I have nothing against punk, it’s just not generally the music I choose to listen to. But despite the label being levied on the ensemble pretty frequently, XBXRX’s music is a lot more interesting than what I would usually think of as punk. Not that that term is well-defined in the first place, seeing as it can encompass such a wide variety of bands, and the ones most largely associated with the genre generally write faster bar chord rock.
XBXRX’s music is better outlined by extremely short bursts of blistering noise rock with electronic textures and vocals alternating between unintelligible screeching and more understandable howling. When I first saw the band perform, they were dressed in (if I remember correctly) sailor costumes and their performance was ridiculously energetic. They immediately became my favorite band playing that night.
Although they recently haven’t been performing much, the band released O, a 10-song 7″ on Polyvinyl in September 2010. It was the follow-up their last full-length, the self-released Un Usper (2009). The following interview represents a blend of email responses and in-person conversations with Vice Cooler and Steve Touchstone, the bands singer and guitarist, respectively.
Skyscraper: In the available bios, it’s stated that you formed after being inspired by a Deerhoof concert in the late 1990s and that you were also influenced by This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. What other influences have gone into your music aside from those bands?
Vice Cooler: It is important when people wonder about a band’s influence to look beyond what the band in question has heard. The context of XBXRX’s birth is funny because we started off as three kids growing up in a small Alabama town. We were bored and isolated and in search of an escape. As a teen, I only saw two options for someone like me: get into music or get into speed. I saw kids getting fucked up and it was really unappealing. Through art I could see that necessary escape.
The month before XBXRX started, Steve and I saw This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb and Deerhoof play. Both were at different shows. Prior to this we had never experienced the DIY thing. The impact of seeing so many good bands in these self-promoted halls blew our minds. Deerhoof, who at the time were a noise band, came out, raged, and didn’t give a fuck. Satomi had this bunny suit and an alligator claw she was hitting people in the head with it. Rob Fisk had one of the loudest, sharpest guitar tones I had ever heard. The punch line was Greg Saunier doubling their merchandise crate as a drum stool. They roared through really loose interpretations of songs from The Man, The King, The Girl (Kill Rock Stars, 1997). At this time the root of XBXRX (myself, Steve, and Alicia) had been working on songs with loose structures as well, pretty unaware of what we were doing. Emotions were our guide, even though most people made fun of it. Keep in mind this was the pre-Internet 90’s in Alabama, where every kid was mimicking Tool or Smashing Pumpkins. While that was fine, we were more interested in concepts and feeling rather than playing real notes. So seeing a band push these same ideas into a really developed direction blew my mind. It was the first time I related to art that was being performed in front of me. To be honest I didn’t even know that feeling was possible.
Afterward, I bought their vinyl and started up a conversation with Greg and Rob. We talked about how I had just bought a guitar to start a band. Greg was really excited and gave me his phone number. He offered to set up a west coast tour for us and Deerhoof if we ended up making it that far. Until that point in my life an adult had never encouraged me, or my friends, to do anything. In hindsight I can’t even emphasize how vital this interaction was. So, to answer your question, I would have to say, our environment, upbringing, and interactions with these people were some of our biggest influences.
Steve Touchstone: This Bike is a Pipe Bomb helped run a club in Pensacola, an hour east of Mobile, called Sluggo’s. They booked us a show and one or two people came to it. Most clubs wouldn’t book a band again after that. But they basically said, “Great show! Let’s book another date!” One of them passed on our first CDR to a zine called The Smell of Dead Fish. That may have been the first review we ever got and it was a positive one to boot. It meant a lot to us.
VC: It’s also important to note how much Quintron and Miss Pussycat helped shape the band. They were so supportive in our early years and we ended up collaborating with them on so much stuff. They also helped us with our first New Orleans shows and were our links to people like Bobby Conn.
ST: As far as influences go, it is my belief that every musical reaction is a result of total accumulated experience. This also can apply to where you live.
Skyscraper: You’ve moved around a lot since the band’s inception and toured extensively. What are some aspects of the various cities you’ve lived in that you enjoyed and things you disliked, leading to you finding other cities?
