Notes from the Underground: An Interview with Viva Voce

Husband and wife team duo Viva Voce aren’t the new White Stripes. No one in this family will be writing songs for Coca Cola any time soon.

Viva Voce are a lazy journalist’s wet dream. Never mind the music, there’s so many angles for the idea-free hack to latch onto. For starters, they’re a duo. He plays drums. She plays guitar. Kind of like Giant Drag. Or, if the roles were reversed, The White Stripes. They’re a married couple, Kevin and Anita Robinson, kind of like those guys in Talking Heads or Fleetwood Mac. They share a hometown of Portland, Oregon with The Dandy Warhols, The Gossip and The Shins, who they just happen to be on a world tour with, so they must be part of some kind of new Pacific Northwest scene, right?

Just listen to Viva Voce’s records and draw your own conclusions, ok?

“You going to ask what it’s like to be in a band with your wife?” asks Kevin, anticipating the obvious, when we chat in a clean but chilly dressing room at the Kentish Town Forum.

“I don’t know if the inner workings of our relationship makes for interesting reading,” smiles Anita politely.

“We’re a boring couple like every other boring couple,” reckons Kevin. “We love to do dumb boring shit like watching movies and going shopping. But when it comes to music I respect Anita’s song writing and she respects mine. So when we come to each other with ideas, there’s no inner fighting about it. We have our moments but it’s just like any other couple that works together.”

“We wouldn’t be doing it this long if it didn’t flow out of us pretty naturally,” adds Anita, her Deep South accent little more than a low purr. “When we clash it’s not pretty, that’s for sure.”

“When we met we were both in different bands,” explains Kevin, recalling their courtship in the Alabama town of Muscle Shoals before their relocation to Oregon. “I played guitar in my band and she played guitar in her band. In any small town if you’re playing music you’re going to run into one another. We hit it off instantly. We started dating and neither one of us was very happy with our bands. On dates I would bring a four-track that I’d been recording stuff on. We would eat food and make demos of stuff. That was the date.

“We were both into similar music but Anita had more of a guitar edge love. Like, classic rock, and I was more into The Cure, Depeche Mode and arty kind of stuff. I didn’t really appreciate harder edged music until we started getting together. We would make little mix tapes for each other. It’s like standing on the shoulders of poets when you can make a little mix tape, give it to them and see if they like it. They passed the test, I guess.”

“We both shared a real appreciation for bands that were maybe just local bands and were always going to be,” notes Anita. “They weren’t looking to be mainstream popular. In fact, I don’t think we attended many concerts that were by mainstream bands that everyone knows about.”

It’s this rooting in the American rock underground that makes Viva Voce’s music so involving. An eclectic mix of sixties power pop, close harmony ballads and groove heavy jams, there’s no such thing as an easily definable Viva Voce sound. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to just look at Kevin and Anita’s personal and geographic identities rather than giving their music the credit it deserves. The world tour with The Shins means they’ll be famous soon. It’s respect that’s definitely due.

“In the early days people would put their phone numbers of our mailing lists and we would call people at home and invite them to shows,” laughs Kevin. “In Alabama there were kids who’d drive two hours just to see a local band play. That was really cool. You could really cut your teeth musically and figure out what you wanted to do.”

“It’s good to have that as a foundation,” reckons Anita. “Musically you have growing pains and you learn what you’re good at, what stays with you, what you enjoy a year after you write it. It’s good to have a small town foundation.”

“That’s one of the reasons why a lot of young bands become really worldly very quickly,” agrees Kevin. “Not jaded, but close to it. In a town like London, there are guys on the cover of NME and they barely have facial hair. Once their bands are dead and gone, are these kids still going to love playing music? I want to do this when we’re fifty years old.”

Can you still do that if you’re not The Rolling Stones?

“There are bands in the States like The Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo and The Shins,” continues Kevin. “It depends on what your definition of success is. If your goal is to be on the cover of NME or Rolling Stone, then go for it. There are people who can help you do that. But that’s not what we’re about.”

“We’re keeping good company for a band that’s been around as long as we have and aren’t on heavy rotation on MTV,” smiles Anita.

“To be honest,” beams Kevin, imploring us to believe him, “I take it as a great compliment that they don’t play us all that much. I’m happy with what we do. I’m thankful we have as many fans as we do. Every time we acquire more it’s just added icing on the cake. We’d be doing this regardless, even if people fucking hate it.”

What we’re talking about here is a duo wrought straight out of the American underground. They may not sound like Black Flag, but that get-in-the-van spirit is the same force that drives Viva Voce onwards. Mainstream acceptance doesn’t mean a thing.

“I saw a picture of Razorlight,” recalls Kevin, “and I was like, is this a gay band, like the Scissor Sisters or something?”

“It’s really the labels’ fault,” reckons Anita. “Labels don’t have to sign bands that aren’t very good. They could hold out for the good ones. Labels will always argue that it’s the people’s fault. But if people have good choices they’re more likely to choose something good. If you’re just a casual music fan then what you have to choose from is what you’re presented with.”

“Labels have gotten increasingly lazy in the last couple of years,” nods Kevin. “Every time you see some band and it’s like, what the fuck is this? Why do people buy this shit? I read something that Ahmet Ertugum, the legendary record guy, wrote. He slagged Tori Amos when she was getting really heady. He said, just because McDonalds sold a million hamburgers doesn’t mean they’re delicious. Just because you sold a million albums doesn’t mean they’re good. That’s true. People eat at McDonalds because it’s easy and it’s cheap. And that’s the same reason people buy Razorlight. It’s easy and it’s cheap. If they don’t know there’s Shins or Viva Voce albums to buy they’re just going to eat a Big Mac instead of a salad.”

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