The Old Disappearing-Reappearing Band Trick

Mar 22, 2019
Originally published on March 22, 2019 8:10 am

Between 1997 and 2000, a band from San Jose released two albums, an EP and a couple 7"s of slow, spacey rock, then more or less vanished. Not that the disappearing act took much effort. Duster wasn't exactly a band with a public presence, playing few shows, lending few interviews and releasing little information about its members. The members of the trio went on to play in other bands and work on other projects. In 2000, the founder of Up Records, who released Duster's music, died; operations at the label ended shortly after, and Duster's records went out of print. Duster drifted towards the edge of the abyss.

Just over a decade later, across the country, Mike Hagerty was in high school in suburban Massachusetts when his older brother played Stratosphere, the band's 1998 debut record, for him. He was hooked. Hagerty went digging for more of Duster's music, but it was tough to find: certainly not on the radio and sketchy on streaming; the LPs were largely unavailable. The search only increased the mythology of the band for Hagerty; he says he's since thought of Duster as "mysterious and kind of legendary — like real legends."

Eventually, he made his way to a Duster oasis of sorts: a 4chan offshoot pastebin. "/dust/ is like 20 people on 4chan's music board with an obscene dedication to Duster" it reads by way of introduction. It has downloads of Duster's whole discography, demos and live sets and links to download an assortment of photos and lyrics. The page has an eerie sense of anonymity, like you've stumbled into the meeting of a secret club of preservationists obsessed with the articulation of a near-dead language — but one where you share a kind of precious and rare knowledge with the other members.

In the nearly two decades between Duster's fadeout and today, the band's aura mostly spread like that: friend to friend, by word of mouth. My Duster-loving circle of friends even has its own conspiracy theory about the band's rise in popularity among millennial 20-somethings: One friend of ours stumbled upon a Duster song in a early-2000s skateboard video on YouTube; he showed the music to a friend, who showed a friend, who showed a friend (including, somewhere in this chain, the Hagerty brothers); one of those friends was in a band that played shows up and down the East Coast, "disseminating [Duster] like Catholic missionaries for five years straight" to other bands and listeners, he tells me. And that's, they say, what saved Duster from oblivion.

Duster's songs sound spotty, tender and messy; their lo-fi production audibly shifts from track to track, dominated by uncomplicated guitar parts, tape hiss and cavernous spaciousness, vocals low in the mix. The band originally recorded in a home studio — a living room converted into a recording space — on four-track and eight-track machines, starting with bits of ideas that different members would build on.

That fuzzed-out, syrupy sound is why Duster is often compared to other '90s slowcore bands like Codeine, Low, Galaxie 500 and Red House Painters. But the sense of experimentation and openness — which shows up both in how the songs come together and in their infrequent and sometimes-unintelligible lyrics — is what makes Duster feel different. It's what drew Dillon Riley, a 25-year-old fan from Boston, to Duster. "The second you hear those songs, it's easy to feel like it's always been there," he says. "I love Bedhead and I love Codeine and all these other bands, but those records are very specific and very about certain things, whereas Duster is way more wide open and open to interpretation." Listening to Duster can feel like a kind of escapism.

YouTube

"I guess what makes the music so magic is how much space there is for it to become yours," Harmony Tividad of the band Girlpool told Stereogum about Duster last year. Tividad is one of a number of contemporary indie rock bands with Duster as a critical or self-proclaimed touchpoint, including (Sandy) Alex G and Hovvdy. Tiffany Law, a 25-year-old Duster fan from the Bay Area, says she made a playlist called "Post-Duster" after recognizing a "connective thread" among the local bands she loved while living on the East Coast: All of them — Horse Jumper of Love, Ovlov, Blue Smiley, Peaer and others — were influenced by Duster. Riley also calls Duster a "real bands' band" — the perfect soundtrack for a DIY group making long drives in someone's mom's crappy minivan, needing something to listen to for hours on end between gigs (a good description of most of the friends he's made who share a Duster obsession, he tells me).

