With RVG seemingly on an unstoppable ascendancy, we spoke to them about the story of the record that took them there.
Standing onstage at the Brudenell Social Club, Romy Vager’s utterly rapt. Having grown up in Adelaide with an upbringing soundtracked by classic 80s goth records, arriving in Leeds has been something of a pilgrimage. More than that, it offers closure on the dream she clung onto of one day moving there (“I was a strange child”, she’ll admit) and she’ll spend the day prior to the evening’s show exploring old landmarks, culminating in walking past the house of The Sisters Of Mercy’s Andrew Eldtrich.
Still effervescing about the experience days later when we speak during she and her troupe’s foray into France that followed their jaunt around Britain. You suspect that some of that energy stems from the ongoing success of the band’s debut record, a release revered in their Australian homeland since its release last year now finally starting to see similar levels of deserved adulation overseas. The road to making the record is an unorthodox one, beginning with Vager moving into legendary sharehouse – though that seems a title that sells it short – The Bank, up in the Northern Melbourne suburb of Preston. A sprawling former bank building (hence the name), the building – only recently vacated – quickly became a creative hub populated exclusively by members of the city’s ever-virile arts scene and soon became home to a rehearsal and recording space.
From that nurturing environment sprung RVG, their self-titled debut eschewing the goth influences of Vager’s youth for a sound that felt much brighter and more refreshing. Often drawing comparisons to the ever-influential indie giants of Australian music The Go-Betweens, it’s a record that melds instantly accessible and often insidiously catchy melodies with an underlying intensity that makes for an attention-grabbing listen (a point only hammered home when the band bring it to life in a live setting, Vager herself becoming a model of relentless and unapologetic impassioned determination for the duration of their set).
It’s rightly put Vager & Co on international radars, with a highlight – latest international headline tour notwithstanding – being a European support run with recent critical darlings Shame. With the band seemingly on an unstoppable ascendancy, here’s the story of the record that took them there.
“living there inspired me to make my own music and to have the space to make my own music. We played our first gig there and we made the album there , it was a very important place.”
You took quite an unorthodox route making this record, via a stint at legendary sharehouse The Bank. How did you get to be involved in that scene and how important do you think it was in the genesis of RVG?
I guess I was just lucky enough to move in there, and it wasn’t just this incredible share house but also a recording studio and rehearsal space. Most of the time when you move into a new house you have neighbours and you can’t really play music or whatever and you might live with people who aren’t very creative and might not even tolerate it within your own house. But it was the total opposite with The Bank – living there inspired me to make my own music and to have the space to make my own music. We played our first gig there and we made the album there , it was a very important place.
I’m curious as to whether living somewhere awash with creative people constantly making things was solely inspiring, or was there also an element of pressure to be making things in there too?
Both, I think. It’s beautiful to be surrounded by creative people but also you want to be a part of what’s around you and if everyone’s coming through the house – bands are coming through the house – and they’re making records and playing shows then it pushes you, in a healthy and competitive way, to make your own music. I think I was quite lazy up until that point.
You’ve described that time as one that gave you the support and confidence necessary to both come out and to make music. To what extent do you think the space and the community around it has left an indelible mark on you personally?
Oh, big time. I’d never had that environment, I’d always lived in strange places with conservative people and people who didn’t understand why or what I was doing making music. Moving into that little left-wing bubble inside another left-wing bubble left me feeling free to express myself in so many different ways.
Given that domestically you did everything yourselves, did you ever envisage having the opportunity to be doing things internationally and how has the experience of releasing the album tallied with your expectations of what the album would allow you to achieve?
I guess we didn’t really have a lot of expectations – this year’s the first year I’ve gone overseas. I’ve not been to Europe before and I’d not been to America prior to this year and when we made this album we made it for our friends and the community around us. It’s pretty strange to see it elsewhere, honestly, especially on a label overseas, which is very bizarre! We have expectations now, but that comes from the culture of being in a band that’s doing things like going overseas.
Given the bright nature of the record I was surprised to hear you describe your goth-obsessed formative years. How do you feel the album fits in with your musical upbringing – does it insidiously creep in at times or has the passing years and a wider musical palette enabled you to have more options from a stylistic perspective?
I’ve definitely grown, and my songwriting’s grown too. I’m certainly more keen on writing songs that are a bit more poppy, but at the same time I think there’s a healthy amount of depression on the album itself, and there’s definitely elements of 80s goth creeping in there. Some of the album is a nod to all those Leeds bands, and even the cover’s really monochrome and almost in the style of a Sisters Of Mercy sleeve. There are all these little elements that have snuck in there – at the same it’s different but it still has its roots in some of my own early influences. ‘Eggshell World’ could have been a song that The Mission wrote or something. It has its subtleties, and to me as a whole it’s quite a subtle record. It has its little references, and it’s obviously part-Australian and it contains Australian nods here and there but it’s also got UK roots and doses of black humour.
“I like that idea of having bright and poppy songs with a darker lyrical content because only a very small percentage of people who listen to it pick up on it.”
Most coverage has used reference points like The Church and The Go-Betweens, do you feel you intentionally drew from classic Australiana for the record or was it just an organic sound that came about of its own accord?
I think I was really absorbed in it at the time, and it’s a product of what i was listening to at the time. I came to the Go-Betweens quite late and when I was sketching out the songs that would eventually become the album I was listening to a lot of Go-Betweens and a lot of Triffids and things like that. I guess that’s what kind of sparked a change in my songwriting and stopped it from becoming obviously and relentlessly dark.
Beneath that bright and often sunny musical veneer there’s a huge amount of passion driving the songs – was that mix of light and shade a conscious songwriting direction and if so was it hard to reconcile those two elements into a cohesive sound?
I think it was definitely intentional, I like that idea of having bright and poppy songs with a darker lyrical content because only a very small percentage of people who listen to it pick up on it. I think of [J Frank Wilson And The Cavaliers’] ‘Last Kiss’ where it’s very bright and fun but it’s about a car crash and contains some really horrible lyrics. It’s hard to get those two things together, for sure.
Were you consciously writing with set lyrical themes in mind or is it a case that you’ve looked back with the benefit of hindsight and realised that you’ve been consistently writing about certain topics? What would you say the main themes on the record – if there are any – are?
If I try and write a song I sit down and try to write with a definite theme in mind and then try and build stuff around that, rather than blindly writing and hoping that a theme reveals itself. All of the songs on the record come from very distinct ideas, and part of that was from trying to write something different from the last thing I’d written. So the thematic varies as you go along, but the overarching themes are ones of perspective and empathy.
Along with Miss Blanks, Two Steps…, Evelyn Morris you’re prominent, visible presence for the queer community in Australia. Do you think that’s become more important since the postal vote and does it come with its own pressures?
I don’t really know about stuff like that, and I don’t really feel as though I have an especially queer audience. I guess I think that things have been easier in the last few years for trans and queer people in Australia and I don’t think it’s related to the same-sex marriage vote – I think that what that did was put but all the terrible people in their place…for a bit. But I don’t really know what my influence is.
In hindsight, do you think you made the record you set out to, and how does the finished product fit in with any preconceived ideas that you might have had?
I think we pretty much made the record that we wanted to. We took our time and did it ourselves and came out with a product that we created with no outside influence. As for now, I think it sounds different to how it sounded then, but I think it sounded how it was supposed to when we recorded it.