Interview: The Vacation
Ben and Steve Tegel
Interview and photos by Brian Romero – February 7, 2008
Hollywood is filled with rock bands who look the part but fail to deliver the goods. The Vacation is not one of them. They continue to craft primal, sleaze-tinged songs that consistently bring the audience to a writhing frenzy. Brothers Ben and Steve Tegel talk about the band’s upcoming album and shows at the Viper Room.
Ben, you gave me a CD with rough mixes of the new album late last year. Is it all done?
Steve: It’s all done on the recording side of it. We just have to figure out how we’re going to release it. We’re talking to some small labels now and if it doesn’t work out we’ll release it ourselves.
Ben: We actually have way more songs that I haven’t given to you yet. There’s at least twice as many. Maybe even more than that.
Are those songs going to be released down the road?
Ben: Well, I dunno. I don’t know… There’s a lot of ’em. Not all of them are great, but some are really good. I just listened to them recently and I was like ’Hey, this is not bad.’
Steve: I think maybe we could just keep putting out songs…
Ben: Yeah, you never know nowadays. Things are different with the internet and all. You can keep putting out as many songs as you want.
Steve: I mean, we can sell individual songs on our site or on MySpace.
Steve: We can just do that.
It seems like the album format doesn’t mean much as it used to.
Ben: That’s kinda how the record industry started. Back in the day of The Beatles and The Stones there weren’t any albums. It wasn’t until the the sixties that it became an art form. So maybe that’s what’s happening again, I dunno.
Steve: Maybe we can do a thing where can buy a song for a dollar, but for ten dollars you can get twelve songs. Somethin’ like that… do a package deal.
Ben: There’s lots of ways to do it now.
Did you guys write when you were touring for the first album or did you start once you got back to LA?
Ben: We don’t write anything on the road. For some reason we’re not really capable of that. Some of the songs are older and were written a while ago, but most of them were written when we got back.
Steve: We wrote them while we were in the process of recording them.
Did the songs come from the band jamming or from you and Ben sitting down and hashing them out?
Steve: We did it all different ways. That song “I Can’t Dance With You” is something Ben and I came up with on our own. I came up with that riff on the acoustic guitar.
Ben: With these new songs I’d say most were from the whole band…well, maybe more like half were written together. All four of us…
Steve: The original idea usually came when we were all jamming together.
Ben: Some of them were songs that Steve and I would write and then take to the other guys. Then Denny or Dutch would add a bridge or something. It was pretty collaborative.
Ben: Sometimes I’d have an idea for a song and sing it into Steve’s answering machine. Then he’d figure out a guitar part and we’d come in and it’d be different than how I thought it was going to be, but that was cool. Like I said, Denny would come up with a bridge or great turn around or something.
Steve: That’s how “Do What You Want” came about. And that song “Shit Talker” which will be up on our MySpace page soon… it came from a 45 minute jam session. Us jamming and Ben improvising lyrics. We recorded it and I kinda edited it together how I thought the song should go. You know, in terms of intro, verse, chorus, stuff like that. But that is actually the recording we use on the album. Ben recorded lyrics over that live jam.
Ben: Some of my original vocals got captured on the drum mics.
Steve: I actually think you were standing next to the drums and they bled into your vocal mic. But that song is an example of one way we came up with things. We weren’t intending that to be the final version of the song. I thought we’d go in and play it again, but it just didn’t work that way.
I think this album has expanded the sound of the band. Was this a natural artistic progression or did you guys set out to break some new ground?
Ben: It’s all different classic rock, funk, and soul. James Brown and Funkadelic were just as important to us as The Doors, Rolling Stones and Stooges.
Steve: Yeah. I mean, even the Stones could be funky too.
Ben: Really, whatever came out as a song was just what we felt was working at the time. I think it’s cool to have a little variety, maybe something has a honky tonk feel… to me there isn’t much difference. People like to differentiate genres strictly, but I don’t think they’re all that different. You know, The Rolling Stones did a disco song. Funkadelic was basically a rock band. James Brown was basically a rock singer, I think. To me it’s all the same thing, just different rhythmic feel and expression of different human emotions.
