Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Vivian Girls and Their Realms of Unreal Noise

Written by John Melillo
Vivian Girls (without the “the,” thank you) is one of the best new bands to arise from the fertile rock ‘n’ roll fields of Brooklyn. Composed of three awesome women—Cassie on guitar, and Frankie* and Katy switching off on drums and bass—the band has gained a lot of attention recently for their combination of punk-infused guitar noise with 1960s girl-group style singing. Inside of the noise and oceanic reverb, they sing songs about love, heartbreak, doubt, and anger—rock’s favorite topics. A sweet and kicking backbeat holds everything together, and spontaneous uncontrolled giddiness is not uncommon while listening to their recorded output or their live performances.
Vivian Girls (without the “the,” thank you) is one of the best new bands to arise from the fertile rock ‘n’roll fields of Brooklyn. Composed of three awesome women—Cassie on guitar, and Frankie* and Katy switching off on drums and bass—the band has gained a lot of attention recently for their combination of punk-infused guitar noise with 1960s girl-group style singing. Inside of the noise and oceanic reverb, they sing songs about love, heartbreak, doubt, and anger—rock’s favorite topics. A sweet and kicking backbeat holds everything together, and spontaneous uncontrolled giddiness is not uncommon while listening to their recorded output or their live performances.

My favorite song, “My Baby Wants Me Dead,” combines all the different strands of their sound in one  quintessential track. A loping bass riff and crashing guitars build up to fever pitch only to fall away into a stark, quiet interlude in which all three band members sing together in a cryptic harmony: “My baby wants me dead./Wants to put a gun in my head./My baby wants me to die./And I don’t know why.” Then the instruments kick in again and a noisy, rocking finale ensues. This take on the classic heartbreak song is, as the band says, “creepy,” but it’s also a perfect combination of innocence and violence, love and death. Vivian Girls, like the Henry Darger characters they are named after, makes this strange and confusing, and often dark world, their playground.                                                

Fueled by the ethics of DIY punk, the band has been playing almost nonstop for over a year now. Venues range from friends' living rooms to The Smell in Los Angeles; Zoobizarre in Toronto to the Music Hall of  Williamsburg in New York. They are currently riding an undeniable wave of buzz emanating from web sites, zines, airwaves, and—remember this?—word of mouth. Their first, self-titled album was released this spring and sold out nearly instantaneously. They’ve recently made a deal with the label In the Red (home to many in a whole new generation of punk rockers, including Jay Reatard and The Dirtbombs) to re-release it in September. They put out two seven-inch singles this summer, "Wild Eyes" and "Tell the World," which have also been very well-received. I was lucky enough recently to track down these busy ladies and have a friendly conversation about their beginnings, their work, hard core, and more…

John: Okay. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you three come together?

Frankie: I moved here [from San Francisco] with the intention of playing music, but I couldn’t really find anyone to play with me because everyone here has always got their own thing going on.

Cassie used to hang out in my old house, the Orphanage, and I knew she played guitar and had played in bands before. One day we were at this Mexican restaurant where we used to go to brunch on Sundays. At that time, I didn’t really know her that well, but I was like, ‘Hey Cassie, want to start a band?’ and she was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ and she wrote her name and number with a Sharpie on a tortilla. I already had a practice space as I was practicing by myself.

John: That’s cool. Planning for the future?

Frankie: Yeah, I was like, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ That was my theory. I’m going to get a drum set, a  guitar, and all the things I need, and the people will just come. If you want it, it will happen. And then the next week we practiced, and we practiced for like a month, and then Katy joined. Katy and Cassie have been best friends since high school.

John: Let’s go to the beginning—when did you each start playing your instruments?

Cassie: I started playing guitar when I was fourteen. I took guitar lessons in high school, but I hardly ever practiced, so I wasn’t very good. I also took piano lessons in high school for a year.

Katy: I first started playing bass two years ago. But not regularly until a year ago when Vivian Girls started. The first time I ever played drums was a year and a half ago.

Frankie: I’ve had a guitar since I was like twelve years old. And then I first started playing drums about four, maybe five years ago. And that was the first time I ever played in a band. It’s kind of funny.

John: Your lyrics are great. They’re about running away, believing in nothing, saying no… One of your songs is only composed of the lyric, ‘No.’ What are you saying ‘no’ to?

Cassie: Well, that’s a funny story. It’s actually from a specific incident. Once I was seeing somebody. And he broke up with me. And a week later, he brought his new girlfriend to my birthday party. So the song is about that feeling of utter despair when that happens to you.

Katy: What was he thinking?

John: Yeah, what was he thinking?!

Cassie: I really pick winners.

John: A lot of people are comparing you to girl groups, like the girl groups Phil Spector produced in the ‘60s, and it’s interesting that you bring up that story because I immediately thought of, “It’s My Party” (and I’ll cry if I want to). [Which was produced by Quincy Jones, not Phil Spector.] How do you guys see these comparisons to‘60s girl groups?

Frankie: I can definitely say that all of us have fairly different tastes in music. But we all like girl groups a lot. That sound. It’s an easy place to come together. Our lyrics are totally girl group lyrics.

Katy: Even though the sounds of music have evolved over time, relationships still have the same problems and ups and downs they’ve always had, so that’s why it’s fun and easy and awesome to write songs about something you have in common with girls in the ‘60s.

