There’s karaoke and then there’s karaoke. Austin, Texas resident (and Wisconsin native) Kaleb Asplund (along with Hannah Ford) have got the italicized version down and have made it their business (literally) to take karaoke to a deeper level than giving their patrons the same five Frank Sinatra ballads to choose from. Borne from a love of punk music (listening and playing) and years spent overseas in Japan at karaoke bars, Asplund decided to cultivate his love and mine that experience to turn out the kind of karaoke that’s not easy to find. Asplund told the Village Voice in a recent interview, “The people who are into this are going to have a personal connection to the song,” he says. “You may not love Crass or Bikini Kill, but you’re going to connect with the person who gets up and sings them, because it’s something they really love.” Asplund talked to WMSE before the show goes on the road and heads to Milwaukee’s Cactus Club tomorrow night.
What fan level of karaoke are you guys at? The super-est of all super-fans?
Before we discovered punk karaoke, I was into it but not so much that I wouldn’t rather see a band, or play in one. Now, after 8+ years of Karaoke Underground, I rarely make time to sing regular karaoke but I love singing our songs as much as ever. My first karaoke experience was in college, in Sioux Falls, and I got a rush singing my first favorite pop song – “Bust A Move” by Young MC – in a sports bar called Champps. (Yes, two Ps.) But karaoke wasn’t something my friends were really into until I went to Japan to teach English after college. There, karaoke was both near-mandatory at teacher parties with my Japanese colleagues and one of the greatest ways all of the other native English speakers staged all-night bonding sessions. I learned tons of those staple pop songs that I’d somehow missed out on (“Dancing Queen,” “Africa,” etc.), learned some Japanese pop songs, and was singing karaoke basically every weekend during my two years there. My favorites settled on old soul songs like “But It’s Alright,” but I’d jump on any available Devo song that wasn’t “Whip It.”
What did you see in regular karaoke that you wanted to change when you dreamed up Karaoke Underground?
The obvious thing, for me and everybody who loves rock music that never got played on the radio, was that my favorite songs and artists were completely absent. In some of the smaller Japanese places, the English selection was limited to basically the Beatles and the Carpenters, as you might expect. But even places with thousands of English songs – including the places I went to when I came back to Madison in 2001 – didn’t have anything I really cared about. Sometimes you’d see “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” “Anarchy InThe UK” or a good selection of Talking Heads songs, but the punk/DIY/indie spectrum basically didn’t exist. I think partly because of that, there’s this whole ironic karaoke culture that’s developed, it seems more in the West than in Asia, where every performance is a winking pose. The mind-set seems kind of related to a guilty pleasure thing: “Karaoke is terrible! I love karaoke!” People clearly do sincerely love lots of famous pop and rock music, both the serious and the silly stuff, and it’s also great fun to be intentionally ridiculous or make fun of something. But having this whole intense and passionate subculture basically banned from one of the major ways we share music with each other seems to contribute to underground rock being written off as “something you grow out of.” Anyway, Hannah and I were certainly not the first or only ones to notice it was missing and do something about it, there were already some great live band karaoke acts that included artists like Black Flag and X. Even some of the original musicians were playing in them, like the Punk Rock Karaoke All-Star Band put together by Greg Hetson from Circle Jerks and Bad Religion.
We got our start when some friends in Minneapolis took me out to Punk Karaoke at a Mexican dive bar there. Here was what I was looking for: They actually had a song by my favorite band, Poster Children! And of course they had dozens more classics by the bands that shaped punk and indie rock, like Gang Of Four, Stooges, Minutemen, Wire, The Clash, Dead Kennedys, and on and on into the ’90s with Pixies, Sleater-Kinney, and of course some Lifter Puller. Even some of my favorite Devo songs! Once I moved to Minneapolis in 2002, I dragged Hannah and a bunch of other friends there every week. It was hosted by Ian Rans, and I quickly found out that he took requests, so I brought my CDs in so he could figure out if he could remove the vocals. I was singing my favorites and noting great songs that other people sang so I could go out and get those albums, make mixtapes for my car stereo and learn them too. The only big drawback to Punk Karaoke was that instead of making videos, they just had a sheet of paper with the lyrics and you had to know the song pretty damn well, especially the ones with lots of words or long instrumental parts. When we started KU, the two main things we wanted to improve from Ian’s show were to have more indie rock/pop and to make actual videos. Making the videos definitely takes the most time, even though we decided not to try to make the words change color in time with the singing, but it’s really been worth the effort. Here’s an example, “I Am A Scientist,” by Guided By Voices.
How do you go about setting this all up, technically?
To get vocals out, there’s a basic audio editing function you can find dozens of tools to execute by searching “make your own karaoke.” We use Audacity for audio and iMovie to make the videos.
You even feature some really obscure artists like CAN, Destroyer and Ween…
That’s the point! People have different ways of judging what’s obscure or not, so the only real filtering we do is to establish that the artist has roots in the DIY world, and make sure the songs are not widely available on regular karaoke lists (there are some exceptions that we’re constantly debating whether to remove). I feel like Can, Destroyer and Ween are a little on the more well-known end of our spectrum, even though nobody has yet sung “She Brings The Rain.” Our list is probably 1/3 songs that are more-or-less “standards” in the punk/indie world, 1/3 that are our personal favorites that might not be as well known but we want to sing and 1/3 personal favorite requests from singers.
Do you get many requests?
We get tons of requests, I’m about 800 behind! Sometimes we get requests as veiled threats, like in our first year when we offended someone who said we had a great list but couldn’t believe we’d do a punk karaoke show without Crass and Bikini Kill on it, so we immediately added them. Other times it’s for a wedding or private party where the host wants a particular song, or there’s a theme for a show like Matador’s 21st Anniversary party in Las Vegas, or our Riot Grrrl benefit for Girls Rock Camp Austin. Mostly though, it’s just someone comes to a show, has a great time and tells me they’d love to have a song added.
What’s your all-time favorite Karaoke Underground moment?
Every time someone tells us they’ve never sung karaoke before but had to sing because we had their favorite song, we love it. Every time somebody owns a song and unleashes their passion for something that feels so personal, we love it. We’ve met some outstanding people and great friends through KU, which was one of the main reasons we decided to start doing it when we moved to Austin in 2003. But the single most amazing moment would have to be the last song of our first after-party show at the Matador festival. After an awesome show with at least 200 people in the room and all of them wanting to sing, we had a guy named Matt, who worked for Matador, sing “Summer Babe” by Pavement to close out the night. I think it started with about five people on stage, but it quickly became a big crowd of people loudly shouting along, and it ended with Ted Leo being passed along over everybody’s heads. Luckily there’s video of that last part, it was pure magic and the kind of moment I have a hard time believing actually happened. I can never thank Gerard and everyone at Matador enough for having us out there.
The Karaoke Underground visits the Cactus Club on Saturday, December 29th.