Interview and Show Review: Vivian Girls at Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York 9/11/10

words and photos by Jon Aubin
| Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Whispers in blogland can be put to rest:  the Vivian Girls are here to stay.  No, they haven’t kept up their usual relentless touring schedule lately (for the first time since, like, their formation in 2007), and yes, they recently lost a drummer (Ali Koehler) to Left Coast rival, Best Coast. And sure, their once-torrential downpour of 45s and albums has tapered to a sprinkle since the release of 2009’s Everything Goes Wrong, an album whose very title portends a sense of foreboding — oh, and lest we forget, both founding members have upcoming solo releases, as Cassie Ramone and La Sera respectively. But despite all this, rumors of the Vivian Girls’ dissolution are greatly exaggerated.  Not only that, but they’ve got a third album in the can, which shall be discussed henceforth.

Admittedly, Vivian Girls hold a special place in my heart (more of this later — this goes beyond simplistic fanboydom), so when I read the news that they would be playing the opening of an exhibition in New York City showing some of Henry Darger’s never-before-seen artworks, I knew I had to be there.  Sure, this is happening today, and yeah, I’ve got a two-month-old daughter in tow, and right, this is the anniversary of September 11th, but was I going to let that faze me?  Hell no. If I stay home, then the terrorists truly have won, simple as that, and I’m not willing to make that concession.

First order of the day: preparing the little one.  We ended up buying silicone earplugs at Walgreens — though we didn’t really need them due to the genteel setting and the subdued performance — and I won’t get in to the amount of preparation, breast-milk-wise, my wife had to put in for the six-hour “daycation” to the Big Apple, but you can just imagine. No wait, don’t! — that’s my wife, damn it.

Twisting my wife’s arm into going along on the quixotic adventure was the most difficult task, but I had my reasons, not the least of which were my worries that this could be the Vivian Girls’ final show.

For those of you who don’t already know, Vivian Girls take their name from Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which is without doubt the most disturbingly beautiful piece of outsider art ever assembled. If you doubt me, rent the DVD In the Realms of the Unreal and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  Darger never had any acclaim in his lifetime because no one saw his work until his death, but he constructed an illustrated/collaged epic masterpiece made from the dustbin scraps of thrown-away newspapers and magazines while living the life of a shut-in, working as a custodian, attending church daily, inhabiting a world all his own.  To wit, he believed until the day he died at the age of 81 that girls had penises.  He simply had no experience with female reproductive organs.

Thankfully, Vivian Girls are a bit more extroverted, much like the heroines of Darger’s imaginary world — they have plenty of moxie and a willingness to take on the boys at their own game.

Occasionally, the world opens up to us, and we need only to fall in line with its rhythms. Following a comically traffic-free two-hour drive from New Haven, we arrived in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and almost immediately found on-street parking three blocks from the gallery.   We changed our daughter’s diaper (amazingly, no poop), fed her her midday meal in the bucolic High Line Park, and strolled into the venue (no cover) where they served us champagne, free of charge, like we were actual VIPs, and not just schmoes from off the street.

Since most of the patrons were there for the art, there was plenty of room to get up-close during the band’s performance.  Speaking of which, the set was low-key and mellow, featuring Kickball Katy and Cassie Ramone — sans drummer — playing stripped-down, harmony-laden versions of some of their best tunes amid several of Darger’s best pieces, which look as fresh today as they must have when they were first discovered by his landlord following his death in 1973.  Am I dreaming? I thought. What’s the catch?  Happy to say, there wasn’t one.

In the following conversation between Vivian Girls and myself, Katy and Cassie discuss their new record, how much their former In the Red labelmate, Jay Reatard, meant to them, take some time out for one of their youngest fans, and add four choice words for the haters.

You recently lost your drummer [Ali Koheler] to Best Coast, you haven’t toured much, and you both have solo projects in the works…so one has to ask: is there a future for the Vivian Girls?
Kickball Katy: Oh, yeah!
Cassie Ramone: Big time!
Katy: We actually just finished recording our third album this week.
Cassie: It’s not done yet.
Katy: Well, a lot of it is done.
Cassie: Yeah — we still have a lot of work to do on it.

Cassie: Mostly overdubs, vocals.  It’s lots of stuff, but all of the tracking’s done and a lot of the vocals are done, so it’s well on its way to being finished.

Is it going to be released on In the Red?
Cassie: No.

Can you say who is releasing it?
Katy: No comment, because it’s–

Is it still being shopped?
Katy: We do have a new label, but we haven’t announced it yet.

So where was this album recorded?
Cassie: At our friend Jarvis’s house in Brooklyn.  He plays drums and sometimes guitar in Woods, who are one of our favorite local bands — one of our favorite bands period, really. They’re incredible.  Jarvis has been our friend for a really long time, and he has a really amazing recording set up in his house.  He has a lot of really cool tape machines and effects pedals.

You also play in The Babies with a member of Woods, right?
Cassie: Yeah, that’s my friend, Kevin.  Kevin is the bass player in Woods.

Are there any releases in the works for The Babies?
Cassie: The Babies have a full-length LP coming out very soon on Tripper.

What about solo records — are they on the way as well?
Katy and Cassie: Yeah.
Katy: We play a lot of music.

Yeah, I guess so.  What are the labels for the solo efforts?
Katy: La Sera is coming out on Hardly Art, and I think it’s going to be self-titled.
Cassie: Mine’s going to be out on In the Red, and it’s going to be called Zenith.

