Written By Caleb Oldham
Our heroes are humans. Yet, through the process of idolization we often endow these individuals with super-human capabilities. Objects they touch become more valuable, thoughtless words can become maxims, and for a moment we suspend our belief that they cry, shit, and eat like everyone else. Famed rock critic Lester Bangs walked the thin line of aggrandizing the work of his idols while simultaneously deconstructing their personas, bringing them down to a human level. With the “underground” hero, there is an added element of exclusivity, a feeling of ownership between listener and artist — they are “yours,” something not shared with many others. Typically, we tell two types of narratives about these cultish figures: the “relatability” narrative, as in “anyone can do what they’re doing!” or the story of the inaccessible, tortured, prolific genius releasing mountains of work that simply can’t be tied down to contracts, norms, or expectations. Stevie Dinner fits into neither of these categories.
His minimalist Bandcamp About section manages to say it all: “Stevie Dinner is Josh Hughes from Atlanta, GA.” Typed in seafoam-green, Times New Roman, here we find the virtual home of one of America’s best kept secrets. Here, we find a trove of chewed-up pop culture, spat out like a wad of bubblegum and wrapped up in a silvery film of “Softcore Punk/Cheap Jazz/No House” — music which Hughes described to me in an interview as “Fun, sexy music … something that makes you want to dance.” This is how Hughes typically replies to questions — direct, yet still accompanied by a vague shrug. While I’m talking to him on the phone he’s waiting for a friend to come pick him up. He doesn’t have a car so he has to rely on others and ends up walking a lot. Other curious little bits of information accumulate over the course of our interview. He’s a 24 year-old sound engineer at a salsa club who plays shows around Atlanta, his home for the past 7 years. He relates to guys like Ariel Pink, and admits to being an obsessive over figures like 1960s cult producer Joe Meek.
His lyrics touch on escape and alienation, on not feeling “good like every human should.” Although such themes might threaten to put Hughes in the “loner genius” category, the music they are set to upends this kind of classification. The fact that Hughes works at a salsa club likely explains in part his ability to consistently craft interesting rhythms: with a melodic bassline that never stays still, and percussion that ranges from a bouncing, electronic drum machine to a classic kit sporting an overstated high-hat, it’s apparent that Stevie Dinner isn’t trying to alienate anyone, he’s orchestrating a celebration.
The “throw your homework onto the fire” nature of Hughes’ music doesn’t take away from the well-thought out aesthetic of the Stevie Dinner project: “Everything has to be contained, they have to relate” as Hughes put it. And even though the 24 year old describes low fidelity as a production “necessity,” it often works in his favor, adding a homemade flavor to the artificial world he’s set up. And while VHS-style music videos, low fidelity production, and an embracing of everything “pop” aren’t necessarily original phenomena, it’s this universe that Stevie Dinner curates that makes it interesting for the listener.
Star Wars blasters, children cheering, and the THX sound effect all make their way into a Stevie Dinner album, and with song titles like “Teenage Mutants” and “Home Alone Too,” his recordings seem to resemble a funhouse mirror held up to a society inundated by pop culture. If anything, Hughes’ stance seems to be rooted in his ambiguous position as the product of the society he’s poking fun at. He succeeds at parodying the game while still playing it, and he does this by positing himself as a knowledgeable outsider. He’s a cultural connoisseur who “feels like a stranger” — embodying the culture that we all share, as well as the secrets that we keep to ourselves. One line, sung over a nasal midi keyboard, sticks out as especially representative of Dinner’s unique brand of thoughtful, helpless comedy: “My sister’s boyfriend is a drug dealer. What the fuck can I do about that.”
Stevie Dinner’s work is an ongoing dialogue with the culture that bred him, as well as the bedroom artists that came before him. He doesn’t approach his idols as Gods, but as individuals to be criticized, parodied, and celebrated. In a sense, then, Stevie Dinner’s entire performance is a dismembering of the fetishizable tropes of celebrity; a performance that confers a healthy awareness of the very human — and, by extension, somewhat absurd — project of the cult figure.
Listen to more Stevie Dinner on his bandcamp.