Vanity Made a Genius Record by Simply Being Themselves
“This is all our favorite parts about rock 'n' roll. Hopefully. Or some of them at least.”
I met Evan Radigan just before noon on a Sunday at a bar called Soccer Tavern.
Radigan was sitting at the center of the bar with a pint of Guinness in front of him. He swapped stories and rounds with a handful of other patrons, all of whom were about twice his age. He intermittently paused to scream at the Manchester City Football Club whenever they missed a shot on goal. Two men sat at a lone table in the back, scribbling notes and reading up on which horses to bet on. The bartender refilled empty glasses without being asked to.
Radigan has chosen this Irish pub — conspicuously located on a block filled with Chinese shops and restaurants in the heart of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, an hour-long commute by public transit from his home in Greenpoint — as the official clubhouse for his band Vanity. Sometimes, the 29-year-old bandleader with a California haircut — who grew up in the suburbs of Boston, and on that day was wearing a white Grateful Dead T-shirt and blue jeans — walks eight miles home from the bar.
Vanity were meeting at Soccer Tavern to give the bar a framed copy of their new LP, Don’t Be Shy (available for an affordable name-your-own-price); its cover photo was taken outside. As Radigan and I drank beer and chatted while we waited for the rest of his band to arrive, I knew it was going to be a challenge to really understand Vanity.
They have made a record that defied everyone’s expectations, even stronger and more dynamic than their amazing debut LP Vain in Life (both records are on Katorga Works). Don’t Be Shy feels like an evolved version of the band. While their previous output was a crossover between aggressive rock 'n’ roll and Oi!, I would almost classify this record as post-Oi! The Templars and 4Skins influences are still discernible, and it's obvious to anyone paying any attention that this band came up in the DIY punk scene. But in the raw emotion on display here, a human experience can be understood, more and more with each listen (good luck not playing this record on repeat). There are ups and downs. There is pure vulnerability in Radigan’s voice, and beauty as he strains. There is casual hatred, there is hope, and there is an attitude at once proud and flippant.
This record is the New York Dolls (what true New York punk band doing a rock 'n’ roll thing isn’t?); it is the Rolling Stones (but not over the top); it is acoustic Sonic Youth; it is Modest Mouse if that band had skipped the cheesy effects and put their melodies and songwriting at the forefront; it is Jerry Garcia and John Lennon. It is glam, folk and rock 'n’ roll.
But it is also a brutal condemnation of the cornier aspects of the current punk scene. It is a fuck you to everyone who doesn’t get it. It is a call to be yourself, to enjoy what you enjoy, to do you. It is an eye roll at anyone who doesn’t understand what punk is in the first place. And I believe, both lyrically and musically, that it is a potential spark for its audience to expand their tastes and explore their personal horizons. And to, at the very least, actually embrace whatever dogma they swear by, but do it with freedom from the fear of not being accepted.
This record sounds like getting older, and all of the anxiety and reflection that comes with that.
The rest of Vanity’s newest lineup trickled into the bar over the next couple of hours. They had all been either playing or attending a punk show in North Brooklyn the night before, (they currently play in bands like JJ Doll, Pox and NYC Headhunters), and subsequently partying until the early hours of the morning.
Vanity have seen several lineup changes, and originally started as a recording project of Radigan and Colman Durkee (Durkee, who has since left the band, co-wrote the new LP, but did not play on it). Live guitarist Mike Gorup (Warthog, Ajax) was not present for the interview. Neither was Emil Bognar-Nasdor (Dawn of Humans, L.O.T.I.O.N., Flared Nostril), who recorded the record and played bass on some of the tracks.
We kept drinking, and started to talk.
What's the significance of this bar?
Evan Radigan (vocals, guitar): It's the best bar in New York. I don't know how else to phrase it. There's not a hell of a lot of places like this left. There's not a hell of a lot of places like this in general. We're in Chinatown, but this is ostensibly an Irish bar. Mixed denizens can gather. It's like Cheers, but with half Chinese and half shitty old Irish guys. It's insane. But very welcoming.
Why is Colman not on this record?
Ben Trogdon (drums): We wrote this record together with Colman, but he has other things that he wants to do. Right before we recorded the record, he decided not to play on the recording. I was sad because I love Colman and I love hanging out with him.
Radigan: He just didn’t want to do it anymore. We’re still on great terms. He wrote a lot of the stuff; he’s just not feeling doing the band anymore.
Has anything changed in the band dynamic with him leaving?
