Photo by Matt OttoDaniel Ahearn's life is infected with the rootless romance of the Kerouac-era beatniks. Any time school was out, whenever he could skip class, Ahearn would drive across America, creating songs from junk. Equipped with tape machines, he'd sample conversations in North Carolina, friends playing thrift store accordions in San Pedro, or just the static from his beat-up recorder in his basement apartment in Brooklyn. In that apartment, he'd drink a few beers and turn the recordings into sound collages, interspersing them with simple guitar strums.
Nothing original about that—there's a nation of bedroom producers out there, after all. But the 27-year-old Ahearn has put a pretty novel angle on his music collective, Ill Lit. It's not “intelligent” dance or blip-hop, but country music—sad-song-hollerin', twang-obsessed country.
“People give me a hard time for calling it country music,” Ahearn says. “But that's what I thought it was. I thought country has a certain timelessness. It doesn't necessarily have to be the Dixie Chicks. You can take any great country song and play it a million different ways.”
Much of Ill Lit's debut indie album, WACMusic, is reminiscent of Gram Parsons' country-rock elegies with Emmylou Harris. It's a good way to describe Ahearn's soulful singing (he's accompanied by vocalist Melanie Moser). But he just goes about making his version of country in the most bebop, cut-and-paste, electronica kind of way.
Almost all of these songs were recorded in one take. On the road, he'd collar a friend (or a friend would collar him), and they'd lay down some sounds. It could be a hip-hop chick from Missouri on drums, or a keyboard player buddy from Minneapolis, or a bass jam done at a New York City farmer's market. He'd layer their sounds over his simple guitar picking and singing, and then make it more mysterious by speeding or slowing down the recording tape.
WACMusic comes off as a diary of Ahearn's travels. It's familiar country territory as filtered through Beck's Mellow Gold-era effluvia. Songs such as “Other People's Wives” and “Beating the Daylights Out of My Nightlife” are about guilt, depression and hope. “The experience of life is sad, y'know?” says Ahearn. “I had a guy tear me apart at a party. He said he heard my record, but it was so sad, and why don't I be more upbeat? But that's never intentional. I don't try to be a bummer.”
But he does try to be diverse. A beat improv informed the set-up of his traveling band: it's Ahearn strumming faint guitar, a drummer laying down a furious hardcore punk rhythm, a professional keyboardist jamming jazz, and a poet who recently learned how to play a hard-driving rock bass. Ahearn guarantees his next lineup will be completely different, the emphasis always on a beautiful rootlessness, a cipher for his life.
“One freedom we have here is the freedom of mobility,” he says, “and when you embrace that freedom, it's hard not to fall in love with it.”
Ill Lit performs with Silvercities at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Thurs., Jan. 23, 10 p.m. $5. 21+.