Taking their name from a profoundly strange book by outsider artist Henry Darger, the Brooklyn-based trio Vivian Girls developed an avid local following which expanded exponentially once they hit the road. The solid core from the start has been Cassie Ramone (guitar, vocals) and Katy Goodman (bass), with a number of drummers. After releasing three albums in the years 2008-11, they took a hiatus, while Cassie Ramone pursued a solo career. They reunited last year, released a new album and are looking to tour once the pandemic lifts. New York-based singer-songwriter Austin Brookner caught up with Cassie Ramone and shares their conversation with PKM
by Austin Brookner
All images via @viviangirls
Her left hand tears out a broken string from her guitar in the middle of the song, flings it behind her head with the disregard of a false lover, retunes the remaining five strings with the alacrity of Liberace, all the while not skipping a beat or a note with her right hand strumming, then finishes the rest of the set minus one string.
The force of nature known as Cassie Ramone (guitar, lead vocals) began the band The Vivian Girls with Katy Goodman (bass, vocals) and Frankie Rose (drums, vocals) in 2007. This was the original lineup for their self-titled debut album, released in 2008 by In The Red Records.
During this early period of their career, some music journalists said that they didn’t know how to play their instruments. Which is also what was said about The Velvet Underground and similar to the complaints of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring when it premiered – which critics said was just a bunch of noise. So The Vivian Girls are in good company.
The truth of the matter is that the band knows when less is more, and they are able to accomplish the deceptively difficult trick of composing simple melodies that a head and an ear can retain.
A good example of this is the song “Where Do You Run To” from their first album. It is built from a three-note phrase that recalls the three-note riff in “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges. In The Vivian Girls song the riff has been transposed one whole step up and set to a minor key, from the key of E major (the key of “I Wanna Be Your Dog”) to F# minor (“Where Do You Run To.”) It’s also given a different rhythm. The jumpy jungle bounce of The Stooges riff is instead a methodical, accentuated blunt to the gut.
“Where Do You Run To”-Vivian Girls:
Similarly, in “Something To Do,” from their most recent album Memory, Ramone employs the Jerry Lee Lewis School of one-note soloing. There is much to be gained in terms of imagination and contemplation from her one note repetition. To paraphrase Mark Twain: “there is more benefit from one evil deed if heartfelt than from a thousand good deeds if not heartfelt.”
Their second album Everything Goes Wrong, released in 2009 also on In The Red Records, saw a lineup change of Ali Koehler on drums. Koehler had already been performing with the band on tour for about a year. On the subsequent album Share The Joy, Fiona Campbell took over the drum kit in place of Koehler. Also, a different label –Polyvinyl Records – with whom they are currently aligned, released the album. The soundscape on this work had more open, empty space than their previous ones.
After Share The Joy, there was a five-year hiatus from the sayonara show in 2014 at Death By Audio in Brooklyn to their reunification and most recent album, Memory, released in 2019. In that time, Ramone kept churning it out with her other band, The Babies, which released two albums, The Babies (2011) and Our House On A Hill (2012). A solo album of her original material, The Time Has Come, was released in 2014 and a Christmas album, Christmas In Reno, in 2015.
Memory, the Vivian Girls’ fourth studio album, sees the return of Ali Koehler on drums. Koehler’s rollicking, persistent train rhythm puts the gears in motion in their new song “Your Kind Of Life,” and the album shows an evolution and elaboration of the band’s songwriting vocabulary, sonically filling in all the open space that was on Share The Joy. Memory expands upon the texture the Vivian Girls are known for, aided by the inclusion of piano (on the track “Sludge”) and xylophone (on “Your Kind Of Life”). These instruments add a higher level for the ear, as did the piano on The Stooges record “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
The new album’s faded cover artwork could be a nod to its title. Memories do tend to be hazy, and the landscape and palm trees on the cover are the kind that can be found in Los Angeles, where the band recorded the Memory. Whereas going back to their first album, the artwork was of the Bushwick / Williamsburg barracks where many hungry eager Brooklyn bands began and was the city borough where The Vivian Girls were located at the time.