Brian Crozier (guitar): In some ways, I feel more responsibility and pressure even though it’s a low-threshold band. Colman was the first person to reach out to me to play guitar in Vanity, so when he quit, I felt the need to replicate what he did on the album and the single ["Yer Fucking Boring"] out of respect for him. Recording Don’t Be Shy, I wanted to do it justice for him as much as it is for me and my friends and having fun being in this band.
What was the recording process like?
Trogdon: It was awesome. I was nervous, but it was fun. It was in Fort Greene; we didn’t rehearse that much.
Radigan: It wasn't terribly well-rehearsed. My buddy Emil recorded it, Brian and I played two guitars, Ben on drums. We did all the basic tracks in one day. It was different than what Colman and I did the last time around. That was just the two of us, not being able to rehearse, playing like assholes and not really knowing how to do anything.
Trogdon: We were in our buddy’s apartment, in the basement of his mom’s house. It was really chill, really fun. Emil was so supportive and nice, he was a big fan of all the songs. There's a lot of love.
Crozier: There were only three of the five members present. We played guitar live and overdubbed solos. I felt very challenged playing slide guitar and glockenspiel with different tunings, open tunings. The glock is the real shit. If you don't have a glock on your record, you're a loser. It was three people making five people’s noise.
Trogdon: I've honestly never been so nervous about playing music in my life. Other times that I'm in punk bands, we practice a lot before we play. Vanity is like, we're loose, we're hanging out, that's the vibe for the record. Just being dorks together.
Radigan: That's the thing that I really like about the record listening back to it: There's shitloads of flubs and we all hear it. There might be certain things that maybe we just hear, but there are definitely things that any person would hear. But we were just drinking beers, recording. It was a lot of first takes.
What was it recorded on?
Sara Abruña (guitar): On an 8-track.
Radigan: It was on an 8-track tape machine, I think only seven of the tracks actually worked.
I read that you guys wanted to do weirder stuff than Oi! on this record. Can you elaborate on that?
Radigan: I haven’t been listening to Oi! for a little bit. Not for any reason, particularly. That’s just how music goes sometimes. I feel Oi! functions best as a traditional sort of thing, as a very straightforward, basic, idiotic sound. That’s the beauty of it. The last time around, Colman and I were screwing with that a little bit, but I didn’t like the results very much. I think it’s best to leave Oi! to people who are going to do it in a very traditional manner. I was chafing at the restraints of it. We did it, and for better or worse, it was what it was. We wanted to move in a sort of wacky rock 'n' roll direction anyways.
Where are you guys at now? Musically, how would you describe what this record is?
Abruna: I guess I’m more removed from it. I joined the band two weeks before they recorded. I was learning all the songs while they were recording. I’ve listened to the record a ton of times at this point. I'm trying to think of a reference point, but it's hard for me, and it doesn't really work that way for me in terms of listening to music, I just sort of enjoy it for what it is. I feel like it’s really melodic and interesting, as opposed to previous stuff. It's kind of glammy. We all love the Rolling Stones, and there’s a tiny nod to that. I think the Oasis references are a little bit off; I don’t really see that. I think people just know that some of the band members really love Oasis. It’s easy to pin that on it, but I think it’s kind of it’s own thing.
Trogdon: I think all of us are insane music lovers, but also just love rock 'n' roll. This is all our favorite parts about rock 'n' roll. Hopefully. Or some of them at least.
Radigan: Genres are like a pigeonhole. The older I get, the more stuff I listen to in this wacky internet age, the more it goes along, the more pointless genres become. You can try to throw in Skrewdriver for the last thing or Oasis for this one. It’s kind of pretentious to say, but I think it's a bit more ambiguous than that.
Trogdon: I just want to be very clear: Skrewdriver is not cool and I don’t want anyone to get into them. I would hate for some 14-year-old to think they should check them out because of us.
Can you tell me about the title of the record, Don’t Be Shy?
Radigan: With our generation, there’s no fine line — be it on the internet or in person — with someone being too upfront about how you feel, who you are and wearing shit on your sleeve. And then people being too withdrawn, being shy, and being kind of smug or superior by not being so forthcoming with your feelings. It’s just asking for people to act like normal fucking human beings. If you feel something, be upfront about it, but sometimes people are too upfront about shit. It’s difficult to articulate, but I think it’s something we’re struggling with as a generation.
Trogdon: I remember when you first said it, I thought it was negative, like, I think it’s okay to be shy. Then I thought about it more, and I was like, hell yeah, don't be shy. Now I think it just means to be you. I stand behind it for sure. And also more than being shy, being macho.
Radigan: Machismo and posturing, and whatever — fuck them.
