Voxtrot: The (Re)start of Something
12 years after disbanding, the forerunners of modern indie-pop call on the "mystical, inexplicable force" that flowed through their Early Music
Voxtrot would like to revise their last will and testament, please. No, not that part in the 10th paragraph where singer and lead songwriter Ramesh Srivastava makes an extended metaphor comparing the breakup of his beloved indie-pop band to, hmm, 1970s TV detective Columbo. We can even retain the shocking revelation a few lines down, a sentence that sees Srivastava finally admit what listeners had long suspected. Yes, he was a teenage Travis fan (Belle and Sebastian, the Scottish band to whom Voxtrot actually owed a creative debt, must have been deeply confused).
No, the edit required of Voxtrot's April 2010 farewell letter is a simple one. Srivastava is altering only two insignificant, ruinously inaccurate words – words the singer once erected as a headstone explaining his band's trajectory: "instantaneous decay." That's the difference between 39 and 27, I suppose. You've learned that nobody gets to tell the past that it's dead.
The sun has already set when I meet up with the band at Kinda Tropical in East Austin. My ingoing anxiety is that it's gonna be a night of Virginia Woolf-bitter sniping between estranged partners of reunion tour convenience. Nope! The banter just flows from our picnic table. It's a high-energy marathon through Voxtrot history where everybody gets an even say, a star anecdote, and a couple one-liners about MySpace. If there's even one sign of "decay" all evening, it's in whatever mold presumably accrues during the hour and a half it takes Srivastava to eat a chicken sandwich his bandmates scarf down in minutes.
I hate to commit the profile writer's sin of extrapolating a subject's essence from what's on their plate. But in that consumptive contrast between band and leader, one can localize the magical interplay behind Voxtrot's timeless music. At center, Srivastava, the romantic overthinker – each dense, erudite lyric a battle fought with overlapping syllables, between natural compassion and wounded angst. Surrounding him on all sides, the infectious, primordial, devouring rush of jangle rock only a killjoy would intellectualize. These are instrumentalists whose lightness of touch belies their, uh, meaty grip.
Of course, you can't run a band where everyone's the romantic overthinker, bearing the weight of success equally. If the members of Voxtrot once again find themselves willing, even excited, to file behind Srivastava, it's because their human interplay has finally come to resemble that musical interplay. As young men, they found it impossible to imagine a happy future that didn't rest upon their band maintaining its upward surge. Today, their whirlwind youth is but a chapter in stable, separate lives built outside its shadow. Returning to Voxtrot doesn't mean committing it to the past, but removing it from the negative slipstream that once leached it of energy.
Suddenly, Srivastava sits up straight in his chair. He's putting words together, working to coin his updated phrasing.
"No, there was no decay. The body of Voxtrot remains intact," he intones. "A mystical, inexplicable force flows through us. What happened was … it went away."
Forget "The Start of Something." The Voxtrot story nearly ends before the commencement of anything, when the man who would go on to write that song's woozy, butterflies-in-the-stomach guitar solo – the most rhapsodic 20 seconds in Aughts indie – is left by his girlfriend for "America's biggest Belle and Sebastian fan." There's a timeline where Jason Chronis, instead of inadvertently winning a Waterloo Records ticket drawing to see B&S' April 30, 2002, show at the Backyard, never shakes his opinion that the Glasgow twee poppers are "pretentious bullshit for assholes." Thankfully, in this universe he's forced to admit the band is, okay, sure, decent. By the time "America's second-biggest fan" recruits him to play on his own strikingly similar twee-pop, Chronis likes Belle and Sebastian enough to lie about knowing how to play bass. The trio, rounded out by drummer Matt Simon, makes their live debut in a friend's living room to seven people.
Srivastava knew Simon from Rock Camp summers at the Austin School of Music, but it's a stretch to say Voxtrot's membership was built out of any preexisting friendships. They're more like the gang in a quirky heist movie – assembling across time and space, partners in crime.
Guitarist Mitchell Calvert meets Srivastava at Berklee College of Music when the freshman comes to his door searching for someone he's heard "looks like Elliott Smith." Unfortunately, Calvert looks more like a frizzy-headed Elvis Costello, but the two jam out in his dorm room anyway, writing the hook for "This Place Has Got No Soul, Kid."
