BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Austin, TX five-piece The Vanity is insuring music fans across the globe get very familiar with their bold brand of rock and roll with the release of its debut EP, Strangers, featuring three tracks guaranteed to make an instant impression. Formed in 2014, the group – Alex Dugan (vocals), Mic Vredenburgh (guitar), Matt Sledge (guitar), Augie Gmitter (bass) and David Grayson (drums) – melds an amalgam of the member’s individual musical influences into a cohesive collection of audio appetizers on their 3-song EP, while promising to serve up several more courses of tasty tunes in the months to come. “The thing is that we’re independent and we get to make our own decisions about stuff, so it’s pretty much in our hands,” states Dugan, when I asked him about a plan afoot to release a series of EPs this year. “Creatively we’re pretty much making the music we want to make. Right now it’s a series of EPs and then I guess we’ll decide where to go from there, but we’re continuing to write and see what happens.”
For now, faithful fans and future followers can digest the three tracks that make up Strangers – “River,” “Cowboy Killer” and “Black and Blue” – before cleansing their palates in anticipation of enjoying the next audio course The Vanity is ready to serve up. In the meantime, the three prime cuts on Strangers are more than enough to chew on for now.
Alex, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. We’re gonna get much more acquainted with your three-song EP Strangers during this conversation, but first tell us how you and your four bandmates got acquainted and eventually formed The Vanity?
It was kinda like weird. I’d been looking for musicians that I got along with for almost like two or three year and it’s kinda weird to think that all these guys kinda walked into my life within a couple of weeks of each other. After looking for so long it was kinda shocking. Initially it just started as I knew a guitar player who knew somebody else who knew somebody else and then we just all started bringing in friends to jam. People started filtering in and out and so forth and eventually we just kinda looked around the room and said, alright, I think this is a band. We spent about a year-plus just working on writing and playing and becoming a band. What we sounded like when we first started is so different than what we sound like now and that’s just because we were figuring it out. So it was like the weirdest circumstances, and they all happened one right after the other, so I guess it was just the right time.
Wow, it was all very organic. I assume all this occurred around Austin and it’s likely that the first thing most music fans think of when talking about music in Texas is country, and perhaps maybe some blues. What is the state of rock in the Lone Star State?
I’m originally from Houston and moved to Austin to go to UT (University of Texas) for film school, so I’ve been all around Texas and can give you the Austin perspective. It’s very weird – especially Austin. The rock scene has really taken a hit and to me it’s just because the City of Austin is growing. As the city grows the property values rise and as the property values rise great venues that would let great Austin rock bands exist are having to close up shop, which is a shame. Some of them are moving out to the boondocks and some of them are closing altogether. But I think that the vibe of the city is still there and I think there are a good amount of people still trying to continue it, to keep it going. But it’s tough, it’s really tough out there. You got a lot of bands with different styles, I mean there’s all sorts of stuff here but I just wish there was more venues for all of them to play, as there was probably five or 10 years ago. And now they’re building all these brand new apartment complexes and condos and bulldozing all these old historic Austin places.
Unfortunately the city is losing character in favor of condos. So before we dive into Strangers, take me back in time: Do you remember the first song you ever heard and started singing along to as a kid?
There was all sorts of stuff. There are old baby tapes of me when I was like two, and I’m still in diapers and I’m holding a microphone and singing “Twist and Shout,” The Beatles version. I guess I kinda grew up on The Beatles. On the drive to school every day, either my dad or mom would take me, but most of the time it was my dad, and there were only two CDs that were allowed to be in the car: The Beatles’ number 1 hits and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? That’s all we listened to for like years (laughs) driving to school. Over and over and over again, so of course I’m singing all The Beatles songs and I’d listen to the Hendrix stuff and kind of get into that and then it obviously expanded from there, but if I could point to two specific things it would be that. And then when I really wanted to start performing and getting into the singing even more so…I was like six years old and that Blues Brothers 2000 movie came out and there’s a kid in there who travels around with them and I was like, man I wanna be the kid! But yeah, I’d say The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the Blues Brothers 2000 movie would have to be my trifecta.
Introduce us to your EP Strangers, starting with the song “River” which you are quoted as saying: “Lyrically, I was inspired by a relatively dark moment in my life. I guess you can credit addiction, narcissism and a girl that doesn’t need to be named for that.”
Can you expand, Alex?
The EP is just a culmination of all the work we’d been putting in for the past couple of years…and finally we had maybe five or six songs that we thought were good and then we singled out these three as the ones we wanted to record. So we set up some studio time, we did some pre-production stuff and in the process of doing all that we came in contact with this guy named Kevin Killen who wanted to mix the EP for us, which was so beyond, like, over our heads because this guy has five Grammys and he’s worked with U2 and Peter Gabriel and all sorts of people. It’s been, quite honestly, fantastic and at this point we’re almost done with the final process for our second EP which he came in and produced for us as well.
I’m gonna ask you more about Kevin later, but sonically, Alex, I hear similarities with pre-superstardom Kings of Leon on these tracks. Did some of their influence spill over the Oklahoma-Texas border?
