Interview with Jared Artaud of The Vacant Lots

Take one part American blues, two parts Bo Diddley-esque rock ‘n’ roll, then combine them with the raw immediacy of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, and you begin to understand The Vacant Lots. Now lace it with the drone of Spacemen 3, soak the whole thing in absinthe, and you will feel the full force of this deceptively simple two-piece act.

In addition to playing the hell out of a guitar, frontman Jared Artaud crafts visuals perfectly suited to the music, which are projected on the band while they play, creating an immersive and visceral experience for their audience. Mind-altering? Undoubtedly. But this is not hippie music. Spare and hypnotic, this is the dark side of American music, more Altamont than Woodstock. A primal urgency courses through it, like the rumbling engine of a 1960 Camaro, inviting the listener on a ride through the back alleys of their own subconscious.

Rock Edition asked Jared a few questions about what makes The Vacant Lots tick. Here’s what he said.

How were The Vacant Lots formed?

I dropped out of school to form a band. I traveled a bit and came to Burlington with my girlfriend. I was writing a lot and sketching out ideas for what I wanted to do. My first year in Burlington was just auditioning musicians and going out to shows trying to find people. I met Brian [MacFadyen, original drummer] in 2008. He responded to a poster I put up around town — you know, something like “Looking For A Drummer.” It was from there [that] the songs centered around guitar, vocals, drums and drone with just 2 people. Brian was 15 when I met him and still in high school! I continued auditioning other musicians, but nothing really seemed to compare to the force the two of us had. There existed an unspoken kinetic energy that was both highly intuitive and very instinctive. There was a chemistry and power of the guitar and the drums. We played our first show in the summer of 2008 in Burlington, Vermont as a 2-piece, and it has remained that way since.

However, Brian left the group in March and was replaced by another drummer. Aside from the lineup change, the music stays true to form. I was influenced by Native American drumming, Indian sitar music, and early American blues. I also really liked 50s rock ‘n’ roll, 19th and 20th century French poetry, and experimental American cinema. I tried to find a way to correspond and communicate all of my interests into one medium and that seemed to be rock ‘n’ roll. Not the most financially rewarding outlet, but I think art has a way of transcending the despair of economics. You find a way.

What does the name mean to you?

It’s like black and white, thunder and lightning, bringing two opposing forces together to create something else. I wanted to focus and put the emphasis on duality. I liked how the name addresses something yet to be filled on the one hand, and on the other hand that which is already filled. Having one hand in the gutter and the other stretched to the sky. The vision I sometimes see is an equilateral triangle with black contour lines yet to be filled in black. I liked the way the name looked and sounded too. TVL are strong letters with sharp points.

You’ve gotten a chance to play shows opening for some pretty incredible artists. How does it feel to have gotten recognition from people like Pete Kember [of Spectrum] and Dean Wareham [of Dean & Britta/Galaxie 500]?

I feel very fortunate. Both Pete Kember and Dean Wareham have been inspiring figures to TVL. To have your first-ever US tour be with Sonic Boom is more like a dream than reality. He is one of my favorite artists ever. Sonic Boom is an architect of sound. He has produced some of the most lasting and influential music in the last 30 years. Go listen to ‘Highs, Lows and Heavenly Blows’ or ‘Soul Kiss (Glide Divine).’ Those records are up there for me with the best of them, like ‘White Light/White Heat’ or ‘Marquee Moon.’ After being invited by him to tour the US supporting his band Spectrum, he has continued to be a really amazing and insightful friend. I learned so much from him. He has an immense wealth of knowledge and he is also tremendously generous and patient. I remember being on tour with him and arriving for the first show in DC. I was sitting on a bar stool looking at the stage and there was fucking Sonic Boom manipulating the tone settings on my amp during sound check! That tour was one of the best, most positive experiences ever. Spectrum is maybe one of the best bands on the planet right now.

I have always held Dean Wareham with highest regard. He has always been one of my favorite songwriters and guitar players. When we first started as a band, I sent him the tracks I was working on, and he and Britta Phillips were some of the first people to get back in touch with us. They both have continued to be very supportive and encouraging over the years. We were very fortunate to have played with them opening for the last Dean Wareham Plays Galaxie 500 performance in NYC. That, too, was a very surreal and honorable experience. It’s a very rewarding feeling when feedback comes from the artists you most admire.

You went to SXSW this year. Had you personally been before? What was that experience like?

I’d never been to Texas. SXSW was a crazy 24-hour experience. We had four shows in one day. We played the Everloving Records, Mexican Summer, Sinister Foxy and Austin Psych Fest/Optical Sounds showcases. It was a whirlwind man: we flew into Austin, played our shows, and flew home. It’s pretty insane there. People always blow it up and say, “Go down there and come back with record deals, etc.” I went down there and tried to keep an open mind about things. I think it gets hyped up more than what it really is. It was fun and intense and I’d do it again, although it would have been nice to have hung out longer with our friends and label who were down there. You make of it what you will. The cool thing is you meet a lot of people and people are there to hear new music. Everything is chaotic and myriads of people everywhere. You just pick up on the flow of things. So it was kinda exciting having this speed and intensity going from one event to the next in between flying there and flying home. I remember I broke a string on my 12-string Vox at the first sound check and never had time to change the string, so I just played an 11-string the whole time.

