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Interview with Gregory Vaine

The following is the full text of an interview conducted in the summer of 1998 by Lars Gunther, and published in an edited form, translated into German and Arabic, in the obscure European rock and roll journal, Der Pup.

LG: Danke for taking the time to speak with us, Mr. Vaine.

GV: Please, call me Greg.

LG: First off, Greg, why do you think you're so popular in Germany, while practically unknown in the United States?

GV: It's probably because I don't have any commercially released records, at least I didn't until now. All the other McIlvanity records releases were tape only. As I understand it, you somehow got a copy of Thee Mystakes' first tape, "Wishful Thinking," from the back of a friend's car or whatever. You then found my email address in the ether, and asked me for the interview, and here we are, chatting away.

LG: Ya, that's pretty much it. Isn't the internet great! But let's start at the begining. What were your first musical influences?

GV: Well, the first music that I remember really getting into and listening closely to was oldies like Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, even Eddie Cochran. I had a friend who's mom had some of those records, and he was sort of into it, so we'd listen to it and play, and play air guitar and stuff.

LG: Then how did you start playing real guitar?

GV: Gradually I realized that I was drawn to music, and that I could keep whole songs in my head, and even make up music in my head. Plus I was always drumming with my teeth, like grinding my teeth in time. I have a whole drumset in my mouth. No cymbals though. And I had this toy ukelele that I played on a lot, and eventually I decided I needed a real instrument. Originally I wanted to be a drummer, but my parents said that was too loud, so I got a casio keyboard. I played with that for a year, even wrote a few songs with it, then I asked for a guitar, and got one for my 16th birthday, along with a practice amp and a distortion box. The next couple years I spent on the floor of my room with the headphones very loud, learning to play punk rock music and the blues.

LG: Who were your influences back then?

GV: I tried to emulate Greg Ginn from Black Flag, Angus Young, Johnny Ramone, classic and new rockabilly like The Blasters, and a lot of blues players like SRV and George Thorougood. A little later I got heavily into Husker Du, Soul Asylum, and The Replacements, plus great 80's metal for rhythm and flash playing. I was always drawn to outrageous and wild playing, so I made a lot of heinous noise learning to control it. I guess I still do. I remember really liking Marc Ribot's playing on Tom Wait's "Rain Dogs" record. Really out there and yet totally right for the songs.

LG: I also hear a lot of country music influence. Where did that come from?

GV: Well, my dad had an old Johnny Cash record which I discoverd, so I was into him, and I bought a Hank Williams record myself, and wore that out. Plus there were some Willie Nelson records around, and I've always loved him.

LG: Here's a question I know you'll like: How did you get into Neil Young?

GV: Yes. In the early 80's there was sort of a rockabilly revival in LA, after the Stray Cats, with bands like The Blasters and The Rockin' Rebels. I was listening to KROQ and just forming my own opinions about music, and rockabilly was the first sort of style that I got into. Back then there were rockabillies and mods and punkers and metalers, with no overlap. I went in for the rockabilly, although I never took it too far and dressed the part. It was always about the music for me. So it happened that Neil released "Everybody's Rockin'," his rockabilly album, right about then. I heard Wonderin' and thought it was cool so I bought the record. I liked it a lot and listened to it a bunch. Then maybe a year later I bought "Harvest" on vinyl, and I had an epiphany when I heard it the first time. I can still remember clearly lying on my bed as "Words" was playing, thinking to myself that this was exactly the kind of music I wanted to play. See, I was listening to a lot of early Dylan and country stuff, and a lot of punk and post-punk, and I thought the sound he got was a great combination: Heavy sound, heavy lyrics, heavy soloing, it just hit me really hard. Plus the weirdness of the lyrics really spoke to me. Even though they were very strange, I always had the feeling I knew exactly what he was singing about, and that still holds true today.

After that I just started buying everything I could find by him, and still

do to this day.

LG: What are your favourite Neil albums?

GV: Gosh, that's a tough one. I suppose it depends on the mood. "Tonight's the Night" for dark moods, "Harvest" for mornings, "Ragged Glory" for rock out mode, like for doing manual labor or driving, and "American Stars and Bars" for a good combination. But I love all the rest of them too. I've been listening to a lot of "Broken Arrow" lately.

LG: So what happened with you musically between high school and today?

GV: Um, a lot. That's a long time. I started a punkish band in high school, and it sort of carried over into college. Then I was in a glam metal satire band, then a bluesy band, then I went to Prague and played acoustic music with some friends on the streets there. Actually on a bridge. I came home to attend art school and didn't play in bands. After that I had a short lived band in LA, and when that broke apart I decided to take up songwriting seriously, and I put out a tape with a Paul Stinson, who I played with in college, on drums and me on everything else. That was the start of Thee Mystakes.

