It’s Valentine’s Day in London and everybody is either out sharing the love or being miserable from the lack of. In most cases I’d happily ignore the occasion, but it’s not often that one is sat in a roped-off area of Camden’s Proud Gallery in the company of Cassie, Katy and Ali, better known as the Brooklyn pop/punk/noise trio the Vivian Girls. Part of me thinks at the very least I’ve should’ve made some kind of effort.
Having made a substantial splash with their ultra-limited edition self-titled vinyl debut of 2008, now pressed in not-so-limited CD edition by their new label In The Red, the Vivian Girls have been courting accolades and attention at a pace that matches the girls own heartbreak beat. Such attention is not without merit, and while the band have only been together for a scant couple of years, their determination and DIY attitude has paid off in spades.
When trying to analyse their sound, many a journalist is keen to rattle off any number of obscure comparisons (who, honestly, has ever listened to The Shop Assistants?), but it’s hard not to listen to their album or watch the girls live and witness a band who are a sound unto themselves and have yet to harness their potential. In the most simplest of terms, the Vivian Girls are a mess of garage rock noise and girl-group harmonies played at a breakneck pace. It’s the sound of someone saying “let’s form a band” and making up the rest as they go along.
It’s not original idea by any means, but by the point where most bands are deciding on when to record their debut, the Vivian Girls are already ready for their second, and have progressed far beyond their initial germ of an idea. Their songs have a Mary Chain front — that fog of sound that leaves the individual instruments and vocals fighting to be heard, but amongst the punk-ish noise there are moments on the record that are sublime and hint at melody and structure that go beyond two chords and a 4/4 beat.
(Before we go much further, be warned, this interviewer had to contend with three girls talking at once, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences and sometimes overlapping opinions, in voices that are almost indistinguishable from each other despite guitarist/vocalist Cassie’s insistence that she has the deeper one, so the responses where not already indicated will be attributed to the United Voice of the Vivian Girls.)
Looking wary but game and fresh from arriving in the country via France, the girls are bent closely over my tape recorder as the noise from the venue is making it almost impossible to hear ourselves. Wondering whether these girls are too punk rock to succumb to hallmark calendar moments, I wish them a Happy Valentine’s Day and they all suddenly melt and swoon, as if they’ve waited all day for someone to mention it. So far so good. As to whether the Vivian Girls have their own Vivian Boys, they all wistfully nod in assent at the question and then suddenly laugh. “In Germany there were these three boys who loved us and we told them to start a band and call themselves the Vivian Boys… and I think they’re gonna do it”.
Home of Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, the Vivian Girls Brooklyn street cred is given a different light when all three admit to being Jersey Girls and starting the band there. Cassie explains “Me and Katy are from Ridgewood which is in North Jersey, and Ali is from Tom’s River which is Central Jersey.” (“Jersey Shore”, corrects Ali.) “We put the band together two years ago. I was a junior in College and she (Katy) was a senior. We just wanted to be in a melodic punk band that was really fast and washy. That was our idea. And to write short, really fast songs. Which is why all the songs on the first album are really fast. But lately we’ve been writing slower songs.”
It’s not hard to envision the band sounding exactly the way they did as when they first started, as there’s a youthful naivety to their playing that comes down largely from the satisfaction of making noise, but it’s a curious thought as to how much the band have changed since the early days, and whether they’ve improved. The wording of the question throws them for a second, but Katy is quickest to respond. “It was just a natural evolution, I think. It’s not totally dissimilar. When we first started out we wanted every single song we wrote to be really fast and really short, and now we‘re branching out a little bit in a similar setting, which has a lot to do with us getting better at playing our instruments, since we’ve been doing it every day for the last two years.”
