We were driving back from nowhere, a place whose elevation we had to approximate based on the towns before and after on the road, when a Smashing Pumpkins song came on Spotify. It was one I’d heard a million times before—or, at the very least, a dozen—but the drums stuck out to me in a way they never had before.
The ’90s had a very distinct drum tone.
As we drove, I remembered all sorts of songs with the same sound laying a foundation, Garbage’s “#1 Crush” foremost amongst them. And, as I always do when I think of that song, I began to picture Metal Mario, running in a circle on a tiny TV, the biggest I could afford at 12 years old.
As a pre-teen, I fell somewhere in a quantum state between have and have-not: We had just received our lawsuit money, but my mom couldn’t yet figure out how far it would go. When it came time to spend it, there were a few splurges, to be sure, but the biggest changes came in the form of furniture, not fun. My pair of twin-sized beds, creaky wooden ones that my father and his brother had slept on in their childhoods, finally went to the wayside, replaced by a bunk-bed/futon set-up, and supplemented by an all-new set of bookshelves and the like.
Those weren’t quite essential, but they were close enough to qualify. A TV, on the other hand, was out of the question. My mom saw no need for a TV in my room. I felt otherwise.
So I scrimped, and I saved, setting aside allowance and babysitting money for the better part of a year before I could afford a 13″ TV, and my mom chose to not block me from buying it. Later that year, I put some of my bar mitzvah money down to pre-order a Nintendo 64—the first time I’d gotten a video game console within four years of its release, and the only treat I was allowed to buy with those funds.
As an 8th grader, I had finally given up my delusions of sporting greatness, and my afternoons were full of nothing but time for the first time in my life. Already obsessed with Magic: the Gathering, I also fell deep into Mario and music, usually pairing the two, blasting the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack over the video game. The following spring, on a cruise, I bonded with a girl over the brilliance of that album, which still has a surprising number of songs that hold up nearly two decades later.
I wouldn’t see the film until I was in college.
We went to a party on Monday, an event held solely for the purpose of announcing the lineup of a music festival four months from now. In the bar area, we sat and drank, discussing the bands’ names as they appeared on the screen, a handful at a time. Inevitably, the shrieks of teenage girls in the all-ages section were accompanied by a “Who?” from us.
EDM is all the rage these days, hip-hop hot on its tails. But, more than that, the streaming era has changed the landscape, creating a diversity of sounds unlike any previous time. There aren’t any drums that sound the same, because increasingly, there aren’t any actual drums at all.
One of the songs that came to mind in the car today was only a fragment of such, and it took a long Google rabbit hole to find its end. Not Nada Surf, not Dandy Warhols, but Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” was the song I was thinking of.
While falling down that hole, I realized why the Pumpkins song and Garbage’s had the same sound: They were produced at the same studio, by the same producer, one a gal I used to know served back when she tended bar in a town far away. Five years ago, I happened to drive past that studio, a place as influential as any in creating the sound of the decade when I came of age, and I didn’t realize it until tonight, when I looked it up.
Much like the place I spent this weekend, it might as well have been nowhere at all, until I stopped to notice.