VUM: EVERYTHING IS IN FLUX
photography by ward robinson
At 9:30 in the morning the hills around Topanga Canyon sparkle. They’re dotted with homes, cafes, and high-end restaurants, and shot through by the winding Topanga Boulevard, where Corvettes speed past rusty old Volkswagen buses. At the Mimosa Cafe, a man in suspenders and a feathered cap held forth on the conspiracy du jour: ‘There’s lies,’ he says, ‘and there’s goddamn lies.’ And on the crest of another of those hills sits the cozy little house where Jennifer Pearl and Christopher Badger live and create their music. This is where Pearl and Badger wrote and recorded VUM’s latest Cryptocrystalline, a minimal yet lush set of electronic rock that’s a breakthrough in terms of both sound and vision. Pearl, who has worked as a marine biologist, and Badger, a sculptor and art teacher, both bring an unorthodox perspective to their work. Together with drummer Scott Spaulding, they work to combine slinky metallic guitar riffs, vintage electronic sounds and slowly unfolding melodies—sometimes wistful, often menacing. We talked about the band’s grown-up sounds and grown-up priorities in their living room while a Pharaoh Sanders album played on the turntable. Cryptocrystalline is out now digitally and comes out on vinyl on May 3. Portions of the proceeds will benefit the Malala Fund. This interview by Chris Kissel.
Cryptocrystalline sounds richer and deeper than anything VUM has done to date. It’s relatively easy to have the kind of arsenal of electronic sounds you use—but it’s different to be able to use them to take listeners somewhere.
Jennifer Pearl (vocals/guitar): I would hope that would be a consequence of getting older, traveling more, having more hardship, knowing more people, and just developing as a person.
Christopher Badger (Rhodes bass/synth/loops): The writing process is really different, too. Living together, and being together all the time—and working on this stuff at home and recording it for the most part at our home studio—there’s a lot of opportunity for refinement of ideas and rehashing of ideas. As opposed to getting together in a practice space at super high volume with four or five other people and trying to write. You change the structure, you change the output.
You say you credit your experiences for helping deepen your sound. What sort of experiences?
JP: So many. I think more recently the most intense experience has been becoming less narcissistic as I became a mother. Getting moved out of constantly asking myself, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is it that I want to do?’ Motherhood is a basic thing—it’s not special that I’m a mother. But I have found it to have a profound influence on how I think about things. The result of that is becoming a lot more aware about how I relate not just to my local community but also the world at large. Every time a drone flies over Syria, that’s my country and my tax dollars. It makes you more aware of what your place in the big collage. And what those ramifications are for the future. Those are the things I’m thinking of as I compose lyrics.
The idea of the self is visited in different ways in the lyrics—ideas about possession and intimacy; questions of who you are, and what you represent.
JP: I don’t think it’s ever that intentional, but through the writing process I come to realize that x, y, and z have changed, and this is how I’m thinking of it. Especially in terms of my daughter’s future. I feel like I have a heavy stake in things getting better rather than feeling disengaged and just at the center of my own universe.
How have you found your music developing alongside that idea?
CB: Part of it was getting influenced by things that were not rock music. We have played in rock bands and garage bands, and in this band, it’s more of a response to other musics and audio that I experienced through art, really, and getting into art history. Finding different ways of making music that is much more minimal. In comparison to a lot of those influences, what we do is still very rock. But compared to what we were doing before … we were, for example, listening to long microtonal drone composers. We had to strip back the flourishes and changes. I think I found an appreciation of doing a lot more with less.
JP: After [Pearl’s earlier band] Lion Fever [broke up], I went away to college and studied science for a few years. I think that was the first step toward becoming removed from myself a bit, and getting out of this head full of anecdotal evidence and personal experience. Music obviously is an art of perspective and personal experience, but I felt like science was a very powerful tool, a way of knowing that helped me take a step back from the whole thing and look at it through another lens.
A more objective lens?
JP: Yeah—it was easier for me to say, ‘This is good, this is bad.’ A lot more ended up on the chopping block.
That’s an interesting perspective. I do think that’s another thing that comes with getting older as an artist—being able to identify bad art that you’ve made.
JP: [laughs.] And to not feel so personal about it.
CB: I don’t really see it in terms of good or bad, which are moral terms, but I definitely agree that getting older, you’re going to be able to edit yourself in a way that is less emotional. Hopefully. [laughs.] Like a guitar part isn’t good or bad, it just works or doesn’t work with the song. Mostly the guitar parts. [laughs.]
JP: [laughs.] That’s your example, huh?