VC: I love the Bay Area, but once I stay somewhere for too long, it can become a sterile environment. Most of my friends and band mates leaving town (Weasel Walter, Steve, Matmos, Deerhoof, Xiu Xiu, Erase Errata, etc) made me to leave as well. I no longer felt the creative push necessary for me to remain comfortable. Moving to Los Angeles made sense, because it was the city with the highest concentration of close friends. When I travel, I tend to be interested in the people who live there more than the town itself. So, the choice could have put me anywhere. We love to travel. When you see more than your hometown, your viewpoint of the world expands. Once your mind’s forced to constantly be on its toes, you become open to more ideas. It fuels creativity.
As a child, I would never have thought we would start this band, travel the world, and be exposed to so many ideas. As a band we have been blessed with this being a part of our lives. Meeting people through touring pushed us all into new, exciting directions – for example, Deerhoof and Erase Errata paving our way out of Alabama into California. While I realize most of what I am saying is obvious, I hope the next kid will read this and feel some hope to get out of their small town and experience the world.
ST: The Bay Area had a huge support system of like-minded friends when we moved there. I had only planned to spend the summer of 2002 there, but ended up staying for six years. I eventually needed greater musical challenges and further musical expansion so, I moved to Los Angeles to finish up my degree in music composition. It took some time to adjust, but the past several years have given me a lot. One major difference between the Los Angeles and San Francisco scene is the fact that, in LA I can go to three really good shows on a Monday night that are all being held at relatively long-running DIY all-ages spaces. I hardly ever go to a show here where the main reason it’s happening is alcohol sales.
Skyscraper: When you’re writing songs, do you generally work things out in the recording process? Or do you figure them out as a live band first and then try to replicate it on record? Or does it vary from album to album?
ST: Our songwriting and recording process varies from album to album. For the first half of the band’s existence, we made an effort to record each record in a different studio, with different people. One reason for that was a lack of studios friendly to what we were doing in Mobile. So, we’d just record somewhere else while on tour. Another reason is, we wanted each record to have its own sound. We’ve always made it a point not to repeat ourselves. This resulted in a constant change of stage uniforms, instrumentation, songwriting processes, and recording environments.
Gop Ist Minee (5RC, 2001) was recorded in one day thanks to having all the material ready to go prior to entering the studio. We could not afford more than two days of studio time. One day was needed for recording and the other for mixing. None of us had access to digital recording equipment of any sort when we recorded that in 2000. It had to be done at a recording studio unless we recorded to cassette 4-track. The processes for Sixth in Sixes (Polyvinyl, 2005) and Wars (Polyvinyl, 2007) were closer to Gop Ist Minee than Sounds (Important Records, 2007) . Sixth in Sixes was the first album allowing us a little extra time for mixing and minor overdubs. It is also the album that we rehearsed material five hours a day, five days a week, for several months. When we got to the studio, we recorded eighteen tracks in a few hours. Sounds was made entirely in the studio and over an extended period of time. It is the album where we really used the studio as an instrument, rather than simply as an archival tool.
Important Records asked us to do a non-traditional XBXRX album, so we decided to focus on the experimental, improvisational side of the band, which had been with us to varying degrees from the beginning. Though the majority of our recordings are us playing together live in the studio, they have never been an attempt at capturing a live show’s energy. It can also be said that live shows have never been an attempt at capturing the studio album tightness. We’ve always considered recordings and live shows to be two very separate things. The experience of listening to a recording is so radically different than the experience of seeing a band live. Trying to approach them in the same way compromises both.
Skyscraper: Do you get something different, psychologically, from performing live than you get from recording?
VC: There’s the obvious things like live performances making the music physical. The energy combined with visuals can’t be reproduce on a recording. You can’t capture a mosh pit or a stage dive or a dance. It’s impossible. I think with all of our bands, the record is a completely separate mindset from the live show just for these simple and obvious reasons. When you play live you don’t have to worry about hitting the right notes or the right chords because it’s immediately lost, whereas a record’s repeated over and over and over again. And so with a record, it is important to hit those notes whereas live it is secondary to the emotional aspect of being in a room with people.
ST: Yeah, I think a big difference psychologically with recording and live shows is, it is sort of this personal versus communal thing. When you’re making a record it is just us and we’re focusing on ourselves the entire time. What we want. In a live situation there’s an audience and it becomes more about everyone that’s in the room. I think that is a big difference emotionally or psychologically between the two processes of presenting music or using it for something else.
