Words And Photos by: Nate Dorr
The Vivian Girls started catching ears through opening slots around Brooklyn about a year ago. By winter they'd precipitated an all-out blizzard of supporting appearances, their sound rapidly refined into the its current blend: just enough lo-fi garage punk grit, just enough shoe-gaze gleam, plenty of reverb-drenched girl-group harmony. The sound was both classic and easily at home in current Brooklyn. People started talking. By the time their self-titled debut came out on Mauled By Tigers in May, interest had a hit a fever pitch that sold out the entire run of 500 in just 10 days. Fortunately, the band had, by then, already joined the long list of garage-minded acts (the Black Lips, the Dirtbombs, Jay Reatard, King Khan & BBQ to name a few) working with In The Red, who will be reissuing the debut in October, and have just put out a new 7".
People haven't stopped talking. But now they're talking louder, and more excitedly, and in much more visible places. I met with the band over a late Chinese lunch to talk about line-up changes, the band's spiritual adviser, and psychic lyricism. The next day, they'd be playing with Sonic Youth and Wolf Eyes at McCarren Park.
MP3 Download - Vivian Girls "Where Do You Run To"
Nate Dorr: Do you have somewhere you'd like to start, or should we go straight to the question on everyone's mind?
Katy: What is the question on everyone's mind?
You have a new drummer. Ali?
Ali: I'm the question on everyone's mind!
So how did you come to be in the band?
A: Well, the old drummer Frankie was getting really busy with Crystal Stilts.
C: It wasn't working out.
K: Time conflict. We wanted to tour a lot and she was in another band. This was really good for everybody. [Frankie] is really happy in Crystal Stilts. And we love Ali.
A: One day Katy called me and she wanted to vent about stressing about Vivian Girls, and I said that if she ever needed help that I'd be happy to drum for them. We've been in bands before, and I've played drums for a while, so.
What were your old bands?
K: Nothing worth mentioning by name.
A: [Laughing] Just you know fun stuff. Bands for fun. And then I said yes to Vivian Girls. That's really it.
K: We were in this weird surfy riot-girl band once. And we were also in a band that covered all these old 60s songs, which was fun. We covered "Hang on Sloopy". "Louie Louie". "Ninety-six Tears". Ah, that's about it. We're in a pop-punk duo. Formed last year. Where Ali played guitar for the first time ever, and I played drums of the first time ever.
And you carried those drum skills forward into the Vivian Girls, later on?
K: Yeah, but no longer. I'm not gonna play drums anymore. I'm bad at drums, Ali's really good at drums.
C: Thank you.
K: Thank you.
C: [To the recorder] This is the part when our salads came.
K: And so we all just finished college and now we're gonna go on tour forever, and it's gonna be really fun. We have nothing else on our plates really, so we're all--
C: --on the same page, and we're all gonna tour.
K: Except, Ali works in an ice skating rink when we're not on tour, but that's totally flexible and cool.
Where did you all graduate?
C: Pratt, with a degree in illustration.
A: Rutgers, with a bachelor's in German and a minor in psychology.
K: [chewing] I just graduated from Rutgers too. That's where I met Ali. I'm physics with a masters in education.
Physics. Are you gonna use that in the band maybe? Creating instruments?
I was reading the Weezer deluxe edition of the Blue Album, and it said that they only sold 90 copies of the Blue Album the first week. Compared to 500 copies in 10 days. That's a lot more than the Blue Album.
C: We all have band nicknames. Katy's "is band scientist".
K: I do all the math.
Aren't you also "Kickball Katy"?
C: She's also a jock.
K: Kickball involves a lot of physics.
True. Trajectories and all. So how long have you been playing?
C: Since March 2007. Me and Frankie started the band. One day we were eating brunch together, with all her roommates, and she turned to me and asked if I wanted to start a band. And I said okay. She had a practice space already, so we started practicing the next weekend. After two practices, we still needed a bass player so I asked Katy to join. Katy's been my friend for a really long time, and we were always saying we should start a band together someday.
K: We went to highschool together.
C: So I asked Katy to join. And the rest is history.
You're about to leave on a big tour. First nationwide tour?
