Pop Go Abe Vigoda

The punk-gone-shoegaze band await a mainstream breakthrough

In very early 2009, Abe Vigoda guitarist/singer Michael Vidal made a resolution: “Don’t suck.”

In mid-2010, Abe Vigoda guitarist/singer Juan Velasquez are able to look back and make an assessment: “I don’t think we sucked!” he says with a laugh. “Two thousand nine was good. And 2010 . . . a lot of waiting.”

That’s where Abe Vigoda is now—waiting. It’s five or six years beyond when they were Smashing Pumpkins-obsessed punks in Chino, figuring out how to make their guitars sound the way they do in West Africa or along the rim of the Caribbean, back when Vampire Weekend was two words you’d spot only in a spam e-mail. They played a place called the Smell—long before The New Yorker noticed—with bands called No Age and Mika Miko, who hadn’t yet become NO AGE and MIKA MIKO (on legendary labels Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars, respectively). They did shows every single week—if not multiple times per week. They’d commute to LA like it was their job. And now, on the strength of 2008’s revelatory full-length Skeleton and 2009’s Reviver EP, they’re closer to a long-due breakout than ever . . . as soon as the waiting for September’s new album, Crush, is over.

“When we got the masters, the only person I gave it to was my dad,” Velasquez says. “And he’s been playing it at family things! We used to practice in the garage, and my mom would deal with the loudest racket. They’ve heard everything from the beginning till now. And they’re like, ‘Of course we’re gonna like it because it’s you—but this sounds like it could be on the radio.’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa, Mom—thanks! That’s kind of awesome.’”

The few tracks released so far demonstrate Crush is a long way from the racket of baby Vigoda. Teaser single “Throwing Shade” begins with absolutely fundamental techno oontz-oontz drums—as unexpected a direction for Abe Vigoda as pedal-steel guitar. When those church bell-steel drum guitars come cascading in seconds later, it’s reassurance the Abe Vigoda of Skeleton and Reviver yet live. But 2010 is the future, so this sounds a lot more like the future.

New drummer Dane Chadwick (coming after original drummer Reggie Guerrero’s departure) connected Vigoda to the warped electronica of artists such as Hudson Mohawke and SFV Acid. So new Vigoda are bristling with technological augmentation—synthesizer melodies twisted into hieroglyphics and a rhythm section (Chadwick and bassist David Reichardt) reinforced with computerized percussion. It’s a thrill, but it’s a surprise, too, and Velasquez acknowledges the departure.

“I feel like we could have even changed the name of the band,” he says. “It does feel different. It feels like us, but it’s a big jump. We did a lot differently. It’s tangible that we’re not trying to be so out there—we changed our mentality about it. It’s more fun and more gratifying to write pop music.”

You can imagine a similar conversation right before someone suggested the name change to “New Order.” And you can imagine the way a backlash could boil up from people who consider pop inferior as a genre to Vigoda’s earlier punk-influenced style. “I knew immediately that the first song we showed people, they would either really hate it or be really confused,” says Velasquez, who got plenty of confirmation from casual browsing through last.fm comments.

But this is also a time when everything is dissolving into everything else: Ex-Pocahaunted singer Bethany Cosentino can do a track with Kid Cudi and have it actually . . . work. Christina Aguilera works with members of Le Tigre, says Velasquez; Bjork works with Congolese electro-beat band Konono No. 1, and Thom Yorke descends from Planet Radiohead to deliver vocals to LA’s Flying Lotus. Velasquez says there have been a lot of what-the-fuck moments recently—in a positive way. And on Crush, Abe Vigoda get to deliver a cheerful, sophisticated and exciting what-the-fuck of their own.

“I’m into not overdoing anything,” Velasquez says. “It’s just easy to do that. Everything is cleaned up, and you can actually hear what’s going on. We’re not just jumping from one quick piece to the next. We’re more comfortable now. Before, it was like, ‘Let’s fit every single part we love into the song!’ [And on the Internet], people say, ‘This is really weird—it’d be so good if it wasn’t for the drum machine!’ But we’ve played every song live, and people seem okay with it. It is weird. But I’m excited about it. It’s a step in a different direction.”

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