Apr 22, 2016 10:12AM
By James Walmsley
Tim McMahan’s position: Indie rock’s not dead. It’s just clotting and receding back into the deep cuts from which it first bled in the early, alternative 1990s.
The Lazy-i rock critic and music columnist for The Reader would know. He’s been writing about the genre since before it had a name…or two…or three.
“Indie is now back underground,” McMahan, 50, declares in his Bensonish home office, which is lined with CDs, vinyl, and local show posters of yore. “What people don’t realize, though, is it’s always had a small audience—it’s never been a popular thing.”
For nearly three decades, McMahan has been independently covering the niche indie rock scene in Omaha and beyond, making him the de facto authority on the subject within the ranks of the local subculture and giving him one of the more recognizable bylines in Nebraska journalism.
Of course, chronicling his hometown’s 15 minutes of Mecca during the Saddle Creek Records boom in the early naughts didn’t hurt his readership. Neither does his crisp, confessional prose, which habitually skirts fluff and hyperbole.
“What you see is what you get—it’s pretty straight-forward,” McMahan says, lamenting the Pitchfork poetry that inundates some music journals. “It’s a style of writing that’s pretty common, but back when I started writing, people weren’t doing it that way.”
When McMahan started writing about music, he says, it was mostly about scoring free CDs. He had been the editor of UNO’s Gateway student newspaper in 1988 and had done some work with The Metropolitan, a precursor to The Reader, but his big Columbia House haul came four years later when he was hired as an Omaha rock correspondent by The Note out of Kansas.
“I’d go to Lawrence and get a big box of CDs once a month to review, it was kind of cool,” he says. “It sounds silly now, but that’s why a lot of people got involved in that.”
As McMahan’s chops evolved and the Internet started making its presence felt, the writer says he began archiving his articles online to appease his hiring publications and add to the discourse on indie rock-related message boards.
Lazy-i was born. And with it, McMahan’s compulsion to weblog about the budding sound that was about to put Omaha somewhere on some map in some forgotten atlas. The Saddle Creek Records explosion—featuring Bright Eyes, The Faint, and Cursive—brought a new crop of readers from around the world to the writer’s domain.
“I watched the readership of the website balloon during that period and now it’s really receded,” he says. “I don’t have that many readers, but I don’t care because I know that there’s a certain audience that likes this music.”
Now amidst what McMahan dubs the “Post-Saddle Creek Era” of Omaha indie rock, Lazy-i—a play on the perceived laziness of Internet-era music consumption—still offers the same thought-provoking critiques, interviews, and predictions as when it mattered to more people. The site’s design hasn’t lost its GeoCities-esque charm and McMahan still prides himself a balanced reporter, even among the musicians he’s vetted the most.
“The fact is: I know these people, I’m acquaintances with them, but I don’t party with them, I don’t hang out with them, I don’t go to their houses, I don’t go to their barbecues,” he says. “I’ll see them at clubs—they know who I am, most of them. I respect them, but they know I’m going to write what I feel about stuff. And that’s fine, and they get it.”
McMahan says he still enjoys going to shows and he still likes new music, which he understands would make him stick out as a 30-something, let alone someone who’s recently breached the half-century mark. The perception, he notes, is that indie rock is a young person’s game. But in the typically mature themes of the genre, McMahan says he’s found a fountain of sonic youth for his ears, which keeps bringing him back to concert halls and bars.
“I never feel odd being the old guy at the show—I’ve never really cared,” he says before humorously adding: “I don’t go to house shows typically, because I think it just scares kids and everyone’s uncomfortable.”
Tim McMahan’s position: indie rock’s not dead. And neither is rock journalism for that matter, which has recently been hijacked by the untrained ears of comment-section trolls and social media fanboys and fangirls alike. No, McMahan still has an important job to do.
“I think criticism has never been more important than it is now, because there’s so much music out there that it’s impossible to filter through it all,” McMahan says. “Now the new problem has nothing to do with access, it has to do with time—we just simply, physically don’t have the time to listen to everything, so we have to have someone curate for us.”