John: But the noisiness brings in a whole new intensity…

Katy: To the same old conflicts.

John: Even the progressive indie scene is still very boy-oriented sometimes. How do you guys deal with that boy-orientation?

Frankie: These questions are always weird. The ones about us being ‘ladies.’ I know that some all female bands want to make it about that. I definitely know I have feminist ideals, and I’m sure Cassie and Katy do too. We just totally happen to be three ladies who love to play music and landed in the same practice space together—which has made us really controversial in a way. Because people want to make it about the fact that we’re three ladies, and it becomes an issue like, ‘Oh, they’re three girls, and they can’t even really play their instruments.’ And it always becomes something different than if we were three guys, you know what I mean? ‘Oh, they’re having success because they are three girls.’ It’s always about that, which is really unfair.

Cassie: People are always, ‘What if they were three guys from the middle of nowhere, like Iowa or something.’

Frankie: ‘No one would care.’

Katy: We’re not the ones making it about that. Humans have a serious desire to categorize everything. They see us, and it’s instantly, ‘They are a girl band.’ But it’s just other people putting it on us. We don’t run around screaming, ‘Look at us, we’re three girls!’

Cassie: But as far as our peer group is concerned, yes, many of the bands have males in them. It’s a very male-oriented scene. But it’s never affected us. We feel like total equals in the scene, and we’ve never had any weirdness from our friends who are in the bands we play with.

Katy: In fact, the name Vivian Girls has ‘girls’ in it, but in Henry Darger’s art, they are actually hermaphrodites.

Frankie: And it’s funny too because I was like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this name because it has ‘girls’ in it, and we’re all girls, and I don’t want it to be ‘girls, girls, girls…’

Katy: But Vivian Girls are hermaphrodites, which is cool.

John: You guys have rhythm. I mean, people dance at your shows.

Frankie: Do they?

Katy: We never notice.

Frankie: I’m always staring down.

Katy: I’m always looking at my hands because I don’t know how to play bass.

John: Do you think that’s an advantage in a way?

Katy: That I don’t have to look at people?

John: Not knowing your instrument...

Katy: That’s what I’ve found with drummers actually. There’s this drummer with Experimental Dental School. The girl had been drumming for like four months or something [when I saw her play]. She was one of the most insane drummers ever. Just played some of the weirdest stuff, like stuff I’ve never seen before. I think it comes from that—going in a basement and trying to figure out how other people made these bits and not getting it right but creating something completely new.

Frankie: The drummer from The Raincoats. She never knew how to play the drums, and she played the weirdest stuff.

Katy: Oh, the girl from Magic Johnson. She was an insane drummer because again, she had no lessons. She’d been playing for like ten months, and she was amazing, and she played really interesting and unique stuff because nobody was sitting there telling her, ‘Do this; this is what’s worked for one hundred years.’

Frankie: I think I might have been a better drummer when I first started. I mean, I don’t think I could play as fast, but I definitely think I was more adventurous.

Katy: I think it helps us that we are relatively new musicians. Because there are a lot of bands out there with people who are amazing musicians who write pretty boring songs that have all been made over and over again and are technically ‘good songs,’ but there’s no heart really.

Cassie: We never said we were great musicians.

Cassie: It’s more about heart and soul.

John: What’s touring like? Do you guys just pile in a van and go?

Katy: I am the lucky owner of a Honda Civic Hybrid. We’ve now done three tours in it. And it’s crowded—we can never bring anyone else. The first two tours were ten days each. And it was very crowded because our amps went in the trunk, and we kept everything else in the backseat. This past tour, the full US tour, we got a roof bag, [which] saved our lives. We are actually looking for a minivan now. Not a van because we want to have some gas-mileage still. Gas is only going up. We want to get something bigger, so we can bring more people.

John: What are your plans for upcoming tours?

Frankie: Oh, so many. I think our new plan is to tour for two, three weeks, come home for three weeks. Tour for three weeks, come home for four weeks.

Cassie: That’s our indefinite plan.

John: Sadie magazine is the antitypical teen girl magazine. For the reader out there who wants to make her own band, what advice would you give?

Cassie: I would say, never try to make the kind of music you don’t want to make. Always be true to yourself. Do it.

Katy: I’ve had a long history of horrible bands. I’ve been in so many bad bands, but I don’t think I’d be in this band if I [hadn’t been] in those. The biggest thing is to start a band, even if you’re not good at an instrument because it’s the best way to learn an instrument, I think. {mosimage}

Frankie: Yeah, if you really want to do it, just do it. Get a practice space, get a guitar and an amp, and people will come. People will manifest. Even if it sucks, eventually it won’t suck anymore. Like The Raincoats, they sucked when they first started, and then they were awesome. Just do it.

Katy: Just do it, that’s the message.

Frankie: So many people sit around making excuses or whatever. It’s just an excuse…you just have to make the choice to act.

Katy: If you do what you love doing, people will see that and respect it, and they’ll love it too. If one girl starts a band because of this interview, I’ll feel like a success.

*who now plays in Crystal Stilts. As of August 2008, Ali Koehler has been the drummer for the Vivian Girls.
 
Photos courtesy of Vivian Girls 

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