Interviews

20 Questions: Nico Vega

Photo: David Myrick

It's taken four years but Nico Vega stands poised to revive all things rock with its long-awaited sophomore album Lead to Light later this year. Until you get the chance to hear those songs, however, there's always PopMatters' "20 Questions" series to have your back.

For those of you who think rock is dead, I give you two words: Nico Vega. The band built its reputation through a series of EP releases before finally getting the opportunity to release an epic, self-titled debut LP in 2009. Since then the group has toured with everyone from Gavin Rossdale and Neon Trees to Metric and Imagine Dragons, showcasing Aja Volkman's description-defying vocals and the band's unique ability to merge memorable hooks with songs built upon pounding percussion and emotionally charged riffs. Their song "Beast" received prominent placement in Bioshock: Infinite's massive press campaign, and with a new groundswell of support, their forthcoming full-length Lead to Light is currently being readied as a force to truly reckon with.

The band's unique blend of rock, pop, and modern alternative sounds helps set it apart, but Volkman's lyrics definitely put Nico Vega in a different league from their genre contemporaries. "It's important to me that music evokes emotion", she's said in the past. "Lyrics have to be honest and true for me." In that vein, the group has built up the Nico Vega persona to symbolize the warrior within, representing unity and the battle against ego. The band's passion for exploring all things art and politics has helped fuel songs like "Beast", which has become all but ubiquitous when the band's name is spoken: "Stand tall for the people of America, lay down like a naked dead body", Volkman sing-screams. "Keep it real for the people working overtime ... we are free in the land of America, we ain't going down like this!"

It's that emotion, raw and unflinching, which fuels the music, and for four years we've wanted more. Lead To Light, the band's long-gestating sophomore LP, aims to fill that gap when it is finally released later this year. In the meantime, however, we here at PopMatters have your back. We've talked Volkman into sitting down for a "20 Questions" session as the band prepares to launch a summer co-headlining tour with Crash Kings.

***

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

I was going to say The Lion King, because I am a sucker for old Disney animation, but I think a more accurate response would be Beasts of the Southern Wild. I love that movie. The character Hushpuppy killed me with her longing for a mother's love and nurturing. The scene where she dances, finally connects with a mother figure, is so beautifully done.

2. The fictional character most like you?

That's a hard question to answer. When Avatar came out a lot of my friends called to tell me that the main blue avatar girl reminded them of me. At the time I was pretty spiritually extroverted, and very nature-oriented. I loved her character when I saw the movie. I took it as a compliment. It's more someone that I would strive to be like, than who I currently am. I live in Los Angeles and have a regular relationship with social media. Sadly, I spend more time longing to be in the wilderness than actually in it. I do think that we all have a responsibility to this earth -- It is our home, and if we destroy it, it might just turn around and destroy us. Harmony is important.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Probably would have to say Night Visions by Imagine Dragons. I have a really deep connection to that record. My husband wrote all of the songs, and I was there for a lot of it. I remember hearing its time for the first time and crying at how beautiful it was. It was such a pure representation of who he felt he was in the world at the time. I've never been so proud of someone else and their lyrical integrity and I have never felt so invested in someone else's work. It's so different than being invested in my work because I can just enjoy it without wondering about how it will be received.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Wars. No question. Star Trek always struck me as straight sci-fi, whereas Star Wars was always more of a fantasy to me. I enjoy fantasy more than sci-fi. I also just love the costuming.

5. Your ideal brain food?

I love to meditate, creating art, and exercise outdoors. It is so important to take care of yourself. You really can't function in today's world without finding a way to lessen the amount of stress and noise of the chaotic society we live in. I don't drink or do drugs, so my only way of having a mental break are these things. I just recently got my first TV, which feels like a mistake. It is quickly becoming a drug when I feel exhausted and want to check out. I might need to get rid of it. (Shhhh. Don't tell my husband!)

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I am really proud that Nico Vega's song "Beast" has been getting some heat recently. It has deep meaning for me. I'm glad people are hearing it. Especially Americans.

7. You want to be remembered for ...?

Honestly, I grapple with the idea of a legacy. I think that its ridiculous to live life with the notion that it's important to be remembered. Being good to the people you love is what really matters. I do think that people come along and do positive things to change the world, and that is important. But the need to be remembered for things is a little bit egotistical in my opinion. That's why I am always on the fence in my profession. I want to help bring positive change to the world. But the self-centered side of my profession drives me crazy. That sounds snotty, but it's my honest answer. I drive myself crazy. Can you tell?

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Musicians? I love Tina Turner. People? Martin Luther King. among many great people. Both of these people were fighting a mass amount of suppression and empowering people along the way. I strive to empower people, so these people are two of my biggest idols.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Oh man. That's a loaded question. I don't even know how to answer it. I have a mass appreciation for art, architecture, music, food, I will just pick one person. I wish I could draw like Gottfried Helnwein. Look up his work. It will blow your mind.

10. Your hidden talents ...?

I don't know. I like to create in every capacity. Drawing, painting, decorating my space -- I always surround myself with inspirational things. I like to create art in every space. I don't have any real hidden talents. I'm just interested in all art forms.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

My mom always said become the person you want to attract. I attracted someone who does exactly what I do. Which is hilarious. But he is my everything.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

My acoustic guitar. My dad bought it for me when I was 18. Before that, I was plucking away on a junior guitar from the 1950s.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?

I buy everything second hand, or I like pretty high fashion. It's a total contradiction. I never spend a lot on clothes, though. I love a ripped t-shirt and skinny jeans.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Maybe David Fincher. I have met him before, and he was a great conversationalist. I would love to sit and chat with David Lynch too. Its a toss-up.

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?

I would visit every time period given the chance. I am a total dreamer. I love to imagine living in the past. I love castles, and countryside simple living. I love the '50s, '60s, and '20s. Any time.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?

Spa! No drugs. I prefer to take me in whatever shape I am. I'm not into self-medicating unless it's with chocolate.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?

Chocolate! I am addicted. I'm almost sure of it. If I don't have any, I think about eating it every day. But I usually do have some.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I love Spain. It's my favorite place I have been so far. I really want to go to Italy again too. I love the countryside. I love the architecture. The only thing that was hard for me was attending an actual bullfight. I left crying.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

That's a tough question because I believe our president is doing all that he is allowed to do. I want to tell our people to stand up for what they believe in, and demand change. We tend to fall asleep at the wheel in the US.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I'm being a mom, and releasing a record. And we (Nico Vega) are always writing. I'm also supporting my husband's band, Imagine Dragons. It's been a really busy year for our family. I feel so blessed, but everyday is a total challenge. I'm about to spend the rest of the year touring for our new record with my daughter. Hopefully I will have some time to write new music as well.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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