- Photo by James Baroz
On Saturday, September 12, six days before London experimental-pop artist A.G. Cook released his album Apple, the founder of label and collective PC Music assembled more than 20 like-minded acts for a livestream festival called Appleville. Hosted by a custom website with an embedded Twitch stream, this self-described "tribute to live computer music" starred Cook, kaleidoscopic indie trio Kero Kero Bonito, bedroom-pop phenom Clairo, irreverent dance duo 100 Gecs, and bona fide pop star Charli XCX (who'd hired Cook to be her creative director in 2016). They represented a cross-section of a largely online underground scene with an international audience that skews heavily Gen Z. And if you clicked in during the first hour, you got to see one of that scene's newest darlings: Chicago-based artist Fraxiom, singing to an audience for just the second time ever while they swayed from foot to foot in front of a crude green screen made by hanging up a tablecloth from Party City.
Wearing a slim, square-neckline dress covered in a pastel collage of pixelated faces, Fraxiom stood in their Humboldt Park apartment and sang into a microphone run through the Auto-Tune function of Ableton Live. They performed four songs, three of them still unreleased at the time, that demonstrated the joyful, messy, smart-assed sound that's earned the 21-year-old a cult following: unpredictable pileups of synths that juxtapose chromium gloss and digitally destroyed crunch; cartoonish percussion that sometimes feels like a joke about trap, gabber, or house; and light-switch jumps between hyperactive rapping and tender, earnest singing that share an almost inhumanly intense euphoria.
"I did it all on my first take," Fraxiom says. "I didn't mess up, like, too badly—I only missed one line, but I was like, 'OK, let's just keep going.' Actual shows are one take, so I was like, 'OK, if I don't collapse and die, it has to be one take.'"
Fraxiom prerecorded their performance and used the tablecloth green screen to add a video background. When they opened with the collision of 2000s emo and oddball dance music called "This Guitar" (released the following day on the EP Feeling Cool and Normal), an innocuous YouTube ad for an acoustic guitar from Musician's Friend played behind them. And Fraxiom backed closing number "Ride" with sped-up footage from the music video for a different song: "Thos Moser," their breakout collaboration with producer Gupi, aka Spencer Hawk (son of skateboard legend Tony).
Since it came out in February, the cheeky, mercurial single has made Fraxiom and Gupi stars in the admittedly tiny hyperpop universe. Atop a driving house beat accented with blown-out hi-hats, Gupi rotates through a whimsical menu of squelching synths, changing the track's mood so often that it's impossible to get comfortable with any one of them. Fraxiom matches the shifts in the instrumental with a saucy performance full of deadpan raps and frazzled Auto-Tune outbursts; they name-check Caroline Polachek, reference a crazed 100 Gecs show at New York University, and tell off Elon Musk, DJ Zedd, and Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson. "Thos Moser" has racked up respectable numbers, considering the size of its niche—just shy of 350,000 YouTube views and more than a million Spotify streams.
Artists in this Web-centric, queer-friendly scene draw on dance music and hip-hop, but the results are usually strange enough that few fans of commercial radio would call them pop music. PC Music and 100 Gecs (aka Laura Les and Dylan Brady) are pillars in this community, but it makes room for such a hodgepodge of styles and approaches that no one word could encompass them all. "Hyperpop" has become the de facto label, partly because Spotify uses the term for an increasingly popular in-house playlist (which of course features "Thos Moser").
"We just knew we had something crazy," Fraxiom says of the track. "Once Dylan Brady loved it, we were like, 'Yeah, Dylan Brady likes it.' I've always stanned Dylan—him and Laura have been my favorite musicians since high school." Brady released "Thos Moser" on his label, Dog Show Records (an imprint of Mad Decent). Gupi also included the single on his debut album, None, which came out on Dog Show at the end of February—he says he wanted to give Fraxiom a bigger spotlight.
