FRENCH VANILLA: THE BEST VERSION OF YOURSELF
photography by jeff fribourg
French Vanilla’s tag line is ‘Destroy All Dude Rock,’ but they are not anti-all-dudes. There are dudes, after all, in the band. What they want is inclusion for everyone, and they seek to spread a socially conscious message with affably aggressive post-punk-and-disco music. Ali Day and Daniel Trautfield have been best friends since high school. Ali met Sally Spitz and Max Albeck at UCLA. Together they frequented DIY shows together, and eventually decided to make a band and perhaps change the world a little. Jeff Galvan and Oscar Santos of CoolWorldParty gave them their first show without even hearing them and—truth be told—they didn’t actually have any songs yet. Ali didn’t even know how to play guitar. Here they discuss their debut full-length, out now via Danger Collective, as well as being political, being self-conscious, and the importance of DIY spaces. You might notice the absence of drummer Max from both the photos and interview. He doesn’t like that stuff, so he doesn’t do it. Boom. French Vanilla performs this Fri., July 28, at the Observatory with Surf Curse. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Ali, tell us how you didn’t know how to play guitar when you formed the band:
Ali Day (guitar/bass): I definitely didn’t have any lessons. I started playing in order to be in this band and I purposely didn’t learn traditional guitar as a way to make sure that I created a unique sound. I did learn a few songs that I liked the style of—maybe like three—and went from there. It’s mostly me making up the chords based on what I think sounds cool with the bass line and lyrics. A lot of our songs start with the bass. Sometimes I even write the bass lines.
There is something to be said for not knowing as much. It makes you creative with what you’ve got.
Ali Day: I really just didn’t want a typical guitar sound. AT ALL.
Daniel Trautfield (sax/bass): One of the main inspirations from all genres of punk—and why we began identifying as punk in the beginning—is that ethos of content and creativity over any form of knowledge or access to gear. That was and is really important to us.
How does performance art inform the band?
Sally Spitz (vocals): Speaking about humor as a tool … Humor is involuntary. Sometimes people laugh when they’re uncomfortable, not just when things are funny. So we use humor to express more difficult and painful memories and ideas. With performance art, I think about people like Nina Hagen and Kate Bush, where the videos are so complex and so much a part of the world that’s created through their music. That’s something that I want to develop. What people remember—how the legend of a band is constructed. I want to take control of that: breaking down the fourth wall, dance, thinking about movement. I work on dance, exercise and do yoga because I want to be an energetic performer. My voice is coming from my physicality so I want to be strong. I think about how I look on stage. I’m a self-conscious individual. Women are made to feel so ashamed about our bodies and I want to push back against that but at the same time I do feel embarrassed about how I look. But I’m the only person in the room that knows that. Everyone else in the room is seeing a performance. So I use art as a way to deal with my feeling and thoughts and work through that.
Daniel Trautfield: Sally and I have been talking about this a lot. Especially playing this new version of L.A. in the absence of DIY spaces. Creating energy is a whole different story. When you get on a big stage, you have to be conscious of performing. If you have fun then the audience will have fun. I can’t stand there and just play lines. But if Sally is dancing and Ali is rocking out and we’re interacting, it elevates the experience for everyone.
How do you maintain a sense of community with the absence of the DIY spaces that you used to frequent?
Ali Day: A lot of the bands that we do have community with … it’s still based on past times when there were these places. But going forward it still builds community when you just play shows with other bands. It can still happen even though it’s not in an ideal space for that.
Daniel Trautfield: The community is definitely going through a hard time with all these closures. Our first entrance into the L.A. scene was through CoolWorldParty. They were throwing these amazing queer- and POC-centered dance parties and punk shows in a variety of spaces around town. We started going to those because they were great experiences and great places for people to come together. Because of closures, that sort of dissolved. But the people from that space are still sprinkled around town and coming together in occasional and interesting ways at different spots than we would have imagined.
Why are DIY spaces important?
Daniel Trautfield: The one thing that resulted from these closures is that people who were taking them for granted—including myself—realized how insanely important they are. Not just for bands that already exist and play around town, but for new projects and to experiment with sound. I don’t know right now what a band like we were a couple years ago would do to figure out how to play music in a way that made sense to them without these spaces that let you figure it out on a stage.
Ali Day: And even just for like making friends.
Daniel Trautfield: The answer is really to focus on bringing back DIY spaces.
Ali Day: To have a community that was willing to support us even while we were terrible and say that we were great. We wrote four songs before our first show.
And played a 4-song set?
Ali Day: Yes! At CoolWorld.
Did you make it count?
Ali Day: I think so …
Daniel Trautfield: We had the most typical band’s first show where we all panicked. We played the show and we were so excited and had no idea what we were doing and were just so excited to get it done. Then we realized that nobody could tell anything that happened.
Ali Day: We just had no idea how sound worked.
Sally Spitz: I remember feeling so much pressure of like, ‘OK, we’re presenting ourselves for the first time and we have to say this is who we are. This is what we’re about and this is what we look like and this is how we do it.’ But then I realized we have to do that at every single show after that.
What do you want the takeaway to be for people?
Sally Spitz: It’s changed over time. With spaces being closed down—Ghost Ship—and things that have happened in the community since we started playing, we feel more serious and also more committed to our music and wanting it to mean something. We share similar beliefs about what we want the music to say. We want people to feel comfortable. To dance and connect with our music or with other people at the show. I want people to be OK with their anger. I try to express my anger in my music in a creative way and I want people to see that. That’s something that I appreciate in other musicians—the beauty of that self-expression. I want people to think about music and our performance in a more meta sense sometimes. ‘This is the art of performance. This is façade.’ To break down barriers with audiences to where it’s more an intellectual experience of the music.
Is it important to break the fourth wall between the audience and the performers?