Somewhere Between the Dark and Light: The Vontons

vontonsThis lifelong love affair with music has taken me all over place.  From being a 9 year old kid and buying my very first cassette with my own money(it was Ratt’s Out of the Cellar….stop laughing), to just a year ago finding out why so many people love Neil Young’s Zuma, it’s a crazy and beautiful journey that has prompted me to buy plastic sleeves for my vinyl and build record cabinets for said vinyl. I never collected baseball cards, stamps, or comic books.  I collected music.  It’s a hobby…passion…obsession, that continues today.  One of the great moments you can experience as a serious fan of music is discovering a new band.  Finding that group that is still completely off everyone else’s radar, you feel it’s your duty to spread the word about these guys and gals.

One such band is The Vontons.

The Vontons are a completely unique band.  Their sound is hard to describe.  At one moment the music is minimal, sparse, carnal even.  Toms played in a tribal manner as a bass line bounces around with drums.  “Sweet summer eyes, sweet summer eyes”, the vocals sings quietly with minimal guitar lines come in and out of the mix.  ‘Sweet Summer Eyes’ is the lead off track on The Vontons’ e.p.  It’s moody, dark, and visceral. As if Wire and The Police got drunk, duked it out, and recorded this track in-between sessions for 154 and Regatta de Blanc. ‘Up Into The River’ sounds like Jello Biafra fronting Queens of the Stone Age. ‘Cold Water’ brings to mind Springsteen. It’s a unique sound this New York band has.

I was lucky enough to get to talk with Ryan Havers(singer and guitarist), Mike Straus(bass and Fender Rhodes), and Josh Fleischmann(drums and percussion).

JH: Tell me a little bit about the Vontons.  How did the band form?  Where are you located geographically, btw?

RH:  We formed out of a group of musicians/friends that play together in various forms.  We all rehearsed at the same apartment/rehearsal space in Brooklyn called The Rock Mahal.  I lived next to that space and Josh lived at the space.  He and I had played a bunch of times and toyed with the idea of starting a really cool cover band.  The first song we played was Long Cool Woman, by The Hollies, which still makes it into our set every now and again.  That was around 2006 and it didn’t really come to fruition, until about 2008.  At that time, a band that I was in for 8 years (Country Club & the Porn Horns) decided to take a break.  I had a bunch of new songs that I wanted to see come to life.  That’s when Josh and I decided to get this thing going.  Additionally, Mike and I had played together in a band called The Sweet Ones (Mike still plays with TSO) and Josh would sometimes sub drums for that band (incidentally, the main drummer for TSO, Matt Brundrett, was also the drummer of Country Club & the Porn Horns…) Right now, Josh and Mike live in Brooklyn and I moved upstate to Beacon, NY, which is about an hour and a half from NYC.

JH:  If you had to describe the Vontons sound to someone, how would you do so?

MS:  I think it’s very thematic music.  It’s emotional music. All of the songs sound different but there is some common thread between them.  Where a song like Up into the River is kind of a release of frustration, (for us playing that song is like trashing your room, it’s therapeutic), Cold Water or Abandon is about restraining that same energy and putting it towards something beautiful.  It’s much more difficult to play soft and slow then fast and bombastic. There’s a different, but equally fulfilling, feeling when it’s really in the pocket.

JH:  If being in the Vontons isn’t your main money gig, what do you do in the 9 to 5 to pay the bills?

MS:  Various engineering work now.  But mainly I master audio for a video game company.

JF:  play in several other bands and tour Europe with Israel Nash Gripka, while at the same time teaching private drum lessons to adults and kids in NYC.

RH:  I work at a radio station.

JH:  How did the e.p. come together?  Do you(Ryan) write the songs and have the other guys help you flesh the songs out in the studio?  Or do you get together with the other guys and just bash tunes out together from start to finish?

MS:  It’s a mixture.  We tend to do a lot of jamming and experimenting in rehearsals, so a lot of our sound is created that way.  We try to record our rehearsals, which is great because it allows you to re-construct a spontaneous moment. But, that can be a difficult challenge as well because you fall in love with a certain performance and sometimes it’s the mistakes and the warts of the thing that speaks to you. Sometimes Ry will bring in an idea, and sometimes it’s a complete song.  But even when it’s a complete song, we still deconstruct it and play with it.  It’s funny like that. It can turn into something completely different, or we’ll end up bringing it back and going with the original idea.  “I’m Gone” was like that. The Final version was very much like Ry’s original demo, but we had worked out this sparse/angular groove that just didn’t sit right when we finally went to record it.  We scratched that and went back to the original -on the fly- even though we hadn’t heard the demo or played it that way in probably over a year.

JH:  How do you guys view studio time?  Do you savor the chance to record and experiment?  Or is it a means to an end so you can get out and play live?

MS:  Ideally, rehearsals and studio time would be one in the same. Then you don’t have to worry about recreating these spontaneous moments because you’ve already captured them.   Hopefully we’ll get to do that for the next bunch of songs.  For me it’s the other way around from your question.   For me, playing live is a means to get people to hear our music.  Not that I dislike it, it’s just secondary to the process of creating and making the music.

JF:  I love recording in the studio! Great experience working with Floyd Kellogg (at Casa De Warrenton) and Ted Young (at Headgear Studios) on the EP. I look forward to recording more and experimenting more. I think we will stretch out more and continue to identify and experiment with our sound on the next record, hopefully with Floyd and Ted again!

