Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
For a little over a month, Brooklyn's Vietnam lived in historic Hollywood, Calif., hotel the Highland Gardens, which sits just northwest of Grauman's (Mann's) Chinese Theater. Home also to the Academy Awards, the neighborhood is the scene for the showiest of nights, where the rich of the rich dress and parade the red carpet, patting their own backs for their momentous achievements in cinema. The Highland Gardens Hotel, however, is only an artifact of old Hollywood -- the same old Hollywood that was making Las Vegas more of a destination than a desert. The Rat Pack hunkered down in Highland Gardens, which was called the Landmark Motor Hotel at the time, highballing and kicking up trouble. It hasn't visibly changed all that much since those days when Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra would pass out flat on the couches in their rooms.
The exterior appears to have been preserved in its unspectacularly drab, 1950s austerity, lacking much color, but indeed having its share of palm trees popping out of the ground in front of the lobby to give it the perfect amount of California glamour. Just two stories high and eerily similar to the Lorraine Hotel in downtown Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in 1968, Highland Gardens is notable for its proximity to the fuse box, where the Hollywood machine is perpetually churning and putting flickers, gleams of stardust into the corners of eyeballs. The world -- that world -- is an oyster for everyone, as optimism, more than any other place in the entire country, runs rampant like alley cats and paparazzi. The hotel is noted for being a playground for the Rat Pack, but it's famous for being the site of Janis Joplin's fatal heroin overdose on Oct. 4, 1970 at the age of 27. She was found by a bandmate in room 105 the morning after, bottoms up between her bed and a nightstand. She had been seen the night before drinking screwdrivers at the Troubadour and Barney's Beanery and the last person to see her alive was a night clerk at the hotel desk, who was oblivious to her fame, and methodically gave her change for a five dollar bill so she could buy cigarettes.
The four members of Vietnam know this story. They may have even tried to rent out room 105 for that matter, wanting to channel the late soul singer who was once quoted as saying, "On stage, I make love to 25,000 people, then I go home alone." These worlds, these words, these lost times and these sentiments of desperateness, lonely occupancy, the end is coming are the backbone of the debut full-length the band was making while paying rent at the Highland. They starved themselves and sunbathed by day and then got loaded up on everything put in front of them during the nighttime hours when they were in the studio recording their songs of a thinker's catapult into a darkness that felt like a new home. There is little to no pessimism on the record they made that month. The words of lead singer and guitarist Michael Gerner are that of a poet, portable and elastic in their meanings, but he welcomes you to a mind that is as rambling and destructive as Conor Oberst's. He knocks out lines about the end of the world, mysterious characters and big cats using blow ("The leopard doesn't know how much green went up his nose/But he knows he's still got his coat to bargain with" from "Priest, Poet & the Pig") the way Dylan would have in his 30s, but he would have needed more hiss in his throat.
What Gerner, guitarist Joshua Grubb, drummer Mike Foss and bassist Ivan Berko (who will potentially tour in the spring or summer with Maroon 5?!?) seem to be saying on Vietnam is that every high comes to an end. The songs that make up this record are caked in the last gasp, making it feel valiant anyway. There's some fighting against what appears to be personally inevitable. They piss through every verse, every chorus, turning in a performance that shadows some of the same apocalyptic thoughts of injustice and dread that were the entire diets of youth in the 60s and 70s. They've firmly tapped into the creativity that can be encouraged through heavy drug use and it resembles anxiety -- sometimes pretty and sometimes frightening, but never waning.
The Daytrotter Interview:
*What was the recording process for the upcoming, self-titled full-length like? What were your work habits like? What were the staples?*
Michael Foss: The most important part of the recording process for us was preproduction. We all knew what to do when we got to the studio. We were in LA, so we tried to get as new age as possible: vegan cooking, tanning by the pool, driving up to Malibu...LA things.