"Dog Show, it sort of let them know, like, 'Oh, these two can deliver a song,'" Gupi says. "It established some trust as an artist, in that sense, which was cool, 'cause now we get to do the album with them."
"We" refers to Gupi and Fraxiom's new duo, Food House, whose self-titled debut full-length comes out on Dog Show next month. They dropped their first single, "Ride," in late September, but hyperpop superfans had already heard the sugary club cut in Fraxiom's Appleville set—and in April, when the duo DJed 100 Gecs' Minecraft festival, Square Garden, they played an early version. They followed it with a remix of "Thos Moser," which Fraxiom interrupted to declare, "My life has not known peace since this song came out."
Fraxiom grew up in Kingston, Massachusetts, just outside Plymouth and less than an hour south of Boston. In high school they sought out outre pop, video-game music, and similar sounds through Soundcloud and Datafruits.fm, a U.S.-based Internet radio station specializing in Japanese indie music. Fraxiom was particularly drawn to nightcore, an electronic subgenre that "remixes" recognizable pop songs by slightly speeding them up (and often not much more).
"I love pop music, and it was faster, better, and higher pitched—it was awesome," Fraxiom says. "I was also coming to terms with my sexuality and my gender identity and shit, sort of through nightcore." In 2016, Fraxiom began to experiment with recording vocals and pitching up their voice. They wouldn't publicly release any vocal music till 2019, but these early sessions—and the influence of nightcore—helped them figure out their style. "Nightcore is canon to a new universe, where society is awesome, and there's lots of vivid colors everywhere, nothing is gentrified," Fraxiom says. "Nightcore is literally the soundtrack to a different universe, which I would rather be a part of, and that's why I used it as a soundtrack to my exploration."
Soundcloud nightcore communities introduced Fraxiom to 100 Gecs three years before the duo dropped the 2019 crossover album 1000 Gecs. "100 Gecs had their first EP out at the time—that was super popular in that circle, and everyone was fucking with it super hard," Fraxiom says. "It was the music I would cry to before school started." And nightcore provided the score as Fraxiom started meeting their Soundcloud and Twitter friends in person.
In the first half of 2017, Fraxiom released two vivid instrumental tracks reminiscent of nightcore and another electronic subgenre called future bass, which tamps down the overdriven dick-swinging of mainstream dubstep with cute synthetic flourishes. "Grand Prix" and "Dream Colors" came out on a small electronic label inspired by PC Music, fittingly enough called Hyperpop. Fraxiom had gained enough of a foothold in this small scene by August to get booked at an Orlando rave called Play It Loud! that month. That's where they met Gupi.
At that point Gupi had already released an EP (through a friend's label, Rora Team) and was preparing to drop another one in fall 2017. At the end of August he started his first semester at Berklee College of Music in Boston, which put him closer to Fraxiom. "We were like, 'Well, I guess we should probably hang out,'" Gupi says. "We did, and it worked out. But it was definitely an obligation at first." Gupi realized he'd found a good friend the first day they met up in Boston. At a Newberry Comics store, an employee pulled a "How do you do, fellow kids?" by attempting to compliment Fraxiom's "vaporwave aesthetic," and Frax bolted out the door. "As the day went on we were both like, 'Oh, we're fuckin' weird, OK,'" Gupi says.
They didn't collaborate on music at first. Gupi had a couple roommates his freshman year, and he felt self-conscious about working on bizarre pop music around them. "I just felt like a nuisance, making music with another person in there, even though it would have been fine," he says. "But imagine the music we're making and then imagine, like, Berklee students in the same room."
Instead, the two of them mostly goofed around and bonded. "I got him to listen to 100 Gecs for the first time and smoke weed for the first time," Fraxiom says.
Fraxiom and Gupi would also DJ from time to time. For a couple years running, they'd spin at parties during the Music and Gaming Festival at a suburban D.C. convention center and hotel. Other producers from their Internet community—including Pooldad and Ricco Harver from Canada and NYC-based PC Music artist Umru—would also spin at a MAGFest side stage in the hotel's Pose Nightclub. "It's the one big hub where we all meet up," Ricco Harver says.
