[26 May 2008]
The easy info: Times New Viking is a great new band from Columbus, Ohio. They write blisteringly loud pop songs that pretty much never cross the three-minute mark. Their new record, Rip It Off, was recorded on four-track tape and sounds every bit as raw as any of the tracks on The Velvet Underground and Nico.
But what is it that makes a stat sheet like this so compelling today? After all, isn’t the tune all too familiar? Ever since the Sex Pistols and Ramones sprung punk rock on an unsuspecting world in the late ‘70s, legions of rock ‘n’ roll bands have flown the handmade flag of minimalism to varying stages of victory. Why should this old-fashioned racket continue, now that there are so many new options available?
What’s more, digital home recording consoles have become more affordable and easy to use, opening the door to a seemingly unrelenting stream of bedroom recording acts who are, whether you like it or not, reaching considerable audiences via MySpace and YouTube. In today’s multimedia-driven cultural climate, how much more difficult has it become to achieve distinctness and originality?
It was with these facts and questions in mind that I approached my interview with the Viking. Adam Elliott, who sings and plays drums in the band, offered some straightforward replies about shrugging off the “fidelity complex”, plagiarism becoming this generation’s creative platform, and simply “playing music because you can”.
Regarding the band’s recent signing to Matador Records (home of Pavement, Mission of Burma, Guided by Voices), Elliott was fairly tight-lipped, but noted, “We chose Matador for artistic reasons. We knew they would support any decision as long as it was good.” Still, the band has taken comparisons to their legendary labelmates in stride. When I asked whether it was irritating being constantly measured against their influences, Elliott observed, “Those bands made great stuff around that time [the late ‘80s and ‘90s, presumably]. People like to compare wood grains in coffee tables to dead family members, so obviously bands get compared to bands often.”
I suppose I did as much when I asked whether he would agree with my suggestion that the band’s sound—for all it’s riot-ready enthusiasm and catchy hooks—often makes for a challenging listen (30 minutes of incessant feedback wears on the best of us). Referring to both the jarring production values of Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1985 debut Psychocandy and the unsettling aesthetics of the Velvet Underground’s material (particularly when LaMonte Young protégé John Cale was still in the band), I wondered if Times New Viking would see themselves as inheritors to a tradition that seemed to keep “disturbance before entertainment” as a central maxim.
If this is in fact the case, Times New Viking isn’t really thinking too much about it. By way of a response, Elliott suggested, “Our record is meant to be listened to loud. Psychocandy is amazing. The Velvets are probably the best ever. Just mentioning those two makes me happy. To me, our record puts me to sleep, but maybe I am not the one to ask about it being challenging. The songs exist whether you like it or not.”
This kind of bottom-line, “get beyond the bullshit” ethos seems to inform the greater part of the band’s character, and—it seems—most of Rip It Off. When I asked about the significance of the new record’s title, Elliott replied, “Rip It Off has to do with the idea that plagiarism for our generation is a way to generate new ideas by exploring and reinterpreting everything that we know. We are asking the audience to rip it off, not necessarily implying we are.”
Indie-snobs the world over will be glad to hear it, though if the members of Times New Viking aren’t consciously laboring under the anxiety of influence, they’re at least well versed in the musical history of their native Columbus. Among some of the local acts in Elliott’s vinyl collection include such stalwarts as ‘70s blues guitarist/songwriter Raven, psychedelic folkie Tommy Jay, and proto-punkers Electric Eels. When I asked about the current scene, Elliott wryly noted, “[It’s a] great music scene. [There are] too many good bands, too much competition. We might move to New York so we don’t feel so much competition since bands suck there. Just kidding. Sort of.”
When I asked about the recording of the new album, and what the band’s thoughts were on the going debate amongst musicians, engineers, and listeners as to whether analog recording techniques remain superior to digital ones, Elliott responded, “Four tracks are cheaper than Apple computers. Tapes are free. You can accidentally pour beer on our mixing board and it still works, and people think you’re crazy as opposed to practical.” Tuneful and thrifty. There’s a band that’ll find success in an industry that’s becoming less and less willing to take chances with new artists and expensive studio time.
When it does come time to record, Times New Viking are anything but meticulous, and the loose, caterwauling sound of Rip It Off testifies to this. The album seems to have been recorded entirely live, with few overdubs, if any. Asked about the band’s work ethic in the studio, Elliott’s response could’ve been culled from some indie book of proverbs. “Capture the essence, play loud, let mistakes take control.”
And isn’t that what great rock ‘n’ roll records from the early days were all about anyway? David Briggs, on-and-off producer of some of Neil Young’s greatest records with the notoriously shambling Crazy Horse, famously quipped, “If you think, you stink.” Nowadays, when an artist gets bogged down in the minutiae of the recording process—a very separate sphere from the writing and performing that was once regarded as the more important work—it’s commonly regarded as a necessary inevitability of the job.
With Rip It Off, Times New Viking are harkening back to rock ‘n’ roll in it’s purest form. After all, just as the Mary Chain mined the Beach Boys; just as the Beach Boys took pages from Chuck Berry; just as Led Zeppelin and the Stones stole riffs from Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley; just as a million young bands on YouTube and MySpace are hacking away at their own musical frankensteins across the globe: rock music has always been about “ripping it off”, whether you’ve noticed or not.
Where does the band stand on all this? I asked Elliott whether he thinks indie rock is moving too close to the mainstream, now that artists like Feist and Of Montreal are selling iPod nanos and sirloin steaks by the truckload. His response was somewhat unexpected, but, I think, can be read as a good general statement about the band’s philosophy. Wisely side-stepping a bad joke of mine involving Feist as the new Kim Deal, he explained, “Music will exist long after every blog writes its last entry. Have fun kids, fuck fidelity complexes, and play music because you can.”