The Vandelles are the ultimate post-modern version of surf rock, replete with feedback squalls, killer reverb, and unbounded harmonies. And it’s loud. Alternately catchy and dissonant, their music straddles the line between nihilism and exuberance, and leaves your ears ringing. Often described as noir rock, listening to The Vandelles is like going to the beach on a sunny day to play with knives.
Rock Edition caught up with The Vandelles’ guitarist Christo Buffam right after they got back from SXSW, where they were the talk of the town.
How was SXSW?
We played about six shows. We had another official showcase added at the last minute, at this Irish pub on Sixth Street. It was pretty ridiculous. We also played at some places that we’ve played before, like Spider House. We played some places on the east side, which is where more of the DIY spots are. We played a couple of shows that Kim Paris [of Sinister Foxy] set up at Hotel Vegas. That was pretty fun!
That Sinister Foxy showcase looked pretty cool — great lineup.
Yeah! We played at like two in the morning. People that came at 2:01 AM couldn’t get in to the place. They had to listen to the show from outside. It was a little ridiculous, but I guess even when you’re at weird shanty-buildings on the outskirts of town, you have to have some rules.
Awesome. Did [The Deli Magazine writer] Dave Cromwell come to see you play?
[laughs] Yeah, a few times. He’s a persistent individual! [laughs] No, you know, we love Dave Cromwell. When he ends up liking a band, he does whatever he can to help promote [and support] them. That’s the relationship we’ve had with him. He’s a great supporter, comes to a lot of shows, and gives us a lot of nice write-ups.
He’s a good guy. Did you see anyone else play that was especially notable, maybe that you hadn’t seen before?
Well, the band I always say is Ringo Deathstarr, but I’ve seen them before. As far as people I had not seen before: Jim Jones Revue were pretty amazing. Fast-paced, kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll. No holds barred, shit-kicking music. I thought it was really great.
I actually had never seen Asobi Seksu before. That was pretty cool. They played a Jesus & Mary Chain song. It was at some Windish showcase, at like two in the morning. Everyone was fairly inebriated by that point. The sound was pretty good at that place.
Oh, Renan from Ringo Deathstarr is in a new band called Boys’ Life. It’s kind of a silly name, but the band is pretty good. It’s a mixture of noise-pop and girl-group stuff. They sound a little bit like that band Girls, or maybe even a little bit like our new, more poppy stuff. I saw them play at Spider House and I thought they were really good.
Excellent. You mentioned Ringo Deathstarr — you have guys have played together a fair amount over the years, haven’t you?
Yeah, off and on. We played CMJ together a couple of years ago. We did a little tour down to Texas with them before SXSW ’09. I met them in 2008 in Boston, when they played at Abbey Lounge. A friend of mine was like, “Come see this band play, they’re like My Bloody Valentine and Jesus & Mary Chain!” I listened to him, went to see them, and thought it was really cool. That mini-tour, plus those couple of dates in NYC are the extent of the shows we’ve done with them. But we’re actually going to play Boston, Brooklyn and DC with them in July.
Is that part of a larger tour?
That specific timeframe is actually based around Ringo Deathstarr’s tour. We would like to do NXNE in Toronto and maybe do a mini-tour around that. We’d also like to get out to the West Coast, which we haven’t been to since early 2009. Jason has been talking to this guy, Joe Cardamone, who plays in The Icarus Line. He’s expressed some interest in helping produce some of our new shit. I’d definitely like to go out to LA and hang out with him for a couple days before we drag him to New York.
Seems like it might make sense to do a summer tour for ‘Summer Fling’!
Yeah! Right? Well, that EP was really geared towards generating some interest at SXSW. If it wasn’t for the fact that we got accepted into SXSW, that stuff might not necessarily have been released that way. Considering the timing and the fact that we had those songs done, we thought that it was better to go ahead and release it. Those 3 songs were sort of similarly themed, and had a similar sound. We had started playing a lot of other new songs, too, but they had a different sonic framework which was more similar to ‘Del Black Aloha.’ A little more dark psych rock, a little less Beach Boys.