Fraxiom and friends threw their own unofficial MAGFest gatherings too. "We had a Pepsi party, like a party in the drink-machine room," Fraxiom says. "We just did the craziest not-real things at MAGFest, like parties in places that are generally uncomfortable and boring—which I think is cool."
- James Baroz
- Fraxiom moved to Chicago in January to begin classes at the School of the Art Institute. "There's so much music happening all the time," they say. "I just wanted to be around it."
On April 1, 2018, Umru tweeted photos of a new book, Thank God Umru Chimed In, along with a Big Cartel link for an indie publisher called Swess Press. The back cover included blurbs from several of his friends, including Pooldad and Fraxiom, both of whom also tweeted about it. But anyone who tried to buy the book encountered a listing saying it was sold out. It wasn't—neither it nor Swess Press had ever existed, just like lots of things announced on April Fools' Day.
The artists in Fraxiom's circle share the kind of offbeat sense of humor you'd expect from people who make pop music so deliberately askew. "I think that's sort of why we became friends," Pooldad says. "We just want to make jokes really hard."
Those jokes sometimes manifest as something more earnest. The highest-profile example is a group of friends who operate as Open Pit Presents to host music festivals in Minecraft. Founder Max Schramp had thrown a Minecraft fest for his birthday in 2018, and the following year Open Pit grew out of that. Pooldad has helped design character skins for some of the performers, and Umru helps book acts. "We just think, 'Who could we get to play? Who does everyone in this group know? Do you know someone who knows someone?' And so on," Umru says.
Open Pit is a pragmatic response to the performers' circumstances. Musicians in the hyperpop scene are spread out across different time zones, if not different continents, and they don't necessarily have travel budgets. Some were already familiar with Minecraft—Pooldad started playing it nearly a decade ago—and the video game gave the musicians an interactive gathering place that's easy to access. For a typical Minecraft show, the artists' blocky characters congregate on a stage while their prerecorded, edited-together set plays back. In this context "performing" often just means making your character jump up and down, since it's tough to mime any more accurately without hands, elbows, or a mouth you can control.
What began as an inside joke became a cross-genre phenomenon after the pandemic obliterated live music, and Open Pit has been able to book bigger artists, including some from outside the organizers' social circles. In April, second-wave emo legends American Football headlined Nether Meant, an Open Pit festival named after the band's best-known song.
Fraxiom has appeared at a few Minecraft festivals during the pandemic, mostly with friends. Fraxiom and Umru DJed together at Mine Gala in 2019—they even made some Minecraft-themed covers of 100 Gecs songs—so when the two of them booked another joint set at Lavapalooza in August 2020, they decided to collaborate on new material for it. "I was like, 'Hey, these are actually good outside of Minecraft—can we make it into an EP?' And Umru said yes," Fraxiom says. "And that's why Feeling Cool and Normal exists."
By the time Lavapalooza arrived, Fraxiom had also spent five hours creating two buildings in Minecraft. They built an IHOP, and their partner helped construct a house with lyrics to Frax's songs inside. Both buildings remained undiscovered throughout Lavapalooza. "I'm honestly sort of pissed that no one found the lyrics," Fraxiom says. "We made, like, Spencer's room too—it was this shitty little room under the stairs, and Spencer was a llama. It was awesome."
Gupi and Fraxiom didn't collaborate on any music till "Thos Moser," which they finished together on Halloween 2019. Gupi didn't think it would reach beyond their friends. "It was gonna be an inside-joke song," he says. "We literally were releasing it or making it with the intention of, like, 'Oh ha ha, so and so's gonna get a kick out of this' or whatever, like our group chat. We were very pleasantly surprised, but yeah, good first song to do."