RH:  I agree.  It seems like the best ideas are the very first renditions (for us, anyway).  The energy is right on and it has just enough spontaneity. I do love playing live, but for me, the fact that I have a family, the chance to get away and record is like having a vacation doing what you love to do.  When we recorded the EP, we stayed at the studio (Casa De Warrenton is a house/recording facility) and it was the best recording experience I’ve ever had.

JH:  Who are some of your musical heroes?  Folks that informed you when you were younger that may not necessarily make it into your sound now, and folks that most certainly inform your sound now.

MS:  Too many to even think of! I like any musician who isn’t afraid to show their own voice. Guys like Hendrix, Miles, Mingus are obvious examples of that, and there are hundreds more. That’s what I love about the Vontons, Josh sounds like Josh, Ry sounds like Ry.  They’re irreplaceable, It’s what I’ve always looked for in musical partners. People that have their own irreplaceable voice.

JF:  Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, Dave Grohl, Simon & Garfunkel, my drum teachers Randy Kaye, Fred Buda and Bob Gullotti, Tom Petty, Stan Lynch, drummers Matt Brundrett and Jesse Wallace.

RH:  Well put, guys.  Younger would be early VH, Hendrix, RHCP, Johnny Winter, The Beatles, Frank Zappa.  Now would be QOTSA, Tame Impala, Ty Segall, early VH (some things never change…), Tom Petty, 80’s era Bruce Springsteen, Squarepusher, John Lennon, Jim Hall and Ron Carter’s Alone Together, Bill Evans, the people I’ve played with and continue to play with.

JH:  Who is an inspiration to you in your life?  Was there anyone that made a direct impact on how you became who you are today? 

MS:  All of my friends and musical partners. Specifically Josh and Ry, Matt and Doug, from my other band The Sweet Ones,  Floyd Kellogg, who recorded the album.  Of course, my folks, who instilled a work ethic in me and were ok with me trying to take a different path in life.

JF:  Again, my musical mentors are my teachers Randy Kaye, Fred Buda and Bob Gullotti. Google em. In addition to my late Grandfather William H. O’donnell, who played drums his whole life and gave me my first kit at age 13.

RH:  I’m usually inspired by life experience. The songs on the EP were directly inspired by the death of my father and the birth of my 1st son in the same year. I had written music before that, but I feel that I wasn’t truly moved to write until those events occurred.

JH:  Ryan, you mentioned you became a dad recently.  How has becoming a parent affected you?  How has becoming a parent affected your artistic outlet?  Will you start your child on an instrument by the time they’re 3?

RH:  Well, for one, between day job and parenting, there is little room for much else.  Now, I take advantage of downtime by working for my band, whether it’s business or writing music (before kids, I never realized how much free time I would waste…)  Also, just having kids has given me more drive to succeed.  It also helps that my wife is an artist.  She gets it and we motivate each other.  Having kids does affect the artistic outlet, but I just make quicker decisions now, (which is good for me because I can ponder things for way too long…)  My oldest is 2 and he’s already playing music, I think because he see’s me playing and having fun and he wants to get in on that.  Lately, we’ve been having family jams and I can already tell he has a good ear and good sense of rhythm.  I’d rather we do that than watch something on the TV… just like the old days of family singalongs by the piano.  Also, whenever an out of control tantrum occurs, just playing a rhythm on the floor or my lap seems to calm him down.  It’s pretty awesome.

JH:  Do the Vontons get out and play shows?

JF:  We do get out and play shows, in fact we are booking a bunch of shows throughout the summer, so stay tuned.

JH:  Have you ever met anyone famous?

MS:  Living in NYC you bump elbows with famous people quite a bit.  Nobody I’ve really ‘worked’ with though.  I did have a nice conversation with Busta Rhymes once at my old job. He’s a nice guy.  Ry’s probably met a bunch though.

JF:  Last summer I had the opportunity to meet and hang out with Garth Hudson of The Band at the Peace & Love Festival in Sweden.    It was quite an honor to be able to hear him play and tell stories.

RH:  I once listened to Ted Nugent have a conversation in the bathroom while I was going number two.  He was talking about how “there is nothing like taking a healthy pee”.  I also met Mike Patton and Derek Trucks once.

JH:  Do you have plans to record a full-length record with the Vontons?

MS:  We have a TON of songs and ideas ready to go. It’s just a matter of making it happen.  We also have an unfinished EP from a few years ago that we might release.  I really love a few of the tracks on that.

JH:  Where do you guys see The Vontons in five years?

MS:  Playing with each other over a google hangout, or tweeting guitar licks back and forth to each other.

JF:  Recording.  Touring.  Releasing music.  Playing shows.  Rinse.  Repeat.

RH:  Hopefully, eating at a sweet diner in the Midwest because we’re playing to a sold out crowd there.  What do you recommend, Hubner?

I recommend you check out The Vontons.  Toot sweet.  Oh, and the apple pie.  Always the apple pie.

**That picture above?  It’s the album cover to their e.p., but there’s a story behind it.  Ryan?  “It’s an x-ray of my oldest son’s abdomen because he swallowed a nail when he was about 10mos old.  When I saw the x-ray, I thought “this is definitely an album cover.”

Rock ‘n roll, man.  Rock ‘n roll.

Check The Vontons out here, here, and here.

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