The Weird Pop of Abe Vigoda

Abe-VigodaLos Angeles punks Abe Vigoda evolve with each new release. 2008’s Skeletons found the band experimenting with Afro-beat percussion and irregular song structures. 2009’s Reviver EP was atonal no-wave noise, like Sonic Youth covering Stevie Nicks ("Wild Heart"). After their first headlining tour (ending at the Smell on the fifth of August), the band will hunker down to write and record their fourth proper album. I sat down with guitarist/co-founder Juan Velazquez to discuss the past, present, and future of the band. Has this tour been different than past tours? Have you noticed a more positive reception? The two U.S. tours we’ve done, the last two, we did a tour opening for No Age, and then in the fall we did a U.S. tour opening for Diplo. This tour is different; it’s our first “headlining” tour -- I did “headlining” with air-quotes. It’s different. I was really nervous ‘cause it’s up to us to bring people to the shows. And that’s kind of intense, but the shows have been really good ‘cause the kids are there and like to come see us, and we’re with Talbot Tagora, we’re in the same van with them, like both of us together, and it’s really pretty easygoing, no drama, no weirdness, a pretty great tour. We’ve had time to hang out and go swimming, and we’ve been taking it easier. Other tours were a little more intense in this one way where we’d have to be at gigs super early, and we were playing bigger places ‘cause we were opening for bigger bands, and in that way it was more intense. This tour’s a lot more fun, and the shows are really great, kids are coming out, it’s been cool. I’ve very excited about it. What artists or albums have been getting repeat spins in the tour van? We listened to Violator twice, by Depeche Mode. I’ve been listening to books on my iPod, ‘cause listening to music all day in the van gets nauseating. I recently got the new Cold Cave record. I think they’re from Detroit or New York. Fuck, I don’t know where they’re from. They’re kind of like an electronic, new-wave band, really weird and kind of dark, and they’re new, like they just came out. So we’ve heard that a couple of times and it’s really fucking good. It seems like a lot of times the albums you’re listening to influence the records you’re making. Like you were listening to a lot of African, world-beat percussion, like Konono No. 1, when you wrote Skeletons. Yeah. It’s not that we listen to albums constantly. We hear them, and they are great, and they influence us in a way. Our taste evolves constantly, like our style. Yeah, I don’t know if what we’re listening to now is what we’re sounding like. It’s hard to pick that apart. Do you listen to music and wonder, what would it be like if I put this song through the "Abe Vigoda" filter, made it a lot more atonal and dissonant? Sometimes. Moreso earlier in our trajectory. I guess our new stuff is more new-wave or something, like a little bit poppier. Let’s say our direction is poppy, and a little dissonant and new-wavey and weird or whatever. It’s hard to pinpoint it; it’s not calculated. It’s a big mix of stuff. We’re trying to incorporate a little more samples and stuff, trying to integrate more electronic themes into the band. Do you think that’s the next record, if you had to pigeon-hole it? Experimental in an electronic sense, and also trying to refine your pop sensibilities? Yeah. It’s poppier, and the song structures are more conventional compared to what we’ve done before, they’re longer for example. I’m really excited. After this tour, we probably won’t go on tour again until the end of the year next year ‘cause we want to write a bunch of new songs and record in a studio, and put out a proper release. Are you going to put out the album on Post Present Medium? Yeah, I think it’ll be on Dean’s label [Dean of fellow L.A. punks No Age], unless something crazy happens. He was so awesome on the last record, he’s our friend, he totally gets what we want to do, and he likes music a lot, which is the most important thing. It’s an amazing label and I like all the bands that are on it. "Wild Hearts" on your newest EP, Reviver. It’s interesting that you cover Stevie Nicks. It’s the only cover we’ve ever done, but we never play it live, which sucks. The only person on the recording is Michael, he wrote it and played all the parts. I think we could do it live as a full band, but he’s not letting it happen. He’s weird about it. Everyone has personal desires and motivations. It’s like writing a new song. We played it in Europe three or four times, and we were able to pull it off in a weird way. It sounded a lot like the song recorded, but shorter and more jammy. Michael doesn’t like to play it live, but I think it’s a good song. Plus, Stevie Nicks is awesome. How are you explicitly influenced by the past, and how do you expand on it? For me it seems that the ideal musician is someone who really understands music history and can take that and invert it and do something new with it. It’s really strange. When we write songs, it’s our own process. I don’t think about it academically ‘cause I don’t have the best knowledge of theory. I’m a big music nerd, and I know a lot about certain things, but I can’t trace the explicit roots of the songs we write. It’s important for us to do something different. We don’t want to repeat anything that’s been done, but you can’t really help it sometimes. You hear music created before you, and you can’t not be influenced by it, no matter how hard you try. People say, "Oh, you guys sound really different," but I think we’re just a rock band. If something starts sounding too clichéd, we definitely do scrap it no matter how fun or catchy it is; it almost feels weird playing it. It’s important for us to try different things. Do you think that acts as an inhibitor for the band? If you write something easy and catchy, do you push yourselves consciously towards the opposite extreme to write something intentionally challenging? Could that hurt the band’s development? We don’t ever want to write parodies. We try not to be easy or boring or derivative. If something doesn’t feel creative, or just isn’t working, that choice isn’t deliberate. We aren’t afraid of being poppy. I like pop music a lot. It’s a weird balance between convention and experimentation, ‘cause either extreme is self-indulgent. We don’t