Crawford Philleo of Vitamins: "It's Important to Get Out There and Show People What You Do"
Melissa Cathryn Young via Vitamins Facebook page
On Saturday the UC Irvine-based Acrobatics Everyday crew puts on the next show in its slightly less busy summer series with another grouping of bands, headlined by the Colorado-based Vitamins. Founded in 2005, the quartet has put out a number of releases in recent years, most recently a sharp 7" single on the Hot Congress label, "No Notion of Anything Only Whatever is What"/"The Disappearance of David Lee Powell," with more efforts on the way soon. Possessed of an ear for propulsive art/psych rock and atmospherics both, they're living reasonably large, with an appearance opening for the Flaming Lips to their recent credit as well. We had a chance to chat via email with drummer Crawford Philleo shortly after they began their tour earlier this week
OC Weekly: I understand the band all met at the University of Northern Colorado via connections like jazz band work, dating and the like. What specifically provided the musical connection--was there something you all agreed on from the start or did everyone bring in their own particular style?
Yes, Ryan (bass/guitar) and I met in jazz band, and I met Lizzy through Ryan as the two were dating. They lived together in a house that we'd hang out at almost every night with our former guitar player, Gary. The three of us were almost inseparable. We'd sit around listening to Interpol and Pixies records and get drunk and smoke a lot of weed.
Sometimes we'd host poetry nights and things like that, or we'd all get together if there was a cool show at Red Rocks and make the drive. [Eventually] we got together and started piecing songs together.
At the beginning, Ryan and Lizzy seemed most interested in older country stuff --Lizzy has always loved Patsy Cline and the like, so a lot of our early songs had a country twinge to them, but the way I played drums, and the kind of music I liked the most at that time (I was still feeling the effects of the Chicago post-rock scene, a style that has always stayed with me) gave the music this weird, raw experimental edge.
We became pretty popular around school and gigged a lot up there in those days; those were really fun shows, and everyone knew our songs and we even had cheesy choreography the crowds would work down with us.
Listening to the new single "No Notion of Anything Only Whatever is What" it's pretty easy to hear the impact of motorik, the relentless forward-motion style accidentally codified by German bands like Can and Neu! and then further explored in more recent years from groups like Stereolab, Oneida and Kinski among many others. What draws you to this sound and what kind of individual stamp do you seek to put on it?
I think all of that kind of music is based on modal approaches to harmonic progressions, and it's just a very open style--open to experimentation, improvisation, etc. because there are so many scales you can use and directions you can take with the music without compromising the fundamental tone. So, naturally, it's one of the most fun types of music to play.
But even as we're working on the material, we recognize the need to sort of rein some of the freedom in and actually hone our songs with some kind of a structure, and I think that might be the ultimate difference Vitamins has. Often for a lot of the new material we're working on--and indeed with a track like "No Notion..."--the songs are rarely "finished" when we decide to lay them down to tape.
There's still a free element to how they're performed live, but they definitely feel more complete than they did before we had the record done. No one wants to play the same song the same way twice, but at the same time, no one really wants to hear 6+ minutes of random noodling. Ok...that might not be true for everyone, but I guess WE don't want to hear that from ourselves.
We want to make sure we're free enough to keep the spirit of the jam alive, but constrained enough to remind people that in reality this is also pop music. I think each and every one of those bands you mentioned have found a way to do that, especially the more modern ones you mentioned. I'm not exactly sure how our way differs from say, Stereolab, but it does seem like the songs have an original flair to them...although I did recently realized that "No Notion..." is basically a gigantic ripoff of Caribou, whose record "The Milk of Human Kindness" was on heavy rotation during the time Matt and I began experimenting with the main riff.
"The Disappearance of David Lee Powell" in contrast starts out as a big slow drift that then builds into surging but still restrained choruses, a kind of epic rock that looms but doesn't pulverize. Is this approach fairly recent or has that always been part and parcel of where the group's at?
What I like best about "DLP" is the fact that it's based on a blues form. So in that sense, the song has a very earthy, Americana-twinged feel... and really, that's where Vitamins started out. I don't think we'll ever lose our love for that kind of music and the feelings of nostalgia that go with it. The blues and a lot of American music in general is based in this eternal longing and sadness, and there's something very beautiful in that which I think we were trying to find or reveal, especially with that song. We're also a big rock band with big amps, and my ride cymbal's a big mother fucker too, so we pack a lot of volume into a lot of the tracks we produce. "DLP" is no exception; we like to make sure our music always has a nice shape to it, and that usually means mapping out an arc of some kind, something I think we captured pretty well in "DLP."