In early 2003, that song's gentle swing intro fatefully sashays out of Jared Van Fleet's headphones as he rides his bike around Hancock Golf Course. "Soul" was the first track on a demo he'd been given by a "skinny, tie-wearing mod kid" Van Fleet had lately enjoyed discussing music with. Having found refuge through their "shared geekery" in the corners of lame parties, Van Fleet had a hunch his new connection might be as talented a musician as himself. A day later, the keyboardist was listening to the demo again, frantically scribbling chords in his notebook en route to joining Voxtrot for a house show.
Once assembled, it took the group scattering for their dynamic to truly crystalize. With Srivastava transferring universities to Glasgow – where he'd become friends for real with B&S singer Stuart Murdoch – Voxtrot could only develop during breaks from school. Like an actual family, Voxtrot's excitement to be reunited over the holidays commingled with a pressure to make the most of their brief time together.
"A nice kind of creative anxiety, the only one in our career," Simon quips.
"It was like developing a crush on a group of people, on the music we made," Calvert says. With Srivastava an obvious essential, and Austinites Van Fleet, Chronis, and Simon overlapping in non-Voxtrot groups, the guitarist was a total satellite. He spent each semester worrying about getting cut. "It became my life plan: Get in there and don't let go."
Voxtrot's scarcity inflamed yet another crush – the infatuation harbored by their hometown. The band breezed past their initial benchmark for local scene success, selling out the main stage at Emo's barely after they began dreaming of playing it. Still, be wary of any other article that tries to sell you on Voxtrot's supposed "overnight success." We're not there yet. The band's early years are littered with out-of-town gigs for crowds not much bigger than their initial living room concert.
Apologies. There's one more crush to discuss. Remember that "mystical, inexplicable force"? Well, a different sort hit Srivastava head-on in Glasgow. Not only did the singer feel his first romantic attraction toward a man, that man was his best friend, and, oh boy, were those feelings ultimately not … so … requited.
"It ended terribly, just pure misery," Srivastava laughs. "But! Suddenly! I understood why people wrote songs about love."
The Raised by Wolves EP, Voxtrot's first and most beloved release, represents Srivastava's heartbroken swing at pop music's canon d'amour. But just as important as each bittersweet track are the EP's off-the-cuff performances and warm, crackling production. Chasing a Sixties-style analog sound redolent of the Velvet Underground and the Kinks, Voxtrot retreated to engineer Erik Wofford's Cacophony studios on the recommendation of their friends in local contemporaries the Black. They didn't linger.
"Wofford caught our frantic energy, but in a way that made it palatable," Chronis says. "We were done in a couple days. If we'd stayed any longer it wouldn't have been as good."
When time came to ship copies of the self-released EP to college radio stations the following summer (dirt poor, the band took out loans and applied rubber stamps themselves) it was on the back of a new sort of industry hype. After writers for BrooklynVegan raved about the band's winter 2004 NYC shows, Voxtrot found themselves lumped in with the so-called blog rock scene – a clutch of not-particularly-similar indie bands who just so happened to all receive crucial placements on hipster-catering MP3 sites. Still, that was nothing compared to their biggest splash: the day they ended up on the front page of MySpace.
"At that moment, we were national," says Calvert.
Simon, the youngest member, dropped out of college before his junior year to widen Voxtrot's touring schedule, and the rest of the members likewise committed to making the band their livelihood. Even so, when the gang returned to Cacophony to record their second EP with Wofford, there was no sweating over heightened stakes and captive audiences. If anything, the creative dynamic became looser, more collaborative, with Srivastava welcoming greater input for arrangement and songwriting. Everybody looks back on the period as a peak.
Go back to 2006 and ask anyone. Voxtrot owned South by Southwest as hard as any Austin band ever has, stealing the spotlight from across-the-pond challengers like Foals and Art Brut. Lurk through the crowd at each of their seven performances, you'll find few wider eyes than Simon Ashcroft's – an A&R man in his late 20s representing upstart Beggars Group subsidiary Playlouder.
"They were everything that I'd ever loved in music," Ashcroft remembers. He wasn't alone. "It was articulated to me that it was paramount for the future of the label that we work together."
When the band recalls why – despite interest from heavy hitters like Virgin and Sub Pop – they signed with the unproven label in June, it's Playlouder's "spiritual investment" they cite. Right away, the Brits made good on it. The Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives EP was re-released to "huge retail demand," and the band was shuttled to Europe for a fall tour. Voxtrot wasn't the next big thing. They were the big thing.
Maybe that's why, instead of taking the winter off, the band rushed headlong into recording their only studio album – encountering for the first time that other, not-so-nice kind of creative anxiety. Though only on their debut, the band already desired to "depart" from the signature Voxtrot sound, and Playlouder was willing to grant that creative control (give or take a few failed attempts to induce the band to re-record some old songs for radio play). The problem instead was: "To where does Voxtrot depart?"
