J FERNANDEZ doesn't necessarily fit the stereotype of the bedroom-pop auteur. Yes, the singer/songwriter recorded his new album, Many Levels of Laughter, at his home in Chicago, but he's no Phil Spector wannabe, attempting to homebrew ornate, multi-tracked pop suites. Yes, Fernandez played everything on the album himself, but he's hardly a multi-instrumental wizard (in fact, he recorded each individual drum on an individual track, then fit them together like a puzzle). And yes, Fernandez likes listening to music—he cites the warmth and intimacy of Phil Elverum's Microphones/Mt. Eerie recordings as an inspiration—but he's no music geek surrounded by piles of dusty old vinyl.
"I like a lot of stuff," Fernandez says, "but especially in Chicago, there are so many people who know about good music. There are so many legit music geeks and most of them are my friends and I don't feel like I'm at that level. When I was younger, I might've had a little bit more of a drive to seek out the new stuff or obscure stuff, but now I just kind of surround myself with people who have a really good ear, and then when I'm in the car with them or something I'll be like, 'What's this? It's really good.'"
Fernandez may not be a crate-digger, but Many Levels of Laughter sounds like the work of someone well versed in the past few decades of pop music craft. Throughout, Fernandez—first name: Justin—presents his earworm melodies in a number of different lights. "Markers" has the sparkling feel and choral coziness of a Beach Boys track. "Between the Channels" follows the pulse of German krautrock, probably the closest the album gets to truly rocking out. "Filled with Joy" is a drowsy jazz jam, and "Melting Down" is a disorienting dreamsong built around a hypnotic escalating synth line.
Meanwhile, "Read My Mind" and "Casual Encounter" are both unassuming little tunes that sound like they were imported from Planet Analog Fuzz. The former recalls Midlake at their most claustrophobic; the latter sounds like Fleet Foxes chanting over a Stereolab groove.
Fernandez has been touring heavily since October (including a first run through Europe last month), but before that he worked for an ad agency, and before that he was a cartographer. In other words, he's more of a workingman whose recording hobby has bloomed than a career musician doing day jobs to get by. But Many Levels of Laughter has earned solid reviews, and the shows are "getting better," he says.
"I never expected anything to come from any of the stuff that I've been recording. And I still actually don't," Fernandez says. "Like, if [not that many people hear] the next thing that I record, I'll still continue to do it. But it's been cool that this has allowed me to do this, because I really like traveling and I really like getting to play to new people."