Interview: Tan Vampires!

Underneath This just enjoyed interviewing Tan Vampires, a very talented band based in New Hampshire.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming musicians.

Most of the band participated in public school music programs in some way as kids, and a number of us studied music in college. We’ve all been playing in numerous bands since high school or before.

How did Tan Vampires form and how did you decide upon the band’s name?

I (Jake) wrote a batch of songs shortly after a previous band I was in broke up that I felt were worth developing into a new project. I knew the rest of the guys in the band through various past shared musical experiences, and also from our connection to the local NH seacoast music scene.

The name was just kind of a silly thing I had kicking around that I thought was memorable. Of course, shortly after I started performing under the name, vampires had a pretty big pop-culture moment, and I considered changing it, but ultimately decided since I’d had it first I wasn’t going to give it up.

How does being from New Hampshire affect the music that you make?

The music scene where we live is really special. The community is fairly small, and extremely close-knit. Despite being small, we have an incredibly diverse spectrum of musical styles and a disproportionately high level of talent. There’s a ton of cross-pollination happening, with many musicians playing in multiple groups and projects. I think this environment has allowed us to explore a lot of different musical avenues and take risks because the community encourages and supports individuality.

Who and what have been your principle creative influences?

This question would probably elicit very different responses from each of us. I’ve always read pretty ravenously, and my approach to songwriting and lyrics has always been rooted in some way to my sensibilities as a writer. Musically I’m all over the place. I studied jazz and classical music for a while, and I have an enduring love for soul and Motown, as well as punk, hardcore, and hip-hop.

Your music has generally been described as indie rock. What do you make of this designation?

I’m not sure indie means anything to the general public anymore. I recently read a review of a friend’s band (who are on a major label) where they were referred to as “indie.” I think that the fact that a band on a major label can be referred to as “indie”, without irony and with seemingly no awareness of the literal meaning of the word, indicates that the word has lost whatever descriptive power it may once have possessed.

In the context of what we do, well, I do consider us indie in the sense that we are independent. We are not signed to a label, our records have all been recorded, produced, and paid for by the band. We are not indebted to anyone else, financially or otherwise, and as such we are able to keep complete creative control over everything we do.

As for the “rock” part, it’s sometimes true, but I don’t feel beholden to it. I’m too interested in exploring different ideas to be beholden to any one genre.

In what ways is your creative work feminist?

One way is the way I consciously try to write from (and expose myself to) a perspective that is bigger than just “straight, white, and male.” That would be pretty dull and unrewarding, both for myself and for the audience. That being said, I don’t have a specific social or political agenda with my music.

How have your social identities informed your music?

I can’t speak for everyone on this one, but for me, having been a painfully shy, pretty nerdy kid, I think I ended up spending a lot of time in solitude: reading, writing, and practicing. If I had been more comfortable in my own skin I might have had more of a social life and maybe ended up not being as deeply invested in music as I am. It’s hard to say.

One of my favorite songs by you is “Digital Rot” off your debut album. What inspired that track?

Desperation and alcohol, mostly. I actually wrote that song about a week before we went in the studio to record what became “For Physical Fitness.” We had a bunch of songs, but nothing that felt like a really strong opening track for an album.

So, on a Saturday night ( I think we were going in the studio on Tues, or Wed) I drank about 2/3 of a bottle of bourbon at home by myself and all this terminology and imagery that I can only guess comes from my early 90s school computer classes started to come out.

I worry sometimes about the pace of technological progress and my own ability to keep up, especially as I get older, and I guess a lot of those feelings were coming out in songs on that record.

So I recorded a rough demo of the tune, and then must have passed out and forgotten about it until the band got together on Monday when one of the guys said “I think that song might work as an album opener” and I said “what song?”

And I think the version on the record was maybe the third or fourth time we ever played through the song together as a band.

You are quite adept at telling stories via music. What are the stories behind “Fake Southern Drawl,” “Secret Carnivore,” and “The Season has Come.”

I don’t often write about specific experiences in my life, and if i do it’s usually not in a direct fashion. I consider what I write to be fiction. Writing lyrics is a way for me to explore fictional scenarios, sometimes fantastical ones, that I otherwise might not experience. I consider it my job to make those works of fiction emotionally resonant.

I love the juxtaposition of mundane and unexpected images in the video for “Into the West” off your latest album, Ephemera. What was it like to make this video?

We really have to give credit for that video to Jeremy Collins (jeremyscollins.com) who also directed our video for “Digital Rot.” He came up with the concept and made it happen. We knew from working on “Digital Rot” with him that he had cool ideas and the talent and work ethic to execute them. So, basically we just signed off on his concept and showed up to film cameos.

It’s a fun way for us to do things, to let someone else take the reins, because it allows us to experience our own music in a fresh way when we see the video for the first time and see how the ideas have taken shape.

The artwork of that album is beautiful. How did it come about?

I believe Nick (Phaneuf, our guitar player) came across Taylor’s art hanging somewhere in Portsmouth, NH. She has a great, whimsical, illustrative style (taylorrosemakesart.com) and we felt like she could really express the quality of nostalgia that is so present in the songs on that record.

We asked her to come up with concepts, and she came back with a bunch of ideas. Then we worked with her to narrow down the focus, and she took our vague (and probably conflicting) ideas and managed to turn them into the beautiful artwork on the album.

What were some highlights of playing at South by Southwest for the first time?

We got to play some great shows with some great bands like Deer Tick, and the Felice Brothers. We even got to play a Spurs v. Lakers game in San Antonio with Mobb Deep while we were there.

One of my favorite things about SXSW was having so many friends from all over in the same place at the same time, which doesn’t really happen in the everyday real world.

Several months ago, we interviewed Wilder Maker. What is it like performing with them in Portland, Maine?

I believe our friend Jeff Beam invited us to play that show. Portland is a great town with a really vibrant music scene. We love playing there, especially when we get to be on such good bills.

Would or have you ever covered a Vampire Weekend song? šŸ™‚

We have not. We actually don’t really do covers in this band. I’ve been known to play a few when I perform solo gigs, but I usually only cover songs written by friends. I suppose if I ever meet the guys in Vampire Weekend and become friends with them, their music would be fair game.

On what projects are you working currently?

We’ve got a bunch of new songs that we’re in the process of figuring out how to record/release. We were in the studio about a few weeks back tracking some of them, and we’ll probably be back soon to continue. We’ll make an announcement when we have plans to release something,

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Do it because you love it. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed. Also, don’t expect anyone else to help you. You’ve got to be prepared and willing to do everything on your own.

-Sem

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