Running a record label is no easy, simple feat - it’s something born of passion and a desire to share rather than create. A record label is a conduit, the person running the label, a curator. Jonathan Stout, owner/operator of indie label and Cincinnati’s own Lo Fi City, has done an excellent job of curating, sharing, and caring for the music of some of the city’s most interesting lofi, garage, and indie rock bands (as well as self-proclaimed weirdo music from all over the place).
He’s also an accomplished musician in his own right, playing in Cincy’s Dinosaurs & Thunder and Sleepy Drums, as well as offering solo musings under the moniker J.Stout. Big Mike Park and Asian Man Records vibes, and I am here for it.
Listening through the new J.Stout release, Thrills & Disappointments, I was struck by the many sonic touchpoints that sparked my appreciation of the nostalgia for where this music was coming from as much as the world we live in today. It may sound strange, but musically, it’s an album that lives beside the folksier Jeff Rosenstock stuff, taps into a lot of what Max Stern of Signals Midwest has been up to, but wouldn’t be out of place in an early Jared Hess or even Wes Anderson film.
A dude and his guitar is a tried and true combination, but the addition of fuzzy electric riffs and instrumentally adventurous interludes throughout gives Thrills & Disappointments a lot more personality, and help to highlight just how solid the songwriting really is. Too much is too much, but just enough is, well, sublime.
Lyrically, it’s a pastiche of frustration and ambivalence, of fatherhood, manhood, and personhood, but with stories told through the lens of a global pandemic and all the worry, anxiety, and anger that these so-called unprecedented times have wrought. All-in-all, it’s a heartfelt and sincere look at a new kind of Modern Man - distressingly self-aware, a little (sometimes a lot) unsure of their place in the world, and trying to move through that same world knowing that no one and everyone is watching how they move.
I had the opportunity to ask Jonathan a few questions about what he’s been up these past 18 months, what Lo Fi City is all about, and what it means to release a new album during a global pandemic. Take a look at our chat, below…
With your musical output sort of running parallel with and through LoFi City, I’m reminded of Mike Park and Asian Man Records quite a bit, how he’s involved with a handful of projects on the label, has his own stuff, but also spends a lot of time and energy on bands and musicians he truly admires and enjoys. Since some folks might not be familiar with you, your bands, or Lo Fi City as a label, can you give the readers a little primer on who you are and what you do?
Thanks, that’s a pretty flattering comparison that I’ve never heard before. I’ve always admired what Mike does, especially his work with Jeff Rosenstock.
The original concept for Lo Fi City began about 8 years ago when I was working on my senior capstone project for the E-media program at UC Blue Ash. It was a frustrating time in my life because I’d been playing music in greater Cincinnati for many years but was still struggling to get anyone’s attention. At the time, there were very few venues that catered to original alternative music, so as a result the only. locations that actually did were highly sought out and difficult to book. In addition, I was the only student in the E-media capstone class that was doing an audio project (my first compilation) and my professors had absolutely no context of understanding for the recorded music I was submitting. I specifically remember the head of the department saying in front of the class one time “Would anyone ever ACTUALLY listen to this?” I felt like I was standing behind a wall that I couldn’t break through with my art so I gave my project the heavy handed title “Lo Fi For an Unwilling City.”
After graduating I decided to continue making audio compilations featuring the music of myself, my peers and other like-minded local musicians. I trimmed the title to “Lo Fi City.” My goal has always been to seek out underground musicians that create great art but lack exposure, group them together with similar artists and then present them to audiences who may have otherwise never heard them. It’s all for the sake of scene cohesion and shared promotion. The annual compilations (which are usually free/pay what you want) started with about 10 tracks by basically the same group of local musicians- alternating monikers and swapping instruments- to over 20 tracks from artists all around the world.
Outside of my solo work, the main band that I write, sing and play guitar for is Sleepy Drums. I also have a side project called Burnt Cabins with Matthew Archibald of Mutt Fuzz, and an experimental project dubbed gewgaw.
Although Lo Fi City began by solely releasing compilations, we’ve since released albums by Butt, Patchwork, Mutt Fuzz, Tooth Lures a Fang, Nightmare Frontier, Sack Lunch and more.
We’ve had some side conversations about the state of the world, live music, and having to navigate sometimes impossible circumstances as a father - all during a global pandemic. You’re involved with several musical projects aside from your solo stuff, booking shows at Southgate House Revival, and making an album with that as a background. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far? And do you think things change - for good or bad - when the worst of the pandemic is eventually behind us?