Then I moved up here to San Francisco. I was in another short lived band called Oarnge Ruffy with Jeff Solomon, who I played with in Prague and still play with now. When that blew apart I put out another Thee Mystakes record with Paul and Jeff. Then Paul moved to SF, so we gigged around as Thee Mystakes for about a year, and Jeff took off to go travel. After some soul searching I came upon the idea of writing a rock opera mostly as an exercise in writing songs in the thrid person, and it blossomed into The Ballad of Bobby McStone, which is where I am now. Phew.

LG: Phew. Could you talk more about your new rock opera and why you decided on such an ambitious project?

GV: Well, like I said, it started out as kind of an excercise, not really ambitious at all. I had been going out with my girlfriend for a little over a year, and basically all I'd written in that time were love songs. I realized that I couldn't go on like that, so I decided to explore a more narrative approach to songwriting, reviving an approach I'd used in some earlier songs. Also I had just lost my band and was a little frustrated, so I decided to write for myself, try to come up with something that I would really be interested in if I heard about someone else doing it. I wanted to forget everything that was expected, to ignore the rules, and just write for fun and for me. It's an approach that's worked for me before in painting.

Anyway, I had just discovered a lot of narrative type music at that time, and that was influencing me too. Stuff like the Kink's "Village Green Preservation Society," "Arthur," The Who's "Sell Out," Bowie's "Hunky Dory," and of course all of Willie Nelson's concept albums. I like albums that refer to themselves, or have a theme, like Supergrass's " I should Coco," that album has about 6 songs refering to how strange he is, or the Presidents of the United States first album, all about bugs and little cars and stuff. And of course Chixdiggit and their obsession with mom. That kind of focus appealed to me. I also wanted to get more wordy, influenced by early Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

The other thing I was interested in was writing something with a moral in it. I had gotten this Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter album, which is Hank talking over music, and each song has a clear moral message. So I thought, you write songs cause you supposedly have something to say, so why not actually say something. And the only moral I could really get behind was one of self-reliance, and acceptance and loving. So all this thinking started to get focused as I tried to think of a story. In the end I thought of three, and decided to put them all together as three acts. See, at this point I didn't really think I would complete it, I thought I'd come up with a structure, hang a few songs on it, and I'd have some new songs. But when I started writing it just poured out, and then next thing I knew there were 20 song titles and I couldn't really trim it any more. Musically I wanted to follow my instincts, and not be afraid to use the music that was in my head, and not be afraid to repeat myself or borrow from my old songs. But with all those songs you need some variety, so I could call in all my influences, from honky tonk to power pop to punk, and I tried some new stuff I'd never done before.

LG: That's probably a little more than I needed to know, but I can edit this later. I'm interested in the moral aspect of this project. Could you talk more about that.

GV: Well, the moral of the story is self reliance, with a message of acceptance and non-judgement thrown in there. I was listening to Hank, for instance, sing in a song called "Beware of Stones that you Throw," about how you shouldn't talk bad and gossip about people. It was so clear and such a simple idea, and to me really powerful. I was just trying to equate that with something contemporary, and I couldn't think of much. I kind of get a message from some Teenage Fanclub songs, but most other contemporary stuff sends the message, "I'm a loser" or "I'm just a rat in a cage" or something. And I personally think that to be an artist first you must have something to say, so I was trying to re-think what I was trying to say in this period, and that helped me come up with the story. It's not a religious thing, or it's not something where I think I know all the answers. In fact, all I really know is that you have to rely on yourself in this world. I think everything else comes from that: Love, happiness, pride, it all comes from loving yourself, and all knowledge starts with self-knowledge. We all have to figure out a way to cope in a hostile and difficult world, and these are just the conclusions I've come up with, with a lot of help from others before me. If this message helps just one person believe in themselves, then all the labor will be worth it. Actually it's to remind me mostly, so it is already worth it. Putting it out into the world is just for fun.

LG: What would you ideally want it compared with?

GV: Um, there's a lot of music that for me has been very meaningful and helpful in a real way. I'm sure everyone has songs they put on when they're feeling down to cheer them up, or at least make them feel like they're not alone in feeling so bad. I'll give you an example from my life: There's a great Husker Du song called "Keep Hanging On," off of "Flip Your Wig" I think, and that's a song I always put on when I need to be reminded to keep hanging on. "Don't let it Bring You Down" by Neil Young is another one like that. Or the whole Yesterday's Wine album by Willie Nelson. And like I said, these songs on Bobby make me feel better, so they've done their job, and ideally other people will find stuff in it that they can use.

LG: Is this an autobiographical work?

