KNABLE GAZING: Antifolk This
Or, Reckoning with Someone Else’s Antifolk Playlist*
On February 5, Ain’t I Folk? Weemayk Music Covers Antifolk Classics drops on BandCamp followed by a February 17 drop on all streaming services. Its lead single is Herman Düne’s “Futon Song” as covered by Cucaracha, a.k.a. Cockroach.
Cockroach, I remember ye well. Hunched and buggy with your thick black glasses, dark falling hair, banging your guitar strings in time with the rustling of the broom in the back room of the Sidewalk Cafe. I always seemed to follow you in the line-up laid out by Lach, the Ginsbergian emperor of Antifolk, on Monday open mic night (the Antihoot), where we were told never to worry about how late it was getting because that was why we came to New York: to have nights like these.
Cockroach and I were regulars, though I imagine he was more regular than I. We played gigs here as well as open mics. The deal was you got humiliated on a treadmill of the open mic with Lach (who occasionally heckled you with lines like “Takamine–Is that Japanese for Out of Tune?”) until you impressed him enough to make him announce to everyone that he wanted to book you for a regular set at the Sidewalk. I remember my night of ascension on par with all the victories of my life. After a whole lot of “Come back next week for the open mic” I finally landed a “Call me to book a set.” I imagine it went like that for Cockroach, too, though I wasn’t there for his graduation.
I became reacquainted with Cockroach again through Ain’t I Folk, a compilation playlist of Antifolk song covers assembled by Justin Remer, whose Elastic No-No Band was a next generation Antifolk band circa 2005-12. (Check out his tuneful and tasty song “Turn Out Right” as covered by German singer Sven Safarow in a recording reminiscent of Elliott Smith.) On this album of Antifolkers singing each other’s songs, Cockroach sings “The Futon Song” by Herman Düne. The track lays down a great lazy instrumental bed featuring an electric guitar that spreads like butter. The vocal is intentionally obfuscated, like it’s run through a vacuum cleaner at a low speed. I prefer the vocal on the actual Cockroach song on the playlist, sung by Brook Pridemore, “Low and Wet.”
But what is Antifolk anyway and why memorialize it?
Lach, from his console beside the Sidewalk stage (really more of a floor extending from the audience, as I remember it), always told the story of going to a folk festival and deciding that what he and his friends were doing was definitely not folk, so it must be “antifolk.” Others debate still whether it’s related to folk-punk, rock and roll, or the old weird roots of folk that got Everly Brothered down to a nub in the ’60s.
The mainly retrospective website http://www.antifolk.com defines Antifolk first and foremost as a “scene.” And it was. I saw it; I was there. I was never really a part of it despite my proximity to its major players, but it was fundamental to my own development as a songwriter, performer, and now serves as a reminder of my whole life in a way that makes me feel the true meaning of nostalgia: returning home to pain.
But back to the covers playlist. Major Matt Mason USA is another name and sound I recall immediately from my Sidewalk days. He was everywhere, though I can’t immediately conjure his image as clearly as the ground-bound Cockroach. Major Matt’s songs are on the more playful end of the Antifolk spectrum, bordering on pop. Check out Urban Barnyard’s cover of Major Matt’s “Animal Shelter.”
Jaded authenticity was the point of Antifolk. I think. Lyrics were often childlike. Attitude was either punk (leave your guitar strings untrimmed and splayed out over the tuning pegs) or some kind of sick, sweet, sweaty innocent. Singing voice should be grating in some way. And yet, there is an intentionality to the songwriting that makes these songs worth returning to. And thus this cover collection, a tribute to some of the prominent voices of the movement, is birthed. And yet in it we seem to be memorializing something that was never meant to be taken so seriously. (The tagline for the Antifolk website is “Who mistook this crap for genius?”)