When asked what band has been the number one influence on the Vivian Girls, they are all effusive in their admiration for a certain influential (especially on the likes of Nirvana and Hole) but largely unknown Portland punk band from the late ’70s/early ’80s. “We love the Wipers. People should listen to them more often. They’re the best band ever”. Both Vivian Girls and the Wipers released debut albums that were short, sharp punk albums, built on fast melodic songs that in the Wipers case, spoke of small town disenchantment and alienation.
The Wipers would become notorious for their second album Youth of America, which destroyed the notion of the stereotypical punk rock band, and began to expand on the genre, recording an album of half a dozen intense, structured songs that would culminate in the ten minute epic that gave the album its title. A quick poll between the girls gives Youth of America the win over the follow-up album Over the Edge. But Does this mean that for the Vivian Girls second album, they’re going to write a bunch of six and ten minute songs? Katy spits out almost excitedly “Yes! (Ali – ‘No!’) But we are going to have four minute songs, which is crazy for us and hard to swallow.”
The amount of positive press the band has received from both sides of the ocean has been interesting to follow, as one by one the taste-making blogs and magazines have all fallen under the Vivian Girls’ spell, but is there a downside to being outed as the band to watch in the music press? “We have our haters. The more people that hear you the more that everyone’s not gonna like it. There are no bands that everybody likes. Somebody said The Wipers were boring. They’re not boring, they’re the best band ever. It all comes down to the more people like you, the more people hate you and there’s nothing you can do about it. You take the good with the bad.”
When it comes to touring outside of America does a band get more wary of playing to new audiences, that don’t know them than playing to their own crowds? “We’re more wary in Brooklyn than anywhere else,” (all three laugh), “people in Brooklyn are very critical. When we first started playing shows in living rooms and stuff it would just be our friends, so we weren’t wary then because it was more like a fun party-time but now that more people are coming to check us out they’re just look ‘hmm, I wonder what all the hype is really about.’ and it’s our job to win them over, but we don’t always succeed.’
The girls recently released a summer-themed 7″ single entitled Surf’s Up complete with their own cover of a Beach Boys song, which was something of a surprise, given their choice of a lesser known song Brian Wilson composition entitled “Girl Don’t Tell Me” taken from the Beach Boys 1965 album Summer Days (and Summer Nights). “We went on tour with TV on the Radio in July and we were with our friend Todd in the van on the way back and his iPod was playing and that track come on, and I was like ’woah, this is amazing’ and it’s funny because it’s the only Beach Boys song without harmonies. There’s no harmonies on that song, and we thought it would be fun to cover that song and add harmonies.” Given that we’re currently in winter, do the girls have any plans for another seasonal themed single? “Maybe one day. We have this idea to record a Christmas 7” called “Slay-ride”, it’s a concept, but may not actually happen. Well, probably will never happen…. ”
The band have a big year ahead of them with shows scheduled in Australia and Japan later in the year as well as returning to London in May and playing the Primavera festival in Spain, but the girls are more than up for the adventure. “We’ve been touring since May last year and only took one month off. We were always big on touring even when nobody knew who we were. We did a tour two months after starting the band. It was the worst tour ever (Cassie: ‘It was the greatest tour ever’) with six shows in ten days. We didn’t know anything about touring and contacted a lot of bands who didn’t know us and pleaded with them and they did. When we started the band one of our big intentions was to tour a lot.”
With the notion that all three are suckers for Valentine’s Day, and their stage time rapidly approaching, I’m curious as to whether the girls are going to change out the regular outfit of t-shirts, jeans and converse into something more suitable to the occasion, but when asked if they’ve got anything special planned, they reveal a disappointing lack of forethought. Cassie looks at Ali and Katy and they both fervently nod. “No, but now we might! We should! We have some serious planning to do.” The girls look lost in thought for a second in how to do this, as Katy lifts up her leg and pulls back the cuff of her jeans and utters the most memorable quote of the evening, “I’m wearing socks that have weed leaves and naked ladies on them. Does that count as romantic?”.
Not romantic exactly, but you can’t get much better than socks, drugs and rock and roll, can you?