Steve: It doesn’t matter if it’s rock or if it’s funky… if it’s got drums, bass and guitars, it’s a rock band. I don’t think it was a conscious thing for us to try and do anything different. Oh, we did have a piano player on some songs, that was different. Maybe that affected the spirit of it. To me it was a natural continuation of what we were doing.
Steve, did you play the slide guitar on “Whiskey Drinking Man”?
No, Dutch actually played that.
I thought it was a good addition to the song.
Ben: Dutch is very good at that kinda traditional American guitar playing. Besides bass he plays the banjo, mandolin and the slide guitar.
Steve: I don’t think he plays the mandolin, but he does play the banjo. He’s a good guitar player. There’s a lot of piano on that song too, which gives it that kinda honky tonk feel.
Last year I saw you guys play a show with a keyboard player. Are you looking to fill that spot or are you going to keep the stripped down approach?
Ben: We had a guy for a while, John Nieman. He’d play keyboards and sometimes play guitar, and he’s a really good musician but it just didn’t feel the same live like when it was just the four of us. So we decided for live purposes that we’ll stick with that for now, but who knows what’s gonna happen a year from now, maybe… but I doubt it. I guess it just wasn’t gelling.
Steve: It’s been the four of us for so long. So anything that comes into that just feels strange. It’s more of an edge when it’s the four of us. We play off of each other more.
It’s not like you even notice anything is missing when you play those songs live anyway.
Steve: It had nothing to do with… I mean, the guy is a really great player. And there were times when it was really cool, and took some pressure off of me… but It just changes the energy of what our band is about live. Part of that is me banging away furiously on the guitar, you know. I think I was playing too tasteful or subtle with the keyboards or other guitar being around. I get to play more obnoxiously when it’s just the four of us.
Not too many bands can pull off the two guitar thing and keep that almost unhinged energy.
Steve: Yeah, you kinda have to listen to the other guy and not just bash away.
A big exception is Guns N’ Roses, but Izzy and Slash just did their own thing and didn’t work out too many parts together.
Steve: Ha! I think Slash was just going off the whole time.
Ben: Certain bands just work with two guitars. Some only need one.
Steve: A lot of classic punk bands only had one guitar player, like the Sex Pistols.
Then you have the Dead Boys who had two.
Steve: The Clash did, too.
Ben: The Stooges had just one, but sometimes they had a keyboard or sax player.
Steve: We may have John play keys at one of the upcoming Viper Room gigs.
Ben: It’s getting bright in here!
Ben puts on sunglasses.
“I Can’t Dance With You” is a really infectious song. I had to listen to it again immediately after it ended the first time. What’s the story behind that one?
Ben: You know what it was… we were writing songs over at Steve’s place and it wasn’t going too good. Then he played something that sounded like “Tequila” by The Champs. I was like, ’Yeah, that sounds good!’ So he started playing “Tequila” and then changed it around a bit.
Steve: So the rhythm is based on that.
Ben: It’s basically “Tequila.”
Steve hums the tune of “Tequila” while playing air guitar.
Steve: I guess that won’t really come across in the interview!
Ben: That was one of the best periods in music. The early sixties rock. They had these quasi-novelty songs like “Tequila”, “Papa Oom Mow Mow…”
Steve: “Zig Zag Wanderer!”
Ben: Even that was a little more sophisticated. Captain Beefheart, I think I sent you that track and some other stuff from the first album. But The Stooges came out of that original garage rock and psychedelic sound. But if you go back even earlier to songs like “Louie Louie” or “Wooly Bully,” it’s basically nonsense. It was the idea of a sort of catharsis. Everyone was all pent up and buttoned down in the 40’s and 50’s and then all of a sudden it comes out in this screaming gibberish. To me, that’s really what The Vacation is about – to achieve, through the music, some sort of liberation.
What about the lyrics to that song?
Ben: Um, I just made them up right there…
Steve: Yeah, the “I can’t dance, I can’t dance” was just kind of a natural rhythm.
Ben: But then I had to go back figure out what I was talking about.
Steve: You know, it’s about when you hear some Snoop Dogg at the party and you’re all grooving by yourself and the girl steps in and…
Ben: Well… Well, it’s kind of a joke, but it’s still serious…
Steve: What’s the serious part of that song?
