Nick Biggs gets to grips with Brooklynite rockers Vivian Girl
Getting to the heart of a band, finding out what makes them tick, can be no easy feat. The challenge is made doubly hard when the artists in question appear to hold apparently paradoxical sides to themselves. Vivian Girls’ music is simple and yet complicated, raw and yet refined. This seemingly contradictory nature is maintained by their appearance. As I wait for them during their sound check, the Girls’ long, unkempt hair and heavily tattooed arms seem awkwardly out of place when singer Katy as politely as you like asks for (the fourth time) “a little more mic through the front amps, please.”
Sound check finished, bassist Cassie Ramone retreats to man the Vivian Girls’ goods stall. Although critically acclaimed, the band’s popularity hasn’t yet allowed them to take money for granted. I ask drummer Ali Koehler and guitarist/singer “Kickball” Katy if they have been recognised during their time in Scotland. “Recognised?” Katy exclaims, half-shocked, half-smiling, “On the street? Here in this building we have, that’s about it.” Fame is apparently something they’ve never paid much attention to: “It seems like we have a strong UK fan base, but it’s really hard to actually know these things, because it’s kind of like we’re in the eye of the hurricane,” Katy explains. “It’s really hard to know how well you’re received,” Ali pitches in, “or how many people like you.” Although their answers hint at a desire to become more widely known, Vivian Girls’ music has remained unapologetically true to its indie/garage origins, prioritising artistic integrity ahead of mainstream success.
The band’s eponymous first album is notoriously short, clocking up less than twenty-two minutes. I ask them if the album’s brevity was intentional. “When we went into the studio to record our first album we literally recorded every song we had written over the course of that year. We knew we needed to use one song for the ‘Wild Eyes’ B-Side, ‘My Baby Wants Me Dead’, so that’s what was left: twenty minutes.” I ask them how they’ve changed or progressed with their second album, Everything Goes Wrong. Ali, a little shyly offers, “Well, a change of drummers, that’s a difference.” Ali is new to Vivian Girls, joining in July 2008 after they parted ways with former drummer Frankie Rose: “I don’t know what to say about that, that I could say in an interview,” says Katy looking uncomfortable, “but changing drummers was definitely a good thing for our song writing process. My favourite stuff is the stuff that we’ve been recording recently.” Katy is referring to a new single, out February 14, Valentine’s Day. “It’s called My Love Will Follow Me. I actually wrote it in the UK. Fun facts. It’s about, um, I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s about, but um…” Katy and Ali break into laughter and pause to compose themselves. Katy continues, “I guess it’s a more Spector-esque recording process than we’ve done before. We tried to record really minimally and tried to make the best use of what we had. I think it came out really well. It’s very vocal heavy, we’ve decided as a band to bring our vocals really high up in the mix to make them the centre of attention within the song.”
Contrary to the expectations that their trendy Brooklyn attire provokes, Vivian Girls are extremely modest and are reluctant to talk about themselves at length. They are infinitely more comfortable when asked about their own favourite bands. “Best Coast,” suggests Katy for starters. “Happy Birthday, they’re the best,” Ali continues, “and Tune-Yards.” “Yeah, Tune-Yards, we’ve been obsessed with Tune-Yards: so cool,” agrees Katy, “Oh, Heavy Hawaii is a band that I’m obsessed with right now…” Ali and Katy begin discussing bands with so much excitement that they’re voices become virtually indistinguishable and unintelligible in a wave of excitement. Their expressive enthusiasm for other people’s music bear’s little relation to the quiet, reserved attitude they use for discussing their own.
Vivian Girls are a band truly steeped in contradictions that only a better interviewer than myself could untangle. However, I managed to draw one piece of straightforward information from Katy, that really sums up what they are like and why they make music; “We just like playing music with our friends.”