It is a futile and deadening endeavor to attempt to define or explain why something stands apart from what is to the left and to the right of it, as The Vivian Girls do; their music is a brew all their own. Though perhaps one overlooked nugget to key in on is Katy Goodman’s bass playing. She is adept at being both a melodic driving force at times, as well as knowing when to provide the rock-like foundation that the instrument is traditionally associated with. This is evident on the track “Sick” from their new album.
Goodman’s general facileness in covering both the melodic and the bed-rock seems to aid in allowing Ramone’s guitar the freedom to let loose with reckless abandon (similar to how the Asheton brothers of The Stooges provided the foundation that propelled Iggy Pop to shoot out on stage like someone shot a cannon of coke up his tookus).
The unrestrained, urgent desperation of Ramone’s guitar playing is on display in the band’s version of “Telepathic Affair,”a song written and originally recorded by The Wipers, a group that The Vivian Girls have cited as an early influence and inspiration. Combined with Ramone’s no nonsense-cut to the point-don’t overthink it-mean every word of it vocal delivery, their re-imagining of the song delves deeper into the cathedral of the heart than the original.
It’s been nearly a decade since I witnessed Cassie Ramone’s five-string spectacle on the stage of Don Pedro’s in Brooklyn. The world has gone to hell several times over since then. How’s Cassie holding up?
AB: You’re from New Jersey, right?
Cassie Ramone: Yes, I’m from New Jersey. I lived in Hackensack until I was eight and then my family and I moved to Ridgewood.
AB: I grew up in Millburn though I wasn’t born there. I remember we played Ridgewood in soccer.
Cassie Ramone: I used to play soccer when I was a kid.
AB: I was talking with a buddy of mine who grew up in South Orange and both of us were saying that once we left Jersey in high school, we both never go back. We’re afraid to. Do you still go back to New Jersey?
Cassie Ramone: I was afraid to go back for a while. But my family still lives there. About five or six years ago, I had to move back with my parents for a few months. That was definitely eye opening. It sucked but it was cool too because I got to explore my hometown as an adult, and that was fun in certain ways. I got to reconnect with certain friends of mine. At this point whenever I go back to Ridgewood I view it as a magical place, but it was also painful if that makes any sense. Also, my parents live in Poland half the time so pre-COVID I would house-sit, cat-sit, plant-sit pretty often.
AB: When you were not with The Vivian Girls – before you got back together – was it ever in your mind? Did you still think about the band?
Cassie Ramone: That band is my life. We started that band when I was a junior in college. We went on our full U.S. tour that we booked ourselves the day after I graduated college. By the end of the tour, the press followed us – we were all over Pitchfork. The band was my entire life. I had an identity crisis when we broke up. When Katy [Goodman] hit me up trying to get back together, I was so happy. It’s where I feel at home. It’s one of the top three things I’ve ever cared about in my life.
AB: When you started the band or when you started playing with Katy, did you feel that you clicked immediately? Or did it take a couple jams before you knew? Was it something you could pinpoint where you could say, ‘This feels different from anything else I’ve done musically?’
Cassie Ramone: Well Katy and me have been friends 15 half our lives at this point. We became friends about the time when I was fifteen and she was 17. I had a band in high school. I was playing guitar since I was 13 and she started playing in bands a little bit later. We never really considered playing together but then when it finally happened – when me, Katy and Frankie started playing together for the first time – yeah it felt different. It felt great. It was awesome.
AB: When you finish a record, where do you like to test it out first? Do you put it in the car or try to play it in a bar?
