Sam Chown doesn't understand why people don't want to make their own music.
The Internet has changed the way music is passed around and consumed. It's opened doors for bands, and it's opened listeners' ears to new genres and anti-genres. Still, the mainstream market remains a gated communityl for many artists.
"The only way to make it as a big band is you're a guitar rock band with short songs and memorable melodies," says Sam Chown, the Austin multi-instrumentalist better known as Shmu. "Where do we fit in?" He will try to figure that out Thursday at Gasa Gasa.
Listen to the first seconds of most Shmu songs, or of Chown's other project Zorch, and it's easy to hear why those tracks aren't garnering airplay. Shmu's latest EP Chroma Key often sounds like the biggest music trends from the past six decades thrown into a blender, with the resulting concoction stranger and more impressive than anyone could anticipate. It's smart. It's groove-based, even when you can't find a steady beat. It's lovely, but it takes a second to hit you. When it does, the sprawling possibilities riding each effects-soaked sound wave feel new and refreshing. "It's not just noise," Chown says. He's perturbed by, but not opposed to, the "experimental" label often applied to his different projects. "Experimental is a word used for people new to music outside of what they're used to."
Chown's outlook is hard to argue with. The indie scene can be tiring, and trends have more influence than contrarian bloggers are willing to admit. Chown specifically names guitar rock, though he's not against the genre as a whole. "What's the point?" he says, slightly exasperated. "Why not do something fresh and interesting?"
Chown may sound bitter, but Shmu's antagonism isn't bred from a jealous or covetous place. He won't end up on the radio because he doesn't want to be on the radio. The pop melodies hidden within the neurotic layers of Chroma Key and Shmu's other works prove he could likely write a college radio hit, but that's not the mission, and it hasn't been for the decade or so Shmu has been making music.
He's followed in the footsteps of classic weirdos before him, including Animal Collective member Panda Bear, a songwriting influence for Chown. The two artists' music share a lot. Much of it is sample-based and touches on music's past while maintaining off-kilter pop melodies, but it's hardly formulaic. Sometimes Chown takes old songs and makes them playable on a drum machine. Other times, the approach is not so clear cut, but it always comes from a personal place. He reiterates multiple times that he's doing what he wants to do — a simple mantra that he actually seems to live. "That's what, to me, music is all about," he says. "Expressing emotionally, but making sounds that need to be made."
Shmu opens for Caddywhompus Wednesday night at Mud and Water in Baton Rouge. They play Thursday night at Gasa Gasa with Ben Jones, Natural Blonde and Baby Boy.