake.

Jake’s dead.

1) The author realizes the irony of questioning ‘is this music’, when she is herself a hip-hop artist that often faces the same question.
2) The author has NEVER seen an episode of ‘The Walking Dead’, but she does know how to use Google to make her pieces more colorful!

Stream the album here!

Share This:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *