RVG: ROMY VAGER The X-Press Interview

Romy Vager is the frontwoman, songwriter and commander-in-chief of RVG (The Romy Vager Group). Their debut album A Quality of Mercy dropped in 2017 and drew international recognition, as well as four nominations at the 2017 Music Victoria Awards and the 2018 AIR awards. With a sound somewhere between the dark post-punk of Echo & The Bunnymen and the romanticism of The Go-Betweens, they’re one of the most bracing Aussie bands on the scene today. Their latest album, Feral, is out now and is an equally powerful collection of songs. MATIJA ZIVKOVIC talks to her about the band’s early days, The Sopranos, and the stories behind some of the latest album’s tracks. RVG support Faith No More at RAC Arena on Saturday, March 6, 2021. 

I’m guessing you’ve been affected by self-isolation like everyone else. What have you been doing to keep sane?

Random shit really, not much [laughs]. I’ve been watching Sopranos for the first time. So good, fuck.

RVG is such an interesting mix of influences with the post-punk thing mixed with the romanticism of The Go-Betweens or The Triffids. What were some of your early musical influences?

I started listening to Nirvana and stuff when I was 13. But when I was about 15-16, for a bunch of strange reasons I started listening to 80s Goth. Which was strange coming from Adelaide at the time, I was the only person I knew in my school that was listening to it. Bands like Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie and the Banshees. They’re the type of bands that you start with and still love now.

They’re a bit timeless I suppose… Before RVG were you in local bands?

I was briefly in a band that played a few gigs in Adelaide but didn’t go anywhere. Before RVG I played in a band called Sooky La La which was a grungey, yell-ey band except not as good as the band I’m currently in [laughs].

So how dd RVG come together?

I was living in a place called The Bank, which was a studio. I lived upstairs in a common space and we used to have gigs. I made a little tape of music and I needed to find a band to launch it. I asked the three people around me that were interested in playing music and they said “yes”, and so we just did it.

And that sound of yours with those different influences, was that something you settled on at the start or something that developed over time?

It’s something we started from the beginning. I didn’t think about how I wanted the band to sound but all of us consciously moulded it from stuff we liked together. We all liked The Go-Betweens and Echo & the Bunnymen and stuff, which is where we started from.

I saw you guys back in May 2019 in The Rosemount Hotel carpark opening for Kurt Vile. You made an instant impression on us Xpress folks and your performance had the audience fully drawn in. Is that something you worked on or did it come naturally?

I really liked that Perth show because I remember the power going out at the perfect time. It felt almost like a prop. It went out just as we started a song, and when we went back into the song it felt great. But [our live show] didn’t start off like that initially, we just had some good songs. It got gradually bigger, I gradually got more into it. I was learning what I wanted to do. I remember we were playing this gig in Bordeaux in France. We’d played this gig in Paris the previous night and it had a bit of a dull vibe. I remember thinking “next time I play I’m really going to just fucking throw myself into it.” There’s no better time – after you play a bad gig, the gig after it is usually really good. You’ve got all that energy waiting on it. We played this gig in Bordeaux and I just snapped into it. It was a really, really good gig, the best of the tour. It set a spark off of “this is how I can get to people.” I figured it out in a way.

I wonder if the show preceding Perth wasn’t a good one…

Where was the one before Perth… Oh it was in Adelaide. The Adelaide show wasn’t too bad! [laughs]

So you mentioned Bordeaux and Paris, and you’ve also toured the US. What’s been the most interesting place you’ve played?

We played in Sète in France, that was really amazing. We played this gig with Pete Doherty. It was outside and the stage was this 16th century auditorium that used to be an army placement to ward off the British. The stage was right at the bottom and we played overlooking the Mediterranean Sea with a full moon. It was incredible.

I love the new album. The singles are some of your biggest sounding songs to date for me, and all the tracks have really good lyrics and production. I know the first album was recorded pretty cheaply live at The Tote. How about this album – was the recording process different, and did you approach it in a different way?

We approached it the same way. It became clear to us that, while we could do another album by ourselves, it was just too stressful doing the first one. [The actual recording] didn’t take us very long. I did the vocals and some overdubs at my house, it wasn’t completely live. But in between recording the very bare bones at The Tote and then overdubbing it, it took a long time, because this band and I can be a bit… lax… at times [laughs]. We tried to record this album at The Tote again but we thought “this isn’t really working out, let’s try and find someone to do it.” After a false start we worked with Victor [van Vugt] and he just got it. We just plugged our instruments in, very minimal overdubs, I did my vocals at the end, and it was very smooth and easy.

