Don’t shelve The Vacant Lots in a vintage store. The New York two piece’s music might sound nostalgic, but their punk energy and musicianship is anything but stale. On their second LP Endless Night, the group channels the spirit of influences like Suicide (whose late frontman Alan Vega’s unmistakeable vocals feature on closing track, “Suicide Note”) while traveling into untapped sonic territory with custom effect pedals and distinct arrangements. Ahead of their improvisatory live show June 30 at Sunnyvale, Jared Artaud and Brian MacFadyen caught up with AdHoc to talk Alan Vega, sonic tradition, and staying punk in 2017.
AdHoc: You collaborated with Alan Vega of Suicide recently. How was it working with such an iconic musician?
JARED ARTAUD: There are few people you meet in this world that change your life forever. Alan was doubtlessly one of them for me. Here he was in his 70s working at his art every day. Writing, drawing, painting, singing, recording. He was an unstoppable force. It was infinitely inspiring working with him. No matter what medium he used, his filter and vision would shine through: for instance, you could see the force and violence and spontaneity in his drawings that reminded me of his singing and performance style. Just spending time together and talking about music and art will always be some of the most lasting and memorable experiences of my life. There was something egoless and selfless about Alan that I found refreshing. He remained true to his art until the very end.
I was actually one of the last people to see him before he died. I went over to his apartment in Manhattan to listen to Endless Night together since he was planning on writing lyrics and singing on “Suicide Note.” He wouldn’t talk about himself unless you asked him to. He would always ask you how you were feeling and would always ask you about your life. His support and mentorship really was powerful. Seeing Alan’s process firsthand and experiencing the way he executed his art really was something else. I got to work with him and co-produce his final album IT, and it’s an incredible record. However, it’s a shame that someone has to die before they get some of the kind of recognition they rightly deserve.
AdHoc: How has his work influenced yours, and where do you see The Vacant Lots fitting in with the tradition sparked by no wave and synthy bands like Suicide?
JARED: The fearlessness of Suicide should inspire everyone. Alan constantly and consistently pursued his art. He wasn’t after fame. He wasn’t after being a career musician. He was first and foremost an artist. And it was central in everything he did. That and his endless generosity are what inspired me the most about Alan Vega.
I feel like Suicide came from the tradition of rock & roll, and that is something we share too. The lineage of rock & roll is something I feel we are connected to, but we also want to do something different. That’s the primary focus. We want to create our own sound and vision. Brian and I have always tried to push our sound further. I think Suicide did the same thing with their music. They were the most punk band of their time and they even dipped into disco when everyone fucking hated disco—and then the Punks hated Suicide. No band has endured more shit than Suicide. With The Vacant Lots we are working within the limitations of what two people can do with sound. You can get a lot out of electronics and synths in a similar way you can with guitars. It just seemed to naturally evolve in this direction for us, whether it’s the beats or synthesizers that Brian builds to make sounds he hears in his head. There is a lot left to be done here.
AdHoc: In what ways does punk revivalism stake a claim politically, either in terms of upholding a status quo or bringing back something lost?
JARED: I think being an artist today is pretty fucking revolutionary. Maybe it has always been? But especially in this economic climate of the music industry and the political comedy. I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. I just observe what’s happening around me and draw from my own experiences, whether consciously or subconsciously. But, for example, what has happened in Paris and Manchester recently has deeply affected me. A lot of the writing I did for the new EP in Berlin [that we recorded with Anton Newcombe] came from those experiences. When you’re making music you’re drawing from everything you know and like, but also from the things that affect you the most. I think politics comes into play lyrically but more so in subtle or nuanced ways. I think the power of poetry is being suggestive and not spelling it all out.
What kind of narratives inspired the new record, Endless Night?
JARED: I think for us, the most important thing to do with Endless Night was to mix and produce this record ourselves. So that way we could make it sound exactly as we wanted it to. We felt the same way with the album artwork, which we collaborated [on] with DIY from Switzerland. I think thematically, the album draws on duality, loss and love, death and life, the human condition. I always come back to these themes not just because they are universal but because there is more left to say about it. In the pursuit of inspiring others I am also discovering new perspectives on life for myself and that comes through the music. Sonically speaking, I think the arrangements on this album differ from Departure. Endless Night and Departure are very different sounding [albums] but still have the same style and identity of The Vacant Lots. And Endless Night continues from where we left off on Departure, as I can imagine the third album will do, too. We’re always looking for new ideas but working within a continuum.