GV: Well, the short answer is no. Like I said, I was trying to do something totally new, to give myself a lot of freedom, and for me that meant making up characters that weren't me. Most of my old songs are so personal, and I wanted to get away from that. But there are some parts where I drew from my own experience, or from things I've seen friends go through. But my parents never fought about me, and I didn't have an evil music teacher, and I'v never even talked to a major label record company. And it was very fun to make this stuff up and try and have it all fit.

LG: This album is dedicated to the memory of Keith Brown. Who is he.

GV: Keith was a friend of mine from way back. We were in our first few bands together, The Hoods, The Wonderfuls, Black Voodoo, The P-bombs, The Utopiates. He went on to form Popsicko, out of Santa Barbara. They put out one album before Keith died, and you can still get it on the web, which I highly reccomend for anyone. It took me a while till I was able to listen to it, but it's really really great. We drifted apart and a few years later he started getting into heroin unfortunately. Eventually he died in a car accident. Very sad, cause he was always so smart and talented and charismatic, but untimately tortured and self destructive. He just didn't make it through.
I had him in mind a lot when I was writing Bobby. Especially on "We're a Band." I was trying to remember my first rock and rolling experiences and Keith was right there. This is how I like to remember him: It was near the end of my junior year in high school, I was 17. I'd gotten an electric guitar for my 16th birthday, and I'd been playing a lot by myself. I had a friend named Paul Allen who played piano, and we'd gotten together and played a few times, and it was fun, playing oldies and stuff. Anyway, Paul was also friends with Keith Brown, who I also knew from little league and stuff but not too well, and he had even more recently started playing guitar, so we agreed to jam. Then Keith asked if he could invite this guy he met named Steve Coulter, who played drums. The more the merrier. Anyway, the day comes for us to practice and Keiths's mom says we can do it in his bedroom, sort of a semi underground room in condo in Redondo. We set up, and Paul has some keyboard, 2 guitars and drums, and we start playing some oldie, and damn if it isn't pretty good. Wow. Then we try a few more, and we start talking about music, and damn if Steve, Keith and I both like Punk Rock. So Steve starts playing really fast, and Keith and I are getting off, just jamming, making noise, screaming. We decide to do "I ain't like you" by The Primates, a local garage band. It's just like Stepping Stone, so we sort of made it a medly. Anyway, we're being outrageous, steve's bashing, it's loud as hell, and like any sane man would, Paul says, I can't take this, and he goes upstairs to wait for me, cause I drove. We continue rocking, and I remember at some point knocking the mic stand over and screaming into the mic as it lay on the carpet, still coaxing croaking whines from my japanese strat and solid state marshall amp, and Keith screaming and turning his guitar up louder. Paul is a great guy and remains a friend to me and especially to Keith, but I remember driving him home that day thinking, I'll be coming back, but Paul won't. Such is the birth of a band.
But alas, that was a long time ago. A lot of people miss him, and the world was robbed of a great artist.

LG: Do you think that rock and roll is dead?

GV: No.

LG: Please elaborate.

GV: Folk music has been around forever. The mass popularity of rock and roll in the last few decades is misleading. There's always been a popular music and folk music. I do think that the audience for rock music is shrinking, but it's no big deal. I still feel that if you have something to say, it will transcend it's medium. In the old days, you were a musician for life, there was no-one getting rich from folk music. I think that the money that's in it now has fucked it up. Now people my age want to play be in a band just to get signed, so they can get rich and they won't have to work. And that happens to enough people to keep that dream going. But some people play music because they love it, and they love the music they play. They might not get rich with it, but it makes them happy. I've personally seen a few musicians play in bands just cause they think they're gonna get signed, not cause they like them. And maybe they do get signed and make some money, but 5 years later they're stuck playing the same crap they never liked that much, and they're not rich, and they get bitter. History has shown us that the real artists who persevere are the ones who play what they want, play what's in their heart. Maybe they never make money, but at least they're happy and artistically fulfilled. I like all kinds of music and want to play lots of different styles, and that's not good marketing, but I know that as soon as I compromise, I'm unhappy. I've tried it, and I know it's not worth it. So I'll just go along and record an album a year that just a few people hear, but that's ok. I'll keep putting the music out there, cause you never know, and of course I'd like to support myself with it, but I have no expectations.

LG: Do you think the guitar is dead?

GV: Not at all. I like electronic music, but something about the guitar just really speaks to me. I mean, it's just another tool of expression, just like a paintbrush, a typwriter, or 2 turntables and a microphone. It's still secondary to the message. I mean the cult of the guitar hero is definately waning, but it doesn't mean that it's a mute instrument. I know from experience that I can still make peoples jaws drop with it, and I can express my emotions with it, and people pick up on that. I think that's harder to do with spinning records, but that may just be my bias after playing guitar for so long. But actually I'm in an electronica band called Sex Suit, we're great.

