An interview with Lemmy Caution, independent karaoke creator
you may have sang a song from one of his YouTube videos
In The Molly Zone today, we have an interview with Lemmy Caution!!
I will kick off this Zone Interview with an anecdote. If you know me, you know I really enjoy doing karaoke. In 2020 there was obviously no way people were going to go sing at close range in a karaoke bar, so we got a portable Bluetooth-powered PA and started doing karaoke in Prospect Park to scratch the itch.
Making amplified music in a public space meant strangers would come up and see what was going on, and we encouraged anyone who wanted to sing a song to do so. This was an incredible social dynamic that I’m sure KJs experience all the time—for example, you have no idea how many people will default to “Sweet Caroline” when they’re stumped on what to choose—and it was always a delight to field the choices of others.
One night a young man came up and asked to sing.
“What would you like to sing?” I asked.
“Chief Keef, ‘Faneto,’” he said.
“Ah, hmm…lemme see if it’s on YouTube,” I said, typing and scrolling. And then it popped up. The thumbnail was the telltale blue, red and yellow of a Lemmy Caution video!! Duh, of course he had made a “Faneto” video!
Lemmy’s customized renditions of often-overlooked karaoke songs predate YouTube, but YouTube is the format I am most intimately familiar with given my affinity for Internet-powered karaoke. His catalog is vast and dense, pleasing fans of Mitski and A$AP Ferg alike. You can always count on a Lemmy video to have clear, correctly timed lyrics, and even textual guides to help you deliver the song just like the pros!
moi singing a Lemmy version of “I Never” by Rilo Kiley
Beyond servicing arcane karaoke searchers, Lemmy will even take requests if you ask nicely. I was once stymied by YouTube’s lack of a good version of “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews Band, and asked Lemmy to make one, and in less than 24 hours an amazing “Ants Marching” video appeared in my DMs. It now has 17,000 views and I’m validated that others want to sing that song.
I have now sang a zillion Lemmy Caution tunes in public and private, and so wanted to talk to Lemmy about his karaoke making process and personal karaoke history. He is remaining pseudonymous (very cool) and was a delight to talk to.
this interview has been edited for length + clarity :)
MO: So I guess I first would love to know what your personal karaoke history is — if you remember the first time you did karaoke, whether you’re more of a private room person or a public bar person? All that stuff.
LC: I think I karaoke'd pretty late. I was, you know, maybe 40 or 42. And I loved it. Absolutely loved it. I was in San Francisco then, and I would go out to different karaokes. There was one guy, DJ Purple, who had a saxophone, and if there was saxophone in the song, he'd play saxophone along with the song. He would restrict the songs in the songbook, too. He'd be very picky because he wanted to have people dancing, and he wouldn't let any slow songs in. And, you know, people would get kind of pissed, but with certain popular songs, he was like "No, that's way too slow. You can't sing that."
MO: I love it.
LC: So I did that for a while and then I moved out to the Philadelphia area and then I went did a decent amount in Philadelphia I would always somewhat try to look out for some of the more obscure karaokes.
MO: I feel like that gets right into one of the reasons I appreciate what you've been doing on YouTube, which is making karaoke versions of songs that might not be in books normally. I feel like that's how I first found your YouTube videos was trying to find a song that I don't think would have ever been on a mainstream book — maybe a deeper-cut Fiona Apple song? I mean, it's not less a question that just appreciation...but how did you first start creating your own videos for for karaoke?
LC: In terms of making them, now they have really good software to remove vocals from pretty much any song. But we used to have to be sort of lucky — you would do some sort of vocal-reduction things and most of the time it sounded horrible, or you could look online and find an instrumental and sort of match it up in Audacity. For a while I would just go and make them as a CD-R, and I would take them into a karaoke place and give them to the karaoke guy and load them up to his computer.
So I was doing that for a couple of years. Putting them online required an extra piece of software, which was maybe 70 bucks. So I had a bunch of songs saved up that I made, and then bought the software and loaded them up to the internet.
MO: Will you talk about your process of how you currently choose songs for your channel?
LC: When I have time to make them, I'll go and pick the most recent suggestions. I can see every comment on YouTube I get, and they're mainly requests. And sometimes I'll go on Twitter and search for the word "song" and, like, see what people say. Or try to find when people have emotions to songs — like someone online might say, "I go see this band, and every time they play this song, I cry.”
At first I would do songs that I liked, but I sort of reached the limit of that. Sometimes I would sing them and I'd notice, you know, it wouldn't necessarily get a good response, and it would kind of effect the way I viewed the song. You really like a song and then you sing it and it gets no response? You're like, okay, I've ruined that song now! So it's a little tricky.
