Most people know Michael Nesmith as the Monkee in the green wool hat who wrote some of their greatest songs (“Listen to the Band,” “Circle Sky”) and sat out most of their reunion tours. Others know him as a businessman who helped inspire the creation of MTV, or as the son of Bette Nesmith Graham, the multi-millionaire inventor of Liquid Paper. What virtually no one knows about Nesmith is that the 75-year-old singer-songwriter, who recently survived a major health scare, is also a die-hard fan of vaporwave music – a fringe electronic subgenre that few outside irony-soaked meme enthusiasts have even heard of, let alone developed an opinion on.
When Nesmith called Rolling Stone to talk about songs he loves, we thought he might talk about country rock or 1960s pop. We were shocked when, instead, he went deep on vaporwave. “Your best and only access to it is the Internet,” he explains. “You’ve got to put in ‘vaporwave’ on YouTube and follow it down. It’s an endless cavern of inter-connected convolutions. I tell everybody I meet about it. Once you open it up, it’s like cracking an egg. It goes all over the place.”
This is not a joke. Michael Nesmith of the Monkees loves this stuff. Here are his five favorite vaporwave tracks and albums, from the foundational texts of the genre to rarer cuts.
Macintosh Plus, Floral Shoppe
“I’d never heard anything like it, and I was just smitten. Now I listen to it pretty regularly. It really satisfies me. The first indicator as you’re listening is that it’s abnormally slow. You think, ‘Well, that’s weird. Why are they singing like that? I don’t know. Do I like this?’ If you’re distracted in the slightest and head to another train of thought, the music drifting off into this pool of liquid blue becomes compelling. It’s the most psychedelic stuff I’ve heard ever since psychedelics. You realize that this is the kind of music I hear when I’m driving in a car and I’ve got the radio on, but I’m not really listening to it. It’s some old mix I have from some old CD or some old cassette, and it starts to flow together with the sounds of speakers that are coming from shopping malls and In-N-Out Burgers. Then you stop and park by the ocean, and the ocean continues to play this music.”
2814, Birth of a New Day
“The first mistake anyone makes with this stuff is thinking it’s electronica. [Laughs] Well, listen for a few minutes and you realize, ‘This isn’t electronica. This is someone with the radio on in their garage while they’re putting WD40 on their new motorcycle.’ It’s completely gone from the landscapes of traditional music. The people that seem to put together the collections are basically high-end programmers, people that put together rocket science code. It comes in and you hear echoes and vibrations and restatements that you’ll never hear outside there.”
Toto, “Africa” (vaporwave mix)
“All those little musical catchphrases that were in the hit are all there, but it’s taking place in a soundscape that’s the size of the Serengeti. You think, ‘This is background music.’ No. It’s foreground music. It’s a lot of what I listened to when I was doing First National Band, and one of the reasons why without [pedal steel guitarist] Red Rhodes I never would have been able to put it together. First National Band left a lot on the table. This is on the channel called Shitpost Wizard.”
ABBA, “Dancing Queen” (vaporwave mix)
“This is one of the bedrocks. When you watch it, you’ll understand. It’s just nuts. It’s ABBA at its weirdest and strangest: every one of the optic memes and every one of the audio memes sprinkled around it, but in such an unfamiliar pattern that if you weren’t watching the glitteration of ABBA in their shiny blue suits you wouldn’t know. It wouldn’t dawn on you.”
Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (vaporwave mix)
“They are called remixes, but they aren’t remixes. They are completely new. It doesn’t invoke anything you or I are familiar with as far as the old hit, where you would have a repetitive phrase over and over and that was supposed to be the hook. Those are in there, but they don’t mean anything. [Pauses.] I hope Trump isn’t taping this conversation. Jesus.”