Can't Get Over You
New York's own Vivian Girls are a revivifying blast of garage rock savagery, shoegazing swoon, and girl-group sass all rolled into one -- and encased in glorious reverb. Their music mixes rough-and-tumble playground exuberance with an almost gothic sense of drama: liquid eyeliner 'n' tears. The trio of Cassie Ramone (guitar/vocals), Kickball Katy (bass/drums/vocals), and Ali Koehler (drums/bass/vocals) surely subscribes to Warren Zevon's hoary dictum of "I'll sleep when I'm dead," cramming enough activity into the last two years for the whole career of a lesser hand. Two albums -- the superb, primal Vivian Girls (2008) and the darker, biting Everything Goes Wrong (2009) -- plus covers of songs by cult heroes like Greg Sage's Wipers and the Chantels and a touring schedule that might even make John Bonham say, "That's just a little excessive" enough for ya? Okay, well, how about running Wild World, their own 7" singles label, and designing all of their own t-shirts and album covers? This band takes their pop art very seriously.
Ink 19 caught up with Cassie Ramone as the Girls were on their way back from SXSW for a much-needed break, and found the core Vivians restless and ready to move on to new projects, but still completely dedicated to art and music. Portrait of a band on the run...
You've recently released covers of the Wipers and the Chantels. What goes into you picking cover material and how reverent are you to the source material? How did you discover the Wipers? They're kind of one of the last of the cult bands.
Whenever we do a cover it has more to do with the circumstances of the time than anything else. I mean obviously we only cover songs that we really love, but what's going on at the time that we decide to do the cover is equally important. When we first started out we were all listening to the Wipers a lot and made this shitty-quality tape of us at one of our first practices and for whatever reason decided that our music sounded like the Wipers if they were all female (although listening back to the tape now it just sounds like garbage), plus we didn't have enough songs to fill out a set at that point so we learned "Telepathic Love." I don't remember exactly how I discovered the Wipers. I had "Mystery" downloaded on my computer when I was 17, and then a few years later I think I heard the whole first album at my friend's house and loved it, and then I bought it for myself at some point and became obsessed with them. When we did the Chantels cover we were in the middle of a two-month-long tour -- we had just gotten back to the US from Japan and Australia -- and we were bored on a long drive through the middle of the desert so we picked some girl group songs to learn and sing in the car for fun (and to practice harmonizing), and the Chantels one is the one that stuck. We started doing it live a few days later.
Have you heard the new Black Tambourine reissue? How important were they as an influence on your sound?
I have (and love) the 10" compilation, but haven't heard the bonus tracks that come with the reissue yet. It's a funny story because after one of our first shows our friend said that we sounded like them, but none of us had ever heard of them before. So we checked them out and thought they were a great band. I think they were one of the reasons we started using reverb on our vocals.
You've had a while to live with Everything Goes Wrong. Are you pleased with how it turned out?
Hard to say, because every song sounds different in my head than the recording sounds. Listening back to any of our releases after not having heard it for a while is a little shocking to me. Someone DJd "Survival" at a show I was at last week and I got psyched, though. In general I'm happier with the way Everything Goes Wrong sounds than the way Vivian Girls sounds, but I have to be in a really specific mood to listen to Vivian Girls and I'm rarely in that mood. I'd rather just sing the songs to myself in my head or play them on acoustic guitar.
Tell me about the writing and recording of Everything Goes Wrong. What were the differences between working on this album and Vivian Girls?
Most of EGW was written in this apartment that Katy and I lived in for a few months last year. We'd sit in my bedroom or the living room with acoustic guitars and come up with stuff together. It was a really good way to work and way better than trying to iron stuff out in the practice space, which is how most of the first album got written. We had more time to think out and arrange the songs that way.
You tour incessantly -- was it something that agreed with you immediately or is it a love/hate thing? Are you able to write on the road? What sort of reactions are you getting to the new album? What are some of your favorite places to play?
When we started the band one of the main goals was to tour a lot. Obviously we weren't expecting to tour quite as much as we have been and there is a love/hate relationship, but we all like it enough to have done so much of it. We do write on the road. I try to find time whenever possible to get away from the group and play guitar by myself to try to come up with songs -- a lot of the songs that are gonna be on the third record were written in that kind of environment. It's hard because I feel really creative on the road but it can be difficult to have an outlet. And when we have downtime or long soundchecks we use it to practice or work on new stuff. We also sing in the car to come up with harmonies for new songs.
I heard an interesting comment on our new album when I did this interview in Toronto. The guy doing the interview said that a lot of people he talked to thought that we had written the new album as though we were men, which is interesting because I've never read that in a review but I guess enough people said that for him to mention it to me. The album got more mixed reviews than the first one, which is fine with me -- we set out to make a dismal, furious album and it's not as palatable for people. But I think that anyone that spends time with it grows to really like it. My favorite places to play are LA, anywhere in Arizona/ New Mexico/ West Texas, Mexico, Toronto, Jackson Mississippi, and London. Australia and Japan were really cool too. In general I like playing places a little bit off the beaten path, places where people are really sincere.