"Looking back, we should have agreed on one evolution: production or songwriting," Van Fleet says. "Instead, we flipped the script on both."
There was consensus, at least, on who should man the boards. Nick Cave associate Victor Van Vugt was flown down with the hope he could match the band's ambitions. Right away, the Aussie put the band through a rehearsal gauntlet. Weeks of endless reworking manifested quite a different Voxtrot than the one who had "dashed off" those EPs. When it came time to hit record, it's possible the performances weren't quite the same. Or … maybe they had trouble popping against the clean, polished sound.
"I would have done things differently," recalls Wofford, on hand as an additional engineer, "but I had to kind of bite my tongue."
For his part, Van Vugt places the blame elsewhere. "There was a disconnect between various members of the band about direction. They needed more time to write," he claims. "It could have been really successful, really changed their life. But the record was short a couple of songs that could have really connected with people."
"It hurt, to feel like this was our shot and there was a lot of support behind it," Simon recalls. "Yet somehow, it just didn't end up with the same reception as the stuff that we sort of slapped together."
Here's where the energy falls out. In March of 2007 the record leaked, accumulating a disappointing reception two months ahead of schedule. A headlining tour that already felt like a comedown became a full-on demotion when it turned into a series of demoralizing dates opening for a band they once blew off the stage at SXSW: the Arctic Monkeys. You thought you were an indie rock star. So how come you're the one sleeping behind a Taco Bell, making $500 a night, going deeper and deeper into credit card debt just to stay on the road? No, those dudes are the rock stars.
"Music had been this thing that was infinite, spontaneous, that could happen on a friend's back porch," explains Van Fleet. "But now? Music was a thing that happened exclusively between 10pm and 2am, in a place that sells alcohol, or a thing that happens in a field, surrounded by banners with brands for $8 water, watching ambulances line up to take away the kids who've done too much ecstasy."
The U.S. office of Beggars Group was still interested in potentially working with the band for a second album. But when requested demos arrived sluggishly, their offer quickly fell from the table. Rudderless and drained, the band picked up occasional money gigs from festivals but otherwise considered themselves dissolved well before the release of Srivastava's Columbo letter.
And yet, with one spastic, inexplicable lurch before that mystic, inexplicable force abandoned them completely, the band rallied. Determined to fade out the same way they came in, Voxtrot reached into the maw of oblivion and grasped a bittersweet epilogue for itself.
"We spent our own money. We recorded fast. We didn't overthink anything," recalls Calvert of the spontaneous 2009 sessions that produced "Berlin Without Return," a track about "spending your whole life trying to get back home" that might be the best Srivastava ever wrote. "It's funny, things were clearly ending, but I felt that same magic. Like we could always call on it."
Voxtrot hasn't yet played the rollicking September 8 private show in Lockhart that will coronate their rebirth. That's still an hour away. Right now, Srivastava is feeling the joy of recovering from an early week health scare, and he's in such a good mood that he's proselytizing to me in the venue parking lot about even more mystic forces.
"What can I say?" he beams. "The wave is going in the right direction."
The guy is so jazzed, it's no surprise when I return from a brief jaunt inside to find him seated, caressing his temples in concerted meditation. Not wanting to block his wave intake, I wander into a nearby restaurant to find Calvert and Chronis enjoying a pre-performance pizza. Offering me a slice, they invite me to join them, and we end up talking extensively about the dreams they've realized because they're not in a world-conquering indie band.
I'm especially moved by Calvert. A Wisconsin-based supply chain leader for Kohler (specializing in faucets), he says his life only found true meaning with the birth of his two children. But my admiration quickly gives way to horror. Asking for the check, Calvert sneaks in one final order: a Red Bull. It's one thing that the time is almost 9pm – the guitarist is about to play his first show of any kind in 12 years! Aghast, I bring up Srivastava's meditation and ask how they could possibly share the same stage.
"We all take in energy from different sources," he shrugs. "That's why we're the greatest band in the universe."
Voxtrot is in the midst of a nine-date tour, including two shows in L.A. and one in San Francisco this weekend. The reunion peaks with two nights at Mohawk on November 11 and 12. Instead of being on the front page of MySpace, Voxtrot is a fixture of TikTok accounts where Gen Zers herald underrated indie music, and the band’s new collection of old songs, Early Music, counts over 36 million streams on Spotify.