LG: Let's talk about guitar playing. What's your favorite guitar and why?

GV: I have a 1969 Fender Telecaster that I bought when I was 17. It's got the sweetest sound I've ever heard. The guy I bought it from, and he could have been making this up, said he was Joe Walsh's guitar tech. He said he bought the guitar at Manny's in New York, and that Joe had played it and said it had a nice neck! It does! My other main guitar on the record is a Charvel Strat with single coil strat pickups in it. A few years ago my friend Doug turned me on to the playability of the Charvel necks, and I got this one for $175 at a pawn shop. I like flat and wide necks, and this guitar is great. I also used a late 70's Ibanez flying V which I've had for a long time, which I recently found out has become something of a collectors item. It's my only guitar with humbuckers in it. I used a cheap Charvel tele, a Danelectro Silvertone one pickup job, and my cheap Epiphone steel string acoustical and cheap Fender classical gut string job.

LG: Who are your favorite guitar players?

GV: Neil Young, Angus Young, Bob Stinson from the Replacements, J Mascis. And the classics of course. Johnny Guitar Watson, Greg Ginn, Jimmy Page, Johnny Thunders, Willie Nelson, And the last year or so I've discovered Richie Blackmore from Deep Purple and Rainbow. He's totally great, and I tried to copy some of his stuff on this record. Also a guy named Tony McPhee from the Groundhogs, great songwriter and guitarist.

LS: Speaking of songwriting, who are your favorite songwriters?

GV: I think for this record Willie Nelson influenced me the most. I love his use of language, it's so direct and mater of fact, and yet always sublime. Also for this record early Bruce Springsteen, Dylan, Supergrass, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Bowie, Teenage Fanclub, and of course the Pooh Sticks and Melanie.

You are a Fan of Melanie?

Oh yeah! She's the greatest. I've been into her since I was 20. I got her second album, the one just called Melanie, for 50 cents cause I thought she looked like this girl I had a crush on. Then I listened to it and it just blew me away, great songs and her incredible voice and performance. Plus that was my biggest hippie stage, so that helped. But I do think she's got some really great songs. People should get that album, or "Born to Be", or "Madrudaga," or any of the live ones. Or anything really, is all good.

LG: This is your first project as a solo artist. What made you put this out under your name only?

GV: Well, I never really had a band for it. I worked on the material with several groups of people, none of which are together as a band now. There's two drummers, two bass players, and like 7 singers besides me, so I just decided to say it was by Gregory Vaine rather than just make up a band name and pretend. That way I get all the blame too.

LG: And all the credit.

GV: You're too kind. But no, I couldn't have done it without everyone's help, and especially my very patient and understanding girlfriend. There were a lot of hard times, and self doubt, and she really encouraged me and reminded me to keep working when I needed it. I think that's the key to life: keep working and all the shit that happens will stay in the background. And I have to mention Elvis the drummer, who did an amazing job, and all the great backup singers, who I think really put the record over. A couple of them, Jeff Whalen, Dan Kern are in a band called Tsar from LA that's really great, you should check them out. I also got help from Matt Welch, Dylan Callahan, Os Tyler, Ken Layne, Paul Stinson, who played drums on two tracks and sang on one, Jeff Solomon, and Gloria Dios.

LG: Like many rockers of the 60's you went to art school. How do you think that has impacted your music?

GV: Art school. I admit it, I even went to graduate school for painting. Undergraduate was a great experience (Vaine attended the College of Creative Studies at UCSB from 1989 to 1992-ed.) Graduate school in LA was daunting. Too many people there making art for the wrong reasons. But to answer your question, I think art school taught me to think things through, to try and be conscious of all the possible meanings of your work. I think of rock and roll as fine art, and I think it's appropriate to intellectualize it, and analyze it, to a degree, and also to experiment and improvise, or to just feel the emotions of it. That's what you want the viewer or listener to do, isn't it? Also, kind of on accident, it taught me to ignore criticism, or at least to take it with a barrel of salt. I learned in art school to make art for myself, cause ultimately that's the only way to keep it pure. What happens after I make it is fun and games as far as I'm concerned. It's fun for me to see people's reactions, even when they're negative sometimes. A lot of what they tried to teach me in art school I rejected, so I guess you could say I learned the opposite of it. Does that make any sense?

LG: What makes you angry?

GV: Nothing I want to talk about, really. Just the normal stuff, barbarism, intolerance, muni.

LG: What makes you happy then?

GV: Well, love, making love, and good art, and playing guitar. And I like to learn things.

LG: Is there anything you would like to talk about?

GV: Um, well, I would encourage everyone to be more polite, and remember that we're all in this together. And buy my CD.