Alex Vans writes smart pop songs (his new album, DJ Booth, is a bit of a send up of the music industry); and performs with the kind of energy usually found at rock shows. The band is based in New York and D.C. According to Vans’ website, he got his start as a solo act. He wrote (“mostly while he was on the road touring as a backup guitarist for Justin Jones & The Driving Rain”), arranged and produced DJ Booth by himself, but it “showcases his honest, catchy songwriting alongside a full band” and “is a genre-bending album that celebrates the musical diversity of artists like Bob Mould and The Walkmen, all tied together by Vans’ lyrical wit and cynicism and indie rock arrangements ranging from organic roots rockers to dance-hall ready anthems.”
Alex Vans and the Hideaway play The Lab on Wednesday, April 17. Grown Up Avenger Stuff opens. 9:30 p.m., $5. In advance of that show, Vans answered our questions about unusual recording spaces, rare downtime, and why the band wants to make Asheville a regular stop on its tour route.
Mountain Xpress: You recorded your single, “Chase the Night,” in an old mill. Why did you pick that space? And have you recorded (or do you plan to record) in other unusual spaces?
Alex Vans: It was actually an old mill building in Philadelphia that had been converted into a recording studio. I picked it because of the wide open spaces that it had to offer so we could get the big percussion sounds that I wanted on the record, and also because the owners of the studio let us blow up air mattresses and in the control room and live at the studio for 10 days while we tracked everything for a tiny fraction of what it would have cost us in New York or most other places. It also had this really old, gritty, south Philly vibe, that really put the band in a great head space for making this record. The whole record is kind of an anthem for the underdogs and the outsiders in the music business, and making the whole record away from the pristine studios of Manhattan or the trendy hip recording spots in Brooklyn helped get that theme across on every song.
The first track of DJ Booth is about signing away your dreams. Is that a fear for you, in the music business? The whole album seems like a reflection (with catchy beats) about the pros and cons of pursuing music as a career — did you set out to write a cautionary tale?
More of an account of past experiences! I wrote it sort of as a reminder not to let anyone take advantage of you. Music can be a shady business and it’s tough to tell the crooks from the good guys because they will both smile, shake your hand, and tell you that they love your work.
You recently wrote on Facebook, “This is the first time in three months that the band has had more than two weeks off from touring, and we don’t know what to do with ourselves.” Which is hilarious. But honestly, is it hard transition from being on the road to being at home? Do you feel more at home when you’re touring and playing shows every night?
It’s definitely good to get back home every once in a while and get a little perspective on everything. Oddly enough, being at home is the only time I get to write and think about music, which I need in order to keep making records! On the road, even though I’m playing almost every night, the band is playing music that we’ve been rehearsing or doing live for months, so our focus is more on connecting with fans, keeping the band dynamic, positive and energetic, and taking care of the nuts and bolts of the tour. I need both settings to operate as a songwriter and as a musician. The road gets me firing on all cylinders and gives me a drive to move forward, while being at home gives me a chance to do some more open and creative thinking.
I was reading your blog from SXSW and your day two recap caught my attention. I’ve wondered about bands who have to lug all of their equipment through those crowds in order to play for 45 minutes — is it worth it? But it sounds like you’ve figured out how to grab an audience’s attention and spin that short set to your advantage. What’s your secret?
That’s a particularly embarrassing moment for me, because that club in New York City where I left my amp is a club I’ve played over a dozen times (if anyone wants to know what happened you can go here).
To answer your question though, the band started playing regularly at small Manhattan clubs, and since there are a million bands in New York City, the clubs operate on volume to make money, so on any given night at any rock club, you’ll have five or six bands in one night. Nobody gets to load-in beforehand, and the sound guy will laugh at you if you ask about a sound check. In the 15 minutes between bands, you grab your gear from the street, throw it on stage, plug in, and rock for 30-40 minutes. If you don’t give people an amazing show in that short period of time, nobody in that club will remember you the next morning, cause they probably saw 10 other bands that night just by walking around the Lower East Side. To get out on the road and have an extra half hour to stretch out on stage, and beforehand with a relaxed load-in and sound check is a real luxury for us.
You mentioned in your email that you’re working to make Asheville a regular stop on your tour. Why is that? And what can we expect from your April 17 show at The Lab?
I used to play Asheville regularly when I was playing solo-acoustic back in 2009, and always loved the energy of the downtown area. I’d walk around by myself in the afternoons before shows, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was, it was always buzzing with activity. I love that kind of energy in a city. North Carolina as a whole is also great for bands to tour through because you can hit five or six major cities all within a few hours drive of each other. Besides a Richmond and a D.C. show, this upcoming tour is all North Carolina dates. You can’t really get that in any other state on the east coast. I’m really looking forward to our show at the LAB. It will be our second time there and we are very excited. You can expect to see a super tight power-pop set with the vibe and energy of a rock show. You’ll hear and see an energy on stage of four guys who’ve put every fiber of their being onto their 45-90 minutes on stage every night, and we don’t take any second of it for granted.
Photo courtesy of the band