The ProgPower Interview: Vangough, Progressive Metal From Oklahoma
During the weekend of the annual ProgPower USA festivities, running into the members of Oklahoma-based progressive metal band Vangough is probably one of the cooler experiences an audience member can have. With influences ranging from Dream Theater to Pain of Salvation and video game soundtracks, their music is as much a trip as is a conversation with one of them. With several albums under their belt, the members of Vangough met with me on Saturday morning at this year’s festival to discuss the next record, their most recent 4-star record, “Kingdom of Ruin” (reviewed here,) the new directions of their music, and K-Pop and Milli Vanilli, somehow.
Switching back and forth between deadpan humor and outright laughter fits, similar to how the band’s style switches from mood to mood within a song, it was clear to me that the members of Vangough take their music seriously while taking the other parts of life with a twist of lime. The bandmates are: Clay Withrow (guitars/vocals), Jeren Martin (bass), Kyle Haws (drums), and Justice Jonston (keys/orchestra).
Frank Serafine (Progressivity_In_All): How many times have you been to ProgPower, personally? This is your first time here all together as a band.
Clay Withrow and Jeren Martin: This is our second time.
Kyle Haws: First time.
Justice Jonston: I’ve never been before, either.
Jeren: We came two years ago, so this is my second time.
Frank: Are you guys hoping to one day play ProgPower?
Clay: Absolutely, yeah. We’ll just keep crashing ProgPower with our acoustic show until Glenn lets us play. That was my plan all along – I’m going to crash every festival until they kick us out. Well, they can’t kick us out.
Frank: Glenn (Harveston, ProgPower promoter) actually posted the “official” event on the ProgPower Facebook.
Clay: Yeah, that was really nice. I really appreciated that.
Frank: So how did the band get its name?
Clay: That was a short process when we were trying to figure out names. We were going through a list of really typical band names, and one of the members at the time was like “well, what does it evoke in your mind?” One person said “Oh, purples and oranges and all these different colors. I can see sunrises. It’s like a painting. It reminds me of Van Gogh. It was the first thing we immediately elevated to. We spelled it differently, because we wanted to be at the top of the Google search. (laughs)
Frank: Your latest album, “Kingdom of Ruin,” (reviewed here) I have to say, is kind of a trip. Could you explain the concept behind the lyrics? It was a rather schizophrenic album with one half to the other. There’s a major transformation.
Clay: It’s funny you said that. Actually, it was two albums at first. The first part, which is very dark, and sounds like what you’d expect Vangough to keep doing – That’s what I was writing. At the same time, I was writing “The Rabbit Kingdom” for a solo release. I was going to put out just something I wanted to do for myself. My best friend said “This is awesome. Why don’t you just put it together and have this weird two-part album.”
I said, “Yeah, what the fuck? Okay. What do we have to lose?” That’s why it’s very schizophrenic, because it was me writing this very dark Vangough music for the next Vangough album and then it was me taking just whatever the fuck I want on this Rabbit Kingdom record, and we just put them together. That’s how it ended up. It’s an interesting bridging of concepts. There were two different concepts. There was the rabbit story and there was the dark, introspective, human condition elements of the first part of the album.
Frank: The two are unrelated, technically.
Clay: They really are. I had never really said anything about that before, because I had thought that it’s cool for people to draw whatever conclusions they want from it. Honestly, I normally shy away from talking too much about specific meanings, because I’d rather people draw their own meaning from it.
Frank: There is a lot going on in the music video for “Drained.” Could you explain what the idea behind it was? They’re wearing rabbit masks and they kidnapped a guy…
Clay: We wanted that video to be a lot more fucked up than it was. But budget limitations, location, and things like that… That was the story we were going to shoot for “Choke Faint Drown.” The rabbits, and getting revenge on this person… It ended up with the imagery, but we wanted to have a more mainstream song in the video. We applied a lot of those ideas to “Drained,” and it ended up being a kind of cool pastiche of themes between the song and the imagery, and I think it works in a really interesting way.
The rabbit masks were for the revenge story. I know it’s kind of hard to draw that conclusion, because it’s weird. But my idea was that “Man has gone too far. Now he’s getting his in return,” that kind of idea.
Frank: Does the songwriting process start on any one individual instrument, or do the songs take shape on different instruments at the same time?
Kyle: Clay starts off with kind of a short, simple, usually computer MIDI file. It builds from there. Eventually, we have ideas that spring from that and the songs get longer and longer. More parts, and we figure out what we want to do with it from there.
Clay: Yeah, we’ll come in with a MIDI version of the song. Then we’ll put it in Pro Tools and jam along it. Then, we start kind of fleshing it out from there and it evolves. We’ve also done some things where we jam out in the studio. He brings in an idea, we’ll start jamming on it, and that develops into a song. There are those two different methods – The “prepared” method and the “I’ve got this idea” method.
Kyle: Impromptu method.
Frank: Nice blend. You produce everything yourselves, as a band. With many more bands having a hand in their own productions these days, do you think it’s important that a band try to do that themselves, or do you think a producer is still a relevant job?
Jeren: I think that an engineer is a very relevant job, still. I don’t know that a producer is. I think that it’s good to sometimes have a third party offering suggestion, but I think that it shouldn’t go any farther than that.
Justice: I think that, as the equipment gets cheaper and cheaper, more people can afford it, and more of these bands are going to make the decision that it’s not worth it to hire a studio to do this work for them, when they could invest in the same equipment for the same price or even less money and just learn to do it themselves. I think we’re going to see it shift more to education being important. Bands are going to hire people to teach them how to use this gear that they can buy. That has more long-term value.
