Forget "Don't Stop Believin'," Karaoke Underground Lets You Sing Your Favorite Indie Songs from Jawbreaker to Bikini Kill

We talked to Karaoke Underground co-founder Kaleb Asplund about how Ian MacKaye, Steve Albini, and Yo La Tengo think he’s, like, totally great.

Nov 5 2014, 5:30pm

"Karaoke Underground is not about ironic karaoke. We're not about making fun of songs. It's really important for us to be genuine, because I think all the artists—even if they're wacky and silly and stupid or whatever—they're being genuine." Kaleb Asplund, host and co-founder of the aptly named Karaoke Underground is noticeably more hoarse than he was several hours earlier. Which makes sense. He spent the last five hours singing from the sidelines, offering visible encouragement to every amateur frontman that took the stage. The bar is technically closed, but the staff is blasting Rain Dogs as they gather abandoned bottles and graciously ignore our ongoing interview.

Away from the action, Asplund exudes the same disarming enthusiasm he conjures on stage. He speaks excitedly about music, activism, and yes, karaoke. To Asplund, his long-running project is a celebration, a time and place for aging punks to gather in reverence of their bygone (and occasionally still active) heroes. That night's show certainly bore out his vision. A barback executed several signature Bob Pollard high-kicks while belting out Guided By Voices. Some guy in a suit did the worm while powering through "Dr. Worm." A couple slow danced to a Dum Dum Girls song with obvious sincerity and tenderness.

For more than a decade, Asplund and wife Hannah Ford have been running karaoke nights at bars and venues all around Austin, TX, offering fans a chance to sing Bad Brains, Big Black, and Built to Spill instead of, well, typical karaoke bullshit. Their catalog is entirely homemade, every track and video painstakingly edited together by the couple themselves. And while other DIY karaoke shows do exist, Karaoke Underground possesses the longevity and clarity of purpose that others seem to lack.

Listening to Asplund talk about Karaoke Underground and its 10-year history, you'd almost think he was describing the storied career of a road-weary punk band: raucous house shows, tours gone awry, unexpected brushes with musical icons—the parallels are uncanny. Tackling all that in a single interview ultimately proved impossible, but Asplund, with all his enthusiasm, tried anyway.

Noisey: Where did the initial idea come from?
Kaleb Asplund: Hannah and I both caught the karaoke bug when we were in Japan, 1999 to 2002 or so. In 2002, Hannah got back from Japan, and we moved in together in Minneapolis. There was a guy named Ian Rans running a thing called Punk Rock Karaoke. And I basically ended up dragging Hannah about four other friends there every week at this little Mexican dive bar.

What he would do is—kind of similar to what we do—he'd get the songs and mix [the vocals] out, but he wouldn't save them onto video. He just gave you a sheet of paper with lyrics on it. It was a challenge but a lot of fun. So yeah, we wanted to do that when we moved down to Austin in 2003, and we basically talked to Ian first and said, "Hey, do you want to franchise? Is it OK if we do this?" And he's like, "Whatever, you guys go have fun, good luck."

What was your very first show like?
We started out with 70 songs. We did a show at Carousel Lounge, a tiny little place with a pink ceramic elephant on the stage. The only people there were people we were already friends with. It was a little disappointing, but at the same time, we believed in this, it was fun, and, at some level, it was just for our friends anyway. So we stuck with it.

The big turning point was when Nomad Bar booked us for first Saturdays. They booked us and thought we were [Austin-based cover band] Karaoke Apocalypse, I swear to God. The owner of Nomad wrote to me, and like, I'm going back and forth with him, and about two days before the show, he's asking questions that very clearly indicated he thought we were a live band. I'm like, "No, we're video karaoke." And he's like, "Well, it's too late to change anything now, just go ahead and do the show." And it turned into a great show! And so the owner was like, "Yeah, come on back!" And really Nomad's been our anchor and homebase ever since.

