The music of the band Duster is hard to classify. It’s been called many things, but none of these classifications have managed to stick all that well. There’s more natural propulsion behind Duster’s music than slowcore contemporaries like Codeine and Bedhead, and it’s more spaced-out than artists like the Microphones or Built to Spill.
A more apt description of Duster’s music might be a ride in one of those airplanes that simulate zero-gravity. Your feet leave the ground of their own accord, and you spend a few moments suspended there, maybe spinning around a little bit, totally out of control. Then you land back on the ground and feel a little bit dazed and totally confused as to how you got there in the first place.
Duster is a trio from San Jose, Calif. Clay Parton and Canaan Dove Amber founded the band in 1996 and released a handful of cassettes and seven-inches before putting out their debut record Stratosphere in 1998. Jason Albertini contributed drums to three songs on Stratosphere but became much more involved on the follow-ups, the 1975 EP released in 1999, and the band’s second full-length album Contemporary Movement, which came out in 2000.
The band’s brief discography was relatively well-received by critics, but it never really found an audience, and before anyone could blink they had broken up. Their label, Up Records, then home to Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, was experiencing a downturn following the passing of founder Chris Takino in 2000, and Duster’s music had been little more than a blip on the radar commercially. So the band members moved on. Parton and Amber started a recording studio called Low Earth Orbit, and Albertini dove headfirst into his own band Helvetia, which was initially distributed by Parton’s Static Cult label. They were fully prepared to let Duster rest as a droning, hazy footnote to the indie rock explosion of the ’90s.
But now, almost two decades later, Duster has a devoted, even rabid following. Vinyl copies of their albums sell for hundreds of dollars on the online marketplace Discogs. If you ask the right people, Duster are revered as legends and pioneers—not just by fans of the genre but by important contemporary artists—and they’re suddenly poised for a comeback, having played their first shows in 18 years this winter.
The music was always good, so why are people just now starting to come around to it? The answer starts, as with most things these days, with the internet. Duster were painfully obscure in their time, and they mostly relied on Up Records and their friends in bigger bands to carry their sound to new ears. Now they don’t need a label to reach new people. Word of mouth travels at lightning speed, and people no longer have to go digging through record bins labeled “miscellaneous” or “rock/pop” to find a Duster record. If you dig through the related artists for your favorite indie band on Spotify, you’re bound to come across Duster before too long.
Another helpful byproduct of the streaming era is a rising indifference towards genre lines and labels. The fringes of the “rock music” classification are bleeding into adjacent areas like pop, jazz, ambient and electronic music and even hip-hop. Artists who create their own spaces between genre signifiers are no longer just labeled experimental and shunted to the side. That space between genres is where Duster has always operated, and it’s where people are finding them today.
There’s still the pesky business of reconciling Duster’s sluggish, fuzzy sound with the aesthetics of the current scene. Duster have never been concerned with the whims of the mainstream, a fact that’s evident in how they’ve chosen to make their slow return to the limelight. But this time around appears to be different, because Duster’s listen-if-you-want-to attitude is working out in spite of itself, and they fit in now in ways they never did before.
Since 2000 when Duster was last active, and particularly in the last decade or so, guitar music has undergone a radical transformation. It’s now acceptable and even cool to rock at your own pace and play as loud or as quiet as you want. In Duster’s time, the norm—at least in the circles that might actually pick up one of their records—was late-career Pavement and Sonic Youth. It was Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker screaming “Dig Me Out” as Sleater-Kinney, and artists like PJ Harvey and Beck adopting a new sound entirely almost every year. It was bands like Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam desperately carrying the torch for the grunge movement. With all of that going on, it seems almost inevitable that a hazy, unassuming project like Duster would get buried in the detritus of the alternative explosion.
Duster’s entire lifespan fits into the three-year period between Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997 and Kid A in 2000. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Duster’s sound could also fit neatly somewhere in the aesthetic flyover country between those two albums. Now, Radiohead’s latest effort is a melancholy, mostly slow-burning reverie that feels similarly unconcerned with tangibility or lucidity, and the field is littered with artists who owe at least part of their sound to Duster.
One such artist is (Sandy) Alex G. The renowned Philly songwriter has been putting out ragged, lo-fi weirdo pop since 2013, and his music builds on a lot of the ideas Duster first put forth. Any number of Alex’s songs could fit snugly into Duster’s discography, from the low hiss of “Memory” to the melodic shuffle of “Walk.” Both artists have a propensity for taking truly sweet and beautiful melodies and obscuring them as if underwater, only letting them shine through when absolutely necessary. Duster accomplishes this to great effect on the Contemporary Movement cut “Unrecovery,” with clear, ringing lead guitar breaking through the wall of noise around it. (Sandy) Alex G does something similar on his recent loosie “fay,” building tension with a tangled mess of soft guitar before the chorus comes and opens everything up. It’s unclear how much Alex knew of Duster when he was writing these songs, but there’s definitely some mutual respect there now, as Duster’s first gig in 18 years was an opening slot for him at Warsaw in Brooklyn.
Also on that bill was Harmony Tividad of the L.A.-based duo Girlpool. “I walked in during their soundcheck and I was shocked, just so deeply shocked that it was them,” Tividad says of her experience at the show.
Duster’s music has had a huge effect on Tividad’s approach to songwriting, both on her own and with Girlpool. “It’s poppy, but in a way that’s really subtle and untraceable really, like you don’t know why, it just is, and I love that about it,” Tividad says. “It’s rare for people to trust in a song when they’re writing it… but I think what really struck me about their music was that it was just so trusting in itself and it didn’t seem like it was sacrificing any moment to thinking about what someone else would want to hear.”
Everything about Duster’s music has a sense of deliberation to it, from the motley production and low vocal mix to the unique tone and mood the band brings to each of their songs. Girlpool have this same quality of effortless purpose on their most recent album What Chaos is Imaginary, especially when the duo’s guitars grow big and shoegazey on tracks like “Roses” and “Where You Sink,” the latter of which Tividad cites as being particularly influenced by Duster. Numerous other young bands wear their Duster influences on their sleeves whether they know it or not, like Horse Jumper of Love, The Spirit of the Beehive, Ovlov and Hovvdy just to name a few. They all bring something new and different to the table, but no one has since been able to replicate that implacable honesty and foggy, weightless state that Duster’s music achieves.
Duster just wrapped up a short run of tour dates along the West Coast, and they’re putting out a box set of their entire discography plus a handful of unreleased tracks on March 22. Other than a one-off Instagram post from last April saying they were “recording a bit,” no new music has been announced, although there have been rumors of an EP of new material on the way. Duster’s sound might have changed in the intervening years. It might be a bit more hi-fi now, a bit more precise. But unlike most bands who return after a 20-year absence, change is not a necessity for Duster. They fit in better now than they did when they were first active because their peers today are also their fans, and the indie-rock world has caught up to them at last. If Duster does decide to make a full-scale comeback, it’ll be to an audience that’s finally ready to float away into space with them and not look back.