Tell me a surreal tour story.
On our last tour with Male Bonding we saw four Juggalos fixing an overheated car at a gas station in Canada. We think they blessed us for the day because we had the best tour day of our lives. On the same tour we stopped at this strip mall half an hour outside of Dallas to do laundry and there was a bar/laundromat called "Suds." The bar section was blasting war hymns and Hank Williams and the only people in there were four men in their 60s with cowboy hats, smoking cigarettes and drinking Lone Star at 3:00 in the afternoon. The laundromat half had a hand-written sign on the door saying "to be closed on March 15th WILL NOT REOPEN" -- it was March 16th when we went there and half the washing machines were torn out of the wall. It was like we stepped into a time warp! This tiny man had to show us which machines were working, there were only three working machines in the whole place.
Tell me about your Wild World label and what you've released through it. Were there any other labels you looked to for inspiration when starting it?
Woodsist was a big inspiration. We love how Jeremy Earl only puts out releases he really believes in, and the label has a great aesthetic. In The Red is obviously a big inspiration as well, we've had the best time working with them. So far we've released mainly Vivian Girls stuff and other bands of mine. We've also released Yellow Fever, the German Measles, and Birds of Paradise. In the future we're planning on doing Heavy Hawaii and Stupid Party 7-inches.
You also handle the lion's share of your own album artwork and t-shirts?
Yes. I like viewing the band as an art project in a way, so designing all our records and merchandise is an extension of that.
Who are some NYC bands that you currently feel a strong kinship with?
Stupid Party and Woods.
Tell me about writing songs with the band -- are songs written collaboratively, or does one person bring a mostly completed song to the table? Do the songs come quickly?
I usually bring a mostly completed song to the table and then the band works it out. Some songs are more collaborative than others, though. We have a few that were written in total collaboration and a few on which I wrote almost everything. There's also "Where Do You Run To" which our first drummer Frankie wrote almost all of, and "I'm Not Asleep" which Katy wrote almost all of. I've written all the lyrics to the songs except "Where Do You Run To." The songs come quickly sometimes, some songs take longer than others, you know? I write a lot of songs by myself but I don't always bring them to the band right away. Songwriting for me can take a while sometimes, like I'll have a part and then I'll write another part for it months later and then it's a song. But sometimes I can just whip one out in ten minutes. It really depends on the song. The period when Katy and I lived together was the period when we were writing the most, just cuz we were always around each other.
How do you work the vocal harmonies out?
I come up with a melody first, and then we all write the harmonies together.
You do keep up a pretty prolific level of recording activity -- how do you balance this with all the roadwork, etc?
We don't really do much else. We've been happy to dedicate most of our time to the band, because it's something we believe in. I know that whenever I don't have something creative to work on or be a part of I get bored and depressed.
What is your first memory of music?
Although I listened to and loved music before this (Disney soundtracks and stuff), my first clear memory of music was when I was eight years old. My parents and I had just moved and all my toys were still packed up, and the only thing in our new living room was this radio. So I turned it on and it was the soft rock station. I became obsessed with it that summer! They would always play Madonna and Billy Joel, two of my favorites. I remember I would get mad if a song I didn't like ("Candle in the Wind" is the example I remember) was on right before I had to leave the house because then it would be stuck in my head all day.
What was it that made you want to make your own music instead of just being a passive listener? How did the Vivian Girls come together?
I don't know. What is it that makes anyone want to do anything? I know that I've wanted to sing and play guitar since I was a little kid, but I don't remember why. Vivian Girls came together because my other band had just gone on hiatus and the same happened for the other girls with their bands. We thought we'd give it a try playing music with each other and it turned out to work really well.
Do you have any long term goals as the Vivian Girls or as creative people? Did you ever expect to be able to support yourselves through your art?
As Vivian Girls we don't have any goals right now other than finishing the third album. Katy and I are a good team, though, so I'm sure we'll be working together for a while. In general, I'm going to record a solo album and maybe tour on that, and I'm hoping to get more serious about doing more visual art in the near future. It was my goal since I was a teenager to be able to support myself through art of some sort -- I never thought it would be through music for me, but I'm thrilled that it has been.
What are you working on next? What are your touring plans for the rest of the year?
We're slowly but surely working on a third album, although that probably won't be done for a while. We're doing a European tour in July and then playing ATP in September and I think that's pretty much it in terms of touring plans for the future. We probably aren't gonna tour again until the third album comes out. Katy and I are both busy working on our other projects right now, so that's occupying more of our time...