Well I won’t concede that one (laughs)! As a proud UT graduate I don’t think I can say Oklahoma spilled over, but uh…they might take my degree away! I mean we definitely all listen to Kings of Leon and The Strokes and The Killers and U2 and the Stones and all sorts of things. We’re all over the map regarding what we like to listen to so when anything seeps in or sounds like something else it’s not a surprise to me. We’ve had people refer to us as things that sound like Kings of Leon and things that sound like U2 and then I’ve heard – the weirdest one – someone said was it was like Rick Springfield if he was jamming with Sunny Day Real Estate, and we were just like, what the f**k does that mean (laughs)?
Wow! I’m totally down with, and wholeheartedly agree, with the Kings of Leon and U2 comparisons, but boy, Rick Springfield?
Yeah, we’ve heard ‘em all but the reality is that each of us listen to such vastly different stuff. I have my influences and then you look at Matt and he loves Fleetwood Mac and the Stones…and Mic is into all sorts of different, off-the-wall stuff…and even our drummer Dave is into like One Direction and Charli XCX and all sorts of poppy stuff but at the same time he likes Kings of Leon, the Stones, U2 and all that kind of good stuff. And then Augie listens to The Grateful Dead and I couldn’t stand listening to three seconds of them but that’s just me. So all of our influences create this nice mesh of this new sound.
Well I’ll put a period on the discussion regarding “River” by saying it’s a great song. Now I think I made the mistake of mentioning the Oklahoma-Texas border earlier – I’m kidding, of course – but speaking of borders, the EP’s second song “Cowboy Killer” is set on the Mexican border. What was the inspiration for that number?
It came from a lot of different things but mostly from some inner band stories. Both of our guitar players are from El Paso and Midland; that side of Texas. Being from that side of town and kind of our own habits it kind of spread this whole conversation that we were having for months about where we were from and swapping stories about who each other were because we’d only known each other for about a year or so. So it just kind of came from hometown stories and stuff like that. Personally, lyrically on this EP that’s my favorite set of lyrics.
For me, your soaring vocals are the star on “Black and Blue.” I hear a little Bono going on in there and you mentioned [mixer] Kevin [Killen] earlier on, but is that coincidental considering the EP was mixed by Kevin whose worked with U2?
The lyrics and the vocals were written ahead of time, before Kevin came into the mix, but really I don’t think I was thinking about anything U2ish, as much as I think they’re awesome, I wasn’t thinking about it. I was on campus and I had no idea what to write about and there was this incident on campus where someone had tried to jump off the top of a parking garage to try and kill themselves and it [happened] right where I was at the time. I had just parked my car and walked away from it and about 15-20 minutes later it happened. So that’s where the whole idea for the song went, which is pushing someone to their breaking point of abuse where they feel that they just need to leave – as an answer – which is not an answer. I think that’s kind of where the inspiration for the song came from. And [going back] to Bono’s vocals, I admire his vocals and I’m glad that that would come out of it, so thank you.
U2 is – by far – my favorite band. Beatles aside, of course, but U2 is a phenomenal band.
Oh yeah, they’re great and just to have even a remote connection to them is extremely flattering; beyond flattering. But of course any time anyone wants to compare me to somebody so successful, hey I’m not gonna stop anybody (laughs). That’s great!
Good. Because I mentioned the Bono-like feel I got from your vocals on “Black and Blue” and I meant it as a compliment.
I appreciate it.
Being honest, at first it was, from looking at what he did, all of the things he had done were things we already liked. So we figured, well, at least in the mixing process for this first EP he’s gonna know what we’re trying to do; he’s gonna get it cuz he works on similar stuff and everything he does we like. So we assumed that if we like everything he does and he likes what we do than it’ll be a match made in heaven and it really just turned out that way.
I was curious if the plan to release a series of EPs over the course of the year was in some way a reaction to what some say is the conventional wisdom that people don’t buy full albums anymore and that this might be a better business plan?
Well, you know, I don’t think that there is a better business model. I think right now everybody’s scrambling trying to figure out what is. Putting out small amounts is good but if you create this culture within your fan base that you’re gonna put something out every three months well then you’ve got a gun to your head to put out something every three months whether you have something good or not. I don’t think that’s the answer, either. As the artist, you should be in control of how things are released and how things go out. After we put out our first album, will we just put out a second album next or will we keep doing the EPs? I’m not really sure but I would imagine that we would develop that process and figure it out. It really just depends. I think that because the market is so weird it helps to have as much as you can out, but at the same time, for us, I wouldn’t just put something out for the sake of putting something out. But having that diversity definitely does help.
Alex, I just want to thank you again and I’ll end with a fun question for you. We talked earlier about the many changes in and around the city of Austin, a great musical Mecca. So, why should we keep Austin weird?
Well I think it’s given birth to a lot of great, not only music things, but art and cultural things as well. The city is what the city is. It’s fantastic and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to move here. But I think the way to keep Austin weird is to honestly accept the fact that people are gonna want to come here. You have to accept that people are gonna wanna go somewhere that’s cool, and just be happy that it’s cool. And if the people can accept it and work with it I think there could be a big movement to preserve what’s cool about Austin at the same time.
Alright, Alex, thanks again very much for your time.
Absolutely. I really appreciate it. Thank you. Take care.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Alex Dugan of The Vanity, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.