Abruna: It’s fitting for the record itself, too, because you’re doing what you feel like doing. You didn’t think, "What does this sound like? Who can relate to this?" You’re just doing it because it feels right. That’s who you are, essentially. I totally back that in every sort of aspect of who you try to be in life. It's very spot-on.
On the last record, you talked about not facing a lot of things in your life directly. You said if you were to do that, you would “crumple as a human being.” Is that something that has changed on this new record?
Radigan: Maybe a little bit. I’m a bit more comfortable. So much of my life is procrastinating major things, day-to-day things, and being a functioning adult or human being. I put things off and don’t look too far into the future. I think a lot of people our age, especially living in the city, might be doing the same thing. I think I have more comfort with it or find the humor in it now. I don’t think any situation in my life has changed in two years, but I’m not viewing it in such a dramatic way. The song, “Yeah, Sure. Why Not” is an example of how I look at everything in my life, every situation I have to face, everything that's going on in the world no matter how stupid this world gets. I just greet it, yeah, sure, why not, because why wouldn’t that be the case, why wouldn't that happen, and what the fuck am I going to do about it? I'm still a bit unhappy with myself and how I face things in my life, and maybe that comes through.
How do the rest you guys interpret the lyrics on this record?
Trogdon: I got the record, brought it home and read the lyrics. I think it’s very positive. It made me feel good. I feel like the world can be a heavy place, and I’m happy to be a part of this. It seems like a good message: Just be yourself as hard as you can — without hurting other people, obviously. That's sick as hell. Don’t be shy.
Abruna: I haven’t sat down and read all the lyrics yet, but I think I take away some of that. I also think it’s Evan’s musings on his general existence in a very direct way. It's definitely biting.
Trogdon: It’s also like a fuck off to squares. Fuck them. People who want to put you in a box.
Abruna: The first song is “You’ll Never Matter Much To Them” — that doesn't scream "positive" to me. It’s also thinking about who you are in this world and kind of wondering what we are doing.
Radigan: It’s a song I viewed as positive. It’s a fuck off song, but it’s also saying don’t worry about it.
What do you guys think about the voice or the vocals? Was there something specific you were going for, Evan?
Radigan: Yeah, I hate them. I can talk you through my vocal process because it's very intelligent. Whenever I write or someone else is writing stuff, I’ll come up with a vocal harmony or melody or whatever in my head and then do absolutely fucking nothing to actualize it in reality, not even sing along with it in the shower or hum it. I’ll just say, "Yup, that’s the way it’s going to be, and it sounds this way in my head, and that's how it will work." And I will sit on that until it’s time to record. And I'm sweating, and I'm holding up lyrics or some shit on a crumpled paper, and then the pressure is on. Whatever I do, obviously, does not sound like whatever the fuck it was in my head, and I get extremely negative. I’m like a pouty child. I get angry and despondent because it doesn’t sound like the stupid fucking thing in my head, which I have no vocal range for, or any sort of vocal prowess in general. And I get angry and am like, "I guess that works." I think I sound like a drunken 12-year-old whose balls are in a vice grip. I think only a sociopath would like listening to themselves.
Abruna: Yeah, I think it’s pretty standard that you would cringe listening to yourself.
Radigan: My favorite vocalist of all time is John Lennon, and I can never touch that. If I did, it would just be a boring retread of John Lennon. So, me doing a shitty version of trying to sound John Lennon — which, funnily enough, a lot of people say sounds like Liam Gallagher [of Oasis], who is one of the most famous shittiest John Lennon impersonators — it takes on it's own life. That's how these things happen.
Can you tell me about the function of the acoustic songs on this record?
Radigan: A lot of my favorite rock 'n’ roll records, like glory days solo Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story or Never a Dull Moment, used a lot of little acoustic transitions from one track to another. I really liked how he did that, and it fit the vibe of the record. I wanted that moment to breathe here and there. Initially, right after Colman and I did that last record, we talked about how we wanted to turn it into a wacky folk duo thing. We were listening to a lot of the Proclaimers at the time. We were going to try to do a poppy folk record just to fuck with people, so some of that came through. We would meet up and play songs acoustically. I’ve always liked how certain electric songs, when they're demoed by certain bands, when you hear an acoustic version of it, when someone lets it slip or whatever as a B-side ... it provides contrast.
Is Don’t Be Shy a punk record?
Crozier: The spirit is always present, and it doesn't go away, if you're a real one. This is a rock 'n’ roll record, and it's for people who enjoy music, and who can move beyond boundaries, restraints and limitations. And for people to be free, have fun and enjoy at their leisure. The current state of punk is alive and well — it will never die. Hardcore spirit remains. Fuck out of here.