The Moldy Peaches emerged as the biggest Antifolk flag wavers, though they loomed larger at their peak than the genre itself. Their story was essential to their music. Kimya Dawson was the babysitter and her former charge Adam Green grew to manhood with her and her peach-molded Afro. (Okay, maybe that’s not really accurate, but it’s what everyone said at the time.) There was an element of accidental molestation wrapped up in the lyrics. “All I wanna do is ride bikes with you, And stay up late and maybe spoon” sings the conglomeration that is Huggabroomstik on their presentation of the Moldy Peaches standard “Nothing Came Out” on Ain’t I Folk?
Other artists and the artists they cover on the playlist are more and less familiar to me. Some because I think they came into the scene after I started playing with my band at different venues, some because I was never quite embedded in the scene like they were.
There are definitely songwriters of my era that I miss dearly and wish were represented here. The first of those is Paleface, whose song “There’s Something about a Truck” has haunted me since I first heard him play it at Kenny’s Castaways. (Imagine Gilligan’s Island meets The Addams Family, if you never got to see that legendary Village dive venue.) Paleface was a protégée of Daniel Johnston’s, buddies with Beck, and looked about to take the world by storm with his 1991 solo album, until he was sideswiped by the windshield wipers of success. By 1999, when I knew him, he was already a survivor of the turmoils of recognition, gravelly in voice and attitude. He was the first person to ever give me a fist bump—when I met him, as a rejection to my reaching out to shake his hand.
And where’s Lach himself on this compilation—that impish Elvis Costello-ringer who started it all? Or Anne Husick, the woman I think of as his co-Sidewalk/Fort conspirator of that time? Where’s Randi Russo, who inspired me to call my band The Randy Bandits (the truth is finally revealed). Grey Revell, Jeffrey Lewis, Brer Brian, Joe Bendick, Jon Berger: names flood back, especially thanks to the slide show on the Antifolk website from which all these photos spring. Oh well. I remember Joe Crow Ryan, who is well-represented as a songwriter and performer on the Ain’t I Folk? album.
It occurs to me that, especially for a scene that spanned at least 20 healthy years from its mid-80’s founding through the No No bands of the 2000s, its memorialization will differ depending on its eulogizer. Justin Remer gets his version here, and it still manages to bring back memories of the basic Antifolk ethos to me.
It also occurs to me that my memory of Antifolk starts before and ends in the summer of 2001. It’s a memory that predates the world changing forever—at least our American world. Everything, aside from the nuclear threat and the hanging chad that defeated Gore, was fairly safe. Nobody, terrorists excluded, ever fathomed that four commercial airliners might be driven into the architecture of our American dreams. We were on the brink of losing our childhoods. Maybe we sort of knew it without knowing it. Antifolk, then, was a delightful tantrum in the midst of that. A fuck you to a folk establishment, but, actually, a pretty inclusive and diverse mix of authentic songwriters avoiding anything resembling pretension.
I’m appropriately bitter and nostalgic about Antifolk. I never fit in. I think I was too sincere and too jaded in all the wrong ways. But I’m listening to “Low and Wet” again right now. Cockroach, via cover artist Brook Pridemore, is telling me “It’s okay if you’re low and wet.” I feel soothed. And ready for a New Age.
*Note, Justin Remer HAS actually compiled a much more comprehensive playlist of Antifolk excellence on Spotify that includes all the artists I mourned in absentia. This article treats the album Ain’t I Folk as a playlist, which is an authorial interpretation more than the final presentation of the product, which is actually an “album.”
Jim Knable is a performing songwriter who recorded two albums in 2020: Songs of Suffrage for Luna Stage and the Andrew Goodman Foundation and Blue Reunion, by Jim Knable and The Randy Bandits. He has released two other studio, one live, and one secret album with The Randy Bandits since 2006 as well as performing as The Jewbadour for the Unorthodox Podcast circa 2015-2018 with a matching album of demos for the show. He is a produced and published playwright, currently the Staff Writer for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and has had articles published in The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine, The SDC Journal, and other online and print publications.