C: Absolutely not. [laughs]
K: We did a tour to Chicago and back last summer. A tour to Florida and back in January. Those were both 10-day tours. Then a five-week tour to California and back -- the whole U.S. -- in May and June. Two weeks this past month to Chicago and back. We're about to go to Memphis and back four two weeks. Maybe down to Florida and back. I don't even know what are plans are. I'm totally lost in terms of what's going on in October. Two weeks of tour though. West coast in November, but it's unbooked. Then we're going to the UK in December for two weeks, and that's totally booked. Crazy touring plans.
We beat Weezer!
So this is pretty much all you're doing now.
C: Yeah, we don't really have time to do much else.
K: We've been brainstorming jobs we can get, and we've failed. We're gone so much that no one can hire us.
Ali: I really lucked out that I have a job that I've had [at the ice rink] since I was 15 or 16, and they have no problem with me coming and going. I'm the only one with a job.
C: I try to do some free-lance illustration on the side. I did the album cover, and the Wild Eyes 7" cover. I also did some of our t-shirts. The shirts with the faces on them if you remember those.
[She also has a piece in a group show running through October 4 at New York's Jonathan Levine Gallery].
K: I don't work at all. I could be a high school physics teacher, but I'm not going to do that. I guess I could tutor. I might get into substituting.
Well, I guess if you're silk screening your own t-shirts and 7"s, that will keep you pretty busy anyway.
C: We're making our own jobs.
Speaking of, can you tell us about this boxed set you've got coming out?
K: The other day we started this company called Wild World. And basically, we're going to use it to put out our own 7"s. That's our first project, so it's sort of like a record label. But we're putting out a package with a 7", a shirt, some postcards. We'll spend two months making things and we're going to sell them all.
Do you think you'd ever release things by other people on your label?
K: We're way too busy to even consider starting an actual record label.
C: Maybe in the future when we stop touring so much we'll get into it. Or maybe we'd open up a store or something. But for the moment we're just gonna use Wild World to put out our own stuff.
K: At our pace.
C: Well, not all of our own stuff. In The Red is still gonna put out our second album.
K: This is just a fun project that we're going to do, to learn how records are made.
[Clanking sounds; food arrives]
When will that be out?
C: We're aiming to have it by December.
And your album will be back in print by then, too.
Was that really surprising? When the first run sold out so quickly?
C: It was really, really surprising.
K: We were not expecting that at all.
How did you hear about it?
K: [to Cassie] You take this, I wanna eat.
Should we take a break for food? Let's just take a break.
There is a period of food consumption. The Girls turn to discussion of the practical considerations of their forthcoming video shoot for "Tell the World" in the Brooklyn woods. Would they have enough extras? Would extras be more likely to show up on a Thursday or Friday night? Would they even be able to find the spot without becoming lost forever in Prospect Park? Did they know anyone tall enough to fill the rented "really realistic bear costume"? How tall does a convincing grizzly bear need to be, anyway?
What was your original concept for the band? Did you start with a clear idea or did it develop over time?
C: It was definitely a progression. I think the sound that we have came about really organically. We didn't start a band thinking of reverb and harmonies or whatever. We just kinda started out wanting to be a house party punk band. And then it naturally evolved into what it is today.
Was there something you were listening to that pushed you that way?
C: It kind of just happened. The only catalyst for change I can remember is that somebody once said we sounded like Black Tambourine. And then we listened to Black Tambourine and we were like, "whoa, this reverb is cool. Put more reverb." But that was the only thing.
K: Didn't Mike Hunchback also...
C: Oh yeah, we were recording our first demo, and Mike Hunchback suggested that Katy and Frankie have reverb on their backing harmonies. That's actually when we first started having reverb, but it wasn't in the live shows until we'd listened to Black Tambourine a bunch.
Was it difficult to work out the reverb live? Any transition period?
C: We still haven't really figured it out yet.
K: Transition's still going on...
C: Reverb and PAs don't mix very well. They feed back a lot. Sound guys hate reverb. Monitors hate reverb. Every show is a little different.
Is that hard to take on tour, then?
K: We bring our reverb pedals and cross our fingers.
C: Sound guys usually hate it. They also hate my guitar amp. They hate the way my guitar sounds. They always think it's too rough, and they always say, "turn it down," and they always try to turn down the guitar, and we're always like "no! Turn it up!"
K: One day, we might have our sound guy and then it won't be as rough, but until that day we will just cross our fingers. It's kind of hit or miss. We're hitting more than we are missing these days, though. Getting better at it.
Vivian Girls Live
What kinds of places do you play on tour?
C: Bars. DIY warehouse spaces. Sometimes house parties.