As the drummer for such a rhythm centered group you pretty much have to be always pretty aware of where the band is at in any particular point in the song; there's a sense of your songs being sculpted from larger improvisations. Does the band pretty much collectively see where any performance takes it in the moment, whether recording or on stage?
Yes, I think I touched on this a bit earlier in the interview as well, but in the practice room when we're not under the gun to play a big show or something, our rehearsals can sometimes become these long, extended jam experiments. A lot of times, those are very valuable for determining what works and what doesn't work. We're not like Miles Davis or something where we can all improvise and be on the same page for hours and hours; our moments of clarity seem fewer and far between, and that's probably a product of our lack of real experience and perhaps even musicianship. Nevertheless, those sessions are really key for us to get ideas of what different kinds of rhythms or harmonies or melodies all sound good together--then it's just a matter of remembering those things and trying to place them correctly within a full performance. But as we go along, those extended jams do get whittled down into actual structures that we can remember and repeat, which makes the performances a lot tighter and probably more engaging for an audience.
You've taken what's been increasingly perceived as the "normal" route for a group to make a mark with multiple sites for music and contact -- Soundcloud and Bandcamp for the music itself, Facebook and Myspace for social media, Vimeo uploads for the videos done to accompany your songs and so forth. Do you think this cuts into "band time" or is it something that's already integrated into what the band does in general?
Well I'm a blogger myself (I write for Foxy Digitalis as well as my own blog Tome to the Weather Machine), so I've had kind of an insider's peek into what works for some bands in terms of marketing and what doesn't. We don't have enough money to hire a publicist or anything like that, so we do it all ourselves, and it is very time consuming.
We have been releasing singles more recently because that's just the way we've been able to produce the music in the past few months in terms of recording and finishing tracks. Ryan and I both work the "big 40" during the week, Lizzy is a teacher, Matt's got an evening job...we all play music in different projects, etc., and because of all that, we don't get as much time to have those more open rehearsals where we iron out new ideas for songs and such.
So, as we've finished the tracks over time, I've increasingly become more and more interested in disseminating our music to a wider audience outside of Colorado, as a lot of our friends have been able to get some pretty decent play, land their albums on labels, etc.
I started sending the video for "Liquid Crystals" out to blogs and it got a pretty good return. From there, we were like, "Ok, people might actually like us," and it became a mission to get more done so we could get more out there and stay in front of people.
I have steered us toward video content, as in my experience, it's just more fun to watch a music video than it is to click play on an embedded mp3 player on a blog. Plus, I love the way music videos are being produced these days--I'd gotten in touch with some of my favorite producers of videos that I'd seen the past year via my association with Foxy Digitalis (Rob Feulner, Rachel Evans), and they did some marvelous work for us, and I think that translated into getting a lot of people excited about our potential. So now that we've done those, I think we are ready to do a full-length, and we've been working on one for quite some time now, but it's just not quite done.
The singles definitely acted as like a "foot-in-the-door" for us, and now we're ready to unleash a larger collection of songs for people to hear, and honestly I think we have a better chance of people actually listening to them now.
One thing I've learned from this music journalism business: if you don't send your music out, people won't listen.
What do you see as the band's greatest achievement so far, and what would you like to do the most in the future?
The greatest achievement for us so far I think is the 7" record. We just always wanted to do one, and I think it's the best music we've laid down so far. It came out looking really good, our friends at Hot Congress helped us release it, and just all around it was a good project...however expensive. Also, opening up for the Flaming Lips was pretty rad, too. I think in the future, we just want to keep working hard, definitely put out a larger collection of tunes, and keep touring if we can. It's hard to get out on tour working a full-time job, especially for any kind of meaningful amount of time. But it's really important - just like it's important to spread your music around on the internet, it's equally important to get out there and show people what you do to their face. It has to be real and tangible, too, for people to understand that you're serious and that you're trying to make a real connection with them.
Vitamins appear with Sabertooth Cavity, This City Defects and Dash Jacket on Saturday at 8 pm at UC Irvine's Social Science Trailer 103. All ages, $5; further information via the Acrobatics Everyday webpage and the event Facebook page.
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