VC: Live, we care about the music, but we don’t think about it or analyze it. I mean, we analyze it after, but usually when it is analyzed it’s more about the momentum of it or something like, “Oh well, this thing was a bad opener.” You know, it’s focused on how the music is a tool to flow the energy of the room, whereas a record you’re just thinking about, “Does it flow with you sitting or being in a car?” It is a more sterile setting, usually, for that. Energy is applied to both of them, but definitely the focus is keeping the room worked up whereas you don’t think about a mosh pit when you’re recording an album. You don’t have thoughts like, “This will make them go wild when this song comes in!” You just think like, “Oh well, this ending sounds like the beginning of this song,” you know?
ST: Yeah, there’s also the unpredictability factor. When we finish a record or we turn it into the label, we know exactly what is going to be presented to people. When we go and step onto a stage, it’s very unpredictable and we have no idea what a fans’ experience is going to be or what our own experience is going to be. I mean, we can guess, but it is a lot less predictable.
VC: And it changes night to night, because when you make a record, you can generalize it a bit more. You know from past records you’ve made, what will work and what won’t work. So, you learn from those mistakes and you can really generalize it into a broad thing, but then when you play live, each night the crowd changes. You could be in a room and be watching the opening bands and things will become obvious. You’ll know, “This song won’t work tonight.” Or perhaps, “This other band did this and it totally flopped.” And so it keeps you on your toes in regarding everybody that’s there and trying to guess where they’re at, whereas with records and recordings you don’t look at it that way.
Skyscraper: Do you guys have a grab bag of songs allowing you to rearrange your set on the spot for a specific audience?
ST: Sometimes. Not as much anymore. We used to do the sets totally on the fly and people could call out whatever they wanted to or just say, “Okay we’re cutting the next one and we’re adding this one instead.” But I think these days, it’s more set. Most of the time we’ll have the order of the set memorized, we’ll rehearse the set exactly as it’s going to be leading up to the show and it’s just like, we don’t even really think about it. We just go up there and do it and it happens.
VC: We haven’t played that many shows in the past three years, either. So, I’m pretty sure when we do a tour tour, it’s going to change. We’ve pretty much only played LA over the past three years, and a few other shows in California. When we play the Smell we know who’s going to be there. We have an idea. But if we were playing Cleveland, we wouldn’t. And so we’ve had a general set list lately and we only have 12 or 15 live songs at the moment. So, we’re limited with what we can do. But we’ve done all kinds of things. On our first European tour, we had hand signals for songs (see photo above). Anybody in the band had the freedom, while we played, to throw up [a hand signal] and everybody would just go into the next song. The easiest way we could keep the set going, to maintain a really strong flow, was at the end of the song, one person would get everyone’s attention and throw up the song’s hand signal. That way everybody would know what was next. This would also avoid the really obnoxious band thing where someone in the band grabs the mic and says, “We’re playing ‘buh-buh.” We wanted it to look rehearsed even though it wasn’t. We started hand signals on that tour. The tours after that, once Weasel was in the band, had a lot of shows when we would just completely gut half the set. There were some shows when we’d have an eight or ten song set list and we would only play five. We’d be playing and someone in the band would just be looking at the crowd and realize that the next three songs are not going to fly and they would kill the momentum. That’s the fun part about playing live is that it keeps you thinking on the fly, which applies to everything creatively. It keeps you sharp.
ST: One thing I’ve noticed with our past few shows is that it’s not necessarily which songs we’re playing, but how we transition from song to song becoming a really important part of the set’s overall contour. Basically, there’re three choices: are we going to go directly into the next song, are we going to have a break between the songs, or are we going to just improvise between the two songs? That really affects energy and crowd response a lot. And sometimes it’s like, “Okay, we need to just keep this going full force,” and we just go directly into the next song. Other times, someone in the band needs a break or maybe it seems like the audience wants to have the experience of cheering or something like that. So, how you transition between songs is really important for us and that’s something that we’ll change a lot just depending how we’re feeling and what the audience response seems to be.
Skyscraper: I saw you guys in 2005 or 2006 at the Polyvinyl showcase at CMJ. I’ve also seen Weasel Walter’s Quartet while I living at Danger Danger. So, obviously those two shows are the exact opposite – the industry showcase and the underground house show. Which do you prefer and do you feel the need to mix it up? Do you still play house shows?