The record is not a dark record, but it utilizes some dark sounds. ‘Goth’ is a word often used to describe your sound and while that’s accurate in some ways, it didn’t feel dark the way something that is ‘goth’ would.
JP: I’m glad you say that, because I don’t feel like most of our music is dark. I feel elated when I’m making it, so I can’t imagine people feeling that way about it.
CB: I’ve always had an attraction to minor chords, which gives it that element, but we’re definitely not a goth rock band, or any genre—that’s a genre. One of the things we faced in the music scene is that we’re not a psych rock band, we’re not a goth band, we’re not an industrial band—we’re not any of these other things. Those are types of music that use drum machines, but we’re not really any of those genres. We’re a mix of so many influences, it can make it a little but hard to find a record label to fit onto or a show to fit onto.
JP: We don’t have a good lifestyle package that comes with our sound. [laughs.]
You guys get a lot of comparisons lobbed at you, partly because your music is an amalgam of so many different styles. Are there comparisons that bug you?
JP: One thing I am a little uncomfortable with is that since the first review of anything I’ve ever played, people have let the need to compare me to a female singer or musician. I am very glad we’ve had a movement in the past decade or so where being a woman in this world of music is not so strange anymore. I felt annoyed when it was like, ‘Does she sound like Patti Smith, P.J. Harvey, or Debbie Harry?’ It’s like a roll of the dice—which one is it going to be this time? How about I don’t sound like any of them? There is just not enough of a body of work there to compare to. I always felt annoyed that we were put in this category, like ‘Oh, we’re going to do an all-female show, where all the singers are girls, and you guys can be in that one.’ I feel like that’s getting a little bit better now, but people definitely think along those lines still. We’re half the population, so why would a female voice be an anomaly?
To a degree, I think we used to feel like it was necessary to highlight female voices in that way. It feels less necessary now, and so that specific focus on ‘female vocals’ seems kind of weird.
JP: It’s even weirder. That sort of categorization will always make it seem as though a woman’s contribution is niche, and I don’t appreciate that. ‘If you’re feeling a little experimental today, check this out—it’s a woman’s voice!’ I find it so strange that in this day and age we’re still faced with that, though I do feel like the playing field is evening out a little bit. It used to make me really mad when I was younger, just being stopped from going backstage because they thought I was a girlfriend or a groupie at my own show.
I love the music video for ‘Katrine,’ with these three women in their bouffants cruising around L.A. I like how the lightness of it kind of contrasts with the sound.
JP: It was a snapshot of a real experience. I lived in the Central Coast growing up but before that I lived in the Inland Empire. In writing that song, I had this idea that I wanted to recreate the girls I went to middle school with in the Inland Empire, just being bored and having nowhere to go. I was thinking of these girls while we were writing and styling ‘Katrine,’ and Andreas [Attai, who directed the video] did a great job filling it out.
When you are a band lots of people write about, writers look for one golden sentence to use to describe you. And one of the reasons I like that video is that it feels like it belies everything about what people want to say about your sound.
JP: There is no concise message about us. In some ways, it’s a blockade for us. But this is who we are—we don’t have a simple neat story to put forth. If we were just going to do these Super 8 black leather glove collage videos, those are fun too, but that’s not the only place we’re coming from.
The song ‘Dream Life, Doors Locked’ —
JP: That’s a dark one. [laughs.]
It is, but you have the line you keep singing, ‘I am free.’ But it wasn’t a liberated, happy sounding kind of freedom.
JP: The story in that song is not necessarily from my own experiences, but in my time as a touring musician I’ve been adjacent to a lot of dark stories. It’s a narrative about a woman who is being held captive and finds freedom through escapist means, like drugs or imagination, rather than the actual freedom she would have the right to experience herself. And unfortunately, I think that’s a pretty common scenario. You don’t necessarily need to be held captive in a motel room somewhere, but I think women in this country, and more so in others, are partially free. To me, that’s a sad thing.
What do you mean by ‘partially free?’
JP: ‘Partially free’ [describes] what I consider to be the socio-political experience of women in America. I can’t speak for all women—only for myself—but in my experience, we have a situation in which we enjoy what feels like freedom in our day to day lives until we encounter the threat of gendered violence, or go to cash our paycheck and note that our labor is only worth 78 cents on the dollar, or are reminded by the media that we are the preferred backdrop or the supporting role in life’s play—not the protagonist. And we better be on the pill because our real value is measured in our ability to attract men. Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘women’s rights?’ As long as this phrase is relevant, it indicates that there is a disparity between men’s and women’s rights. And that’s a problem.That said, I must acknowledge that in the U.S. our situation is ever-evolving and we do have overtures into legislative and cultural equality here, while women in other countries systematically suffer in the face of egregious human rights abuses specifically directly at our sex—like honor killings, genital mutilation, and forced marriage. I read a headline last year that read
‘Nigeria bans female genital mutilation’ with an exclamation point at the end of the headline. I had hoped that the exclamation point was being used to underline the insanity of reading a headline like this in 2015.
