Vivian Girls' Phantom Punk Packs A Punch, By John Norris
'Wild Eyed' Jersey girls made good are among indie-dom's 2008 successes.
What's the secret to the appeal of the Vivian Girls? How have they been able to break through in an ever more crowded punk-pop field, grabbing the attention of blog after blog, booking gig after gig? What accounted for their debut album becoming a certifiable collector's item, only a couple of months after its release?
"I would say it's that we're really, really good musicians," the Girls' Cassie Ramone said, adding, "we're like geniuses of sound." "Kind of like, you know, virtuosos?" Kickball Katy concurred. "We all went to music college."
Uh, they kid. They may not have a Juilliard or Berklee diploma among them, but the Vivian Girls — whose ranks are rounded out by drummer Ali Koehler — have certainly got a sound. If you haven't had the pleasure of hearing them yet, think '60s girl group the Shangri-Las (God knows enough critics have) meets the reverb-loving indie pop of the short-lived Black Tambourine — though the VGs themselves cite Nirvana and their punk forebears the Wipers as their top two essentials. Whatever the ingredients, the result is a band that's gotten a ton of attention in indie and college ranks — first with the spring release of the single, "Wild Eyes," and then with their self-titled debut album, initially released by indie imprint Mauled By Tigers with a pressing of only 500 copies. The limited number created — to put it mildly — a demand. "We were originally going to only make 300," Cassie explained. "We thought, 'There is no way 500 people are going to buy this.' " How wrong they were. Within two weeks, the album had sold out, and, Katy said, they could hardly believe it. "We were high-fiving and were like, 'How is this possible?' " Then came eBay. "Yeah, someone sold it unexpectedly on eBay for $100," Cassie recalled, "and then suddenly everyone was selling it."
All good news for L.A.-based label In the Red, which re-released the Vivian Girls' album last month, to the tune of another 4,000 copies sold since. Need any more indication that the Vivians are catching fire? Try the list of indie names they have shared the bill with in 2008: Jay Reatard, King Khan, TV on the Radio, F---ed Up (who happen to have a song called "Vivian Girls") and, most recently, Deerhunter, a band that also likes some reverb. Matter-of-fact, it seems to be everywhere you turn nowadays — I've lost count how many reverb-lovin' acts I have talked to this year alone — but the Vivian Girls have developed as much a signature sound as any of them. It's been called "spooky" and "ghostly," a feeling certainly enhanced by the scary-drive-in-movie-complete-with-cheesy-bats-and-zombies look of their video for "Tell The World."
That resounding reverb really happened by accident, when the girls were recording their first demo back in 2007. "It was our friend Craig from the band Hunchback — they recorded it, and he was like, 'Oh, let's put some reverb on these backing vocals.' And then we decided to put 'em on all the vocals." The girls swear by the Holy Grail — an effects pedal not meant for vocals — which makes for a lot of sweet echo-y sounds, but also for lots of feedback when they play live, which causes the occasional run-in with sound men. "This guy the other day was like, 'These little girls are feeding back too much,' " Katy recalled, "so the whole time he kept turning off our mics!" As Cassie, not to be trifled with, put it, "He was a di--. But you know what? Feedback is sweet and it annoys people and we like that."
That includes one fan at a recent show — apparently uninitiated to the Girls' love of feedback, reverb and vocals buried in the middle that are often indecipherable, he decided to weigh in. "Your sound guy sucks!" he yelled. "Oh really?" replied Katy. "I don't think so. He rules. I think it's maybe you that sucks." Enough said.
The Vivian Girls' path to this point was, in their own words, a "musically incestuous" one that began in 2002 and traversed New Jersey — from high school in Ridgewood, where Cassie fronted a lo-fi/novelty band called Upholstery; down to New Brunswick, where Katy and Ali formed the "surf/ riot grrl" band Four Way Milkshake, and later, a poppier duo, the Pot and the Kettle; to Brooklyn, where, as a student at Pratt Institute, Cassie joined the punk trio Bossy. "The best band in the world," Ali said. She moved to Germany for school just before Katy, Cassie and original drummer Frankie Rose formed the Vivian Girls, who made their live debut in May of 2007.
"Beef" is something you generally encounter in hip-hop circles, or metal, maybe, but not with fledgling indie pop-punk bands. Yet the VG's did have a slice of beef this summer, when Frankie — who came up with the band's name (after Henry Darger's hermaphroditic warrior princesses, of course) and appears in credits and photos on the album — abruptly left the band just as Vivians buzz was reaching a fever pitch. The girls firmly decline to talk about the split — "Can we just move on? Next question!" — but it apparently had to do with Frankie doing double-duty with the Vivians and another of Brooklyn's finest new bands, Crystal Stilts. In any case, as a replacement on drums, longtime friend Ali proved a quick study. "I pretty much knew all the drum parts," she said. "I had been listening to them for so long already, going back to their first demo."
If there was a turbulent patch, it is decidedly in the Vivian Girls' rear-view mirror, as they spend a huge amount of time on the road. They're already looking forward to the May 2009 release of their second full-length album, about half of which they estimate is already written. "We listen to Cassie's demos on an iPod in the car," Ali explained, "then make up harmonies and stuff." Or, if they have a day off, "We go to the music-equipment store in town and 'practice' there. Everyone gets really mad, but we don't care," Ali added. Before 2008 is out, the girls will play a UK tour, and, to wind up this most momentous of years, a New Year's Eve show in Jersey with Yo La Tengo and the Feelies. Now that's a Garden State triple bill.
The Vivian Girls' debut album is out now.
11/28 Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda's (w/ King Khan & BBQ Show)
11/30 New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom (w/ King Khan & BBQ Show)
12/02 London, UK @ Brixton Windmill
12/03 London, UK @ Old Blue Last
12/04 Nottingham, UK @ The Social
12/05 Liverpool, UK @ Club Evol
12/06 Glasgow, UK @ Captain's Rest
12/07 Leeds, UK @ Cockpit
12/08 Coventry, UK @ Colosseum
12/09 London, UK @ Madame Jojo's - White Heat
12/10 Manchester, UK @ The Deaf Institute
12/12 London, UK @ Vice Kills Proud Galleries
12/13 Bristol, UK @ Club Kute at Cooler