VC: Yeah, we just played a house on Saturday. I like every aspect of playing live. I don’t like playing outside unless it’s a big production, like an open air thing where there’s like a massive PA. But I don’t like DIY outdoor shows that much. Everything else I’m down with. I used to not be into stages at all. I thought they were really stupid. It was this thought of, “Oh it’s making the performer on a higher level than the crowd.” Then, the more shows I’ve seen as an audience member where bands are on floors, I really don’t like it at all. I go to experience the show and if I feel excluded from seeing the show, then I feel I’d be better off at home. Like Lightning Bolt, I’m not saying they’re stupid, because I love their band. But their shows are so big now that unless you’re one of the first twenty people surrounding them, you don’t see anything. I heard they just started playing on stages, which I think is awesome, and will make their shows a lot more enjoyable. Being able to see Brian Chippendale (drummer/vocalist) wail is such a huge part of their live experience. The first shows I saw them play 12 or maybe 20 people were there. It was amazing, because you could see it and participate, but when you can’t visually see a band anymore a lot gets lost.
The shows a band plays on the floor can sometimes make it less intimate, if that makes sense. I’m talking about the shows that are only good for those people fighting to keep their place in the front. I don’t want to get hurt, so I’m never in the front if people are going crazy. I want to see it. So some shows where we’ve ended up on the floor I’m not into it. I know I would be one of those people in the back, feeling unmoved by how unintimate it became by being on the floor. It’s funny to think about, because that’s the opposite of what its supposed to be. Something like CMJ, I’m into being on a stage so people can fully experience it and see it. It’s good to see all four people on a stage going for it and that way everybody in the room can have a chance to be a part of it. But then there is the show we played at the other night at that house. There weren’t that many people, so playing on a floor made sense.
ST: Well there’s no choice. There was no stage to play on. For me, I’m mostly on the same page with him. I think it’s nice on tour when there’s a wide variety of performance environments to play in instead of just doing the same thing every night. It’s more of a challenge too, adjusting to different situations. The only thing I don’t like is outdoor, during the day performances. They just never seem to work for us. That’s the only thing I would feel a little uncomfortable with, but everything else is great. It just all serves its own purpose.
Skyscraper: Moving on to writing, like journalism or creative writing. Steve, do you do any writing?
ST: No, not really. I mean I get in on song titles, give my input on that. But that’s why I do music, because I can’t express the most important things through text. I just do music.
VC: Yeah, it’s hard.
Skyscraper: How about you Vice? I know you’ve done at least some writing. What do get out of it?
VC: Probably, what I’ve written for publications started with people approaching me about subjects they knew I was familiar with. They know I might be friends with this person or I really understand this person’s history or have a better insight than most people. For example like i-D, the Ooga Booga article they specifically approached me to do. They had read a lot of articles about Ooga Booga and knew a lot of the writers didn’t understand it. They thought I would understand it’s history and where its owner [Wendy Yao] was coming from. But any time I’m approached about writing about anything, it’s a bit frightening. You know people are going to read it and take it as complete fact. People and articles might even reference it later, and historically it becomes a document.
I’m always worried about misrepresenting something and not covering all the bases. I thought about stuff like, “I’ve been into everything that Wendy has done for the past fifteen years, but the way I understand it, am I going to be able to translate that?” When you’re writing, you might reference something you know, but maybe it’s not in the reader’s common knowledge. You don’t even think about it, because you’re inside your own head. That is really scary.
But I can only write whenever I have time to do it. I haven’t had much time in the past few years. I’m not a writer, I got a D+ in English in school. When I write an article, I have to re-edit it 50 times before I turn it in. I’m not good at writing. But my strength is I agree to something because I understand it or at least think that I do. So, maybe that strength would be more important than my grammar and technique. That applies all around the board. If you have ideas for anything creatively, that will be more important than any technical aspect. The editor can make it technical, you know? Which is usually what happens, I just turn in a mess and the editor makes it coherent.
A funny thing is that a lot of the main editors of magazines started off in the zine world. Zines were cool because they fueled the 90’s with information. And just as time has put those people who were once stapling zines into the editing chairs of Vice and i-D, the zine itself has evolved into a blog. I don’t have a solid opinion on print media, or the transformation thereof, as the fact that something is being written at all matters more than the medium it exists in.
Skyscraper: How do you balance your financial income with your creative output? Do you guys have other jobs or is it just music?
ST: It varies depending on the month.