What is your compositional process like?
JARED: Try not to piss the other guy off. I mean, it’s just me and Brian; we are a songwriting team, and, after six years or so, we can gauge what the other person likes and doesn’t like. But it’s hard to know everything, so usually the other person is like a filter. However, we can work productively on our own individually and then bounce ideas to each other online [and elsewhere]. We like the solitude, isolation, and space to write on our own, and then, when we are ready to share it, we will. But, most importantly, it’s when we get together and refine it all when something truly special goes on. I think that is when the real power and magic happens. When we are both in the same space and lock into this mode of collaboration. It’s not always pretty, but in the end we get the results we aim for. As much as we have a lot in common musically, we also have a lot of differences. But I think it’s when we bring those differences together is what makes what we do really special.
BRIAN MACFADYEN: We work out demos on our own and send them to each other. From there, it’s a process of adding and subtracting until it feels like we have something to work from. When we get together to rehearse, we know we’re on the right track when it all locks in right away. Otherwise, it’s back to the tweaking stage.
How do you manage to make your live set more than what we hear on the record?
JARED: I think because we see it as two different things. You have making a record, and you have the live show. We feel they shouldn’t be the same—and, therefore, we make the live show sound different than the album. There are foundational things in place that we don’t deviate from, but there is a lot of room for change and reinterpretation live. I like the idea of someone getting one experience via the album and then having a completely different experience at a show. And, to be honest, we aren’t interested in making a record [that sounds] like how we sound live. People have always asked if we will capture that energy of [the] live show on record. That’s the furthest thing from my mind, trying [to] merge [the] two galaxies. However, we have written many new songs from [reinterpreting] material from the album in order to play live. That has been an inspiring songwriting process for us. We presented this on Endless Night. “Dividing Light” and “Waiting Period” come from this technique. Plus we like the idea of having a variation or different take on the same song. Why the fuck not?
BRIAN: We tweak all the studio sessions to make them as effective for live shows as possible. When it comes to arrangement and orchestration, we need to get creative sometimes in order to control everything all at once with two hands, but the result always works to be an enhancement of the studio recording.
How do people respond to your sound these days?
BRIAN: People often comment that it sounds like more than two people on stage. The most challenging task for me is controlling as many instruments live as possible without letting anything run off the tracks.
What contemporary music do you find compelling or sonically inspiring for your own work?
BRIAN: Atom TM, a German producer who has put out a ton of electronic releases since the 90s. He has a few records done on a modular synth that are more soundscapes than anything. More experimental. But really beautiful and precise production.
JARED: When we get to choose the bands [we] play shows with we try to pick the ones that we like the most. A lot of times, the promoter books the other acts, but when we can it makes the show more memorable. For me, [that’s] Gateway Drugs, Black Ryder, Dark Horses, White Hills, and Britta Phillips. Bands where the intention of the music corresponds with the kindness of its members. The character of the musicians goes a long way for me. There are also some contemporary artists based in New York City that inspire me like Christopher Provenzano, Anthony Miler, and Dan Mandelbaum. There’s usually something happening at Marvin Gardens gallery that I find inspiring.
Where is the room to innovate in the punk or electro-pop genres? Is that the goal of the project, or is consistency a more important goal?
JARED: I see my work as a continuum. Whether that’s the lyrics, guitar playing, arrangements, production, or whatever. We started with a vision and we will follow it through to its natural conclusion. I want to live and die by the art I make and I feel I have made enough sacrifices for that to happen. I guess it’s unpopular to not follow certain trends but I don’t care. We make the music that we like and we have a sincere intention behind what we do. And that sincerity carries the music a long way. We want to make music that inspires people and changes people’s lives. That’s really the goal of the project.
The Vacant Lots play Sunnyvale on June 30 with Gary War and Weird Owl.