The idea of exploring agency runs through this record. Is that related to what we were talking about earlier—about broadening your perspective as you get older?
JP: I think I have this really bizarre mishmash of life experiences that don’t necessarily go together. I’m always trying to reconcile that. I have one leg in the world of art and music, and another leg in the world of more concrete and possibly more necessary things. I’m always feeling the tug between the two. ‘Is this necessary or am I wasting my time? Is this important? It feels important to me, but does that matter?’ It’s a collage, that’s the only way I can express it. It’s a mishmash of these widely disparate experiences. You know, playing in rock bands and living in crumbling buildings in Detroit was a really different experience from being at a research facility in French Polynesia. But all those experiences are me. I’m not entirely one person but a variety of people.
So you studied science in college?
JP: Environmental science. I worked at an environmental nonprofit for about five years. I’m in this precarious position now—I’m home with my daughter but I’m trying to figure out what to do next. Do I keep playing music? Do I got to grad school? Especially having a kid, it feels more self-indulgent to be doing this thing that doesn’t have any specific renumeration attached. How much longer can I keep doing this? At the same time, I’m wondering with regard to climate change and international warfare, what am I doing? I have a reasonable amount intelligence and I’m in the U.S.—why am I not more of an agent of change? So I’m always walking the line, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing. You get a little done over here and a little over there, instead of making a big push on one end.
That does come through on the record. There’s a sense of self being described in the album, but it feels very slippery—sometimes you hear ‘This is who I am’ and sometimes you hear ‘I’m possessed by someone else.’ It’s related to this idea of, How closely is my identity tied to what I do?
JP: These are the questions I ask myself every day. We also quit the band every day. [laughs.] These are also the kinds of questions I ask myself going through motherhood. Talk about not recognizing your body—this thing you’ve had your whole life becomes this other thing. It’s been the most fantastically transformative experience. My daughter is the best thing ever in my life. But it is also this strange displacement where you realize nothing will ever be solid, everything is in flux, and I’m just passing through.
You realize how little control you have.
JP: Right—you realize it’s a joke and you have no control.
Not that I can speculate on what it’s like to be pregnant, but I imagine there’s this sense of spending your whole life trying to determine your trajectory—
JP: And now it’s biology determining your trajectory. And it works. I was amazed by how perfectly timed everything was, and that I am a system of cells that operates whether or not I’m happy with the mix.
But you’re still trying to determine that.
JP: Yeah—I’m always surprised. First I said ‘I’m going to go to college and stop playing music.’ Then I said, ‘I’m going to go back to L.A. and work for the environment and stop playing music.’ Then, ‘I’m going to have my daughter and stop playing music.’ Lo and behold, it’s something I can’t stop doing.
Why did you start putting out your own music?
CB: We started pressing our own vinyl ourselves first out of necessity, and then wanting to have creative control over the process.
It’s definitely feels of a piece with the somewhat meditative idea of creating your art where you live.
JP: That was the case, yeah. We were making music all day, living in Neil Young’s old studio in Topanga. I’d just come back from Tahiti, studying marine biology and making field recordings there. We were using a lot of those.
CB: One thing about making your own music and doing it yourself and being your own record label is that you get to be involved in every step of the process.
JP: It is more satisfying in that sense.
How do VUM songs typically take shape?
CB: They start different ways. Sometimes it starts with Jennifer and a guitar riff or a vocal melody that she’s made.
JP: Or a drum machine patch. It’s always different.
CB: Sometimes it’ll start from these little tape sketches that I make. Late at night, I’ll go out and just record hours of tape. And then we’ll find a fragment of that and turn it into a song. Or we’ll dig up a cassette we recorded months or years back that we never used, and use that or a snippet of that as the basis of a song.
JP: Which was the case for our latest single, ‘New Girls.’ We have drawers and drawers full of four-track cassettes we’ve recorded that we’ll mine occasionally. We have published something like 60 or 70 songs as VUM, and have written probably 200 or 300. But some of them will just be instrumental slices or vocal melodies with nothing else on them. This was a full-fledged song we intended to publish and just completely forgot about.
Revisiting a track like that must be like communicating with an earlier version of yourself.