I thought it was a little peculiar to release something called ‘Summer Fling’ at the end of winter, but I get it now.
Well, that’s when you would romanticize [summer] the most: the dead of winter, when you’re cold and your teeth are chattering. You’re single, you’re cold, your apartment is cold, you have to romanticize summer a bit!
Makes sense; it’s probably what people needed. Interesting choices of covers, too: “Losing Touch With My Mind” is one of my all-time favorite songs.
It’s funny, because the band has totally played that song since 2007. Before I was in the band, they played at NXNE in 2008, and Will Carruthers was living in Toronto at the time. He got on stage with them and was like, “I’m going to play the song with you guys!” Apparently, he just played one note on his bass the entire time, and then he asked Lulu to marry him.[laughs] Well, he was only two notes short.
[laughs] Exactly. I think he was just taking the minimal route. He wanted to let [the band] paint the canvas and do all the fancy brushwork.
Awesome. I totally got a vision of him swinging on stage from a chandelier like a pirate with a jug in his hand.
[laughs] Exactly! He’s like some crazy pirate! Even though I’ve never actually met him, that’s exactly what I gleaned from the story as well. Lulu has met him multiple times. She met him in Toronto, and she also met him in Germany, when she was there with her boyfriend. He basically popped up at some club that they were at, and was like, “My word! It’s Lulu from The Vandelles!”
And proposed again?
Well, no. She was with her boyfriend that time.
Well, right. I thought maybe that wouldn’t stop him.
Right, I get it. Her boyfriend is such a sweet, nice guy. I don’t think [there would have been an issue].
It’s funny, though.
Definitely one of the funnier stories in Vandelles lore.
Speaking of ridiculousness, the video for ‘Summer Fling’ is pretty out there.
I really like when the piñatas are like, “Hang with us tonight, Christo.”
Yeah. I actually changed my plane ticket to go down to SXSW a day early, so that people wouldn’t have to see me cross-dress in the last scene. There had to be some sort of way out, so I was like, “All right, I’m going to get mesmerized by two wacky party piñatas,” which Honey had at our apartment. That was basically my “get out of jail free” card.
You didn’t want to dress in drag?
I don’t know — I guess it might have been amusing for some people, but I think it might have been more painful for most people. I guess I didn’t want to do it. But, I had to get down to SXSW and rent gear for us, and make sure everything was going smoothly.
I see. So you guys were filming that literally right before you left?
Yeah, it was right before. We filmed it on Saturday and Sunday, I left on Monday, and everybody else left on Tuesday night. It was all done on one of those DSLR cameras. Not to take away from the director’s camerawork, but those things are just really easy to work with. For most things, we did a maximum of two takes. The fact that we used one of those cameras made it a lot easier.
Technology is awesome. Does Honey really drink Shirley Temples?
Yes, she does! Honey doesn’t drink alcohol, so her drink of choice is a Shirley Temple. So, when we play shows, she’s on a constant sugar buzz.
Very good. So a lot of things in that video are based on reality, I guess.
Yeah, to a certain extent. We’re just playing ourselves. There are kind of three different elements to it. There’s the introductory slumber party/pranking thing, then there’s the green screen section, and then there’s the bar scene at the end. I just thought that was such a weird idea. It’s like the ultimate comment on narcissism, where you’d want to hit on yourself if you were another gender.
Yeah, it’s a trip.
Weird concept. I think it definitely worked well with the girls. Honey dressed as a guy, and she kind of looked like a Japanese greaser.
Totally. I couldn’t definitively identify her at first. It made me pause.
[laughs] Who is that dude?!
Since we’re on the subject of gender roles, can we talk about the Facebook group I would turn lesbian for The Vandelles’ drummer — did Honey secretly create that?
[laughs] No, she’s not that self-absorbed, and she’s straight. Apparently, some girl in France created it.
Do you really think it was a girl?