I'm not sure I buy the idea that the skate video is patient zero, as my friends claim, but the existence of the theory itself captures the feeling of millennial Duster fandom for me. If its music resonates with you, the band's status as a relative unknown feels unjust and inexplicable, so of course you're going to talk about it. Plus, there's so little evidence of the band out there — no real streaming numbers to count; no serious chance of running into a release at a record store — so it can feel like you're the only people in the world who care. But then you find a pastebin page run by like-minded obsessives, or Stratosphere keeps showing up for $200 on Discogs, or the members of Girlpool cite Duster's second LP as an album that changed their lives, and you start to realize you aren't the only ones gently nudging this music back from the edge of the abyss. The community of millennial Duster fans has to have come from somewhere; it doesn't seem so crazy to think maybe your love helped it grow.

Duster (from left to right: Jason Albertini, Canaan Dove Amber, Clay Parton)
Courtesy of Numero Group

The members of Duster didn't exactly notice the carving-out of millennial fan enclaves. But the band had noticed some of the records "popping up on eBay and [being] really expensive," says Clay Parton, one of Duster's three members. It was frustrating. "That seemed to sort of price people out of being able to have them," he says.

So Parton and his bandmates, Canaan Dove Amber and Jason Albertini, starting talking about re-pressing some of the records. At the same time, the reissue label Numero Group had been thinking about it, too. The Numero team knew the LPs had been out of print for ages, and one of the label's founders, Ken Shipley, had grown up in the San Jose area and knew some of the guys from Duster from back in the day. Plus, Numero had done reissues for other slowcore bands like Codeine and Bedhead, so Duster seemed like a natural fit.

Some Duster fans had been making themselves known to the label, too. "We'd get people messaging us from time to time being like, 'When are you going to do Duster, when you're going to do Duster?'" Adam Luksetich, who works at Numero Group, says. "And after you read that for a couple of years, it's like: Alright, let's actually do this." And Numero started to notice some murmurings online, too, like a tweet from Mark Richardson, former executive editor of Pitchfork, last year asking "anyone remember late 90s space rock band Duster, on Up?" and a Stereogum article about Duster's influence on contemporary lo-fi rock bands. After those things, "it just kind of snowballed," Luksetich says.

In January, Numero Group announced Capsule Losing Contact, a Duster reissue box set containing the albums Stratosphere and Contemporary Movement; the 1975 EP; singles, demos and previously-unreleased tracks. "The response online has been crazier than most," admits Luksetich. A limited pressing of 500 3-LP, colored-vinyl box sets sold out within a day.

And before the box set was even announced, Duster announced a small run of shows: one in New York (at first; then, the band announced another, then a third) in December; a handful on the West Coast in January. Most Duster fans did not see the reunion coming. When I ask Riley, who traveled from Boston to New York for the shows, if he ever thought he'd see Duster live, he laughs: "Of course not. Never. Never would I ever thought that." Charlie d'Eve, a 25-year-old fan from Portland, Ore., agrees: "Oh hell no. Absolutely not," she laughs.

D'Eve ended up seeing the band twice in Portland — once at a low-profile house show, and once at the venue Mississippi Studios. Law saw the band twice, too: once at a "secret show" at a record store in Oakland (accompanied by six similarly Duster-obsessed friends) and once at The Ritz in San Jose (along with 10 friends).

Being a Duster fan before the resurgence isn't terribly dissimilar to, say, discovering My Bloody Valentine in 2005: a beloved band widely considered defunct whose records you couldn't afford and whom you assumed you'd never see in your lifetime — until you could. American Football might feel close, too: a band with a sub-culturally legendary status whose influence felt unimpeachable and whose comeback felt impossible. But it was never hard to hear these band's masterpieces: Just because you couldn't touch Loveless or American Football didn't mean you couldn't hear them.

Riley traveled to see My Bloody Valentine in Philadelphia last year; he sees a similarity between the two experiences. Though with Duster, the scale is just much smaller: My Bloody Valentine's influence (and American Football's, for that matter) is acknowledged on a far wider scale than Duster's will likely ever be. Riley points out, too, that MBV had already earned a reputation as a stellar live band; with Duster, "not much was known about them as a live entity" before these recent live shows.

Riley mentions Galaxie 500, too: similar, generally, in sound and in having both a digestibly-sized discography and a period when its records were out of print and inaccessible. By the time Riley got around to listening to Galaxie 500, though, the music had been reissued; he accessed the band after its reputation as legendary and unreachable had shifted slightly. He didn't know the experience of coming to it — as he did with Duster's music — during the hazy in-between period where access came virtually only by word of mouth.