JP: There was another vocal melody on that cassette, so I was communicating with myself, saying ‘This is a terrible vocal melody.’ [laughs.] More or less the song was the same—I recorded the same guitar parts I wrote at the time—but it was interesting to hear how much my ideas sounded like my previous band, versus something I’d do today.
Sometimes you find you’ve changed a lot over time, and sometimes you find you haven’t changed as much as you thought you did.
JP: [laughs.] I’d say in some cases for us, that’s true, and in others not so much.
What’s the normal gestation period for a VUM song?
JP: It can be a few minutes, or it can be something we labor over for a few months. And I don’t know that you can ever tell with the end result. Literally every moment on every VUM song is highly contested. We’re both strong personalities, and highly opinionated people, always trying to peel back each other’s decisions.
Does it end with compromise or do you hammer and hammer until you’re both 100 percent satisfied?
JP: [Option] B. And it takes a lot of time.
Do you know when you’re done?
JP: With laying down tracks, we know when we’re done. When it comes to mixing, I think we could mix and remix our records until the end of time. Luckily, we run out of time, or money, or a hard drive crashes and we just can’t work on it anymore.
I’d imagine that for a band like yours, where the sound is such an integral part of the music, that process is as important—or as stressful—as making the music itself.
JP: It takes at least as long as writing. The mixing and peeling back of parts and trimming things is as important as the rest of it.
Can we talk about the beginnings of VUM?
JP: I was in a band called Lion Fever for a long time, and Lost Kids, and Chris was in a band called Grand Elegance, a Long Beach band, and we met playing a show together at the Echo. We started dating and eventually started making music together. We started on New Year’s Day, 2008, with the idea that we’d really be getting into territory that we hadn’t experimented with before, being more minimalist in our approach, and having it be based on drum machines and keys rather than guitar-driven rock.
You moved to L.A. from Portland?
JP: Yeah, I’ve lived all over. I’m from California originally. I lived in Detroit, Michigan, Portland, Oregon. I tried out basically every corner of the U.S. and ended up in a place I never thought I would be, which is Los Angeles.
When you came to L.A. to do music, what was your impression of the city at first?
JP: I was in that band Lion Fever at the time, and we were on Dim Mak, and there were a lot of things happening at once. It was the cliché, Hollywood-adjacent celebrity-type-thing I thought would be going down here, but it was also this tight-knit underground scene that I hadn’t perceived before. I naturally fell into that by working at Amoeba Music. This city can be a really isolating and lonely place, but luckily as soon as I got here I started working for Amoeba, and that came with an instant family.
A lot of what people say about L.A. is true. There’s definitely a culture of these vapid—
Yeah—fame-chasing people. But that’s not that different from New York.
JP: Or any other city with any affluence.
Right—a creative destination type of city. But L.A. also has an element of … because people live more separately the communities they do form are stronger, because they have to go out of their way to do that.
JP: Yeah. I think you find that you lean on people more here. The network means more. The first thing I did when coming from Portland is I drove directly to the Smell. I have a mutual friend with [Smell owner] Jim Smith, this character Mac Mann who played in Get Hustle and a bunch of great underground bands, and just by calling Jim and letting him know we were coming and needed a place to rehearse … we drove straight from Portland, straight into downtown, right into the Smell. The area of downtown where the Smell is and has been for a long time used to be a pretty rough area. So I get out of the car, and there’s a ranchero bar right outside of where we parked, and this guy comes stumbling out. He smashes a beer bottle on the sidewalk as he’s yelling at someone else. And I’m stepping out of the car, this is my first foot on a sidewalk in Los Angeles, and broken glass is flying all over me. I thought, ‘Oh no, oh my God.’ [laughs.] But I got to the Smell, and Jim just handed me the keys to his establishment. I’d never met him before—this was just on the recommendation of a friend—and I was like, ‘Don’t you want my driver’s license? Or some money, or something?’ I didn’t have any money, but I was surprised.
You thought you’d have to trade something.
JP: I was really surprised by his generosity and openness. That’s where we rehearsed for the first couple of months, and we have him to thank for that.
That was three years before the two of you started playing together. Is there a trajectory between the music you were playing with Lion Fever in 2005 and the music the two of you started playing together?
JP: I worked in record stores for a really long time, and started getting into punk rock and collecting music when I was 15. I always had a broad range of influences but selectively used them in my own music making. So I think that rather than migrating from the straight punk Gun Club-style stuff I was doing before … I hadn’t necessarily had a change of influences but I was listening a lot to the Birthday Party and Siouxsie and the Banshees and was more influenced by that kind of stuff. And then just getting weirder and weirder as time goes on.
How has the scene in L.A. changed?