The Vivian Girls Come Out Swinging
All three Vivian Girls miss the rain.
“It replenishes,” says Cassie Ramone, singer, songwriter, and guitarist. “It nourishes life!”
The band, who grew up and made their name on the East Coast, live in Los Angeles now. It’s far from the New Jersey basement shows, the 24-hour diners they frequented together as teens, and the tattoos they got to commemorate it all. Now, in West Hollywood’s Murakami Sushi, they’re in a mood to reminisce. Ramone, now 33, singer-bassist Katy Goodman, 34, and drummer Ali Koehler, 32, have been secretly rehearsing for months. They were recording Memory, their first album in eight years — and the first since they announced their break-up in 2014.
“When we broke up, we broke up for real,” Goodman tells Rolling Stone. “We had been going hard for a long time, and we were exhausted. But we always knew we had something special, and even when we broke up, we knew there was a strong chance we would reunite some day.”
“Vivian Girls are back and they haven’t forgotten what they went through,” reads the band’s press release for Memory. Their fans haven’t forgotten either; more than any other buzzing indie band that emerged in the 2000s, Vivian Girls saw the worst of what an intensely misogynistic music community was capable of. Social media had come into its own as a constantly brawling free-for-all, and many still recall the chauvinist thunderdome that was Brooklyn Vegan’s unmoderated comments section, which finally shuttered in 2016 — and all the hate it housed for the band. Kathleen Hanna told Pitchfork that the comments left on Vivian Girls’ posts made her cry; “Vivian Girls reuniting has me reflecting on how terrible it was to be a ‘female musician’ in 2009,” wrote singer-songwriter Hether Fortune.
“I remember crying a lot!” says Goodman. “I would look out into the crowd [at shows] and see the one person who looked bored or mad. Being an anonymous internet troll was still a new thing to us… We felt like if we could just meet them, they wouldn’t hate us.”
At the time, the Vivian Girls easily stood out amid the lo-fi garage rock boom of the aughts: they revived the jangly fuzz-rock sound of Slumberland bands à la Black Tambourine; infused it with the cherubic, girl-group harmonies of the Ronettes; then knocked it all off-kilter, like proto-grunge punks the Wipers. It was a winning combination, and would spawn a decade of imitators. But that wouldn’t stop the trolls, who incessantly took swings at the band over their 12-year career, for what is now best explained as a poorly masked hatred of women coinciding with the boom of blog-fueled indie rock. The hate wore on the band, even after their break-up. Now, they’re ready for round two.
“We’re coming out swinging,” says Koehler.
Vivian Girls played their first show in 2007, opening for Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail’s band, Old Haunts. “[Vivian Girls] sound like C86” — a 1986 indie pop compilation — “Because they are a pop band who listens to punk. Or maybe they are a punk band who happen to write pop songs,” Vail wrote in her zine, Jigsaw. Indie rock critics would later describe Vivian Girls’ music as “unschooled,” “amateur charm” and “rustic instrumentation,” but most listeners are likelier to call it what it is: “punk.” “We were intentionally lo-fi because we were a punk band,” says Ramone. “We did not want a highly-produced sound.”
“The first practice we ever had, our band goals were recording a record and going on tour,” says Goodman. “And being in Maximum Rocknroll,” adds Koehler, referring to the influential punk zine.
Goodman studied physics and education at Rutgers, and Ramone studied art at the Pratt Institute. Between them, the two friends managed to forge a stellar network of indie rock musicians between New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Brooklyn. “It was this frenzy of creative energy going on amongst our peers at the same time,” says Goodman. They counted Screaming Females, Matt and Kim, and Titus Andronicus as their peers in the scene. “They were our high school friends,” she says of Titus Andronicus. “They were touring America! They were putting out real records on labels! So we thought, ‘We should do that too!'”
“The band was starting to take off my senior year of college,” says Ramone. “I basically pulled a Cher from Clueless — total bullshittery — and excused myself for going to SXSW one year to play shows. I was turning in Vivian Girls art for all my art classes ’cause I didn’t have enough time to do my homework. But it worked out! I was able to graduate.”
By the time Vivian Girls released their self-titled debut in 2008, they had also graduated from the basement shows that served as the genesis of their sound. They were opening shows for Jay Reatard, Black Lips, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo. The band then invited Koehler, Goodman’s friend at Rutgers, to replace former drummer Frankie Rose; within a matter of months, they found themselves touring Puerto Rico, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. “I’d just finished college,” said Koehler, who majored in German language and literature. “I said to my mom, ‘Katy and Cassie asked me [to] join Vivian Girls full-time, but I’d be gone a lot.’ And my mom was like, ‘What else are you gonna do? Sit at home all summer?'”