Cassie Ramone: Katy used to have a Honda – I also used to have a Honda – and back in the day we would always drive around in Katy’s Honda and listen to it in there first. Because it has very mid-level speakers and that’s the kind of environment that most people will be listening in; people usually listen to music in the car. At least 12 years ago that was mostly the case. Now it’s mostly earbuds. We would always test drive around in the car first, and then we would listen off of our iPods because that’s when iPods were still a thing. Obviously, we would listen in high-end studio speakers but the car was the main thing.
AB: If it sounds cool in the car, then it’s cool. I always found, anyway.
Cassie Ramone: The car is the ultimate test. It’s the most mid-level way to go between shitty speakers and high-end speakers.
AB: If you’ve gone any stretch of time where you haven’t either picked up the guitar, or played, or come up with any idea – even if it’s not a full song, if it’s just a riff – do you get sort of anxious? Do you get a kind of jones where it’s like ‘Shit, I haven’t come up with anything for a while.’ Do you ever get any anxious feeling in that regard?
Cassie Ramone: Hmm. Well that’s kind of a loaded question. I had a few years like that before the last Vivian Girls album. I wouldn’t say its anxiety necessarily. It’s more like you feel dead inside. I’ve had several spurts where I’m not that inspired and I’m not playing guitar at all and I’m not writing songs at all. But then it always comes back. After we recorded our album, I wasn’t really writing music for months and months. Since coronavirus hit, I’ve actually been coming up with tunes in my head when I’m sitting on my back stoop late at night and doing voice memos. I’ve been coming up with some cool shit, but I haven’t been relaying it on guitar.
AB: Can you read musical notation?
Cassie Ramone: I can. I used to be really good at it. I’m classically trained in piano. It’s been a long time since I practiced. I was classically trained when I was a teenager. I used to be very good at reading music. I can still do it. But it’s a skill you have to relearn if you’re out of practice.
AB: Did you teach yourself guitar or did you have a teacher?
Cassie Ramone: I had a teacher. I took guitar lessons from the ages of about 13 to 17. Before that I took piano lessons. Before that I took saxophone lessons. I started playing saxophone when I was eight. Funny coincidence – Katy also used to play the saxophone when she was a child. We both played sax as our first instruments. She is self-taught on bass. I think she’s an amazing bass player. I’m not self-taught on guitar. I did teach myself most of my tricks, if you will. During my guitar lessons I only practiced things that I wanted to learn and I didn’t practice the other things that my teacher tried to teach me.
AB: There’s a song I’ve heard you play by yourself called “Leave Me Alone.” Did you ever try to record that?
Cassie Ramone: That’s a very funny question because I did record that with Mac DeMarco. Mac and I became friends right around the time that he was coming up. He was in Brooklyn playing a Pitchfork TV gig and I went to it. Afterwards, he and his band were playing a show at Bard and then they were going back to Montreal and they invited me with them. We drove up to Bard and played this crazy show there and then we went to this Bard house party after that. Then we drove to Montreal. It was freezing. It was horrible outside.
Mac and I recorded “Leave Me Alone” together. It was a very cool recording and I keep trying to get my hands on it. Mac and I are still buddies, but he’s a little harder to get a hold of these days. He has the only recording of that song. It sounds very cool. It’s Mac DeMarco style. If I can’t get a hold of that recording I’m going to try to record it again at some point.
AB: I hope you do.
Cassie Ramone: I really like that song and it’s been a live staple of mine. I love Mac’s recording of it and I really want to release the song someday.
AB: This might be a weird question. Have you ever found that when mastering a song, sometimes it comes out sounding slower than the mix, as though it’s lost some of its bounce? Or am I just insane?
Cassie Ramone: I’ve never felt the slowed-down effect. Personally, I’ve found that after mastering the mix can sound off a little bit. Because a record must be mastered. I’ve mixed my own solo records. Then, after the mastering sometimes something seems off. But mastering must be done. I just accept it.
AB: Do you have a favorite pizza topping?