want to be pretentious. That seems to be the thesis of the band: you're constantly experimenting and evolving, but trying to slowly funnel your songs into more conventional structures. It’s weird talking about it, ‘cause weirdly it starts to make sense. It's very organic and, to be honest, sort of boring. We just take ideas and compromise and figure out how to make songs work. It's not the most fun to talk about until afterwards. It seems that you just dig making music. If someone hates their role in a song, that'll show during performances. That looks bad and unexciting and isn’t what we want to portray as artists. Do you think that has to do with Abe Vigoda starting in high school, when you and Michael were very young? Is it important to the band dynamic that you learned to write songs and play music together side-by-side with your best friend? Does that set up a mutual evolution among the musicians in the band? Definitely. Me and Michael, the singer, we've been playing music together, the two of us, for a very long time. He was elemental in my passion for songwriting. He set the chain of events into motion. Exactly. That’s why we get along so well. We did all this together, starting a band, exploring song structures, experimenting with sounds, we did that as friends. It’s easy in that one way; we can tell what the other is thinking. It’s easy to criticize each other ‘cause we’re friends and we can work in a very intense, creative environment, and be hyper-critical. And at the end of the day, you’re still friends. Yeah, like anyone you’ve known for a really long time. Out on tour, we live together, I love him. It’s great. Has the band’s songwriting process evolved since Vigoda’s formation? Is it still a communal experience? We are a collaborative effort. Someone will present a riff or hook, and we’ll build the tune together from there. It’s bringing in ideas rather than songs. Yeah, we’ll bring in parts. Everyone has ideas of what they want to do, and we get together and try to reconcile all these different approaches. The only song that’s been written and recorded independently of the band is "Wild Heart." I don’t know if we could've written a song like that together, but I’d like to try ‘cause I like the vibe of it. I love everything Michael does, he’s creative and talented and sees things differently than I do, which I think is cool. A yin-yang balance to making music. Yeah. That’s our approach. It’d be cool to write songs in a different way, but it’s so easy to write songs together, and it feels natural. It makes sense and it’s fun to collaborate. It seems that when you have more heads on an idea, it comes to fruition quicker, and is more complex and interesting from more perspectives. We’re very democratic as a band. Usually we’ll set up with our bassist in the middle of the stage, and Michael and I will flank. It’s everyone’s band; there’s not one main person. I like bands like that. I have a question about the song "Endless Sleeper," or rather the songs "Endless Sleeper." The original was released on Skeletons, and then a revamped version was released on the Reviver EP. Is that a cover or a reimagining, or some third option? When we went in to the studio, we didn’t know that Reviver would be an EP. We just wanted to put our ideas to record. We had time to fuck with "Endless Sleeper." We initially recorded it a cappella, but that sounded too weird and over-the-top, too intense. Like a Gregorian chant. Exactly. So we decided to add some cool noise and make it a droning mess. We had time to experiment in the studio and indulge ourselves. We got to mess around and see what we might sound like. And then when it came to lyrics, Michael said he wanted to reuse the lyrics he liked from "Endless Sleeper," so we figured we might as well keep the same song title. We wanted to write a meatier, slower song; the reinvented "Endless Sleeper" was the result of this experiment. We didn’t set out to cover ourselves. Do you think it’s important to the band to put your experimental tendencies down to record and chart the trajectory of your development? It’s just fun to record and explore the capabilities of the studio. I like pop music, but I recognize that it’s a weird beast. We don’t want to be too artsy or pretentious. We want to be challenging and fun. The word experimental throws me off. Sonic Youth has always been a big influence in terms of making and documenting music. They were interesting and influential and fun at the same time. Are there any styles you have no interest in exploring? The more I write songs and listen to different types of music and grow up, the more daring I feel. I can take influence from a lot of things. Except I don’t believe in guilty pleasures the way I did in high school. Eventually you have to take "Take on Me" off rotation. There’s nothing that doesn’t influence me. Every genre of music has something to admire and offer. I don’t want to limit myself. Can you be influenced by music you don’t like? There could be a song that I hate, but there could be a single phrase or melody line that I dig, that I think is cool and weird, that I can pull and expand on in my own way. For example, straightforward, Top 40 modern pop-dance music. It’s not the type of music that we make, but there are elements that can we can borrow and elaborate on and be influenced by. I think that the next record is moving in that direction. There are definite Top 40 influences being incorporated. It’s not like we sit around and say, "Let’s pull the bass line from this song, and the guitar riff from that one," it just comes together. It’s a big mash-up of ideas. It’s impossible to define influence to a T, unless it's blatant derivation. You can tell when someone is totally ripping something off. You keep throwing around the word "weird," but in an endearing way. Is Abe Vigoda a "weird" band? Yeah. I think we totally are. The show and the tour, getting to make albums, I think we’re making music on our own terms, it’s crazy. We write songs just for ourselves to like and we’re all sort of geeks in this one way and idealists. I guess we are weird or something. Not in a wacky or pretentious way. Hopefully we’re interesting and not too conventional. - Adam Kritzer Abe Vigoda adam-kritzerMr. Kritzer travels the globe -- or at least NYC -- looking for revelatory moments of musical bliss.