Ben: I really do feel that way, but at the same time it’s an exaggeration. I’m making fun of that whole attitude, people who think they’re the shit but really they’re not…
Steve: So you think you can dance?!
Ben: Yeah, whether it’s dancing or whatever. You know, people who just think they’ve got it going on. And that’s good enough to just think that…
Steve: Maybe you are that good, if you just project that. If you think you’re the best, maybe you are the best.
Ben: Actually, these days I’ve realized it’s not whether you’re good or bad… they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, as long as you’re noticed. It doesn’t matter if you’re noticed for being atrociously bad because that’s the equivalent of being stupendously great. In terms of the effect it has on people, it’s how much you’re remembered or whatever.
That kind of leads into my next question… “Shit Talker” blasts tabloids, celebrity blogs and the backstabbing nature of our society. How do you think that Americas obsession has fueled celeb meltdowns like the one Britney Spears is having now?
Ben: Everything is getting more extreme now. But that song is really more about how girls are just really, really mean to other girls. You know, woman is woman’s own worst enemy. They’re forced to be competitive, it’s like economics. They’re all competing for the most valuable dude or whatever. The way we approach our personal relationships is influenced by finances now. Sex is a commodity now. And celebrities are commodities. These people become overwhelmed by their own image. They forget who they are as a person. It’s the same thing that happened to Elvis or Marilyn Monroe. Those are the archetypes. And with Britney Spears, they’re melding together at an unprecedented speed towards a complete tragic collapse.
Steve: It’s totally encouraged by the people behind them. There’s nobody telling them, “Don’t get this much attention!”
Ben: Part of me thinks she’s doing this cynically, as some sort of a public performance. It’s a performance that exists for the public eye on the internet, on Access Hollywood, in magazines… it’s a piece of multimedia performance art. Maybe she’s a genius who’s created this sort of “crazy Britney” persona for everyone’s amusement!
I wish that was true!
Steve: I think she’s lashing out at the way Kevin used her. K-Fed is the most masterful pimp, manipulator… of all time! He just broke that girl.
Ben: Really? You’re kidding.
Steve: I think that’s what’s going on with her. I think she was really crushed by K-Fed.
Ben: There’s a whole industry surrounding Britney Spears right now. She’s in every fucking magazine that comes out.
Steve: Then there’s celebrity blogging. Like, remember the days when you’d come home drunk and you might call somebody and leave a dumb message. But now you just post it on your blog it’s up there for everyone to see.
Ben: Now you can’t even leave anyone messages if you’re famous, or even if you’re not. It’ll end up on YouTube or something. There’s so much surveillance now. There’s nothing that’s private any more. When we were kids, we didn’t even have answering machines. We didn’t have one until the mid-eighties. Back then, if you weren’t home, you didn’t get the call. You didn’t even know someone tried to call.
Steve: I wish we could go back to those times. I really do…
Ben: I guess it’s a double edged sword. Parents can use it to keep track of their kids. You never have to get lost, you have MapQuest…
Steve: I could find places before we had MapQuest!
Ben: It’s true, man.
Steve: I used to be able to meet up with my friends without a cel phone…
Ben: Now it seems impossible. ’Oh my god, how am I going to find this place? How am I going to find you at the Six Flags or know to meet up by the fucking water fountain?’
Steve: We used to do it though, all the time!
Ben: Hell yeah, we did it for thousands of years. The thing is, once you cross that line, there’s no going back. We become media beings, like cyborgs. It’s not an exaggeration to think that it literally changes the way your brain functions. Different neural pathways become opened up. The technology changes the way you think and operate. There’s no going back. It’s like that diagram of human evolution… you have the neanderthal, caveman, and everything up to us. Now it’s a different being. A media being. Someone staring at a computer while on their cel phone. The brain is different.
We’re approaching a Terminator type of level.
Ben: It’s so funny… If you look back at some of that sci-fi, a lot of it has come true! It’s really happening. Remember “Running Man?”
Yeah, now American Gladiator is back on TV which only seems one step away from that.
Steve: Or now you have that show where they have lie detectors and ask you all these personal questions. I haven’t seen that yet and I’m not sure I want to go there.