Did you also play Austin Psych Fest? Tell us about that experience.

Psych Fest was an incredible, memorable experience. We had a killer time. It was great to finally see bands live that I have been waiting to see. A lot of our friends were on the bill, and you knew everyone or heard of everyone who was there; it was like the place that brought together the people you knew or know about and put them in one immense industrial power plant for three days. It was a month after SXSW and a totally more relaxing and enjoyable experience. I think Reverberation Appreciation Society and The Black Angels have got something really good going on with Psych Fest, and we were really grateful to have been part of it.

What’s next for The Vacant Lots?

I have been writing a lot lately and working on our first official LP. We should also have another 7-inch out pretty soon. We have a few tracks remastered by Sonic Boom that we are hoping to release pretty soon, and some other remixes and songs on the horizon. I am readying those things and working on new songs, new projections, and lining up new shows. I’m really looking forward to putting out new material.

We are also planning a West Coast tour for this fall. We are planning on going from San Diego to Seattle. We haven’t been out there yet, so I am really excited to tour the West Coast. There has been some talk about a UK tour soon, too. And there are some other cool shows lined up, including a few college shows, which I am looking forward to.

What’s the music scene like in Burlington, VT?

It’s a small city with a big scene: a lot going on, but not a lot happening. In the 4 years I have been in Burlington, I have always tried to get the most out of this city, but I am continually disappointed. There is a lot of activity locally, but not a whole lot that is drawing me out to experience it. There is a lot of mediocrity in Burlington. I think there is a great amount of comfortability and conformity here that I don’t correspond with. Honestly, I feel pretty detached with the scene here. [There are] not a lot of people making music that I like seeing live either. I spent my first year here going to everything, every show, every night. It took me a year to find a drummer to play with!

It’s equally difficult to invite other bands to come and play here, with a low attendance rate and excitement surrounding live shows. I think the greater disappointment with the Burlington music scene is this unspoken notion of, “Well, they’re playing this Friday night, but I’ll catch them next time they play.” How does a local musician make a living with that kind of attitude? That really doesn’t work for me. There are also only a few cool venues to play. Consequently, the scene gets old pretty quick, if you know what I mean. It’s a city that has great potential but continually disappoints, because there is so little really happening here, [and so few] bands that are really saying something. Do you know what I mean? That’s the kinda sad truth of the small city.

We play so few shows here, mostly just incorporating the shows into our future tours and not doing a lot of one-offs. Maybe one to two shows a year, tops. The funny thing, too, is people are always asking, “When are you playing here next?” You tell them you are playing next week and they don’t show up! So why bother at all? I’d [prefer to] just concentrate on writing, recording and developing my ideas, rather than worry too much about when or if we should play here soon. There is also a continual trend with bands leaving Burlington for bigger cities. We’ll see what happens.

Do you ever considering leaving Burlington or making the band’s base of operations in a larger city?

Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I think of it now and then; usually the feeling just stems from boredom and restlessness, which I have had since God-knows-when. I find myself traveling into NYC often, and the distance is sometimes a drag, but I still really enjoy driving, so there is this sense of coming and going [which] I like. It’s more like leaving and returning. Burlington doesn’t feel like home to me; it feels more like where I landed, or [where I] happen to be at the moment. When I first came here almost four years ago, I had the notion that it was a transitory place to live, so I never got attached. I was born in New York City and I grew up throughout New Jersey. I didn’t move here with the purpose of staying forever. I like to travel and be in different places. It’s small, and that does get stifling at times, but it is big enough that I can get the city vibe that I like and still maintain concentration and focus on my art. There is a nice balance between solitude and city madness here.

You seem to be very well-read and knowledgeable about a lot of art, poetry, music, etc. Does that partially come from living somewhere relatively quiet and having time to study these things?

I think it comes from doing what you like to do and continuing to learn and discover new things. I have always loved literature, poetry, film, art and music, so these interests follow me wherever I go. If I can’t find what I am looking for in bookstores or record shops, I will go somewhere else to find it, whether that be the Internet or another place. I think living in a small city like Burlington has allowed me to work on my music and art without becoming a distraction for me. I rarely go out to parties or shows. I tend to stay inside and do a lot of thinking, writing, and working out ideas. There is that sense of solitude here that I enjoy, but there is also a dose of the larger city vibe that I like being surrounded by. I can look out my window and see mountains and lakes, but I can also see buildings and crowded streets. I tend to read a lot and try to turn myself onto different things all the time, whether that be music, literature or film.

How does that influence your music?