As Vivian Girls’ star began to shine well outside the sanctum of their local punk scene, the space that used to insulate artists from their critics had all but disintegrated, thanks to the increasing ubiquity of blogs and social media. “We wanted to produce music that would resonate with people in the [D.I.Y.] scene, and maybe elsewhere,” says Ramone. “Once we weren’t in our general circle of friends anymore, the misogyny jumped out.”
“People Had No Fucking Clue What to Do with Vivian Girls,” wrote critic Annie Fell for Vice just last year. Ten years prior, though, the same outlet openly indulged in rating women on their appearances. Hipster Runoff, the now-defunct cesspool of countercultural crit, referred to Vivian Girls as “slutwave” and titled a post, “The Vivian Girls show off their banging bikini bodies (2 prove they hotter than Best Coast). The comments section of Brooklyn Vegan, the de facto media hub for the indie scene at the time, had already united against the band. Though it should have been a net good that women were tipping the scales and starting more rock bands of their own — such as Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls — men on the internet insisted on framing Vivian Girls as foils to other women in the genre, placing special emphasis on their appearances.
“My poor dad didn’t have to read all that,” says Koehler, whose father created a Brooklyn Vegan account to spar with anonymous naysayers. “I will always remember one comment: ‘Oh, look. It’s too fat, too skinny, and too tall.’ I think it’s funny now, but it’s really not. We’re all straight, cis white women — and it still sucked! What hope is there for anyone else?”
The band eventually found their own crafty ways of coping with negative attention: “We played a college show one Halloween in Connecticut,” says Koehler. “We saw some kid tweeting mean stuff about us. When we found out he was going to write about [our] show for the school newspaper, we reached out and told him he could interview us if he wanted.”
“We just killed him with kindness,” she continues. “Someone was being shitty about us so we sat down with him face to face and and disarmed him, ’cause he saw us as people and not some buzz band to troll.” It’s rare, though — and hardly recommended — to meet every detractor face-to-face.
The Compa-NY Studios in Glendale, California, is littered with shakers, tambourines, and a red Fisher-Price xylophone — which producer Rob Barbato will later filter through a delay pedal. In the booth, Goodman tries out harmonies in front of the microphone. “Baby angel voice,” she sings, jazz-like, before the reverb sets in. “Haaaah!“
Babies are the topic du jour in the studio. Koehler is seven months pregnant with her daughter Wendy at the time of the recording, but only complains about her shortness of breath. Otherwise, she powers through drum fills and harmonies with ease. The last time Koehler had been in a recording studio was in 2014 with Upset, her project with ex-Hole drummer Patty Schemel; before that, she drummed in Best Coast. Koehler pats her belly. “I’m gonna see how being a parent goes, before we think about touring again.”
Goodman, who parents a toddler with Todd Wisenbaker — her husband and counterpart in the indie-pop band La Sera — imparts the occasional bit of wisdom. In the early days of Vivian Girls, she taught high-school science full-time in Princeton, then commuted to Brooklyn to play shows. She now develops programs for fellow STEM educators. “I’m such a Virgo,” says Goodman. “I love to know the rules of the game. But then I found out that having a baby is not a game!”
Ramone doesn’t do baby talk, unless it’s about the Babies, her project with singer-songwriter Kevin Morby. She wanders in and out of the studio, often tending to her journal and checking the time during every step of the recording process. By night, long after Goodman and Koehler return to their families, Ramone leaves her journal open and lets her guitar unwind, cranking out rambling solos and feedback into the wee hours of the morning.
“There’s a Day Cassie and a Night Cassie,” explains Barbato. He first came into contact with the Vivian Girls’ universe producing La Sera’s 2012 LP, Sees the Light, then later produced the Babies’ 2012 record, Our House on the Hill. “Day Cassie is pretty pragmatic. She keeps a list, checks it off and moves everyone forward. Night Cassie is freer, and more vulnerable.”
Although Koehler and Goodman relocated to Los Angeles years ago, Ramone stayed behind in the Northeast, volleying between Brooklyn and her parents’ home in New Jersey. D.I.Y. venues began shutting down left and right, and the people she knew in the scene were leaving New York. She used to churn out new songs on the road with Vivian Girls — often teaching the band their parts during sound checks — but Ramone had grown increasingly secluded and focused on her visual-art practice. It was during a regular phone call one day that Goodman said, apropos of nothing, “Let’s do the band again!”
“I was originally trying to recruit a backing band for my next solo album,” Ramone says. “It sounded cool, but it just wasn’t going as smoothly as it did with [Vivian Girls]. I tried so hard to fit a square peg into a round hole with other people. So when Katy called me up, I was relieved. Once I got to L.A., I wrote most of the [Memory] songs in two weeks.”
“You don’t see too many bands with a bond like Vivian Girls,” says Barbato. “You usually see a one-person project, then they [hire] people to play with them. Cassie, Ali, and Katy have been friends since they were kids. But I think when it comes time to express stuff, it’s still hard for Cassie to maybe say things in front of them sometimes. It was easier for me to turn the lights down in the studio and let her go.”
