Lightspeed Champion Between Conan O'Brien and the Sidewalk Café
Whatever you do, don’t ask him about the hat,” she says.
I’ve just met Jen, 22, and her husband Luke, 27, as we’re waiting for June’s Lightspeed Champion show to start at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. When I tell them I’ll be interviewing the band’s driving force, Dev Hynes, in a couple of days, Jen raises her eyebrows. “That should be interesting,” she says. The two of them, who say they’re friendly with the band, give me some pointers about Dev.
I sum up their comments in my notebook: “Loves Star Wars. Hates girls.”
Tonight is my first time seeing Lightspeed Champion; it’s their first major U.S. tour. The band delivers a giddy hour-long set, the four musicians grinning at one another throughout. They clearly love playing music together, and a sense of joy and abandon permeates the packed space. Two nights later, the much larger Bowery Ballroom is also jammed, but with a very different crowd. Whereas the Maxwell’s audience was energetic and engaged, at Bowery it’s outright rowdy. I see Jen and Luke again; they’re attempting to fend off a shit-faced twentysomething pipsqueak wearing a wee backpack and tube socks. He keeps sloshing liquor on Jen’s legs. Eventually, security guards drag the lad away. People cheer. But I’ve got my own drunken lout to contend with, a self-proclaimed “guy from Jersey” who’s three times the size of the ejected whippersnapper. “Dev, I looooove you,” he slurs the entire night, dousing me now and again with Budweiser.
Rowdy crowds aren’t that unusual—they’re often a hazard of live performances. But tonight it just feels weird. Lightspeed Champion isn’t a bar band, or a mainstream rock band, and it’s even a stretch to call them “college rock,” though maybe that’s because I haven’t been a college student for a long time. This is off-the-wall, often acoustic indie-folk-pop, and Dev Hynes, 22, with his Coke-bottle glasses and the aforementioned hat (furry with ear flaps—think Siberian woodsman), is neither jock nor typical rock star.
On his July 25 blog post at lightspeedchampion.com, Hynes tells a story of being beaten by his former schoolmates. “How did I end up looking at the sky? Oh. Right. The four guys pound onto me, kicks, punches, spitting…They give me the works…When it was all done, my glasses were disintegrated…and I was a wreck.”
I can easily picture some of the bullies stumbling against the Bowery stage as characters in Dev’s story.
Tonight’s odd crowd might have something to do with the band’s appearance on Conan O’Brien the previous night, and the rapid rise in their popularity in general. Lately, they’ve been playing to thousands at festivals like Evolution and Glastonbury. “I never ever ever ever in my life thought I’d play Conan O’Brien,” Dev tells me. “To me it’s like, Weezer has a new single. They’ll probably do Conan.” People had told me that Hynes doesn’t understand why people like his music. I figured it was probably posturing, but he’s nothing but sincere when he says “it baffles me beyond anything.” Which, in turn, baffles me.
I first heard Dev on David Garland’s WNYC program “Spinning on Air.” After buying the Galaxy of the Lost EP, a few weeks later I picked up the full-length release, Falling off the Lavender Bridge, released early this year. The lyrical weirdness of the music reminded me of New York City antifolk—specifically, Toby Goodshank. In the most well-known line of LC’s most well-known track, “Galaxy of the Lost,” Dev sings, “Guzzle down, my neck will burn as we kiss and I’m sick in your mouth” (a make-out risk for anyone with ulcers, anxiety issues, or both). The songs address age-old material, namely the angst of love and loneliness, in a way that’s fresh, that lends itself to reckless singalongs.
But Falling off the Lavender Bridge, twelve tracks with Smiths-evoking titles like “Let the Bitches Die” and “Everyone I Know Is Listening to Crunk,” is but one side of Dev Hynes. The Guardian recently called him “a freaky beacon of off-kilter creativity.” It’s an apt description. Before Lightspeed Champion, Dev played with scream-o punk band Test Icicles. People expressed shock at the gentler sounds of LC, stunned at the perceived shift in Dev’s focus. He laughs: “It’s the funniest thing. The metaphor I’ve started using is of someone who draws all the time. One day they do a caricature, and then the next day they do a life drawing. It doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped doing caricatures.” Dev says he wrote several of the songs for Falling off while he was writing the Test Icicles album—at the same time, he was also writing R&B songs.