We know it’s a girl, because she’s contacted us, and we’ve sent her merch and stuff. She admitted to it. Her name is Justine, I think. But, yeah, our manager loves it. He thinks it’s wonderful promotion.
That’s what I was thinking.
There’s actually not that many members! I thought there would be more members of that group than people that “Like” us on Facebook.
I guess a lot of people genuinely like the band, and don’t have time for silly joke groups. But, I mean, I joined it. [laughs]
I guess that’s why I asked. In a way, it seems like it could be such brilliant PR, that you’d almost think it was done by somebody affiliated by the band.
Right! But, in this case, it’s just such a weird idea that I don’t think any of us would have thought of it. Thankfully, we have some interesting and enthusiastic fans.
So tell me, Christo, how was it that you came to join the band?
In 2008, I was still living in Boston. I used to play in a band called Sanguine Drone, and we played a show with The Vandelles at All Asia. Afterwards, I hung out with them and we went to the IHOP in Watertown, because it was next to the hotel. They were all very friendly, nice people, who were just happy to hang out, get food and chat.
Afterwards, my friend Jinsen sent me an email — he knew that my band has just broken up — and he was like, “The rumor is that the guitar player from The Vandelles is going to be taking a leave of absence/stepping out. You should try out!” I got in touch with them, they remembered me from hanging out that one night, and I started going down to New Jersey to sit in on some practices with them.
Then there was a little tour that summer with The Warlocks, where we did maybe eight shows, from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles. I kind of tour managed and played theremin at some shows. On YouTube, there are some videos from The Troubadour and also from The Beauty Bar in San Diego, where you can’t see me, but you can hear the theremin. It sounds awesome.
But, I’ve since retired the theremin, since it’s too hard to play guitar and theremin at the same time. I’d like to have some kind of weird guitar that somehow has a theremin mounted into a part of it, and a knob which turns the theremin on, so you can take a break from playing guitar and play the theremin, then turn it off and go back to playing guitar.
That is a great idea. You should invent that!
Yeah. Do not let anybody know! I’m going to try to invent the theremin-guitar.
To everybody who reads this interview: don’t read that part! You did not hear about the theremin-guitar. So, you guys have toured a fair amount since then. What are some of your favorite places that you’ve played?
Well, we actually haven’t done that much touring for the past year, but we were getting out there on a fairly regular basis before that. Austin, obviously, is always a lot of fun. I had a good time playing in Birmingham, AL, at this place called The Bottletree. It was a weekday show. The show itself wasn’t that spectacular, but the venue itself was awesome. The green room [consisted of] these two Airstream trailers in the back of the place, which were outfitted with all these different amenities, like wi-fi and free socks.
Free socks are always a great thing for venues to provide. Have you guys gotten out to Europe or the UK much?
We did a mini-tour where we went to Iceland and England in October. That was our first time outside of the US. We did three or four shows in Iceland, and five shows in the UK. The first one was in a town called Bury St Edmunds, and the rest of them were in London. That was a lot of fun. It was cool being in London, but it’s definitely a very expensive city. It was kind of hard to really get out and do a lot of stuff without spending [a lot] of money. We definitely spent some money.
Yeah, you kind of have to. So the Icelandic people dig The Vandelles?
I think so. There are a lot of bands in Iceland that sound like Sigur Rós and Björk. I like those artists a lot; they’re very ethereal and dreamy. But there are also bands like Singapore Sling and hardcore bands like Reykjavik! and stuff like that. So I think that a lot of people [there] want things that are more energetic, and they also like Americana. Especially the younger kids. Most of the people who would approach us were all pretty young.
Did you get to see much of the scenery in Iceland?
Yeah, we actually did. There’s a photo journal of it on our blog that Jason put up after we [got back]. We did a bunch of fun things. We got to go to the Blue Lagoon, which is a spa about an hour from Reykjavik. It’s included in the Iceland Airways package for bands who play and book their flight through Iceland Airways. It’s nice and relaxing. You go in these therapeutic, mineral-infused, geo-thermal waters. And it was raining at the same time. You get really cold in the rain, then jump in the pools and get warm, and jump back out. Pretty fun.
