USA Out of Vietnam is a Quebec-based quintet that defies simple musical classification.
The band's curiously titled debut album, Crashing Diseases and Incurable Airplanes, recently arrived in stores and finds them painting their arrangements with everything from psychedelic space rock to ethereal dream pop to atmospheric black metal. Featuring over 15 guest musicians and a wall of sound production style, the album is best experienced with headphones on.
I recently caught up with USA Out of Vietnam singer/guitarist Son of Fogman to find out more about the band and their progressive songwriting approach.
The first thing that struck me about the band is how tough it is for me to describe your sound. We live in a world now where people spend a lot of energy and effort on putting the music they listen to into very specific genres. What are your thoughts on that subject?
It was sort of intentional that we steered clear of a specific genre, but it also felt natural as all of the members listen to very eclectic tastes from each other. Some people merely just say we are a post-rock band, which we didn't know we were until we read that in reviews. The majority of reviews, though, seem to mention that we don't belong to a specific genre, which, of course, pleases us a lot as artists as well as it gives us the freedom to explore any musical idea we can hatch. As a marketing tool, it surely has bitten us in the ass, but as people who are creative and love music, it's nice to think that maybe we can offer something that we think is unique. We'll continue taking the long road home and hopefully people will still want to listen.
If you were speaking to someone who wasn't well-versed on the kind of music USA Out of Vietnam plays, how would you describe your sound?
That is really hard because I get asked all the time from friends who are just inquiring if I am still playing music and they inevitably ask what we sound like. I think of us as a psychedelic pop band and kind of just describe us that way and mention it's not really for everybody. I think psychedelic pop or experimental pop kind of describes us well, but my perspective is obviously skewed as I don't really listen to our record and have too much invested to step away and get a clear vision of what we are. We definitely have found our sound, we just hope we never figure out what that sound is.
I love what you did with the vocal sound on the album. While they're certainly atmospheric, there's something very infectious about them. I'm not sure I can quite explain them.
We wanted the vocals to sit in the mix as just another instrument as opposed to sticking out as per a typical pop/rock mix. Vocals are a huge communicative force and we didn't want them to dictate how the song should make the listener feel. I also hate the sound of my own voice. We are all really big fans of vocal harmonies, and the new songs we are writing definitely reflect that. We really love melody and pop music and love the sound and feeling of the human voice, I suppose on that debut record that just came out.
The first time I listened to Crashing Diseases and Incurable Airplanes, I had just finished listening to the latest Pallbearer album, Foundations of Burden. I'm not sure if you're familiar with their music or not, but both bands aren't afraid of exploring a specific mood/feel during a song, no matter how long it takes. Did you ever try and write shorter, more compact songs?
Sorry, I haven't heard Pallbearer, but I will check them out. The first song I wrote for the band was "Tonight, the Dead Walk," which is the longest song on the record. After that we wrote a lot of songs that went everywhere from goth and even had a noise/D-beat song that was about a minute long. We got bored of them quickly and chucked them. I guess long songs kind of fly in the face of iPod shufflers and music streamers, but I think the songs are as long as they need to be. If a song conveys the feeling it needs to in just over a minute as well, then it's done. We didn't set out to write long songs, but we wanted the music to breathe and ease into its destination and hopefully let the listener enjoy the scenery. Don't be surprised, though, if we have a bunch of short songs in the future. We are not really into setting up rules for ourselves.
A great example of how USA Out of Vietnam has its way with mood and dynamics is the song "Archangel." The arrangement builds from calm to chaos, and closes out with ethereal vocals that give the track a cathartic sense of release. It made me wonder how the songs come together. Do you piece together ideas in jam sessions, or are you sitting down, writing out each part before you head into the practice room like a film composer would?
They are all different, but the majority of the time we will come up with a skeletal arrangement and then we envision other instruments in certain sections to underline the emotional feel of the section. "Archangel" was a song that starts off very dark and represents desperation and ends with sounds of hope. The detachment and coldness created by the vocoder vocals singing about destitute personal times before humanistic vocals and eventually a choir comes in and offers hope and salvation. The feel of the lyrics are embedded in the mood swings the song takes. A lot of people have compared the vocoder idea with Mogwai, but to be honest it was from seeing a Thrones performance and my lifelong love of Kraftwerk.
Let's talk about the sonic attack of the band. One would imagine a row of guitar and vocal effects lining the floor of your rehearsal room.
We will have more experimental sounds recorded, usually from when we record the record, and then we will take those tracks and load up our sampler. We do put delay on the vocals, but we don't like to over-rely on effects and are actually pretty basic. We definitely have an interest in found sounds and experimental noise, which seems to add to the mood of the songs when we are in recording mode. I think interesting things happen when you get out of your comfort zone and start thinking beyond your assigned instrument.
The way you use a brass section on the album is really interesting. How did that work out in the studio? Did you write out charts for that part of the songs, or was it more improvisational than that?
That was all done by Ryan Frisell, who plays trumpet in an awesome band called Bent by Elephants. I had written out the trumpet parts on guitar and they were transcribed in chart form by former member and Crashing recording engineer Kevin Bartcak, who plays in a great, epic band called Near Grey. The trumpet was used to express jubilation and was partly inspired by the preceding spoken word section, which was taken from an interview I had done with artist Ron Jamieson. Phew, really dropped a lot of names there!
How the hell do you guys pull off your material in a live setting? There's so much going on in the recordings.
Vocals definitely have more of a presence, as four of the five members are singers and we have revamped the vocal harmonies for the songs on the record. We also have members that will be forced to come out of their traditional roles and add keyboards, samplers, etc. This definitely helps flesh things out a bit, but has turned into a nightmare for soundmen as well, as we always seem to have a technical glitch at every show we play.
We have a feature on No Echo where we ask musicians which album had a turning point kind of effect on them growing up. What would that be for you?
Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade was definitely a turning point and revelation for me, as it was obvious that punk rock could exist outside of its rigid blueprint and emotionally affect you—as opposed to just screaming at a wall about Ronald Reagan. Not so much the record (although I definitely still love it), but seeing Black Flag on the 1984 My War tour made me want to make music for the rest of my life and was probably my biggest musical awakening moment. It taught me that if you can't play music with total conviction and devotion, then you shouldn't do it.
If you had the power of turning millions of people onto a band/artist you think is completely underrated, who would it be?
I don't know if this is underrated, but maybe some of your readers don't know about Talk Talk's incredible swansong records. Listening to Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock can literally change your life. Both are not easy listens, but if you are willing to let go of preconceptions and just let the music guide you, the rewards are astonishing.