Cassie Ramone: What kind of pizza are we talking about? There are three kinds of pizza in my world. There’s the classic New York pizza, a Neapolitan style pizza, and then there’s a Dominos style pizza. I don’t even count Chicago style pizza. That’s not pizza. That’s a different food.
AB: I’ve never had Chicago pizza. It’s a lasagna sort of thing, right?
Cassie Ramone: Yeah, it’s like lasagna. It’s good but it’s not pizza. It’s a different kind of food.
AB: Well then, the classic New York-style pizza.
Cassie Ramone: I usually just go for classic cheese. I’ll have pepperoni sometimes. Also, I really like white pizza. I love a margarita pizza but only if it’s Neapolitan…I also really enjoy fancy pizza with an egg in the center.
AB: An egg? I’ve never seen that.
Cassie Ramone: In the really fancy Neapolitan style places they have that.
AB: What is Neapolitan pizza?
Cassie Ramone: It’s the kind that is served at Roberta’s*. [A Brooklyn restaurant].
AB: Is there one meal that stands out in your mind as the best meal you’ve ever had in your life?
Cassie Ramone: It would have to be one of my grandmother’s meals. I don’t know which one, but it would have to be one of hers.
AB: Did you ever get any of her recipes?
Cassie Ramone: She showed me some stuff, but it was difficult to communicate. I was talking about reading music earlier, and it’s the same thing with speaking Polish. Polish is my first language, but I was so rebellious as a child and was trying so hard to fit in and be “American” that I willfully tried to forget how to speak Polish, and it worked. I’m trying to learn again right now. During COVID, I’ve been practicing often. My grandmother had limited English and I had limited Polish at the time, so we could talk a little bit, but it was limited. Though I did learn a few tricks from her.
She always used to cook the Thanksgiving turkey. One time I asked her what her secret was because it was delicious. She used a seasoning that had MSG in it. People tend to associate MSG with bad Chinese food, but my little ol’ Polish grandma was making Thanksgiving turkey with MSG seasoning and it was always delicious. I’ve always been pro-MSG since I’ve been an adult.
My most memorable meal it was in Kyoto, Japan when we were on tour with The Black Lips. It was in a really nice place where you have to take your shoes off and you sit on pillows on the floor and you’re served multiple courses. We had our own private room. They brought out horse tongue sashimi and a couple of the guys from The Black Lips said ‘Cassie, eat this. It’s so good.’ I had a bite and it was embarrassing. I gagged. The only meat that I’ll eat that’s not cooked well done is fish. I’ll eat raw fish but I cannot eat medium-rare steak. All my land meat must be cooked through. My steak must be well done, burnt to a crisp.
AB: Do you have an ideal wedding band?
Cassie Ramone: I would want The Bananas to play my wedding if I had one. The Bananas have been one of my favorite bands since I was 16 or 17. They’re a cult band from Sacramento. Not a lot of people know about them. They’ve really inspired me.
“The Beginning of the End”-The Bananas, from Sacramento:
AB: Are you watching any Amazon Prime or Netflix episodicals these days? Any go to show at the moment?
Cassie Ramone: My go-to show at the moment, for about the third time, I’m watching Law and Order SVU from the beginning. My favorite show of all-time is Friends. Besides that I watch Food Network a lot, shows like Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay. Also, I watch Shark Tank, Wheel of Fortune, The Big Bang Theory. I’m sorry; I have really crummy taste in TV.
AB: I don’t know if it’s possible to have good taste in TV. It’s as though good and TV don’t go together…If you had to get out of jury duty, what would you say?
Cassie Ramone: Are you kidding me?! It’s the easiest thing in the world to come up with something so as to be viewed as partial. But the thing is that I would want to be on jury duty. I think that would be fun.
AB: You get paid, too.
Cassie Ramone: But also I care about justice. I want real criminals to be prosecuted. If it were for a real, intense case I would actually want to be on the jury. My parents used to say I’d make a good lawyer because of how much I argue.