When we were all in the same room together — the band that was comfortably defunct for nearly two decades and the fans who thought this beloved band already belonged to history — what exactly did we expect? In December, I saw Duster in New York, for its first two shows in 18 years, with nearly twenty Duster-fan friends. That first night, when Duster opened for (Sandy) Alex G at Warsaw, it was no surprise to me when I walked into the venue late and, in trying to meet up with people, kept seeing faces that may as well have been my friends' everywhere. It didn't surprise me that the room mostly contained twenty-somethings buzzing with excitement at the imminent prospect of seeing a band we thought we'd never encounter face-to-face. This, to me, was Duster's fan base.

I did, though, feel a palpable disconnect between the audience's read of the band — how eager we were to hear every single word, how clearly we idolized them on stage (Law says that in Oakland, "in between songs, you could hear a pin drop because people were so in awe of what they just witnessed") — and how Parton and his bandmates saw themselves: three guys playing songs they had written around twenty years ago. After the set, Parton, who told me he's been surprised by how young the fans at Duster's recent shows have been, was manning the Duster merch table, selling shirts and posters. A friend of mine — hands mildly shaking — bought a shirt and asked him if the band would be reissuing the records from Valium Aggelein, a late Duster side project. He says Parton looked genuinely confused, as if to say: You've heard that?! No, he shrugged, probably not.

If Duster had put out its music a decade earlier, it'd likely be lost entirely: no pirated albums on YouTube for fans to latch onto, no (admittedly tiny) archive of reviews to discover. Released a decade later, it'd be inevitably streamable, added ad infinitum to chill playlists to hum along in the background of your life. Which is perhaps a risk it runs now: A couple weeks before the box set's release, more of Duster's music — namely the two 7"s — joined Contemporary Movement and Stratosphere on streaming platforms. (No luck for Valium Aggelein, though.) I wonder how streaming will impact Duster's legacy. A few fans told me they love Duster's music for the way it fits any mood, which sounded shockingly like a description of the passive listening of Spotify-core. I wonder if Stratosphere is going to end up as mood music for mindless scrolling, but I don't think that quite fits.

The music feels, instead, more like something as soothing as stargazing. D'Eve says the repetitive nature of the band's music gives her time to "think about things you wouldn't otherwise." In your 20s, she says, people "are, like, working six jobs, or going to school and then also working;" it's nice, she says, to have "time to listen to a band that can let you just like think about s***." (It's music for a period of self-definition, or redefinition: I remember a guy at one of the New York shows yelling from the crowd that the 1975 track "Memphis Sophisticate" was set as his Tinder "anthem" for months. "Did it work?" one of the band members asked; the guy roared back a gleeful "No!" I guess that means the song will fit comfortably on neither ready-made anthemic or romantic playlists; I hope the algorithm takes that into account.)

It makes sense to me that most people — myself included — came to Duster during their late teens and early 20s (incidentally, the same age the members of Duster were when they were first putting out this music). When else does limitless space feel so inviting or tangible — and yet, when does the expanse of the future feel so fear-inducing and necessitate quite as much time to process? When might you appreciate more having your restless, shapeless anxiety soundtracked by the drone of tape hiss and a low-murmured vocal? When else does it feel natural to stay up all night driving six hours with your best friends to play a gig that maybe four people will show up to?

In an alternate world with no resurgence and no streaming access, maybe Duster would be forever destined to politely worshipful secrecy, to another cycle of being delivered by word of mouth, pastebins and the occasional skate video soundtrack for another generation of stressed-out 20-somethings in need of escape, who can't afford Numero's limited repressing of Stratosphere. Maybe the music's new availability ruins the romance of the band's relative anonymity. Maybe it invites careless streaming into the secret club. Maybe that's the trade-off for more people to get to do more sonic stargazing.

When Mike Hagerty bought a used copy of Contemporary Movement on eBay a few years ago, it came with a note, hand-written in small caps on lined yellow paper: "Duster has been a very important band to me for the past 15+ years. Please take care of this. Up Records and Duster are such special pieces of music history for the '95-'05 decade. I hope this finds you well."

Mike Hagerty

When the previous owner bought this record — new, I assume, at the turn of the millennium — did he imagine that almost two decades later, a young fan would be so eager to hear it? My friend imagined it was difficult for the record's old owner to part with it; he couldn't picture how hard it would be for him to do the same. I imagine if he ever sold any of his Duster records, he'd leave a note for the next generation, too.

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