VC: Well, writing was one thing for a while. I was writing or doing photography. I was touring. Touring was a main income for me for years, but I haven’t been touring much this year. I try to work and not think about money too much. When I’m not as worried about it, it always goes back to zero. At the end of almost every month I’m panicking, thinking, “Fuck, I gotta pay this bill, I don’t have the money.” And then a check comes in from somewhere, or I get asked to deejay something. I’m always getting money to be put back at zero from some source. I’m always at zero, I’m never above it or below it. When I need two hundred dollars and I don’t have it, something comes up or I can sell something or whatever. Maybe even a show comes up that pays OK. I’m fortunate I started doing a lot of this stuff before Internet era. I have this history people are aware of to some extent, like enough where I can get work. I wouldn’t want to be a band coming up now. I feel like now is a hard time to get noticed at all, for anything, even though there are things that are instantly accessible. Because of things being instantly accessible, everything’s over flooded. There’s more competition.
Skyscraper: Your last album was released digitally on a donation basis and your new release is a 7” physical. What are your thoughts about the different methods of distribution? How have the current trends towards digital distribution affected you specifically, if at all?
VC: Different formats are suited for different listeners. We like the idea of people deciding what something is worth, but on the flip-side realize we can’t apply the same idea when pressing and shipping of a piece of vinyl. I think it’s important to note we’ve never felt threatened or enhanced by digital distribution. The decision to make Un Usper a digital-only release without a set price was determined, because we weren’t going to tour for it and didn’t want someone like Polyvinyl dumping money into a record we couldn’t promote. I personally love vinyl, but that doesn’t really matter either. We, as a band, just want people to hear the music we make. How they obtain it’s their decision.
Skyscraper: You’ve been on several different labels throughout your career so far. How would you describe your situation with the business side of music?
VC: Due to us being so aware of how ugly the business side of music can get, we have always put a lot of consideration into who we choose to work with. This has resulted in us working with a lot of really sweet people, avoiding most of the typical band burnout stories. In our earlier stages we jumped from label to label, not because we had bad relationships with them, but because our recorded output was higher than what people could afford to release. At the time labels had more money – this wasn’t that long ago. I guess in perspective, the Internet really has changed everything. The idea of us uploading a zip file for a record’s official release would have never happened earlier. I suppose, we lucked out and caught the end of an era, while also having a considerable amount of people interested in releasing our music.
Skyscraper: I’m kind of in the same age bracket. I think I’m a little bit older than you, I’m twenty-nine.
ST: Yeah, just a little bit.
Skyscraper: And so I mostly grew up with CDs, magazines, and all that stuff. Now everything’s switching to Internet, but I’ve seen that transition and I’ve been through it. So, how do you feel about the immediacy of it?
VC: I mean, I feel like with music and print, or most creative things, what’s important is that it’s being created at all. And I don’t have a preference of digital versus vinyl versus CD. I don’t listen to CDs much anymore, but I listen to vinyl, cassettes, MP3s, and I download stuff illegally. But I also perform a lot. So, to me people downloading MP3s means people are going to come to the show, or that’s the hope at least. I think even arguing or debating about it’s useless because it exists. It’s here and that’s the way it is.
ST: I was on the cusp of experiencing the sort of transition that happened with the physical versus digital thing and I think there’s a sort of loss of intimacy. With magazines or physical records, you really got to know every nook and cranny of what it was. And with the Internet, it seems like because of the quantity of things that are coming at you all the time, and the ease with which you can transition between things, you get to know more things, but not as well. There’s a certain nostalgia about ordering a record you’d only heard about, but never actually heard. You know you wait two weeks for it to arrive in the mail and then when it arrives, if you don’t like it at first, you sort of get to know it so well you learn to love it in a way. But now it’s just like I’ll listen to something for five seconds and then just stop playing it and never listen to it again. It’s really bizarre.
VC: One really interesting thing I’ve noticed about the Internet changing things with music is that it’s made the physical creation of music an art piece through sites like eBay. With Wolf Eyes stuff, and other handmade things, it becomes removed from the music when a kid spends $300 during a cassette bidding war. We were touring with Wolf Eyes, around the time they were starting to blow up, people would buy everything at the table. Some of the stuff was limited to twenty copies and one kid would buy up five of the copies for ten dollars a cassette! Its completely ridiculous. We got off tour and all those copies would then be up on eBay. I started to wonder, “Do these people even listen to it?” And I don’t think most people do. These kids don’t want to scrape it up or get fingerprints on it by listening to it – like a painting it is an investment. And so, again I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, but the Internet, or eBay in particular, or places that existed like Viva la Vinyl, have made records no longer a musical product, but a physical art object, an investment. It’s funny to think about tapes getting auctioned off for $300 while the guys in Wolf Eyes split that initial ten dollars three ways.