MO: One thing I appreciate about your specific style — obviously there are many, like, indie karaoke channels, but what I really appreciate about yours is you take into consideration the little quirky things that happen when you are singing a song live. Like a phrase or something that might need to be sung in a particular way, or even a note that is really long. I feel like you take the care to have the singing experience be easy. With your experience doing karaoke, is that just something that you naturally induced in the way that you craft your videos?
LC: I just sort of naturally fell into that role. Sometimes someone will request a song and I've never heard the song before. I'll make it and then I'll go out and sing it that night and see how it goes. So I'm sort of making it for somebody who doesn't really know the song.
The one I made yesterday, Beach House, "Silver Soul." There's a section where they go, "It is happening again," and then they sing "it is happening agaaaaain" with a really long "again." With a normal [video] you can't tell the difference between those two things. So that's really annoying and really difficult to figure out how to sing that.
It's sort of like a "professionalism" thing to not give those cues and not expand words. It looks more professional. It looks kind of janky the way I do it, but I like the janky style of it. I'm very glad that you noticed that. That's one of the things I pride myself on making the videos. I want to make it easier for singers, right
MO: I didn't realize how often you were trying things out yourself. That adds a new dimension to it. Would you mind talking about your personal taste in music, and then how taking all of these karaoke requests has affected it? Do you listen to stuff that you didn't expect to, or do you feel like you have your own taste in music that is separate from the karaoke?
LC: In high school I would listen to the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. And then in college I got into The Smiths and Black Flag and that kind of stuff. And then after college I would actually sometimes be interested in music, sometimes less. I don't have a broad listening habit, but just going to karaoke, it sort of expanded the songs I would like. You could see people really liking songs, and even if you didn't like the songs, you could see why they liked it.
LC: I became less picky about songs, you know, and sort of more amorphous in terms of taste. Wet Leg was the only album I listened to last year.
MO: Oh, well, that's a good one.
LC: One year my top artist on Spotify was Barbra Streisand because I listened to one Barbra Streisand album, like, twice. And they're like, okay, your artist of the year: Barbra Streisand.
MO: That's so funny. It's like you're in the top...99% of Barbra Streisand listeners.
LC: And for making videos, part of it is like, where's the need? Where's the space that you can make new songs? For while you could make super popular rap songs and there wouldn't be a karaoke for it yet.
I think my most popular video still is "Old Town Road." It has like 1.4 million views. I think it was Matt Bruenig who said on Twitter, "Oh yeah, there's this song that won't play on country radio." I saw that, and I was like, okay, well let's make make a karaoke video of it. The one that has all the views is the one even before they expanded it with..I forget the guy...
MO: Billy Ray Cyrus!
LC: Yeah. So everyone is like, oh, it's really short. But I don't want to get rid of it because it has the most views! So now I make 'em where the space is. You can do really old songs, you can do rap songs from like ten-ish years ago, sometimes you can slip in the TikTok-y songs.
MO: May I ask what your karaoke songs of choice are lately?
LC: DJ Kool, "Let Me Clear My Throat," is the one I've sung the most. I think it's a big Philadelphia song. It's a solid, fun song to sing. You know, when it's going badly, what can I sing? I'll pull that one out.
MO: What's your favorite karaoke place in America, open or closed, past or present.
LC: In San Francisco, the place where DJ Purple was doing it — it was kind of small and I don't even know the name, but that was good. I was going to El Bar in Philadelphia. It's a really fun bar and there's a variety of people who go there...is hipster still a word?
MO: I still use it.
LC: I don't know the word to use instead.
MO: Yeah, I still lean on it.
LC: Anyway, you could do a rap song and people would be into it, you could do obscure stuff and people would put be into it. But they stopped doing karaoke after Covid.
I haven't gone much in New York City. I went to one place, but it was kind of weird. It was a while ago. There'd be singers who could sing a song really well and no one would clap for it! It's like, what the hell's going on? It is kind of funny how each karaoke bar has just an absolutely different vibe.
MO: If you don't want to bring hater energy into the conversation, that's okay, but what is a song that you never want to hear again — a karaoke song that you're you're sick of and have moved to the Do Not Play list?
LC: I don't like long karaoke songs. I try to keep my videos on the short side because you can notice, watching people sing karaoke, their energy often flags at about the two-minute mark. Way before the song ends. Plus picking a long song is rude to everybody else, especially if it's a tight rotation.
I always like watching people sing really big songs like "Shallow." Even though it'll get sung a lot of times, I like it — we'll see what they do with it, you know? And when I make the videos, I try not to be judgmental. If people like it, I'll tend to like them, even if it's not necessarily the best song ever.