C: Venues or cities?
C: Omaha, Nebraska has really good thrift stores. So does Sacramento, California.
A: I had a lot of fun in Columbus.
C: Columbus, Ohio. People love whiskey shots in Columbus.
K: My brother lives there.
C: We played Sneaky Dee's in Toronto. They had a Mexican restaurant downstairs.
K: It was delicious.
A: It kinda starts to all kind of look the same.
K: We played at a bike warehouse in Durham, North Carolina.
C: We played in Jackson, Mississippi. A crazy artspace. We were the first show they'd ever had there. Bands never go to Jackson, so everybody in the whole town who even kind of liked music was there. And it was really cool, really fun.
K: Maybe not every person, but there were a lot of them and they were thankful.
K: Apparently bands do not go to Jackson. That's what they kept saying. It was the fourth or fifth day of the tour and we sold out all our merch. Which is good, and bad. Good because we sold all our merch, bad because we didn't have anything to sell until we could get things mailed to us in L.A. a week later.
C: You guys getting any good fortunes?
K: "You're busy but you're happy."
A: Awww, it's true.
C: So sweet.
A: Mine's dumb: "You continually give but you continually receive."
C: I have the same fortune as you!
A: Fuck that! You want it?
C: No, I don't want this twice! [Then: eyes on the street outside; rising in her seat] Fucker!
K: You can't yell "fucker"! There's a mom and her baby walking by!
C: I don't care.
Ryan: Hey what's up? Oh, you're doing an interview?
C: Yeah, you wanna join our interview?
K: Our spiritual adviser is here. Ryan.
R: Hi, I'm Fucker, cutie.
C: Hey Ryan, give us some spiritual advice.
R: Just fuckin do it. Smoke weed everyday.
K: [laughing] you can't scream "fucker".
C: Best nickname.
What kind of advising does Ryan give give you?
C: All of it.
K: Everything that we do is lead by him.
The secrets come out.
K: He's the director.
C: Also a fucker.
K: And a fucker, put that in there.
C: He's also a babe.
Oh, so from before: how did you hear that the album had sold out so quickly?
C: We made 500 copies. We weren't even sure that there would be 500 people to buy them.
A: I was reading the Weezer deluxe edition of the Blue Album, and it said that they only sold 90 copies of the Blue album the first week. Compared to 500 copies in 10 days. That's a lot more than the Blue Album.
K: We beat Weezer.
C: Every day we were talking with Robert from Mauled by Tigers on the phone -- we were on tour -- to ask him how they were selling, and he was like, "Oh yeah 200 sold already." "Oh yeah, 300 sold already." We had 100 copies with us. We sold them in three days. L.A., San Francisco. By the time we were in Olympia, they were gone.
Anything changed about the re-press?
C: On the In the Red version, for the artwork, I altered a few things. So if you really want to compare them and look for it...
Like Where's Waldo?
C: Yeah, only not interesting.
K: No Waldo?
C: No Waldo.
K: He'll be on our second album.
This may be premature, but are you already working on new material already?
K: We have a bunch of songs in the works but we haven't had any time to work on them.
C: There are some half-written songs.
Ali, are you involved in the songwriting process now, too?
A: Yeah, now.
K: We write songs together. When we're sitting around hanging out.
K: Cassie writes the lyrics. She's good at that. They come to her. When we play songs. She just thinks them up, instantly. It's very weird.
You're just practicing the instrumental and lyrics come to you?
K: Really weird and mysterious.
C: It's cause I'm psychic.
A: We'd just got the music together, we were coming up with how many times we were gonna do stuff, and Cassie went upstairs to smoke a cigarette and came back down with the lyrics.
K: Written on the back of a magazine. And they're good.
Are they're set once you get them or do they shift over time?
C: They're more or less set, beyond maybe a word or two.
K: You've written all the lyrics, haven't you?
C: Except "Where Do You Run to?" That's the only one by Frankie, the old drummer.
What do you write about?
C: Ex boyfriends. New boyfriends. Classic girl-group subjects.
The check arrives. All three Vivians spontaneously begin to sing along with the restaurant's music selection: past number one hit "All My Life" by K-Ci & JoJo. A future rare bootleg cover? We depart. Walking down to the grimy, lovely shore of the East River for a photo shoot, I ask them about their name, which they've seemed ambivalent about at times past:
Katy: But girls with dicks are cool.