It’s interesting, because that didn’t exist until recently. Even five years ago you’d go into a record store and a Raincoats record would be priced at twenty-five dollars. You would buy the record and listen to it, but now people are just thinking, “Oh a Vivian Girls seven inch, there’re only fifty copies. I’m gonna buy five of those and put them up on eBay over six months, never listen to them.” Or like, “Wolf Eyes, this is hand-painted.” It has also transformed the way the musician, and the label thinks about the product. Now, in order to even sell the record, everyone has their first fifty copies on colored vinyl or their first hundred copies silk-screened. They’re not making those because they think that looks cool. They’re doing those as a mini-marketing ploy, which is interesting. I don’t think it’s good or bad, it’s just funny.
Skyscraper: I keep wondering if the same sort of trend will happen with the print industry. Will people start hand-making magazines again and distributing more artistic-style magazines, in addition to having it available on the Web but also presenting a physical copy?
VC: It’s the same thing, like, “What’s important, its format or getting written?” The upside to something being printed is the writing going through an editor and being fact checked. There’s a bit more pressure for it to be accurate and well-written, you know easier to digest. Whereas a lot of blogs, they’re kind of hard to read sometimes, because the kid doesn’t know how to write, or the facts are hearsay, but they’re being stated as fact. I don’t know, it’s just kind of funny. Everything’s just really goofy right now. It might get goofier, I don’t know. I think the focus should be someone putting forth the effort to write about anything at all.
Skyscraper: I know you have a few side projects, but do you do solo stuff?
VC: Yeah, but I don’t think any of us look at them as side projects. I look at all the stuff as a tree and there’re roots in XBXRX, because it was our first band to tour and put out records. It’s branched out a lot, especially over time with all the members. I don’t even like when people put “Members of…” by anything. People, business-wise, have argued that XBXRX isn’t the priority, that other things are. So, in a way that would make XBXRX a side project, technically. Everyone who’s been in the band has ideas. Some of them will work for the band and some will not. It’s about filtering. The reason there’re so many bands we work on is, because we have a good enough filter to say, “That would be dumb to do that in this band. It just wouldn’t work. It’s not consistent with the history of the band or what’s currently the main creative output of the band.” Some bands don’t have that and I feel like the band creatively suffers because it’s just too inconsistent.
It’s like writing a book and you have a Harry Potter chapter and then the next chapter is some philosophy and then the next chapter is Sesame Street and the next chapter’s all haikus. You just wouldn’t be able to read it. An author would be able to separate all those ideas. That’s what a good filter does. With side projects we’re all writing different books and working on these ideas, expanding them. That’s the way to let those seeds grow properly. You let that tree grow over there. It doesn’t need to grow over here with the apple trees. It gives creativity a healthy space to grow into something else, or to just die. We have a lot of things we’ve done where it’s one show or one 7″ or one tour and then it just lays to rest. That’s fine. We’re just feeling everything out.
ST: Neither of us has ever directly mentioned any of our other musical projects during an XBXRX interview. So, please forgive us for not divulging details on the matter. We’ve always had this idea that XBXRX should stand on its own. It doesn’t need to be judged based on any other projects of ours and it also shouldn’t be used as a stepping stone or promotional tool for other projects. Sometimes, we take this philosophy more seriously than at others. We’re not asking anyone to ignore what they know. We want XBXRX to be about XBXRX. Plus, so many people have been in the band at this point, it’s hard to figure out what “members of XBXRX” even means. Most bands with “members of XBXRX” probably don’t contain the band’s co-founders who’ve been the constant presence since 1998.
As far as doing multiple projects and solo things, I think it just comes to, if you want to be a musician and you want to keep your head above water and not drown. It seems to me, unless you’re lucky or an exception, there’re two ways to do it, and one is to get a job with a good salary and have that be what you spend most of your time doing, then have your music be sort of a vanity project funded by this outside thing. That’s one way to do it. But then the other one is you just gotta have lots of small streams of things that sort of add up to enough to get by, because it’s just a logistical thing. A solo project has obvious advantages and disadvantages, as far as being able to go on tour and things like that, compared to being in a band and juggling multiple schedules and that type of thing. I think it’s just a practical thing for us, because at least right now, none of us have proper jobs that can fund our music. We just gotta try to survive and find as many ways to be creative.