Jeren: I’ve never really thought about that.
Clay: Some bands, I would be really interested work with a certain kind of producer, just out of curiosity. What would that sound like? I was really curious what a Dream Theater with Steven Wilson would sound like?
Clay: Because, you know, I like a lot of Dream Theater stuff that they’ve done, but I’d also be really curious as to what the evolution of their sound could become with a Steven Wilson-type mind. That would be cool.
Clay: At the same time, a band like Metallica, who’s almost been too dependent on a producer, has been almost problematic. I think that James (Hetfield) needs to just step up and be the man that he wants to be. I think he’s almost too reserved to do that.
Frank: I think it’s all that shopping at The Gap that’s doing that.
Clay: That’s metal!
Jeren: Is it, though?
Justice: “Bargains! Imprisoning me!”
Frank: “Dark jeans! Imprisoning me!”
Frank: I think that, if Steve had a hand in a Dream Theater album, you know there would be mellotrons galore.
Band: All over the place. That’d be cool!
Jeren: I would not be mad about that.
Kyle: It would not be as loud, that’s for sure.
Clay: Well, I think it would have a little more breathing room. I feel like Dream Theater likes to throw everything in, and I can feel that a little bit on our past albums – that influence – so I feel like it would benefit them to breathe a little bit more and not try to make it so busy, just a little more rock & roll. Still Dream Theater.
Jeren: Still play all the crazy things.
Frank: Have you started work on the next Vangough record already? I’ve seen some of the videos about drums in the studio. How much of that is going on and how much is done right now?
Clay: What should we say?
Kyle: Trick question! (laughs)
Clay: This is hard. I can’t believe we didn’t talk about this before. I knew he was going to ask that. (laughs)
Jeren: Is there a reason for not…
Clay: (laughs) We do have a lot of it done. We’re keeping it secret because we have plans for how it will unravel. This record is very different.
Jeren: Very, very, very different.
Clay: In a way that I think fans and people that will be fans will be very happy about. So we want to make sure that, t his time around, things happen in the right way. We have kind of a master plan. To answer your question, we have recorded a lot of it. Rhythm guitars and drums are all done. Scratch vocals and all that stuff is there. You can hear the song and see what it’s really going to sound like. We’re doing scratch vocals, lead guitars, bass, mellotrons, Rhodes, and all that stuff. We’ll have it hopefully done soon.
Justice is kind of like our orchestra director. He plays a violin, so he’s helping us with the arrangements. We’ll have cello players, clarinet players coming in, and that will help us tremendously to make sure that stuff sounds good and flows well with the music. We’re stripping down the sound considerably.
Jeren: It was the Dream Theater – Steven Wilson thing. The last record, we sort of threw everything in the pot all at once. Too many ingredients in the soup. This one, we’re going back a little bit.
Clay: Letting it breathe, stripping it down, taking out a lot of keyboard stuff, and letting the songs be raw and sincere. There is a sincerity last time, but there’s a lot more “us” in the music than our influences in the past.
Frank: I saw something in your videos. Can you explain the role that donuts and the Bellamy Brothers are playing on this record?
Kyle: Major, major influences. (laughs)
Jeren: Should we confer about the donuts first?
Clay: How much should we disclose?
Jeren: The Bellamy Brothers, too.
Clay: The Bellamy Brothers! Have you seen any of their newer videos? I watched one of their new videos. They’re crazy. They’re super right-wing Republican guys. You would not guess that from…
Jeren: Their album cover! (laughs)
Clay: I was like, “That looks fun! And so weird…” It’s crazy. Well, Jeren’s a big fan. And donuts taste delicious. They’re just delicious. When I feed donuts to Jeren, it makes me feel good. I feel good.
Jeren: It’s a symbiotic relationship. Where he gets to feed me donuts and then I listen to the Bellamy Brothers.
Clay: “Girl, I think about the things we used to do. You really mean a lot to me.”
Jeren: We listened to “Girl, You Know It’s True” for about two hours total on the way up here.
Kyle: Not all at once, mind you. (laughs)
Clay: We started bumpin’ it once we got to Atlanta.
Justice: When these guys asked me to come along to ProgPower, it’s not what I expected to hear on the way up! (laughs)
Clay: I just think that song is the shit. I’m not afraid to say I listen to that now more than I listen to rock & roll. It’s not going to affect my music. Well, maybe it will! (laughs)
Frank: Since we’re getting on funny songs, have you heard of “Gangnam Style?”
Justice: Ohhh! (laughs) That K-Pop guy.
Jeren: That Korean dude. He’s wearing a suit.
Jeren: He’s wearing this tux. This butler tux that’s sleeveless. It’s the funniest stuff.
Justice: You’ve heard his motto, right? “Dress classy, dance cheesy”?
Kyle: I’ve missed that.
Frank: It’s one of the most ridiculous music videos you’re going to find, guaranteed.
Jeren: What do YOU think?
Justice: Do you think that K-Pop is going to make a big dent in American culture now?
Frank: I don’t know. I hope some elements do, because they’re just ridiculous, and it would help me make fun of the pop stuff more, but in some ways, I like the subversive attitude that he’s got going on towards his culture. He’s basically making fun of the ritzy lifestyle.
Clay: That sounds like fun. Our pop music should do that. “Dress classy, dance cheesy.” It doesn’t dare approach that subject.
Frank: Is that the next step for Vangough? K-Pop?
Jeren: K-Pop, yep.
Clay: Why not? That makes sense. That makes too much sense, actually. We basically do whatever the fuck we want anyway. Why not K-Pop?
Frank: Thanks, guys.
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