In case you haven’t noticed, there’s currently an explosion of noisy, reverb-drenched music, paying equal parts homage to My Bloody Valentine as the Shangri-La’s, emanating from New York City. One such exponent, currently reaping the effects of critical acclaim, are Vivian Girls, an all-girl trio based in Brooklyn, who have recently hopped across the pond for a jaunt of gigs at clubs and bars across Europe. The Proud Galleries in Camden was the ideally trendy setting for my encounter with the band.
Though the band have only recently found an audience in Europe, it is immediately clear that they love being on the road. Talkative guitarist Cassie Ramone confirms that they’re “all pretty big fans of travelling”, adding that touring around Europe has been “an amazing experience… tour promoters in Europe are very hospitable.” So much for the food and drink they’re blagging on their travels; what of the crowds’ reaction to their music? The band’s bassist, Kickball Katy, is quick to temper their enthusiasm by noting that “in some cities, it’s been amazing, others it’s been so-so.” Despite this temporary dampener, it is clear that Vivian Girls are a band very much of the moment, whose music should surely find a receptive audience.
What immediately strikes me about their music is the irresistible sense of melody underlying the sometimes chaotic swells of distortion and reverb, and the band are quick to concur: Cassie suggests that “When we first started out, we wanted to be a band that had melodic songs, but they were really fast, and they were also really reverb-heavy.” Comparisons with My Bloody Valentine and C86 bands aside, Vivian Girls are also keen to point out their hardcore roots. Cassie adds that her childhood listening habits featured “A lot of The Wipers, and Dead Moon. But we were also really influenced by hardcore: we just wanted our songs to be really fast.” When I point out that virtually every teenage band starts out wanting to be a hardcore band, and that these roots have never really materialised in their music, which displays considerably more innocence and optimism than the likes of Fugazi or Minor Threat, she explains that “We didn’t want to be a hardcore band, like Minor Threat or anything, but we just wanted to be really fast.” Their eponymous debut, released last year, is a riotous affair, with strangely loping, lilting harmonies bouncing between typically breakneck drumming and shimmering, wall-of-sound guitars.
Inevitably, their sonic palette makes for an appealing live proposition. When I query the band as to their thoughts on playing live, they become wildly enthusiastic. Katy is keen to point out that “it’s really not about recreating the sound on your record. You can interact with the audience, and we’re in that learning-process stage.” The band’s drummer, Ali Koehler, puts forward the idea that “it’s about taking what people feel about the record, and translating that energy into the live experience,” adding that “I don’t think anyone wants to go to a show and just hear a CD – it has to be something else.” When we discuss their downtime interests, it is unsurprising to learn that all three are avid gig-goers, choosing to spend their January off going to “virtually a show every other day.” With their taste for under-the-radar indie bands, like The Beats and Pissed Jeans, one can almost pinpoint Vivian Girls’ geographical location on a map. Says Katy, “We’re all from New Jersey, but me and Cassie live in Brooklyn.” When one considers the wealth of musical talent emerging from Brooklyn neighbourhoods like Williamsburg, it is interesting to hear the actual opinions of the artists as to why the borough has developed such a reputation. Cassie suggests that “New York City is such a diverse, cultural place, that people who are interested in the arts, and different ways of life, just kind of blossom out of one place.”
Just like their neighbours TV On The Radio (whom Katy describes as “awesome live”), Vivian Girls came together in a communal loft environment. Cassie elaborates, “I was living in Brooklyn, and I was hanging out with this group of people, like, my friends. They were living in this warehouse loft space, and I would go there four times a week, and Frankie [the band's original drummer] lived there too.” Moreover, as she explains, a set of fortuitous circumstances led to all three of the band’s current members colliding together. “My old band had just gone on hiatus, and Frankie didn’t have a band, and she asked me if I wanted to start a band. I was like, yeah, sure! We still needed a bass player, and Katie’s band had gone on hiatus too… and then we just started to play together.” The manner in which all three of the Girls’ sentences trail off at the end is indicative of a misty-eyed joy at the fortune that has befallen them. When founding member Frankie decided to commit to the Crystal Stilts, again, serendipity dealt Vivian Girls an ideal hand: Cassie explains that “The band I’d been on hiatus with was a band with Ali, so when we needed a new drummer, Ali was the first obvious choice.”
Far from being hipster layabouts, Vivian Girls are the spirit of progressive feminism personified (in a good way). All three graduated at exactly the same time, and, though they hold degrees in subjects as varied as German, Physics and Art, the allure of the road was too thrilling to forgo. Cassie admits that “It really was just a lucky timing thing. We started the band when I was a junior at college. And then we were working really hard at it, for like, a year or so, and then when we graduated, it was just like, diving straight into music the whole time.” In spite of their clear intellectual prowess, however, not even the prospect of steady jobs will derail Vivian Girls from their artistic ambitions. “We are going to tour a lot more,” says Katy, “we’re then going to record our second album in March. We’re aiming to release it in September. And then we’re just going to tour, tour and record, tour and record, a lot more. We’re just going to keep going forever!” Ali adds that “We also have our own record label now, so maybe in the future, if we end up touring less, we’re going to put out our best records on it.” When I inquire as to what their future musical directions might be, the responses are somewhat conflicting; nevertheless, they shed light on their deep vein of songwriting talent. Though they are firmly committed to the shimmering guitars and clattering drums of their forebears, Katy also notes that “A lot of people say that there’s more energy live, and we might like to capture that. It might be nice to be more sparse.” Their lyrics, meanwhile, will continue to be about “Relationships, and when they fail,” at which point the band break into peals of laughter. Clearly, their relentless energy doesn’t detract from the undercurrent of teenage angst in their lyrical themes. They also remain fiercely committed to independent ideals: Cassie explains that “it’s like one of our integral moral codes [to stay independent],” adding that “We started out playing punk shows in living rooms,” suggesting that, with their Bikini Kill tattoos, Vivian Girls remain attached to their Riot Grrrl roots, and are fairly unlikely to transform themselves into the next Lady GaGa. When I finish my conversation by asking them their opinions of this new wave of female electro-pop acts, it becomes clear that the pop music is something of an alien world for them. Though they argue that “Anything that gets girls involved with music is good,” Ali concedes that “Lady GaGa’s image is pretty over-sexualised,” the implicit conclusion being that for Vivian Girls, artistic integrity remains paramount.
In the gig that follows our interview, Vivian Girls hold true to their promises, indulging in some jams on several songs, while consistently projecting a raw energy lacking in many of their peers. Throughout, what impresses me most about them is that sweet, wry smile in the corner of all their songs’ mouths – no matter how unorthodox Cassie Ramone’s guitar sound is, she refuses to let it obstruct the band’s essential, primal joy at being young women, forging an independent life in music, thrilled at the prospect of the open road.