To me, it has a different sound but production-wise it captures a certain rawness and energy that the first album had as well. To me it sounds great…

The first album is quite raw, but the songs are there and that’s the main thing about this band. We aren’t interested in doing things very glitzy and throwing a bunch of wild synths on top of it. These are the songs and that’s it really.

Was there any change in your influences on this album? To me it sounds brighter instrumentally, more jangly. Sometimes sounds like The Smiths, and has a 70s pop-punk feel at times. Someone mentioned The Only Ones; it reminded me of some of their singles…

It’s the same batch [of influences]. We’re playing a lot harder this time than on the first record. A lot of it came from watching bands while overseas and trying to match their energy. We did a tour overseas with Shame, and when we watched them we were like “fuck, it would be good to have more of a rocking thing going on.” The Only Ones are great, yeah… their second album is one of my favourites and definitely something I’ve tried to model some of my songs off. Also there’s this compilation album that I really love called The Grim Reaper’s Greatest Hits. It’s this 50s/60s compilation about teen car crashes. It’s the fucking best – there’s two albums, the other one’s called Dead Again or something. It has really depressing lyrics about suicide and murder – there’s all this crazy stuff going on. But the music’s really sweet, it’s all three chords like C, F, G.

So this was a subgenre of rock ‘n’ roll? [laughs]

I think it was something people did because it made money, like the Shangri-Las. So somebody compiled all these songs together and it’s wild, I recommend it [laughs].

What about your songwriting – do the words come first or the music?

The words mostly come first. It starts with me, I just need a solid opening couple of lines and I can build a song around it. This band is very lyric-driven. We don’t jam – we’ll jam out little bits but the structure is 99% there when we start playing.

Alexandra was the opening single. It’s quite a brutal song about someone getting ostracised. Did this song draw from something you’d read, or personal experience?

It was partly personal. I left home when I was 17, moved from Adelaide to Melbourne. The first five years from then were pretty insane. I keep coming back to my first couple of years in Melbourne because it was insane and hyper and has a lot of characters and weird stuff. My life right now is pretty boring! [laughs]. But it partly mixed my personal story with a couple of other stories I’d read about, like newspaper articles of people in Europe getting set on fire and beheaded by their families. I put it all together and tried to make this hyper-realism song.

It’s very effecting! Vincent Van Gogh from the previous album you’d said was referring to a specific kind of male in the Melbourne music scene. On this album you have Baby Bottle, is that based on personal experience with someone as well?

Yeah. These kind of people keep coming into my life [laughs]. It’s interesting that one, because I wrote it about someone else at first and we started playing it before we recorded. Then I thought “I don’t really have this grudge against this person anymore,” but then I had a similar grudge against someone else and managed to transfer that energy to them! I like pointing the finger at people that piss me off [laughs].

Well it results in some good songs! You’ve said before that you didn’t want to write normal songs, you’d rather write about aliens and computers. You have IBM from the previous album and now Christian Neurosurgeon from this one. What inspired that track?

I can’t remember the catalyst for it. It’s one of those songs where I started writing it as a silly song that I probably wasn’t going to show anybody, but then it turned into another thing. In my case I’ve written silly songs thinking “I’m gonna write a silly song because nobody can stop me.” Then suddenly I’ll turn around and think “this is alright, there’s some depth here,” and a song is able to grow out of it.

What about the song Prima Donna, was that a similar approach? It’s a funny character story, did you draw it from personal experience?

It’s a very silly story. Do you know Capt’n Snooze? It’s about someone playing the character of Capt’n Snooze, and hating being typecast. I always think of Alec Guinness, how he was an amazing Shakespearean actor and then they got him to do Star Wars and he got stuck playing Star Wars and fucking hated it [laughs]. Just getting stuck doing something you don’t want to do, it’s the worst thing in the world.

I wish you guys the best! Your recent dates were cancelled but we hope to see you soon after all this madness is over, and there’s also the tour with Faith No More that’s been rescheduled for March 2021…

Yeah, we had the Pixies show in Perth [on March 17] and we were going to play our own show the next day, but unfortunately it didn’t work out like that. Nothing’s been announced yet but the Pixies show is trying to find another date. Which is good, means we can come back to Perth. I really loved coming last time and I’m itching to be back!