“Since I was a child I was analyzing pop song structures,” says Ramone. “Even with Disney music. That’s why I’m such a big Bacharach fan. But I also love grit and punk simplicity, so when I write, I try to merge those two ideals. People can dislike my music if they want, but it bothers me when they’ve said it’s not thought-out or ‘lazy.’”
In writing the overcast surf-rock track, “Something to Do,” Ramone calls to mind Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do” as she roves between New Jersey diners and beaches. And in the listless, psychedelic march that is “Sludge,” she cites Jimmy Webb’s baroque pop masterpiece, “MacArthur Park” — filtered through a X-Vex Fuzz Factory pedal. But much like the architects of pop’s golden age, Ramone harbors an impenetrable melancholy beneath the sanded-down, bubblegum shellac of Vivian Girls’ music.
Drowsy with reverb, her verses ricochet between walls of static; her lyrics, more intelligible in Memory than in most releases, recall both the sighing theatrics of an embattled Brontë heroine and the blunt force of Minor Threat. “I lost it all/My final brain cell banged against the wall,” Ramone sings in the shoegazing lead single off Memory, “Sick.” As usual, her bleak visions are softened by Goodman and Koehler’s harmonies. “Tomorrow maybe I’ll wake up and say/Enough.”
“The main themes are poor mental health — a classic,” Ramone says with a laugh. “And love lost. For the first few records I only shared the lyrics where I wanted harmonies on, but with [Memory] I was like, ‘Whatever.’ If you’re gonna go there, you might as well just go there all the way.”
While 2011’s Share the Joy sardonically basked in the bubblegum (case in point: the Shangri-Las pastiche “Take It As It Comes“), 2019’s Memory shares both sonic and thematic D.N.A. with their 2009 LP, Everything Goes Wrong. The album came out during the advent of the glossy synth-pop sound known as chillwave (think: Washed Out, Toro Y Moi), when music critics already began foretelling the waning relevance of indie rock at large, as electronic-based music began to saturate the market. But instead of capitulating to the demands of any trend, Vivian Girls leaned harder into their punk-pop roots.
In Everything Goes Wrong — the only other album featuring Koehler — Vivian Girls first crash through the gates with brackish opening track “Walking Alone at Night.” They ramp up the energy with the hardcore push-and-shove of “I Have No Fun,” then go darker in “You’re My Guy” — a satirical jab at the band’s male antagonists and their warped fantasies. (“You’re my guy/You fuck me all the time/I’m lonely every night,” hisses Ramone, “Love ya’ though you love to see me fall.”)
Altogether, their 2009 album painted a grittier picture of the scene they’d come to occupy: a wilderness of faces they weren’t sure they trusted anymore. Yet Vivian Girls maintained their sense of humor, even as they continued to be publicly vivisected in the indie blogosphere. While touring in support of the album, all three members of Vivian Girls got matching tattoos that read COOL DUDE ATTITUDE.
Those days still sting, 10 years later. Writing and recording a new album also meant bracing themselves for another wave of sexist backlash. “Doing our press shots for this album, at one point I asked the photographer, ‘Can we shoot one that’s just our faces?'” recounts Koehler over the phone. “When we left, Katy said, ‘Thanks for saying that. I fucking hate taking pictures of my body.’ I was like, ‘I do too!'”
The misogyny leveled at the band was inextricable from their narrative. But now, the story of Vivian Girls no longer belongs to their detractors, most of whom remain as nameless as they are unremarkable. “Every day that came before is just an empty shell,” sings Ramone on the title track; with Memory, the band is committed to writing new stories together.
“Back when Vivian Girls started, we weren’t in control of the narrative,” says Goodman, who recently established the band’s first Instagram account. “We were a lot more reliant on blogs and music publications. They would take the art we make, process it themselves, and people would rely on those sources to form their opinions on things. Now you can just follow all your favorite artists on social media. Which is powerful!”
On December 21st, 2018, Koehler gave birth to Wendy Eugenia Lugo in Los Angeles. (“Wendy doesn’t startle at loud noises now,” says Koehler, seven months later. “I may have ruined her in utero.”) She looks forward to getting back on the road this fall, where Vivian Girls will perform in 11 cities across the U.S.: starting October 4th in Los Angeles, the tour will pass through San Francisco, Chicago and their old digs in Brooklyn, before wrapping in Denver on November 3rd.
“It took a lot for me to just like leave the comfortable little hole that I had dug for myself in Brooklyn,” says Ramone. “But no risk, no reward, you know what I mean? To come out and do something like this — I have a feeling it’s going to be worth it.”
Memory is set for release September 20th via Polyvinyl Records.