“We flirt with insanity all the time,” says Ross Simonini of NewVillager, his brotherhood with musical partner Ben Bromley. The two met at college in California, bonded in a smoke-filled rehearsal space and have since gone on a creative rampage that involves multiple artistic disciplines. NewVillager sketches, sculpts, writes mythologies and makes collages. They’ve created art installations at avant-garde galleries and have plans to publish a 1,000-page book. But to think all these artistic pursuits do anything but serve NewVillager’s self-titled debut album would be, well, insane. Sure, Simonini can sound kooky as he details the self-created mythology and song-cycle nature of the album (it involves a character called the Black Crow Boy and a shift from the Cocoon House to the Light House), and listeners have the right to be suspicious of musicians who divide their time among so many pursuits. But when paired with the exuberance of NewVillager, any pretense fades away and you’re left with the pure, primal joys of pop music.
eMusic’s Matthew Fritch spoke to Simonini about music videos, multi-tasking, mythology and Michael Jackson as a hurricane battered the East Coast.
On managing a career that involves making music, writing books, visual installations, painting:
We started as a band. But as we made the music, all of these other ideas just happened. Our culture has become one of specialization, and that’s how progress happens so fast: One guy makes the screw, another guy makes the bolt. The “renaissance man” is nice for Da Vinci, but these days we tend to be suspicious of people with broad interests. They’re unfocused! And being unfocused is, for some reason, bad. We trust the highly specialized individual. But for some people, like us, specific, repetitive work isn’t sustainable or natural. It’s more about diversity, variation, looking at something from multiple perspectives.
On Simonini’s red state and Bromley’s blue state:
This is an element of the music-making process that we try to embed into the art. We often use the colors of red and blue as a way to talk about it. The red is the past, a sort of slow-moving, reflective perspective. The blue is the future, the fast-paced, forward-moving attitude. These come from the Doppler effect; how stars moving away from us appear red-shifted, the ones moving toward us look blue-shifted. The tortoise and the hare is another reference. You can see this in almost everything we do. On stage, my side of the stage is often dressed in red material, Ben’s side is blue. The symbols we work with also have this kind of a balance, as well as a masculine/feminine balance, creation/destruction balance, etc. In the “LightHouse” video, the characters are broken up into red and blue for this reason, and so are the songs on the album. When making music, we’ll often talk about whether or not the track is balanced, in terms of red or blue. Or even in performing, with tempos, I tend to sit behind the beat, Ben pushes forward. Of course, it’s kind of reductive to talk about ourselves like this, since, as people, we’re not like that all the time. But in the context of the band, it helps that we each take a certain position, a certain role and make sure the music contains both sides the situation.
On proprioception (rough translation: the unconscious perception of movement within the body):
I’ve had some problems with my wrists and tendinitis. The best thing I’ve found for it is the Alexander Technique, which is all about proprioception. I worked with an Alexander teacher a few years ago and have recently become interested in it again. We’re never really taught to think about the basics of our bodies — walking, sitting, standing — and it’s fun to approach these things in a new way.
On music videos eclipsing their songs:
Some music videos can become just as important as the song: “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam, “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M., “Rubber Johnny” by Aphex Twin, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” by Busta Rhymes. [NewVillager's] video for “LightHouse” was definitely an instance of us trying to fuse art and music and mythos into a single experience. But I would also say that there’s usually a visual counterpart to music, even without videos. If a song appears in a movie, if you have a certain experience listening to a song, if you see the band live, the album art, the way a band looks on stage, synesthesia, even just vague associations and imagination — all this stuff swims around in our heads when we listen to music. It almost never exists as pure sound.
On the role of mythology in the modern world:
Mythology still makes sense of things, which is the same thing it always did. We may think we’re hot shit now, strutting around with our iPhones strapped to our heads but we still don’t have answers that make us feel content. So we keep making up mythologies, whether they’re around celebrities or films or religions or art. Humans just make sense of things with systems, stories, patterns and laws. Science may have its own method, but we will always make our mythological explanations of the world around us — even if it’s just kids playing make-believe in the back yard.
On the pop-culture tyranny of Michael Jackson and the Beatles:
There were certainly mythologized pop musicians before Michael Jackson and the Beatles, but right now, the mythos of the R&B-pop star and the blues-rock band are both still the dominant in popular music, and they both come from those artists. We’ve made them bigger than life because we want the privilege of basking in music that’s bigger than life. We need these artists to be mythologized because mythology is somewhat rare in contemporary life. But there’s a danger in letting the myths we make become too powerful. We always have to keep them in check, remind ourselves that we’re the ones who made them in the first place.
On their off-kilter approach to vocals:
Ben and I both sing differently on our own, but when we get together, we create a unified version of our voices. Naturally, I probably lean toward low vocals, and Ben toward the high vocals. When people hear that we make art and music, they assume we’re a noise band, or that the music is wildly abstract. But what we really enjoy is how the pop music clashes against the idea of a mythology. On one level, there’s a very natural connection between the two, but on another level, any talk about ideas and mythology and history — that doesn’t go with the world’s idea of pop music. We wanted to have a form of pop music that could also accommodate art and ideas. We love the sounds of pop music, but could sometimes be disappointed to find that the music we liked didn’t go beyond the surface, or that we’d have to ignore the lyrics and personas and attitudes just to enjoy the excellent tunes. We all know pop music doesn’t have to be vapid, and yet we often expect it to be, so it continues to be that way much of the time. There’s nothing wrong with vapid music — we love it — but pop doesn’t have to be limited to that.