NME Radar: Breakout

Medium: the LA-based project getting weird with lo-fi basement punk and thrash

Despite claiming to do everything wrong on his latest single ‘Life After Death’, Medium’s Cotter Phinney is already on a thrilling path of home-taped exploration.

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

We’ve seen an abundance of striking, home-produced lo-fi music since lockdown took hold. Yet that ever-popular grainy aesthetic has always been on the mind of Cotter Phinney. ‘Life After Death’, the LA musician’s third track for his project Medium, is a dizzying blast of guitar-driven psych — a rewarding home-taped exploration that comes to an end way too soon.

Speaking to NME via Zoom from his sun-splashed suburban LA garden, the 27-year-old details the humble process behind the track which was knocked out in just a day. “I pretty much did everything wrong,” Phinney admits. “I recorded on a Type 1 cassette, which is the lowest quality. I was mixing the whole thing on my PS4 headset, there’s no bassline — I did everything in the book wrong.”

These potential pitfalls add to the smash-and-grab charm of the single, which blend frantic guitars with electronic drums and eerie vocals, bringing to mind the raw and revealing approach of Ariel Pink or John Maus, two of Phinney’s influences.

Having drafted in a couple of band members while living in New York to help with live duties and the first two-track Medium release ‘246 Demos’, Medium has now resumed as a solo project after Phinney moved back to LA last year. “The band did a really good job with it,” he says. “We played a few shows in New York, plus a few house shows.” He mentions their finest hour came at a house party in Portland, Oregon: “We were staying at this girl’s house and unbeknownst to me she told the audience they should get excited because it was my birthday, and I’m a loser. The energy was massive in such a contained space. We ended on a cover of the Power Rangers theme and I did a ripping guitar solo on it.”

A rushing swell of thrash-tinged guitar lines also hold a place on ‘Life After Death’. “My favourite thing on earth is guitar solos, because they’re out of fashion now,” Phinney explains. “I’m a big fan of ’80s metal and I look up to those guitarists. The big one for me is Megadeth: I took a few lessons with their original guitarist because I was so entranced with the way he played. It’s inhuman, like nothing I’ve ever seen or heard.”

Phinney’s far-reaching set of influences has played a key part in forming a sound which is still too early to categorise. “I think I’ve always been into weird music,” he says. “A few bands have always stuck: one is The Garden and the other is Ariel Pink, who was a really big influence for me in high school.”

He’s aware of harnessing such names in his own process, but delves deeper. “What has been inspiring me on this release is a lot of midwestern punk bands, stuff like the Coneheads and CCTV — people call it Devo-core. It’s people that are making awesome lo-fi recordings to tape and then selling cassettes of it.” Phinney says his latest track was an attempt to emulate such touchstones. “They sound like Devo demos, or any cool 70s, 80s post-punk, new-wave band. I tried to make a song like that and failed, but it turned into its own thing.”

Trial and error is very much shaping the direction of this project. Phinney agrees: “I’m not super methodical or purposeful about the structure because I composed the song as I was recording it. I let it play out, and built on a drum beat which was a musical cue to start.” This free-form approach also smudges into his lyrics. “If there is a message, I don’t know it. I urge anybody to take their own interpretation from it. For me, it feels like peeling back the layers and discovering what was meant to be there, rather than me inflicting my own thoughts and opinions on the track.”

The next steps are very much about seizing upon the creative drive behind his progress so far. “The reaction has been amazing considering how rough ‘Life After Death’ is —everything was so quick — so the fact people are digging it is cool to me.” Phinney plans on utilising the situation around the coronavirus pandemic to map out his next steps. “There’s a whole lot of nothing to do right now, so I’m excited to keep releasing. I have to figure out what form my new songs will take, but there will definitely be more music.”

We can expect a minor step-up in production as well. “I bought a pair of headphones: they’re still shitty, they’re the cheapest $50 headphones I could find,” Phinney laughs. “But they’re still a big upgrade from the PS4 headset.”

Medium’s ‘Life After Death’ is out now.

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