Ben: But we’ve gone there as a culture. That’s what I’m saying, there’s no going back. I’m telling you, “Running Man” is only ten years away!
Ben, you illustrated a gig poster that had Lindsay Lohan smoking crack in an alley. Did you get any shit for that?
Ben: I got attention for it on the web. Places like digg.com, which I’d never heard of before. But they posted it and there’s a lot of comments on it up there. Some guy from the LA Times said that it was, uh, tasteless or something like that.
Ben: I dunno, I thought it was funny. It just came to me. That’s when her mugshot was posted after she was busted with coke, so…
Steve: And Amy Winehouse really was smoking crack, on video!
Ben: It didn’t seem that bad. It was funny, at least that’s what I thought.
Steve: I think a lot of people like that poster. Maybe just for the illustration. It’s funny that someone would comment that it’s tasteless, just look at any magazine cover…
Ben: No, look at the LA Times! Talk about tasteless… Selling murder, death and mayhem every day for fucking years.
Steve: It’s just weird that someone would pick that as being tasteless. Who’s got taste anymore? What does that mean?
We live in a totally tasteless society.
Ben: Exactly. America’s supposed to be this classless society right? But that just means it’s a tasteless society.
Steve: You mean we have no class.
Ben: No class and no taste. It’s like what people initially said about rock n’ roll, it’s crass and vulgar.
Ben and Steve (simultaneously): But that’s what’s good about it!
Ben: It’s supposed to be that way, in a sense, so why shouldn’t a rock n’ roll poster be that way? If the music is supposed to be that way…
Steve: Right. It goes back to us trying to return to that more simple style.
Ben: Yeah, we’re supposed to be very primal. It’s supposed to get people’s brains back to a more primitive state. I think that’s why we work best live. That’s the true experience of rock n’ roll – it’s a primal, primitive, communal spirit. You’re supposed to have this cathartic release through the loud volume, repetitive rhythms, and sexual, frenzied kind of dancing and performance. That, to me, is what rock… well, not all rock n’ roll is like that, there’s stuff that’s more reflective that’s supposed to describe human emotions in a more sophisticated way. But I like the early stuff, like we were talking about before – “Louie Louie”, “Wooly Bully”, early garage rock all the way up to The Stooges. Then there’s the best of punk rock, which is supposed to be this visceral, kinda primordial experience. That’s where I see The Vacation sort of fitting in.
What inspired you to cover the Shangri-Las “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”?
Ben: I just really like that song, it’s classic and it’s not really one of those songs that’s overplayed on the radio like some oldies are. I heard it a few years ago and thought it was an awesome song. So I came up with the idea and brought it to the guys. I never wanted to do a cover unless we could really make it our own. I hate it when I hear a cover and it’s basically played the same way as the original. I wanted to do the opposite. On the original song in the verse she’s singing it really high and it’s more of a full band sound… then it breaks down and gets really quiet on the chorus. You know, the ’walking in the sand’ part. So I wanted to do the opposite of that – make the verses really low, kinda Marilyn Manson-y and sparse sounding. Then it’d get really heavy for the chorus. We tried it and it worked.
Steve: Just a little twist.
People really loved it at that last show at Swinghouse.
Steve: That’s a hard rockin’ number live.
Ben: It’s a good Vacation song, ’cause it’s got those background vocals…
Steve (singing): Remember!
Ben: Basically we’re similar to a 1960’s girl group.
Steve: Yeah, in a lot of ways that’s true.
I noticed “Marshmallow Girl” isn’t on the new album. Why did it get cut? That song always goes over so well live.
Ben: I know, I know. We tried recording that song…
Steve: I don’t know what happened. I thought it was a good recording.
Ben: It was decent, but when I listened to it… it just wasn’t as good as some of the times we’ve played it live.
Steve: I don’t know what it is about that song…
Ben: It really needs the audience to work, for some reason.
Steve: Maybe it should just be a live thing.
Ben: Yeah, maybe that isn’t the kind of song you need to listen to at home. Honestly man, even bad or mediocre music sounds better live or on a jukebox at a bar. I can’t even concentrate on listening to music at home, there are so many other things… I end up trying to do ten things at once and can’t really focus on it. You go out to a bar and music makes sense there, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Steve: You’re forced to be involved in it.
