Music by VICE

The Slow Return of Duster, the Lo-Fi Trio Who Secretly Changed Indie Rock

After 17 years, the California trio are back in the studio and putting the finishing touches on an archival set for Numero Group. It's a good opportunity to dig into their "desperate, purring distress."

by Brian Coney
Aug 27 2018, 3:34pm

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Duster always made room for space between notes. In the California trio’s five years as an active concern, they made warm, fuzzed-out sounds that hit home like a tight, melancholic embrace from your favorite person. They never really seemed in a hurry to get anywhere in particular, which felt special, even among the other so-called slowcore bands they've often been lumped in with over the years. Which is why when they went on hiatus in 2001, after just two albums, there was always an implicit hope that they might find their way back. Maybe they were just playing slower than ever.

In April, following 17 years without a signal, a new transmission from @thisisduster appeared on Instagram: “hi. it's been a long time but we are recording a little bit.” A photo of some sweet analog studio equipment. 701 likes. A handful of comments expressed the wholesome excitement that a certain subset of Very Online music nerds experienced: "Holy fucking shit," "duster pls," "i'm beyond excited for you three to share how much you've grown with us."

Formed in San Jose in 1996, Duster disappeared back in 2001. Just as the world felt like it was tumbling into a dark new era, multi-instrumentalists Clay Parton, Canaan Dove Amber and Jason Albertini exited stage left, leaving behind two albums, a handful of EPs and a muted legacy of life-changingly Good Music that has rewarded bummed-out indieheads with a penchant for Soulseek and RateYourMusic genre lists in the intervening 17 years. Sleepyheaded and lo-fi as all hell, their music sounded like it was filtered through every late Summer evening you ever spent alone, wanting to be somebody else, anywhere else, laying head-to-toe with someone who just gets it. Before Bandcamp-born songwriters like (Sandy) Alex G and Mitski legitimized inward-peering indie rock for the modern age, Duster penned the operations manual. The small print read: sure, we’re all lonely as heck, and we all feel a bit fucked up, but it’s okay.

Back in June, the band announced that the vaunted reissue label Numero Group would be handling re-presses of their long out-of-print discography “eventually.” Though now, in their first interview since 2000, they say that March 2019 is the tentative release period for a boxset of their discography. In addition, this Duster reboot also means that they’ve been working on a brand new EP and plans for their first shows (including a sold-out date alongside (Sandy) Alex G at Warsaw in Brooklyn in December) in a very long time. Just when we thought we wouldn’t hear from them ever again, Parton, Amber and Albertini are primed for a full-blown return.


Depending on who you ask, Duster are low-key gurus of homespun slowcore, space rock or somewhere super-ephemeral in between. But those terms were never exactly right to describe their intimate brilliance. “I’m fine with whatever people want to call it,” says Amber. “Space is cool. But how many songs do we have that are really slow? 20%.”

“Now, I'm thinking about how everything is fucked,” adds Parton. “Who fucking cares about slowcore?”

For all its enduring charm, slowcore—a skeletal, slow-burning offshoot of alternative rock pioneered by the likes of Codeine, Low and Bedhead in the mid-90s—has always felt like a kneejerk umbrella term under which Duster’s nuanced craft was carelessly flung. Self-recording on analog equipment in an imaginary studio they dubbed Low Earth Orbit ("It's not a physical space, it's just where we've called our own recording thing," Parton tells me) Duster’s DIY sound had as much to do with circumstance than anything else.

"Everything is fucked—who fucking cares about slowcore?" — Clay Parton

“We were broke and used what we had available to us,” says Parton. “A bunch of songs came together on cassette four-track machines, and then on 16-track tape machines, so there was an inherent limitation there compared to recording now—almost everything seems editable and fake-able, and you don't have to commit to anything. It's pretty much the same for me: some shitty old microphones, some shitty old guitars, and the same amps I've had forever. We also still use cassette four-track machines, so not much has changed except we have to buy cassettes on eBay instead of steal them from the drugstore now.”

Released in February 1998, the seventeen-track Stratosphere remains Duster’s “holy shit” moment. Marrying the droning space-rock of English feedback enthusiasts Flying Saucer Attack via the heart-stung slow songs of Codeine, the likes of "Topical Solution" and "Constellations" were mini-soundtracks to staring at a blanket of stars, a little high, letting your eyes water until everything slowly warps out of view. “Echo, Bravo” conjured MBV jamming Side A of Siamese Dream. Sad, cozy paeans such as “Inside Out” made you instantly miss your old friends and desperately crave new ones.

