Rewind the Abe Vigoda soundtrack to 2006. Press play, and the speakers buckle slightly under the clatter-screech of noise punk – like Times New Viking and No Age going for the best of three rounds in a game of Mercy. It’s jerky, bratty, bursting with energy, and, yes, it knows that’s not the way you’re supposed to treat a guitar. Roll over into 2008 and we have ‘Skeleton’, still punk, albeit tropical punk, but basically on the same page. Now here we are, pushing 2011 and presented with ‘Crush’, a broody, cold wave pop record. These guys have some explaining to do…
No sooner is the Dictaphone on when two of the four band members are spirited away for another interview. As David, the bass player, and drummer Dane saunter off into the shadows, Dane looks back briefly. “Hope you guys are cool with whatever I say,” he half mumbles to guitarist Juan and vocalist Michael. They’re not worried at all: he might be the newest member, having only joined the band in 2009, but Dane’s also largely responsible for Abe Vigoda’s new sound. So, go on guys, how did a band with a fairly solid punk track record end up all doom, gloom and synth pop?
“It was pretty gradual,” says Juan, “We released ‘Skeleton’ in 2008, but we’d written it in 2007, and we hadn’t written a lot of new songs ‘til this stuff. So that’s two/two and a half years listening to other things… Then we got Dane.” Apparently it would have been impossible for Dane to play drums the same way as his predecessor, Reggie, and the resulting change in sound gelled perfectly with the band’s natural progression. “If Reggie had stayed, we would have sounded closer to how we did before, but only a little bit,” Juan explains. “It just wouldn’t have been as much of a jump.”
“Our material has always been shifting,” says Michael. “We don’t want to repeat ourselves.”
“But it’s not a conscious decision,” Juan insists. “It just happens.”
‘Crush’, they explain, rather than coming together all at once, was written in a series of sessions, which were spread out over a period of a year or so, with the band getting together as and when they could, between practices and tours.
“It all started with Dane putting out the idea of using a sequencer,” Juan says, “to include melody lines we couldn’t play because we were playing guitars, and that grew into having backbeats, and realising we could have keyboards, and it just went on from there – it was so much fun!”
“When you put a foot into that element, it’s easy to fall in,” says Michael. “Flirting with pop has always been really appealing to me,” he confesses. “It’s funny that it’s really happening. If you know us, know our material, it’s very strange that we would go in this direction – experimenting with pop and the whole new romantic thing.”
But it’s not a complete departure; the brooding, new romantic vibe the band now exudes is still flecked with tropical leanings – it’s subtle, but unmistakeable. A mention of the Cure elicits enthusiastic nods. And what about the lyrics?
“The lyrics have always been in the same vein,” says Michael. “A little abstract, deeply personal – or not,” he chuckles. “I feel like lyrically I want it to be more narrative – some of the songs are more detailed, have stories, they’re like little mini dramas. But I like to keep it not super obvious or really direct because that’s more what I’m into aesthetically.”
“The lyrics were never super happy,” says Juan. “That’s the way it sounded, but they never were, so I think now the musical accompaniment is more fitting with the lyrical content… not that we’re sad all the time!” he hastens to add.
But have the lyrics taken on a new level of importance at all? It seems this style of music draws more attention to the words than, say, uber reverby noise punk.
“Oh yeah,” says Juan, “which is cool. While we were recording we made an effort to get the vocals more up front, more the centre of attention.”
“On our previous releases, the vocals were always kind of sitting in the mix,” agrees Michael, “which we kind of wanted to avoid this time around because I think it draws people in more.”
And how has the new sound been received thus far, has it been a bit of a shock to the system?
“Reviews have been pretty positive,” says Michael. “A few sixes out of tens, but no big deal,” they both laugh.
“I think with the live shows, a lot of people don’t really know this stuff yet,” says Juan. “Before we released the record, we were playing a lot of large live shows in LA and people were into the sound but it was more like they were taking it in, getting that it was new.”
The band are particularly enjoying their tour with No Age, playing for audiences who are largely unfamiliar with Abe Vigoda and are hearing the material from ‘Crush’ with fresh ears. Juan equates it to starting over on a blank page, aware that they could easily have changed their name and presented the new sound and new lineup as a new band. Not that they had any intention of doing so. “People want a storyline,” Juan says. “People have expectations of bands they really like, and when the band makes a change, sometimes it’s disappointing, but sometimes it’s awesome,” he grins. “I’m really happy with the songs – I’d be so bored if we were still doing the same thing.”
“I feel like there are people who didn’t want to give us a chance before, who hear us now and think, ‘Oh, well this is something I can comprehend,’” says Michael. “Maybe it’s something that’s a little more their style. Maybe it’s a little more our style too.”
Juan agrees that the music he listens to is much more in the current Abe Vigoda vein than the “bratty stuff” one would have expected given their previous output. Michael points out that the band is effectively growing up. “We released ‘Skeleton’, then came out to the UK for the first time, played more than we ever had in our lives, and it gave us a sense of what works,” he says.
“Yeah,” adds Juan, “and a sense of what we wanted to do too.”
The consensus is that the protracted space between records was essential, and that even a year’s time would have produced a record far too similar to ‘Skeleton’, something they wouldn’t have been happy with.
“We’ve always written this music strictly for ourselves,” says Michael. “We try to do what makes us happy, or what we think sounds best – I mean, the audience is in mind, but it’s not the most important thing.”
“Don’t get us wrong, we’re glad there’s people there!” laughs Juan, “but when you’re writing, if you’re thinking about the audience too much, it shows.”
Speaking of audiences, how was the not-very-secret headliner gig the other night? (The band played east London cupboard-sized venue The Drop days before we meet). “It was tumultuous,” they say, starting with Juan plugging in his keyboard using a cheapo adapter, effectively frying its brains with UK electric current – “I had no idea it would do that!” – but the venue was sold out, rammed to the rafters, and the crowd were loving it.
And, considering there’s not much point in guessing with Abe Vigoda, what’s next on the musical agenda then?
“Something more dance oriented,” says Juan. “We’re heading in that direction anyway. It’s a whole new genre to geek out about, and a cool world to step into,” he laughs. “I dunno, I like dancing!”