Ben: It’s loud, first of all. When you’re at home you can never really turn the music up loud enough. People will start complaining. But there you have people just doing the things that humans do… it’s tribal.
Steve: I always say with a recording of music it’s only one aspect of the experience.
Ben: Yeah, that’s true.
Steve: When you’re at a show, you’re not just listening… you hear what I’m saying? You see the band. There’s people all around you, there’s this vibe happening in the room…
Ben: You’re checking out this girl, you’re drinking and flirting, you can feel the speakers pushing air.
Steve: It’s really physical. It’s funny because people have said to us in the past “You know, you guys are so great live, but your record doesn’t capture that”. And I kinda agree. Our first album doesn’t capture the power of our live show, but how can you really capture that on a recording when you’re isolating that one thing? It’s just the audio, how could it feel the same? Is that even possible?
You guys have this reputation for being wild on stage and giving really intense performances. Do you ever feel like it overshadows the music itself?
Steve: I don’t know. I don’t think we always go crazy. We’re just having fun, man. It’s so fun just to get up there and play…
Ben: We just try to put on a good show. That, to me, is an important part of rock n’ roll.
Steve: That’s an important part of it.
Ben: It’s a genuine thing…
Steve: It’s what we were just talking about before. It’s not just the music, it’s the whole experience. It’s an assault on your senses and your spirit.
Ben: To me, the crowd is just as important as the band. That’s what’s cool about that last show we did. I don’t think there should be a stage. Also, people are naturally guarded, it takes a little coaxing to get them to come around… maybe a little alcohol. But if they see this guy on stage going wild and making a fool of himself, that might encourage them to think, ’This is not ordinary, there are no rules, this isn’t ordinary life.’ That’s what’s special about rock shows. It shouldn’t be about just consuming, standing there consuming with your ears the music being manufactured for you.
Steve: I never really get just sitting there passively listening to live music. It’s weird.
Ben: Sometimes it’s cool to sit there and listen to someone’s song that makes you think or feel something. I can appreciate that and like it sometimes. It’s cool, but it’s just not what we’re about as a band.
Steve: Yeah, you’re right.
Ben: So, if that’s what we have to deal with…
Steve: To answer the question, I don’t worry about that because I don’t think the music suffers. There are some bands, that are mostly about a show. I don’t know why, but I can’t think of any right now…
Steve: Yeah Kiss! It’s mostly a show, the music is almost irrelevant. I don’t think our antics on stage impair our music. I think it’s part of it. We’re like that because we’re so excited to be playing.
That last show the guy who announced the band was like “who knows what these guys are going to do!”
Ben: That’s hard, because you can never meet the expectations. Some people maybe be disappointed, but you can’t force it. It has to be spontaneous. And I don’t like bands that are considered theatrical, we’re not a theatrical band. I’m responding to the volume and rhythm of the music along with the energy of the crowd. So that’s something that exists organically for that specific moment and place in time. We don’t plan anything out. Sometimes we change our set list on the fly to respond to the energy of the room.
Steve: It takes a lot out of you. Playing shows makes me tired. Like this interview.
You just updated your MySpace page. “I Can’t Dance With You” is available as a free download.
Ben: This is our way of releasing an EP. Every Thursday after our shows at the Viper Room this month we’ll post a new one. People can get familiar with the tracks and, I don’t know… this is basically us saying, ’We’re back and we have new music.’ We’re trying to figure out a strategy or label situation. With all that shit, nobody knows what to do any more. It’s all different now and everybody has their own ideas about how to make it as a band now. So we’re trying to figure that out along with everybody else.
Steve: One way or another we’ll get the music out to the people.
The Vacation play tonight and every Thursday this month at The Viper Room. You can hear and download their new songs on MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/thevacation.
» The Vacation @ Swinghouse, 1/25/08
» The Binges, The Vacation, Yearlong Disaster, Tokyo Smog @ The Roxy, 7/3/07
» Kibitz Komune @ Canter’s, April 5: The Losanjealous Timeline
» The Vacation @ Concert of the Beast: The Losanjealous “Interview”