The New Rage
Voxtrot finally spins a long-player
In front of a peppermint-cubed wall and against a motionless reel-to-reel in Voxtrot's East Austin rehearsal space, Ramesh Srivastava introduces a brand-new song in progress to the rest of the band.
"I'm sorry you don't trust me, and I know you don't believe me," he sings.
All that's missing is a ukulele and tambourine, which soon join the grime beat, hard, but apologetic and wishful.
"I'm not happy with the way I'm living," projects the frontman.
He's not as rugged or destroyed as it may seem. Sitting behind a music stand, a catty blond streak splitting his black tousle, the 23-year-old Srivastava weighs his words until a song suddenly emerges out of metaphors and sorrys, each piece of the puzzle gaining esteem as the mumbles become staunch. All eyes are glued to the writer, and in that timeless musical telepathy, soon the whole group has joined in to make improv sound premeditated.
This is the evolution of a song.
Voxtrot has just finished recording its first full-length, or as they used to say in the Sixties, their first LP, their debut "long-player." In typical pop-rock fashion, however, the five band members can't stop writing. Is this revolutionary? Mind-altering? Genius? Cool? No. It's the start of a new age of trial and error. And possibly the end of apathy.
I don't see, I don't see, I don't see anything
Take the car, take the cash, take the heat out of me
Every day, every day losing my sympathy
I don't see, I don't see, I don't see why we
We took an axe and thrust it into sunshine
Under the glow I lost you for the first time
And when it cleared I hit you with a fast line
"Why do you suffocate both of us now?"
We break a lot of trust over the wrong things
The freedom of my speech and I'm just talking
When will I learn how to chew these words?
I have teeth! I have teeth! I have teeth!
I have to lose my idols to find my voice
"Brother in Conflict"
Birthed summer 2002, Voxtrot played house parties and sporadic shows with a handful of originals that immediately landed an Austin fan base. Obvious influences like the Smiths and Belle & Sebastian matched the youthful exuberance of five guys barely out of high school. By the end of those hot and dry months, Srivastava flew to Glasgow, Scotland, to study literature; keyboardist Jared Van Fleet was in Argentina; and guitarist Mitch Calvert returned to school in Boston. Bassist Jason Chronis and drummer Matt Simon stayed put.
The now-global fivesome played one-offs and spontaneous soirees but didn't solidify into a dance-pop prototype until 2004 when they were filling Emo's with hopped-up teens. A seemingly endless stream of EPs spread the gospel through Web-based channels, and ever-longer tour jaunts built up buzz in all the right places. Now, finally, comes the long-awaited debut LP.
"The music is so much different and much more work-intensive than anything we've ever done before," Srivastava says. "You can accept the part of yourself that wants to write really accessible pop songs, and you can also accept the part of yourself that wants to write something a little more complex."
The sweat and fury of intensive prerecording rehearsals coupled with the finesse of producer Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, Depeche Mode) and the beauty of Austin string quartet Tosca (see "Tosca: Indie Rock's Orchestra") has hardened Voxtrot for a full-frontal attack on a fickle yet adoring media and burgeoning international following. Creeping out from the copious lyrics and ethereal arrangements is the unblinking eye of invincibility.
Voxtrot held out on an LP for what seemed like an eternity, releasing tracks via the band's Cult Hero Records. Five years later, Beggars Banquet arm Playlouder sponsors Austin's "new rage." While "Kid Gloves," "Steven," and "Every Day" are signature Voxtrot vibes, the haunted "Ghost"; soft, glowing "Future Pt. 1"; and one-two punch of "Firecracker" and "Brother in Conflict" build new foundations.
"People talk about a Voxtrot sound," Van Fleet theorizes. "I feel like a lot of times our songs don't go back to where they came from or end up in some place that might be recapitulating them in a totally different context."
"It's champion rock," Srivastava laughs.
"We're trying to create a new genre," Van Fleet jests, "the most epically named genre you can imagine."
"My name for the genre was 'new rage,'" the singer continues of the steely sound of the new Voxtrot. Somewhere between bash and pop, combining beat with lyric, Voxtrot succeeds in contrasts and conquests.
"It's just a different mindset," posits Van Fleet. "It's not cheerful. We'll make other records. There's always time to put out a cheerful record."
Cheer me up, cheer me up
I'm a miserable fuck
Cheer me up, cheer me up
I'm a tireless bore
Cheer me up, cheer me up
I'm invisibly stuck inside myself
Yes, I'm a vanity whore
Because it's race and it's power at the center of life
We are blind to the people who need us
But you're the kind of person who could understand that fault
And I hope to measure you someday
Gaining prestige from Pitchfork, Spin, and the elusive NME, Voxtrot was introduced through its 2004 unofficial debut, a CD-R transformed partly into "The Start of Something" 7-inch that autumn and the Raised by Wolves EP in 2005 that hinted at true viability. With Wolves testing the limits of addiction, and 2006's Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives EP revving late-Sixties pop song craft that peaked on last fall's three-song Your Biggest Fan. Srivastava outted himself as oracle, part optimist, part teacher.