Tell us a bit about your song catalog. How big is it, how long did it take to get there...
We have 857 songs right now. It's taken a long time to get there. We add songs in waves. Initially, Hannah and I were working crazy hard making videos. It took us three hours or so at that point for each video. That first year we made probably 250. Slowed down a bit after that. Now, at top speed for a short song with not too many lyrics, I can get the CD, mix the vocal audio out, and add the lyrics in about an hour.

Initially, it was really inspired by what Ian was doing up in Minneapolis. Ian's list is really punk rock-oriented. He's got a bunch of '77 era punk rock, and we were like, "Well that's cool, we like a lot of that stuff, but obviously this idea has a bigger potential to include the stuff we care about personally"—which is all this indie rock stuff. We wanted to expand into a broader indie rock, underground, DIY kind of world.

How do you pick new material now?
We always wanted to take requests. We'd been doing shows for almost a year, maybe, and somebody emailed us and said, "I was totally going to come out to your show, but you say you're punk rock karaoke and there's no Bikini Kill, there's no Crass. What the fuck?" I'd heard of both bands, but I hadn't really listened to them enough, obviously, so I was like, "Well, OK, what are the songs we need to have?" So that's how it expanded.

Do people mostly request classic material? Does a song need to be around for a little while before you'll add it?
Just added Sleater-Kinney's "Bury Our Friends." They just released it this week! So does it need to wait? No. But obviously, as far as whether people are going to sing it, it helps if something has aged a little bit. What's awesome about Karaoke Underground is, we're kind of casting a beacon to everybody who's into this underground rock scene at various levels and saying, "Hey, what's your favorite? Who do you still care about? What are you excited about?"

What songs get sung every time?
Not one song gets sung every time, thankfully. But the biggest ones are "Portions for Foxes" by Rilo Kiley—totally shocked me when we added it. People love Rilo Kiley. It's not my thing, but I love that people are into it. It works. [Fugazi's] "Waiting Room" is still way up there, [Jawbreaker's] "Boxcar" has been added a lot, [The Yeah Yeah Yeah's] "Black Tongue"—this girl Allie just requested it for her birthday this spring and it's been sung a lot since then. Misfits songs—it's ridiculous that Misfits songs aren't on regular karaoke. Shellac "Prayer to God" gets sung more than most other songs. Oh, and "Decepticon!" Kathleen Hanna! Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" gets sung nearly every time.

Any songs that just never get picked?
I just had to reset the play count in March for South by Southwest, and since March, we've had more than half our songs picked. We've had like 500 different songs played, which is awesome.

Any songs you really wanted that wouldn't work? Any requests you refused to add?
Obviously there's stuff that I want to add that I can't add technically—can't mix the vocals out. But what I like about limiting Karaoke Underground to that approach is that, "OK, you're not going to get that song. Big deal. There's a thousand other songs that need to be added."

As far as won't add, we just try to avoid "the slippery slope to Radiohead." We joked about this at first, but "the slippery slope to Radiohead" means we don't want to be adding Radiohead-type music. So, like, we won't add anything that's from a band that had a Top 40 hit after they had their Top 40 hit—like, from the album that Top 40 hit was from forward. No major labels after Nirvana's Nevermind. And stuff that's widely available in regular karaoke, we try not to add that.

Do people ever get upset you don't have stuff like that?
Dude, do you know how much, like, Stereolab and Modest Mouse I would add if I didn't have those rules? But I think it's really useful. Karaoke Underground is not about having the most awesome playlist ever. It's about saying, "This world, this DIY world is worth celebrating in its own right." I have tons of favorite songs: I'm a big Madonna fan. The KLF was a formative group for me. There's all kinds of really hugely popular things that are awesome. But it's not for Karaoke Underground.