Citing artists in New York’s antifolk scene, he says, “there are certain people out there who really do just make music. And that’s all I’d ever say that I do. I don’t make a type of music. I just do literally whatever comes in my head.” Dev told me that since making Falling off, he’s made another seven albums, bringing NYC’s Toby Goodshank right back to mind.
But Goodshank is the very definition of independent—self-releasing, distributing, and more or less hand-making most of his CDs. In the midst of a crazy spring, I first attempted to make contact with Dev by simply sending him an email, the same way I’d contact one of those antifolk artists. But when I heard nothing, I looked up his label—Domino—and I realized I’d have to use the same publicity channels as I would if I was looking to interview one of Dev’s labelmates, like, oh, Franz Ferdinand or the Arctic Monkeys. The link between antifolk and Dev’s work is definitely there—his friend and peer Emmy the Great recently played a series of shows with antifolk artist Diane Cluck—but the presence of a label like Domino is the difference between Conan O’Brien and Sidewalk Café .
The growing fame may baffle Dev, but his work translates well to big stages and big crowds. Part of what makes LC a compelling live act is creative, innovative arrangements that can diverge widely from album versions. Audiences on this summer’s tour have thrilled over LC’s performance of “Midnight Surprise,” Dev’s ten-minute anthem that’s almost three songs in one. Live, the band introduces the number with an epic take on the Star Wars theme. Violin and crashing chords—there’s no way not to grin, ear to ear. This is a blast, and it’s a far cry from the band’s March performance at AV-Aerie in Chicago (available on YouTube). With just Dev on acoustic guitar and Mike Siddell on violin, the song echoes through the loft-like space on the strength of simple, moving strings and Dev’s strong, warm voice. Lines like, “My sweet midnight surprise, staple down my eyes / Stars I cannot see, take me galaxy,” come across as hymnal.
Critics lump Lightspeed Champion together with artists like Bright Eyes and Patrick Wolf, but that might in part be due to the production of Falling off the Lavender Bridge. The Brits in Lightspeed recorded in Omaha, Nebraska, with Mike Mogis of Saddle Creek Records, who’s worked as both musician and producer on releases for Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes, the Faint, and others. The resulting alt-country, folky feel of much of Falling off is a beautiful sound for Dev’s songs. But this is an artist who defies genre, who might be writing metal and R&B songs while working on Lightspeed Champion material. Lyrically strong and adaptable to diverse arrangements, these songs would almost all work fine performed a cappella.
Take “Salty Water”: “If we wait any longer / We will all drown/ That’s what I’m hoping for / The tidal wave / To be consumed / Or that I will die / A head in the current / Either that or the backlash will break my neck / Or whilst I’m riding high, so high on a wave / Oh man, I’m riding high / So high on a wave / I’ve dreamt about this so many times before… / I’m guessing I’ll get used to the hype / And the taste of salty water.”
The album version is an ambient meditation, adorned with little but piano and multitracked vocals. But a performance of the two-minute song at Birmingham Bar Academy in February (also available on YouTube) builds on heart-rending violin and Dev’s acoustic guitar, culminating ecstatically. “I’ve dreamt about this so many times before” repeats over and over, pounding like so many waves. I’ve spent much of the summer doing laps in a New England bay; it’s a rare swim in which “Salty Water” doesn’t slip into my head and stay there.
Though I can do without the drunken louts, I wish all popular music were so smart and heartfelt. There’s nothing wrong with “pop” if this is what it sounds like. Dev’s songs aren’t today’s “it” sound; he’s making work that just might endure.
And given all that, who cares about his hat?
A writer based in Jersey City, Kate Crane is writing a memoir about her father's 1987 murder.