We also did this thing called The Golden Circle, which is seeing a lot of the natural wonders of Iceland. The first thing you see is this gigantic fault, which is basically this huge rift, which is there due to all the weird tectonic activity in Iceland. Then there are also the geysers, which are kind of like Ol’ Faithful. They spew up ridiculously hot boiling water. You have to keep your distance. There was also a giant waterfall and a giant crater.
And we got to see a lot of the countryside just driving around. Also, Lulu’s boyfriend is Icelandic, so we were able to do that with some of his friends rather than with a tour group. He got ahold of them and they were nice enough to take us out in their cars and give us a tour.
That sounds really awesome.
It’s really beautiful. It’s not necessarily a very complex landscape; it’s actually very stark. But there are all these very specific, unique aspects, since they’re on this geo-thermal plume in the Mid-Atlantic.
Cool. Do you have a favorite guitar pedal?
For The Vandelles, I like this pedal called The Pro Chop. It’s a dual-channel tremolo pedal. It has one [sound] that’s more of a classic, washy tremolo, and the other one is more of a harder chop. I don’t MIDI-sync it for The Vandelles, but it has MIDI capabilities and a digital BPM readout. It’s a foot switch thing, kind of like a Wah pedal, but there’s actually no switch in it: it’s optical. There’s no actual click, it just goes on or off when the optical switch goes past a certain point.
That’s something that I use for a general tremolo sound. But I also use it for fast, choppy feedback stuff, like in the song “Dead Wave,” or in other noisy songs like that.
Yeah, it’s a cool pedal. I’ve been trying to get them to put me on their website, but it hasn’t happened yet.
They will eventually.
I could be up there with Adam Jones from Tool! [laughs]
So, you’ve just had a new release with ‘Summer Fling,’ and your last full-length, ‘Del Black Aloha,’ came out not too long before that. What’s next for The Vandelles?
‘Del Black Aloha’ came out last year, but the thing about [it] is that we were playing [the songs from it] for about three years before it came out. Although the recordings themselves may be new to people, a lot of people knew the songs already, especially in New York. [I think people are] ready for some new material from us.
We’re at the point where we’re trying to figure out what’s the best use of our time. We’re the kind of band where if we’re constantly just running setlists, it’s hard for us to write new music. For the most part, we only get to practice twice a week. So we’re kind of in a phase of picking through demos that Jason’s done, or that I’ve done, or that Jason has done with Lulu or something like that. Then we’re elaborating on [some of] them, practicing them live, recording them as demos, listening back, tweaking things, making [them] better… We have four songs that are completely ready to go, and another ten songs that are in that [developmental] state. We’re all just kind of coming up with parts on our own time and bringing them to practice. We’ll often work on one song for an entire practice session, then record the full-band demo at the end of practice.
We’re hoping that by early summer, we’re going to be able to get into a studio somewhere and [lay] down at least the first half of what will be a new album. We’re still not sure who we want to work with; there are so many great studios in New York. We’d prefer to work with people who we know and who are friends. It generally just works out a lot better. You can get a much better rate. We’ve looked at some nice studios, but when people are quoting you a thousand dollars a day and they’re unwilling to budge or make any sort of deal, then it’s kind of hard. It’s pretty hard to save up twenty grand just to record an album, and then you’re not even talking about mixing, mastering, pressing, or doing PR. We’re trying to find that [balance] between spending enough money to get a really great studio that we work well at, but not spending so much that we can’t afford to properly mix it.
You can see one of the new songs on YouTube. We played it on April 4th when we played at The Knitting Factory with The Vacant Lots. It was the last song we played. There’s a link on our Facebook page to our friend Boris, who took some nice DSLR HD footage. That’s one of the songs that will be on the new album; it’s called “Strange Girls.”