Do you share your songs online at all? There are, like, karaoke sharing forums, right?
I will tell you that exists, and I am not part of it. Since I'm working from CDs, I don't have rights to distribute it. And I don't trust that if I put it out there, somebody's not going to start selling it. One of the first things we did before we even started doing shows, I managed to talk—through [Illinois band] Poster Children, they had a radio show, and they had Ian MacKaye as a guest one time, and I called up the show and asked Ian MacKaye, like, "We're planning to do this, what do you think?" And he's like, "That's totally cool, don't sell it." And I think that's what we've tried to live by.

Has an artist ever found out about KU and reacted negatively?
Every artist that we've ever had find out about it... either they were excited about it or they didn't say anything. Like, when I did that Premier Rock Forum barbecue in Chicago, Steve Albini was right in the room. He's playing poker while I'm singing, you know, Poster Children. We did a short hour-and-a-half karaoke set, and he was hanging there playing poker the whole time. If he really felt strongly about it, I assume he would have said something. I will not put him on the record for any comments one way or the other, but... he was there. [Laughs]

Speaking of fests, tell us about playing Matador 21.
That came together because it sold out obviously in like minutes, and I didn't get a ticket. And I'm like, "Well…" Gerard Cosloy—who founded Matador Records and still plays a huge role in it —he lives in Austin, and he came out to Karaoke Underground I think the summer before that. You know, came out to five or six shows. So knowing that he at least knew who we were and was into it, I emailed the Matador website. Didn't get a response for like a month. But then a month before the show, we got a phone call from [FYF founder] Sean Carlson, who was producing, and he's like, "So, uh, how many hotel rooms do you need?" I was like, "WOOOOO!"

We had an amazing show in the Playboy Comedy Lounge at the Palms Casino after Belle and Sebastian played. We had like 200 people there, easy. Lots of people sang. Ted Leo sang a song by Beat Happening. And then at the end somebody from the label signed up to sing "Summer Babe" by Pavement, and soon enough, there's like 50 people on stage and they're crowd surfing Ted Leo and it was just chaos and super fun. We got a call the next day, and they were like, "Hey, how do you feel about doing another party tonight?" And we're like, "Yeah! Let's do it!" So after Guided By Voices closed out the festival, we were in the VIP lounge doing it. Gerard sang "Kicked in the Head" by Action Swingers. Georgia [Hubley] and Ira [Kaplan] from Yo La Tengo sang "Chinese Rocks." Bob Nastanovich from Pavement was slow dancing with a girl to close out the night. We were going from like 2:15, 2:30 until 5 a.m., and then we're like, "Hey everybody, we've gotta stop and go get on a plane." It was like a dream.

Ted Leo being crowdsurfed to Pavement.

And I know you had at least one more artist encounter with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats...
Yeah, I'd been working with Lilith Fund to try and do a fundraiser for a couple months, and then I was like, "Hey, I noticed The Mountain Goats are coming and playing Mohawk. Can we get a show at Cheer Up Charlie's right next door to Mohawk, because I know John Darnielle is a really outspoken advocate for reproductive rights?" So we did it! He signed up for "Queen Bitch" by David Bowie. It was funny -- I was out there signing people up, and he takes off his glasses like I'm not going to know who he is [laughs]. Anyway, he signed up to sing, but he canceled. He said, "Hey, I've gotta take off, I'm not going to be here." And I thought he was gone. Then our friend Bobby came up and sang [The Mountain Goat's] "This Year," and halfway through, John Darnielle jumps up on stage. Everybody went nuts, and it was really a great moment.

Are those moments what keep you going after all this time?
The thing that keeps me going is, I love this kind of music. If I was a regular karaoke host, I would have been burned out a long time ago. I do this because this music is really important to me, it's fun for me, and I think it's really a kick to see other people who love it just as much as I do get that same kick and share it with other people. We're trying to do a niche thing and kind of promote the underground scene. Everything we do is designed to give these bands more exposure and more of an audience.

How do you envision the future of Karaoke Underground?
Keep doing what we're doing. I'd like to do more benefit shows. I'd like to tour more. Play with more bands. Keep adding songs and making people happy. "Sing it loud!"