In the Red is a seminal label — a favorite of mine — and one of your labelmates was the late, great Jay Reatard.  You obviously share an aesthetic kinship with him — how hard were you hit by that loss?
Katy and Cassie: Very.
Cassie: Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions is one of the reasons we started a band.  That record was a huge influence on us in the beginning.
Katy: His existence and how prolific he was — music was his life.  He was so inspirational for us, and it was very hard.
Cassie: Devastating.

Did you ever tour with him?
Cassie: We played a few shows together, but no, we never toured.  We wanted to tour and we’d send each other Myspace messages about touring, but…
Katy: It never happened.

Have you taken a break from touring recently in order to focus on your solo projects?
Katy: Our last album came out a year ago, so we wanted to take a break before we started touring really hard behind the third record.  So we missed the hiatus.  We’re really busy people. We try to be productive all the time, which is why we’re doing so many solo records and other bands and stuff.

Does the new album have a title yet?
Cassie: It’s going to be called Share the Joy.
Katy: We just decided on the name like a week ago.  It was actually the first option for the name — we were all like, ‘That’s awesome!’

(At this point, the conversation was broken up by a young fan of the band and her parents. Cassie and Katy crouched down to speak with the little girl at eye-level. The following transcript is an excerpt of the “interview within the interview” between Mimi and the Vivian Girls.)

Mimi: I liked your guitars.

Katy: Thank you so much.  What’s your name?

Mimi: Mimi.

Katy: Do you play guitar?

Mimi: No.

Mimi’s Mom: She has a ukelele.

Mimi: That’s almost a guitar.  Is yours electric?

Katy: Yeah.

Mimi: Mine’s not.

Cassie: We have little guitars, too, that we play all the time.

Mimi: Are you almost a big kid?

Cassie: Am I “almost a big kid?”

Mimi’s Mom: She asked before if you were teenagers.

Katy: No, we’re adults. (laughter)  So, yes, I am a big kid — we’re both big kids. Big, big kids.

Mimi: Do you practice very much?

Katy: Yeah.

Mimi: My dad plays guitar.

Katy: Cool!
Cassie: That’s great!
Katy: How old are you?

Mimi: Five.

Cassie: That’s a good age.
Katy: It was nice meeting you.  See you next time. Her interview was good, huh?

Yeah, I think I might have to steal some of her questions.  I’ll make sure to give her credit, though.  You’ll have to meet my daughter later.  Her name is Vivian.  She’s here, and uh…she was born almost nine months to the day after my wife and I saw you at UConn last year.
Katy: Oh, so that night…
Katy and Cassie: Oh my god!  Oh no…aagh! (laughter)
Katy: That’s too much information.
Cassie: That’s the best story I’ve ever heard.  Is that why you named her Vivian?

Yeah, of course.
Katy and Cassie: (hysterical laughter)  Aaaaaggggghhhhhhh!
Katy: I wish I could Tweet with my mind.
Cassie: Dude, we have to Tweet that eventually.
Katy: That is like my favorite Vivian Girls-related story, ever!
Cassie: Ever.  One time, somebody told me they had their first kiss to Vivian Girls, and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool,” but that’s nothing compared to this.  This tops that by so much.

Everything Goes Wrong was a big leap forward sonically.  How are you altering your sound for the new album?
Cassie: In the past I was reluctant to add guitar overdubs just because I didn’t want it to sound way emptier live than on record, and it’s hard as a punk three-piece like we are, so I would never really insert a guitar solo over rhythm guitar.  I have done that so rarely in the past, but I think we’re probably going to do a little more of that on this next album.  We’re probably going to put in some organ.

Did Ali [Koheler, former drummer] record with you?
Cassie: One song was recorded with Ali.  It’s a song that she wrote most of the guitar parts for, but most of the drumming is done by Fiona Campbell, our new drummer.  She was in the band the Coolies, from New Zealand, and she’s currently in the band Coasting, who are a female duo, and they’re great.

Who are you listening to these days?
Cassie: I’ve been listening to a lot of blues — Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey.  I have this tape I found in the trash, and I’ve been listening to it while cooking.

What do you cook?
Cassie: Last night I made sautéed radishes, which were actually really delicious, with lots of butter, shallots, and garlic.

And that’s a meal for you?
Cassie: I had pasta, too.  My friends thought I was crazy, but it ended up coming out very well.

Your sound could be described as a punk rock take on the wall-of-sound girl groups produced by Phil Spector in the ’60s.  Do you have a favorite song from that genre or era?
Katy: “Dedicated to the One I Love.”
Cassie: It’s by this band called the Beach Girls called “Skiing in the Snow.”  It’s kind of a rarity.
Katy: Didn’t you say you wanted to cover that?
Cassie: Yeah, we should cover that.  I do want to cover that.   It’s one of my favorite songs; it’s kind of hard to track down, but it’s really incredible.

Today is the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.  What were you doing on that day?
Katy: I was in high school, and when the first plane hit, the news kind of spread through the hallways and made its way into the classroom.  After class, I went to the library, and they had a TV set up, and I walked in right as the second plane hit.  We’re from Ridgewood [New Jersey], so that afternoon we went up to the ridge that overlooks New York City and we saw the debris cloud.  It was devastating.

(At this point, the Vivian Girls meet my daughter and fawn over her, while I try desperately the rein in the interview.)

So you seem to have a polarizing effect on audiences — it seems like people either love you or hate you.  Got any words for the haters?
Cassie: Find a new hobby.  We’re in it because we love music, and we love what we do, and we believe in ourselves, and we don’t care if you hate us, so just try to find something else to waste your time with. (laughter)

What’s your favorite tattoo?
Cassie: This one: (Cassie reveals a palm tree on her inside right forearm with the words “I’m on vacation” written below it)  It reminds me of the way that I want to permanently live my life.

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