“I do hear different things in it that maybe are sort of cozy to me,” says Parton. “The sound of the wooden floor in the bedroom reflecting the clang of the drums, the living room carpet, that was so long that people would lose entire nuggets of weed in, swallowing up high end echoes. That stuff sounds familiar to me. But I hear, like, desperate, purring distress throughout.”

Jason Albertini, photo courtesy of the artist

Distress sounds about right. Despite all the warmth and drowsiness, the more downcast Duster moments (take "Operations" or "Auto-Mobile" from their second album Contemporary Movement) make Spiderland sound like Steely Dan. All things considered, 2018 probably isn’t the worst backdrop for their long-awaited return. “I know the state of things is something that I wake up being discouraged by,” says Parton. “I mean we didn't feel like we belonged in this world before, and the world is only an even bleaker hellscape now, especially in the United States, so everything is poisoned, completely fucked up and dismal.” Since 2001, the members of Duster have remained friends and collaborators. Amber and Albertini moved up to Seattle, figuring the Bay Area had “gotten too expensive to live.” Parton founded a label, The Static Cult, to put out music by his Eiafuawn project and Albertini’s Helvetia. “I hate selling things and I hate shipping things, so a label was a really terrible idea and I was very bad at it,” says Parton. “But I thought people should be hearing Helvetia.”

“I played drums in Helvetia on the first record and on some shows and tours,” adds Amber. “I think we all kept creating music the same way Duster did when we were all living together, but without being able to collaborate in the same room, and living in different places. So that was missing. We didn't break up as a band from band drama shit. Jason and I got to work with each other more, but Clay and I haven't been able to work together as much, or at all really. We've always wanted to.” As their Instagram posts have hinted, Duster are once again holed up in Low Earth Orbit and are recording a new EP. Were they just waiting for the elusive “right time”?

“I think our plan was always to keep playing. It's just taken us longer to get it together than we thought it would,” says Parton. “We have a bunch of unfinished things, we are all working on new stuff and passing songs back and forth. The three of us are continuing to finish up some songs and starting to shed the ones that aren't quite right. So we'll end up with a smaller set of songs we like at the end of the process, same as it ever was.”

“We've all been wanting to do it forever,” adds Amber. “Now, more than ever, we can share music files, whereas even ten years ago it wasn't as easy. Music and creative work mean everything to me. I haven't always been in living situations where I could do that, and I’m just lost. Yes, now is the right time.”

"I hear, like, desperate, purring distress throughout.”—Clay Parton, on Duster's music.

A quick peek on Discogs serves as confirmation that demand for Duster’s out-of-print discography is at an all-time high. Luckily, the hopes and prayers for reissues are set to be answered. “We are sending songs to mastering now,” reveals Parton. “I thought one of the harder-to-find songs would have to be left off, because I didn't have it anymore, but some old friends in Italy came through and provided a copy of it for us. It's been good to have friends who have been supportive forever, and then to have like a new fucking generation of people enthusiastic about us. It's surreal in these grim times. We are digging through some recordings that are older than some of these new fans. It's weird. Anyway, the box set will have at least three LPs—maybe more.”

Duster’s old records hit home today more than ever before. Like sheltering under a bed during a thunderstorm as a kid, finding respite in some quiet corner, their slow, spaced-out songs remain an open invite to dock the escape pod of one’s mind and, if just a little while, take off somewhere far beyond the noise.

With their re-entry now on the horizon, there’s only one thing left for it: reach for Stratosphere, drop the needle andas that one comment from their Instagram post in April put itstart getting excited to see how much Duster have grown with us.

“We've always been connected in a weird voodoo way,” says Parton. “Even we've gone months without talking to each other, we can always pick right up. We've spent more time apart than we have together at this point, so this is normal now. But we have like, incredible love for each other. They are my family.”

“I'm not sure about the order of how things will happen,” he adds. “But we're going to put out a new EP, Numero is doing the box set, we're going to play shows everywhere we can make it work, and then either keep doing that or disappear for twenty years.”

Duster have a brand new website. Keep up with them here .