Unfortunately, everyone in my household is high risk for complications from COVID so we’ve been pretty hardcore quarantined over the last year and a half. My wife and I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work safely from home, but my social life is basically non-existent. Regular band rehearsals and gigs have been put on hold until my daughter can be vaccinated and we can feel less nervous about somehow accidentally transmitting it to her. So the isolation of it all has definitely been the most difficult part, but at the same time, the silver lining is that I’ve been able to spend far more quality time with my family than I would’ve been able to otherwise. I never would’ve admitted it before the pandemic, but I was getting really burnt out on the regular rehearsal and gig schedule that I’d kept up for so many years. I needed a break but I never would’ve given myself one if this hadn’t happened. I’ve remained busy writing, recording and gathering together unreleased material. I’ve always got plenty to work on, I just really miss doing it in person with my collaborators.
As far as how things will be once this is behind us- it’s so abstract to me at this point that I don’t even know. I’m not sure when this will truly be “behind us.” From a cultural and social standpoint the pandemic has made the people of the country show their true colors and we’ve only become more divided. It’s kind of like when a couple is having a bad fight and they both say awful things that can’t be taken back- where do they go from there?
At the very least I hope people can come out of this with a little bit more empathy and consideration for others. Stop hoarding your sick time and actually use it when you’re sick instead of coming in and infecting others. Pay your employees better. Value your friends and family and tell them you love them more. And for God’s sake, wash your damn hands!
I’m always curious about the creative process - especially now, when everything feels vague and threatening at the same time. Can you talk about the process of putting together Thrills & Disappointments? Was it an outlet, a salve, something to pass the time, a compulsion? Some combination of those things, or something else entirely?
The process of creating this album was actually a lot more drawn out than it might seem. Some of these songs were written up to 5 years ago. I write pretty frequently, almost obsessively, and document my ideas on a field recorder. I approach it a lot like someone who writes in a journal regularly- if there’s something happening in my life that I really need to vent about I’ll write and record a song. Sometimes after it’s recorded on my field recorder I feel at peace with the subject and never come back to it again. Some of the songs on the album I still haven’t played since recording them.
The concept for this album was to collect some of the best material from my field recorder and make a sound collage of sorts. I went through a few different drafts until I realized that the main songs I had collected were actually pretty solid and the other, half finished ideas surrounding those songs were unnecessary filler that bogged down the overall potential quality. I boiled the album down to the best tracks and decided to overdub some lead guitar on a couple of the songs. As I did this, I found that the overall quality of the songs were significantly improved with even just a touch more instrumentation. I used my time in seclusion during the pandemic dusting off some of my guitars I hadn’t played in awhile and exploring different tones using new pedals and I’m very proud of the lead parts I wrote. In the end it’s just as much of a showcase of the guitar as it is a showcase of the topics to which I sing about.
At this very specific point in time, what do these songs mean to you? What do you hope listeners take away from the album?
These songs are sacred to me and I’m proud of the album. That being said, I’m very glad to finally move past them and focus on writing new material. I think the experience of creating this album really helped me grow as a songwriter and I feel like I’ve already surpassed where I was when I wrote most of it. So in that way, it makes me really excited to write new material.
As far as the takeaway from the audience at large, I just hope that I created something that people can relate to and be inspired by. That’s all I ever really want.
After this album’s release, what’s next for you, and for the label?
Well, like I said, I try to stay busy. Sleepy Drums began recording a new album with Todd Uttley at Electric Eye Studio before the pandemic, and we’ve been working on finishing it remotely. I’d like to have a release show for it, but I don’t imagine that happening until next year. In addition, I’m working on finishing the debut album from Burnt Cabins and polishing off a couple experimental gewgaw albums.
Another silver lining of the pandemic is that everyone involved with Lo Fi City has been very productive and the last year and half has probably been the most prolific era in our 8 year existence. So far we’ve already released new albums from Mutt Fuzz and Patchwork and I’m happy to announce that we’ll be working with Mythical Motors from Chattanooga, Tennessee to release a limited edition cassette of their upcoming album, tentatively set for release in October 2021.
Finally, we’re collecting the tracks for our 8th annual compilation which will be released within the upcoming months. Make sure to follow Lo Fi City on social media for updates!
Thanks to Jonathan for taking the time to answer my questions.
You can stream and purchase Thrills & Disappointments right here. And you absolutely should do both, immediately.