AB: My parents said that about me too. Must be my stubborn streak. My buddy was telling me about a book by Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, that references tarot cards.* Ramone illustrated a tarot card deck for their new album.
Cassie Ramone: I tried to read that book once but I couldn’t get through it. His writing is very dense. You can have profound statements that are very simple.
AB: Have you ever tried doing any astrological charts?
Cassie Ramone: I do them all the time. I’m extremely interested in astrology.
AB: What is your astrological sign, if you don’t mind my asking?
Cassie Ramone: I don’t mind at all. I’m a Pisces. Gemini moon and a Virgo rising. And I’m a triple Pisces and a triple Sagittarius. So three of my planets are in Pisces and three of my planets are in Sagittarius. So I’m almost entirely mutable.
AB: What does that mean when you say ‘mutable?’
Cassie Ramone: Every zodiac sign is either mutable, cardinal or fixed. I’m all the mutable ones. And I have a grand cross, which is a pretty bad zodiac placement. But it means that you can work through it with great strides towards your destiny.
Whereas if you had a grand triangle – for example if I were a Pisces with a Scorpio moon and a Cancer rising, all those three are water signs – that’s a grand triangle. That would mean you’d have an easy path through life but you might not learn anything. .
AB: The Chinese do there’s a little differently, I think.
Cassie Ramone: My friend Devin [from the band DIIV] is really good at the Chinese zodiac. It is its own thing but it’s not too different from the Western zodiac. It’s still a step of twelve. Twelve is a really magical number for some reason.
AB: Well it’s divisible by three. And three is considered a magic number.
Cassie Ramone: Three is a magic number. That’s why Vivian Girls is so magical. It’s a trio. We never considered becoming more than a three piece. We toted around the idea a few times but then said, ‘nah.’ It needs to be three always.
AB: You could maybe have three male backup singers?
Cassie Ramone: Eww. Males? Gross. (Laughs) That’s not a horrible idea –
AB: I was just kidding.
Cassie Ramone: But men involved, I don’t want that. I think three women making music is like witchcraft. It’s beautiful.
AB: In one of your music videos, for the song “Sludge,” there was a witchcraft opening, right?
Cassie Ramone: Yeah. We were very grateful that Alex Ross Perry – who has made feature length films – he’s a fan and he reached out to do the video. We met up and brainstormed together. He came up with the idea of “good us” looking down on “bad us.” I love that video. I think it’s one of my favorite videos that we’ve made.
AB: Were the “bad” you the ones that were drinking the Slurpees?
Cassie Ramone: Yeah – the goth ones. Chilling in the suburbs and being bad girls. Me and Katy have been very good friends since we were teenagers. We used to do really bad shit together. We were talking about it and laughing about all the shit we would pull in New York City. We were talking about it as we were filming to get into the role.
AB: Any favorite gambling game?
Cassie Ramone: I don’t really gamble. I just like hanging out at casinos – hanging out with people, getting free drinks and smoking inside.
AB: Anyone you’d like to meet?
Cassie Ramone: Greg Sage – he’s from The Wipers. I think he’s still alive, living in Phoenix. I’d really love to see what he’s like. Also, Jennifer Aniston. I love her. She seems like she’s a cool, down-to-earth person. I’d like to meet Donald Trump. I don’t like him, but I just want to see what he’s like.
AB: A friend of mine was in the same room as Donald Trump once. He said he was a germophobe. He didn’t shake anybody’s hands.
Cassie Ramone: I’ve heard that from somebody as well. I want to see what it’s like to be in his vicinity to experience it firsthand. I don’t think it’ll be pleasant, but I want to experience it. I do part-time work for this startup app and my manager there used to manage a company where Trump was the landlord of the building. He would shake hands with Trump and afterwards Trump would wipe his hands on his pants.
AB: I hope, Cassie, you live a very long time in spite of what you said earlier.
Cassie Ramone: I think I will, honestly. I’m Polish. We’re built to last. The less you care, the better it will be.