The short format isn't something Voxtrot is willing to forgo in order to maintain the norm in the music industry. As a matter of fact, a month prior to releasing Voxtrot, new songs are already begging for a quick release.
"We're about to breach out into the short format again," Srivastava beams. "We have recording dates booked in May."
Uneasy about the possible reaction that putting out a complete album better listened to as a whole instead of a collection of singles might effect, Voxtrot hopes that their new format will connect to a new listenership, one of more patience, more curiosity. As prolific as the most seasoned songwriting veteran, Srivastava's words pour forth with amazing speed. The songs form around lyric and basic guitar lines, each member dedicated to the specific arrangement of his givings. With a new LP, and perhaps another EP, come months of endless touring, so perhaps a backlog isn't such a bad thing.
"I can't write when we're on tour," admits Srivastava. "It doesn't work. You're never alone. You're never, ever alone. Ever. I would never write music with another person. I can't write with somebody else in the room!"
Recent trips to Europe encouraged reams of new material. Travelogues became chorus and verse; a night at the discotheque mirrored lyrics. Real life echoes in the words of Srivastava.
"When you make an album, as opposed to an EP, it's more likely to carry some sort of theme, or topical continuity," theorizes the Voxtrot Kid (thevoxtrotkid.blogspot.com), aka Srivastava, "and the themes that characterize this record are struggle, conflict, death, loss of identity, and an unstable concept of the future (global warming included). Pretty dramatic, huh?"
Altruism plays second fiddle to pop and melody, as Voxtrot wraps its observations and senescent sanguineness around the axis of a perceived verity. There's no absolute loss of innocence, just a hint of personal reflection and the feeling this generation owns of simply doing what it can and holding no hopes of impossible achievement.
What happens when youth and optimism collide with the real world? What happens when the jubilation of a teenager becomes hammered down by his future legacy? Either he floats up into a blue sky sheltered from human error, or generations of ancestors attempting to make due in an imperfect environment relay their wisdom to the more informed.
"I'm just trying to do my best. I'm not afraid of life, I'm afraid of death," goes the refrain to Voxtrot closer and single "Blood Red Blood," as Carl Smith of local free-jazz outfit ECFA and Alex Coke blast sax into a cacophonic explosion.
This isn't cynicism. It's truth.
After skimming American highways for the better part of a year and hitting European festivals this summer, Voxtrot gets back in the van and does it all over again, playing to thousands of X-marked hands and cherubic faces. The youth flock to Voxtrot shows, perhaps due to that conceived lack of bitterness that allows the band to walk the thin line between fantasy and reality. Blogs continue to shout the glories of Voxtrot on high, and these "proto bloggers," who kept in contact during those early years by an online journal accessible to members strewn all over the globe ("Before blogs were blogs," Srivastava remarks), remain ever hopeful but still reserved of the band's future success.
Witnessing a new Voxtrot composition come to life in an abandoned preschool's common room is musical creation at its bare essence. Each member works as a cog in an ancient grandfather clock. Drums start ticking, guitar and bass lend themselves to words always the first ingredient in the mix and finally keyboards smooth out the image, the entire process repeated time and again.
"Let's do that again," Srivastava prods. "This time with more dynamics!"
Repetition begets enlightenment and the former Learning Stage becomes breeding ground for excellence. Words painted on the cinder-block enclosure out back echo the sentiments of the band: "art," "blocks," "music," "games," "story," "fun." The playground beckons from behind the glass.
Whispers of a bygone childhood beam through the panes, becoming exuberant affirmations of life. These songs are Srivastava's children. He's leading the direction, but this is a group effort. Ears and eyes remain locked on the strum and call of Voxtrot's shepherd, but there in the corner, surrounded by gadgets, Van Fleet works it all out in his head. Srivastava is the word man, but Van Fleet is becoming conductor, mastering tone and arrangement.
He rocks back and forth to the new beat, changing chords on the fly, matching emanation to Srivastava's emotion. As Chronis and Simon hit the rhythm and Calvert pulls out the angst, Van Fleet sees the big picture. As this "new rage" ushers out an era of distrust and indifference, Voxtrot plays both conscience and wish of a generation that might just change the world yet. For now, bounce and structure defeat heartache, one measure in front of the last.
Voxtrot, accompanied by Tosca, celebrates its debut LP with an acoustic in-store at Waterloo, May 22, 5pm, and continues the party Friday night, May 25, at Emo's with Au Revoir Simone opening.