The Vivian Girls Talk New Record, Burt Bacharach and Changing All the Time
It's pretty safe to say that Vivian Girls have experienced success beyond their wildest dreams. The Brooklyn punk band had originally pressed a meager 500 copies of its self-titled debut record, which ending up selling out completely within the band's first ten days of touring. They were then picked up by legendary garage label In the Red, hoisted to the top of many 2008 year-end lists, and (unfairly) became the measuring stick for which every all-girl DIY band has been judged ever since. After a darker and woefully underrated second LP titled Everything Goes Wrong and enough drummer changes to rival Spinal Tap, third album Share the Joy finds the band branching out stylistically while vastly improving as musicians. City Arts recently had the pleasure of interviewing frontwoman Cassie Ramone, who was incredibly forthcoming about her emotional state while writing and recording this album, her undying love of Burt Bacharach and why she finds being compared to twee bands irksome.
City Arts: On Share the Joy it seems like you guys are trying to slowly transition out of the whole “girl-group garage” thing that you were pretty much responsible for popularizing. Was there a little self-imposed pressure to branch out after bands like Dum Dum Girls and Best Coast became popular?
No, not really. Most of these songs were written in 2009, before Best Coast or Dum Dum Girls put out albums or had a lot of attention from the media.
Even before that, there was a heavier, hardcore-punk sound that underscored your sophomore album, Everything Goes Wrong. Was the transition from your self-titled album to Everything Goes Wrong made for the same reasons as one between Everything Goes Wrong and Share the Joy?
In a sense, I suppose. I think it is difficult or impossible for us as a band to make the "right" decision, that being the decision that will gain us more fame or money or positive album reviews. The only choice for us is to do what we will do, because there is no other way. We had pretty much the same attitude going into the studio for Share the Joy as with Everything Goes Wrong: "Let's make an album that sounds like us but is better than the last." There might have been a subconscious decision on my part to write more angsty songs, though. I really hated how people would call Vivian Girls C-86 or twee. Not that those genres are bad, but there's a certain sexuality or dangerous element missing from them that I'd like to think Vivian Girls has.
It seems like the darker songs on your self-titled album--like “Never See Me Again” and “I Believe in Nothing”--were kind of a thematic springboard to the primary style of Everything Goes Wrong. What were you feeling emotionally when writing that album?
During the writing of Everything Goes Wrong, I was feeling a lot of negative energy from a few certain people I had just cut out of my life (intentionally or otherwise). There was one three-day period in the summer of 2008 where three people very important to me at the time left my life, pretty much forever. It was hard to deal with in the long run for two of those people. Couple that to the death of my close friend Jamie Ewing in November of that year [Ed. Note: Ramone and Ewing used to play together in a band called Bossy]. It hit pretty much everyone I know in Brooklyn really hard--he was a huge inspiration to many, many people. In addition, I wasn't ready to be in the public eye, but I had to be all of a sudden. It was a rough period. The album wasn't about any one experience in particular. I just had all these things coming at me at once. I actually wrote two of those songs before the first album was even recored, "Walking Alone At Night" and "Before I Start To Cry."
Was what you were feeling when writing the songs for Everything Goes Wrong similar to how you were feeling when writing the ones for Share the Joy? You and [bassist "Kickball"] Katy [Goodman] both had time to record and play shows with your respective side-projects during the downtime between Vivian Girls albums [Ramone released an album with the Babies while Goodman did the same in La Sera]. Was there anything that either of you learned during that process that you applied to this album?
The things I'm feeling change all the time. Share the Joy reflects more of a broad viewpoint of being cut out of society. Most of the songs from Share the Joy were written before La Sera or the Babies recorded, but I do think our respective bands helped us have a perspective when we went into the studio to record. It's really easy to get into one way of thinking about music, and any space apart will have you brimming with new ideas, minute as they may be.
When [drummer] Ali [Koehler] left for Best Coast, you guys enlisted Fiona Campbell from Coasting. When was the moment you knew you wanted Fiona to be a part of Vivian Girls? Were there any other drummers in the running to make the lineup?
We had one other person in mind: Mindy Abowitz, who runs Tom Tom Magazine. She's a totally incredible drummer and we would have been honored to have worked with her, but I do think things work out for a reason. If she had joined the band, she wouldn't have been able to devote as much time to Tom Tom, and we respect what she does so much that it's for the best. Incidentally, we practiced with Fiona before we had a chance to practice with Mindy, and from our first practice we knew Fiona was perfect for the band. She has a completely unique personal style, but she's so good at adapting to our previous drummers' beats. She has both precision and a lot of energy. It was a match made in heaven.
Share the Joy is named after a Burt Bacharach tune, who you’ve named as a huge influence of your songwriting. What parts of his songwriting process do you apply to your own?
There are three things that I value most about those songs. First is the phrasing: Bacharach was known for unconventional phrasing. If you listen to a standard pop song, you'll notice the parts go something like this: four lines of the verse, two of the bridge, four of the chorus, or something like that. As a songwriter, I have never fully subscribed to those methods, and neither has Bacharach. It's important for me to not get too tied into the banal mechanisms of pop songwriting. Second is his chord changes. Although I don't think my chord changes are nearly as interesting as his, I do put a lot of work into making what I consider to be not a boring progression. The third, and maybe most important, are Hal David's lyrics. He is an absolutely brilliant lyricist. The words he wrote are universal, well thought out, and very heartfelt. The music as a whole touches a special place in the soul. Neither Bacharach nor David were afraid to get weird, but they always kept a pop mentality in mind while they were doing it.
Share the Joy has instrumentation that's a little more expansive than on your previous records (Organs! Celeste!). If you ever got to the point where you could do it comfortably, would you like to add a multi-instrumentalist to the touring lineup, or do you like the more visceral approach that being a three-piece punk band affords?
I think there's something powerful it just being the three of us onstage. Aesthetics are important, and it would not feel the same if there were more people up there with us. It might sound good, but it's also another person to worry about fucking up their parts, and Vivian Girls songs (believe it or not) are sort of complicated to play, because we use a lot of non-traditional chords and changes. I'm not opposed to the idea entirely, but I do think the cons outweigh the pros at the time.
You've referred to Portland band the Wipers' Youth of America as one of your favorite records of all-time, something which can totally be heard in "The Other Girls" and "Light in Your Eyes." Are there any other records to come out of the Pacific Northwest that has shaped who you are as not only a musician, but as a person, as well?
Dead Moon, for sure. We've loved their music for a long time, and I saw the documentary not too long ago. It really inspired me. They are just following their dreams until the end. That and Nirvana. Nirvana has been a big inspiration to us and we like to think they're the band we are the most similar to.
Vivian Girls are playing at The Vera Project with No Joy, Unnatural Helpers and Witch Gardens Friday, May 6, at the Vera Project (7:30pm, all-ages)