That fall was the tail end of an aimless period for Fraxiom, during which they'd worked on what became their debut EP, Music. "I was making Music when I was in my parents' house, working a really shitty job, depressed as fuck—wearing a name tag with my deadname on it," Fraxiom says. "My only escape being hanging out with Spencer in Boston on the weekends, writing really sad music in my dad's garage all the time, and just smoking a bunch of weed."
One of the things that put Fraxiom back on the rails was getting accepted to the School of the Art Institute to study in the sound department. They moved to Chicago in January 2020 to begin classes. Fraxiom's partner also lives here (they met at MAGFest), as do lots of their music-scene friends and acquaintances (though 100 Gecs' Laura Les has since moved to Los Angeles). Chicago also had more to offer than Boston. "There's so much music happening all the time," Fraxiom says. "I just wanted to be around it."
Fraxiom had already shared "Thos Moser" privately with friends, who'd responded so strongly that Frax hurried to put out Music. "I wanted to have one more thing out before 'Thos Moser' raised the bar and made me scared to release things," they say. Music came out February 15, three days before Dog Show released "Thos Moser." And on Friday, February 21, Fraxiom sang the song live for the first and so far only time at Subterranean, when Gupi came to town as part of a tour with Dorian Electra.
"I had not Auto-Tune live sung before, ever—that was literally my first time in front of all of those people," Fraxiom says. "Everyone knew the words, and it was so crazy 'cause the song had been out for three days. That was like, 'Quick, become a pop star! No time to explain! Grab this, go!'"
Almost immediately upon arriving in Chicago, Fraxiom heard from Reset Presents, a local production company founded in 2018 by Loyola graduate Camden Stacey. Stacey had a lot of friends who made music but weren't getting booked much in the city. "I wasn't really seeing us represented in the live-music scene—especially in the live hip-hop world and live electronic world—in Chicago," Stacey says. "So we just kind of started taking it upon ourselves to book such shows."
Umru had played a Reset Presents show in March 2019, and he suggested that Stacey book Fraxiom. Frax performed at a Reset Presents aftershow on February 6. "The kid is a really inspiring performer and goes about making their music in such a genuine and organic way," Stacey says. He's since befriended Fraxiom and spent some time watching them work. "They're a joy to be around, beyond a creative level and a professional level," Stacey says. "They're by far one of the funniest people I've ever met."
Fraxiom took maximum advantage of Chicago's underground nightlife scene almost immediately, even though they couldn't know they'd only have the chance for two months. Near the end of March, their SAIC dorm was evacuated due to the pandemic. "I had to go back to Massachusetts," Fraxiom says. "I was like, 'OK, well, if I'm already going back to Massachusetts, and Spencer's still gonna be in Boston the whole time, we might as well just stay with each other—quarantine with each other—and try to make an album.' And then we did."
Fraxiom crashed in Boston with Gupi most of the spring, working on Food House. "Being removed from my partner and all of my friends with literally no warning was super fucking me up," Fraxiom says. "I was going through it as hell. I didn't want to be back in Massachusetts around a bunch of stuff that I don't like, and seeing my family and stuff—I feel like a lot of that came out in the album."
In June, Fraxiom moved into a Humboldt Park apartment, returning to Chicago in time to participate in some of the first wave of protests. Their community here continues to expand despite the pandemic. At the end of the summer, Dog Show artist Folie, a friend of Gupi's from when they both put out music through Rora, moved to town from New York. "We'd actually not hung out a ton, like, just us, until I moved here to Chicago," Folie says. "We hang out tons since I've been here—we just had a session with Alice Longyu Gao, and that was really incredible too, to see Frax actually work in person."
Gupi has decamped to Orlando for the moment—his partner, who booked the 2017 Play It Loud! event, lives there—but he's considering moving to Chicago too. "I'm probably just gonna end up wherever Frax is, to be honest," Gupi says. "Which I hope is Chicago, 'cause Chicago seems cool in general too. Just cold—that's the only thing. Cold and police officers." v