Joshua Grubb: We recorded/mixed the record all analog at two studios. The main tracking was done at Sound City and overdubs and mixing at Sunset Sound. We lived in Hollywood at the Highland Gardens (Ms. Joplin OD'd there) for a little over a month. Days consisted of tanning by the pool and waiting to get to the studio at night where supplies would be. We had no money so during the day things were tight. Usually, Top Ramen and tap water, smoking butts, etc. Once we would get to the studio we were given our daily doses. Recording live, all analog isn't the easiest task so they made sure we were happy at night hence the artist checklist: nicotine, drink, and drug. NO PROTOOLS!
*How are you guys buddies with Jenny Lewis?*
MF: We met Lewis through a friend of a friend. She's one of our guardian angels.
JG: We met her through Mickey Madden (of Maroon 5). He played on her record and she was up to paying back the favor. He called her, we met her, she sang and the rest is history.
*What were you guys going for lyrically on this record? In Fader magazine, you said that when you recorded your EP for Vice that your life was shitty and the songs reflected that. Have they gotten better?*
MF: Our world can be blissful, boring, horrific, and anywhere in between. There are some stories in there too.
JG: Life always has it's shitty aspects and we take the rough with the smooth. You can find a silver lining in almost anything.
*What are the living arrangements like now? Who lives with who and what are the digs like? Give us a tour...we're closing our eyes to imagine things just as they are.*
MF: Our loft is on S. 1st and Hooper in Brooklyn. It's got a lot of character(s). If you listen to the lyrics on the record a few of our friends and neighbors pop in and out at all hours of the day.
*Can you all explain your individual fashion sense?*
JG: NeoHoboMillitantSurfDogMallHesh with a contemporary twist.
*Did Ivan realize, before he started growing his beard that he would ultimately resemble Charles Manson when it was full?*
JG: He's one of Charlie's illegitimate love pups. So yeah, I guess he knew.
*How did you guys develop this sound? Where do you think it takes people?*
MF: I don't know how to talk about our sound now, we already have our fourth record figured out. We work things out about two years in advance. I forgot how (the sound now) ended up like this. Right now, we're thinking about synthesized sounds and recording using techniques of sleep deprivation.
JG: We didn't set out with a specific sound in mind. We knew it was going to be guitar/vocal-based and we wanted something that we felt could be timeless. The sound just grew out of that and whatever we were being influenced by at the time. When it was just Michael and me, we were sorta hellbent on combining the Everly Brothers, Royal Trux, Suicide, Spacemen 3 and the Boss into something that sounded like us. It's not like we're living in a Renaissance -- no new instruments, sounds, etc. We just wanted to take from the greats and try something of our own.
*What do you guys find yourself talking about during the downtimes in the van?*
MF: We're working on a sketch comedy series and currently shopping it to all the networks. The van is the best place to throw around ideas.
JG: How rad it would be if we were in a tour bus. With Tommy Chong as the driver and Kate Moss as our tour manager.
*When you're on the road, are the potential, readily available vices, too much to handle sometimes? Like touring with Evan Dando?*
MF: Paying rent is too much to handle. Going to the dentist is too much to handle. Playing music every night is definitely not too much to handle.
JG: try touring with VietNam. If you're on the amateur hour bus, you won't make it. We're PROS!
*A lot has been made about the band's drug use. Has that been blown out of proportion or have there been issues with addiction in the past?*
JG: Drugs=GREAT. Questions about doing drugs=BORING.
*What are the plans for the spring?*
MF: Play some shows, record, get our fashion line off the ground.
JG: Tour as much as possible and hopefully make rent.
*Who was the last really famous person you met?*
MF: Mark "The Iceman" Margolis
JG: Jim Morrison. Really nice guy.
*Which song from the record says the most about this band?*
MF: Just press play and after an hour you'll have an idea who we are and aren't
JG: I don't think we're a one song band. The whole thing, from start to finish, will give you the big picture.
*Is Iraq the new Vietnam?*
JG: It's just a one-off techno side project we our going to release in fall 2007.