I think the music has been the medium where I can work everything through and channel [it all] into one particular form. I always felt pulled towards rock ‘n’ roll. Naturally, I think all the reading, writing, and film-watching has inspired and fueled what I am doing. I think there is something to be said for the way things influence you and how you channel it into your art; that [creates] your individual style. I have always searched for my own way when it comes to this. I think that is the underlying vision.

As an artist who works with or is at least familiar with multiple mediums (painting, poetry, music, etc.), do you find that the various art forms inform and influence each other?

I think all the art forms can interrelate and correspond. I find that different forms of art strengthen the vision, if you pursue that mode. They can be different outlets that express different things, or different tools or modes to help manifest the vision you have in creating something.

What book or books are you really enjoying right now?

I’ve been reading as much as Tony O’Neill and Jim Thompson as I can. I recently read Sick City by Tony O’Neill and after that I ordered all of his other ones. I read that book in one sitting — I couldn’t put it down. I also really enjoyed O’Neill’s Down And Out On Murder Mile and Digging The Vein. I have always loved Burroughs and Selby, Jr., and for me, O’Neill kinda embodies that direction of prose writing: really great street sensibility with a powerful language and vision.

I finished up a biography on Rimbaud by Edmund White and I returned to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I have been really into Jim Thompson. Novels such as The Grifters and The Getaway. I like to just get lost in a library or bookstore. I spent my first year at college in the library, rarely going to classes. Half the time I go in there looking for something I want and half of the time I just go on my intuition and pull out books that look interesting or draw my attention. That’s how I found Sick City. The cover art was particularly striking in a cool silk-screened Warhol kind of way, and I really liked the ambiguity of the title. I opened up the book somewhere and started to read. I do this a lot. I’ll open up some mysterious book and read a few pages, and if I dig the style then I’ll take it home and start from the beginning.

That is also how I discovered William Blake. I was 15 and walking around a book store and I saw the name. The name resounded like a thousand church bells in my head. After seeing all the colored plates and reading The Sick Rose I was immediately hooked. I was also recently sent 2 books by [painter] Anthony Ausgang, which I am reading right now. One is a book that he wrote, and the other is Vacation From Reality, which documents the artwork from his oeuvre. I highly recommend both.

Would you call yourself a gear geek?

No. I have a very rudimentary interest in guitar pedals, and don’t really go down that path. What I use is on the amp. I like tone and volume, speed and intensity. That is what I have always focused on. There is something I like about the tone that comes from the amp that I couldn’t find in stringing together a line of pedals. I like older amps but I don’t geek out on them. I am more interested in how something is used than what it is. Just because some kid has a Vox AC-30 doesn’t make him a great guitar player or automatically give him great tone. And likewise, it doesn’t necessarily mean he knows how to use it just because he owns it.

I feel the same way about guitars. The guitar player sets the tone and makes the guitar. I was never one for Gibsons or Les Pauls or Fenders. I play a Gretsch Country Gentleman and a Vox Phantom 12. I like the way both of them feel and look. I sold my car when I graduated high school so I could buy that Gretsch. I went into the music shop and plugged it into a vintage Fender Champ and it sounded amazing! The tone of that amp is also very powerful and rich. I took the guitar home and realized I needed a new amp. I think that moment really inspired me. It also taught me the importance of the relationship between guitar and amp. I wanted my own sound. So I paired the Gretsch and Vox with a Silvertone. I have been using that since the beginning.

Tell me about your typical stage setup.

The stage is usually dark or dimly lit. A projector shoots through the audience like a movie theater, hitting the screen, depicting hand-picked images and montages. A drone box resounds. 12-string Vox played through a 1960s Silvertone. Speed and intensity. Immense sound crafted by 2x. A trance sets in — open up and give everything you have.

What’s your dream guitar?

I always wanted a Vox Phantom and Gretsch Country Gentleman, and I have both of those. Maybe a 12-string acoustic would be cool. I have a few ideas of a custom-made one, but I really don’t know how likely it is to get created. I don’t know if it can be built. It’s like a tambura/guitar/shamisen — some strange shit. I have a few sketches.

Is there a message to your music or something that you want people to think about, feel, or give consideration to?

I think there are a lot of themes and ideas I explore and hope to communicate or translate through my music. One thing that comes to mind is individuality. I think that it is extremely important to follow your own path, your own goals, and your own vision for the future. I hope that the music stirs people up or has a reaction like waking out of a trance to inspire. The music that always moved me inspired me; it changed my ways of seeing the world. I wish that people would walk away with a new perspective on life or about themselves, and continue with that. Hopefully, not all is lost.

I seem to write a lot about death, anguish, despair, love and loss. One could perceive these as dark themes, but I hope the songs inspire change. Something dismal can be perceived as very uplifting, and conversely, something very uplifting can be seen as depressing. I suppose it’s a matter of perspective and how you want to affect change. I feel the songs really come alive when you put your own interpretation and perspective in it. Each verse then becomes something that has to do with your own life and your own experiences. I tend to write with that universal mind running through the songs. The songs comes to life when you connect with them. It’s possible to transcend the song and really change things.

Pick up The Vacant Lots’ Hypnotized.