Skyscraper: And how about psychologically? It’s always healthy to have multiple things to work on. I know, some projects I work on, I’ll get sick of it at a point. I’ll know I want to pursue it, but I’ve gotten so far into it I’m just like, “I gotta put this down and work on some cathartic project for a little while.” Get it out of the way.
ST: I agree; I feel the same way where, if something comes to a standstill, it’s not an absolute standstill, because you can move on in some other direction. It’s healthy, I think.
VC: We’re all very aware artistically if we feel like nothing’s happening to just leave it. If there’re no more ideas, wait ‘til there are or just don’t do it. We’ve had bands where it gets to a point where we realize it’s done. And then there’ve been other bands we’re in where we’re like, “Okay, we just need a break.” XBXRX has gone through a lot of breaks just because we’ll focus on other stuff for a while and come back to it. We know it’s not done but it just needs a moment to breathe.
Skyscraper: With projects nobody’s interested in, do you feel a need to focus on at times, like when you have the time?
VC: Yeah, I do. I record stuff all the time that no one’s ever going to hear, no one will ever know it existed. But I feel like that’s why people work out. It’s the way people lift musical weights.
Skyscraper: To me it also resembles a visual artist sketchbook. Just sort of like practice.
ST: Yeah, I mean I’ve found a lot of the time that something will just be sitting in a notebook or on my hard drive for years, you know? I’ll just be cleaning things out and come across it and be like, “Oh that’s a great idea, I should use that.” And then three years after it was made, it’s finally being put to use in something presentable. I don’t really like throwing away any creative ideas, because a lot of the time they come back unexpectedly.
Skyscraper: Vice, I know you’ve done some video work as well. How would you describe your feeling during that process?
VC: It feels exactly the same as when I’m making a record because it’s permanent. I’m looking at all the blocks on the screen and the transitions of everything and thinking. It’s like improvising in a way because I’m constantly in focus. This applies to everything creatively. If you’re doing anything keeping you thinking like that, everything becomes a refined process and it’s good. The more stuff you do like that, the better.
I don’t have a trained background in video, I don’t know about any of the technical stuff . The guy I work with, Rich Dorato, knows how to help execute my ideas. I just come up with the direction. I’m fortunate to be working with him in that regard and I do end up doing a lot of the editing. We edit together, but he’s been really busy during the past few projects, so then I would just go to his house and do a lot of the editing by myself while he was at work.
I like anything that keeps you thinking; it’s good. I’ve been in bands long enough where I’ve done a lot of videos, because we couldn’t afford a director. I learn from past mistakes I’ve made, and those that have been made by other people. I try to pay attention to everything, because if you’re making something with somebody, even if you’ve never done it before, you’re going to probably do it again, so it’s good to take mental notes.
The video stuff started off when we were in Alabama. I made video collages so we had extra merchandise on tour. Eventually, a lot of people saw the videos and wanted us to play shows because of it. The videos were getting passed around, people were copying them, there’s like tenth generation…
Skyscraper: Like live videos?
VC: Yeah, just live collages. One of them is actually for rent at Lost Weekend in San Francisco. It was a way to document our performances. XBXRX, live, was moving forward at such a rapid rate. Every tour the outfits and live set were changing. Members were entering and exiting the band. The songs were changing. It was a way of documenting that time. We weren’t looking at it as anything artistic, just with the intent of, “Yeah, this’ll get people really excited. People who can’t see us can see it. They can get a summary of it.”
When bands I was in needed videos, but didn’t have the money, I just offered to do the work. We never had the money or funds to have other people do it. We had a lot of great offers over time, like Chuck Statler who did the Devo videos, wanting to work with us. We just don’t have the money. We didn’t want to be disrespectful like, “Yo, Chuck Statler, work for us for free.” I just started doing videos because no one else could do it. Other people eventually saw them and wanted me to work for them. I’ve never solicited myself to anyone. Everyone’s approached me and I like it that way. I don’t feel like applying pressure to people.
All photos: Jason MacDonald, except video still courtesy John Vogel