Ahead of his return to the Bug Jar tonight, we're sharing an old interview we did from Paperface Zine #2 with Rochester's rock 'n' roll virtuoso and DIY maniac Austin Lake, best known to the locals as Aweful Kanawful.
In the age of the internet and digital recording technology, it has never been easier to make art and share it. Blogs and platforms such as Bandcamp help small, independent artists grow a community around their music, and social media has led to the catapulting of many artists’ careers. This has simultaneously made it harder to stand out, as the sheer amount of music thrown at a listener is overwhelming. While the gap bridged by the internet has opened up new channels of exposure for entertainers, one should be careful not to forget those close to home.
Austin Lake, aka Aweful Kanawful, is Rochester's own scrappy bedroom artist, embodying the DIY ethos at its best. Lake does it all, even creating his own nightmarish stop-motion music videos to go along with his lo-fi tunes that veer between demented garage punk, hopeless romantic power pop, and vulnerable outsider pop. When he isn't performing his flashy solo moniker, he's in the studio or on tour (usually in Madrid) with his brothers Trevor and Brendan Lake and longtime pal Aaron Mika in The Televisionaries. For a short while, he once even progressed his live band into a ten-piece surrealist musical theatre troupe that incorporated a brass section to accompany his guitar spasms and frantic rhythms.
After having various bands of differing levels of seriousness in his younger years, it was in high school when Lake would start to foster an interest for recording. He would skip school with his friends to make recordings on an old eight track tape recorder and continue to ramp up the ambition involved in his recordings over time. Lake's early experiments can be heard in its tail end on earlier lo-fi tapes like Pharaoh's Lonely Ego and Brave As Hits. Those early tapes have a lightning-in-a-bottle sort of garage feel to them. You feel like you can hear the sheer mechanical energy of the sound waves bouncing off the walls of one of the most comically anti-acoustic spaces known to man. But what the recordings lack in clarity, they make up for in the raw energy department. Without the knowledge or experience to make a pristine recording, Lake says he just had to release recordings without thinking too hard about them. "I think I was lucky with that back in the day," Lake says. "I just released stuff without really thinking about it, and then people were like, 'Hey, that's really great!'"
Lake doesn't shy away from the past either, seeing all the lessons learned through hours of trial and error simply as growing pains. "I think everyone has experienced taping microphones to doorknobs, or ceiling fans, or something like that. And I don't know if those are bad things to do," Lake says laughing. Lake has never stopped working at progressing his sound, and the subsequent Aweful Kanawful records carry notable improvements after the experience of creating lead to some very obvious deductions. "Taking the time to set up correctly, or have things figured out beforehand I would say is a very simple thing we can all do and get better at recording," Lake says. Rather than just be like, 'I've got an idea right now' and then set up and be like, 'I'm gonna play,' and then use that. Then you wonder in six months why it sounds like garbage? And it's like, well, because you're sitting on a garbage can, you know?"
One thing about being DIY is that it's easy to let the gear you use take the blame for you, and then channel money into something you don't need. When asking Lake what gear he uses, he gave an unexpected response: "I had a Fender Twin Reverb amp, which was sweet… But I've been downsizing. I think those little practice amps have got all the sound that you need for recording and even live sometimes. I think some of the cheaper neglected stuff can sound ripping."
It has become clear over time that there is some method to the madness. Improvements on albums like 2018's genre-bending A Flash in the Pan, 2020's highly-refined Much Much Nice and Seventeen EP, and the gonzo pop-collages of the most recent EPs, are a step towards clarity over the bombastic juvenile energy of the earlier releases. Those albums also allowed Lake's personal songwriting to bleed through and take on a more dominant role. Despite improvements seemingly on all fronts however, Lake often grapples with the most rudimentary of issues several albums into his discography. "The more you do it, and the more recordings you make that you don't like, you get like, 'well maybe I can't even do what I'm trying to do here.' And because you're creating your own failures, and you're making files of your failures, it's just stacked up," Lake says. It's hard to look at those for what they are as practice, and not bad things, and not proof that you can't do something.
Lake isn't just a mind behind the music. Peeking into his world, one can't ignore the true autonomy of creativity being presented. Doubling as an amateur filmmaker, Lake produces his own music videos, which offer a startling degree of planning, effort, and absurdity to match the skittish nature of the music they accompany. Even more ambitiously, Lake has directed and released his debut feature length film A Pharaoh's Lonely Ego, this past winter, which tells an eccentric story about a dwindling pop star and how he gets caught up with a cannibalistic chicken company. These films aren't just fluff either. With real thought and care being put into them, they create an artistic lore of sorts surrounding Lake's personality, who shows no signs of slowing down.
"I guess from a 'what the hell are you doing?' point of view, maybe I'm trying to make a production company where I can make more movies and keep making music because I'm kind of sitting there, and I wake up every day asking myself what you just asked me, 'what am I doing?' I'd like to keep making movies and make music. That's basically my dream."
While Lake chases his lofty aspirations with every new project, he becomes more and more polished, simultaneously retaining his uniqueness, expressiveness, and creative energy. The world always has, and always will be full of creative minds with ambition, sometimes perhaps more than they can deal with. But Lake has braved the sometimes demoralizing challenges of the creative process to produce what is truly a remarkable portfolio of DIY brilliance, constructed from the brazen creativity that comes from the chaotic world he's created that involves friends and family.
Purchase advanced tickets to Aweful Kanawful's show tonight at the Bug Jar with Trashcan Records legends Nod and the enigmatic Barbie and the Birthday Boys here and stream his latest EP Joyride below.