To the Mat
Baltimore’s Vinny Vegas makes normal the new weird
Published: April 6, 2011
Earnestness in popular music comes with risks attached. Not least of those risks involves communicating with listeners in ways that are immediately understandable. “Ogre Hands”—the flipside to Vinny Vegas’ 2010 single “Mallets”—is almost snarlingly earnest, a scrabbling trawl through the disappointments and resignations of adult life that suggests a more emo, less balladic take on Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” The rest of the Baltimore band’s catalog is thematically similar, a roiling mélange of styles that congeals into a sort of avant dad-rock stew: a slightly off-kilter normal that doesn’t quite gel with the anarchic, nu-punk, and defiantly experimental sounds with which the City That Bleeds is often associated.
“It’s real tricky in Baltimore because there’s a lot going on,” Vinny Vegas frontman/guitarist Scott Siskind admits in a late February telephone interview. “It’s hard to think of bands in Baltimore that we’d fit on a bill with.”
Drummer Jason Cohen concurs. “I don’t think we ever fit in in a cool, unique way,” he says. “We never fell into the underground, DIY, Floristree stuff, not because we didn’t want to but because we never pursued that. I don’t feel like we have a pocket we fall into. The Ottobar, Metro [Gallery], that’s where we fit.”
The band—Siskind, Cohen, pianist Emmanuel Lee, bassist Ian McDonald, and guitarist Justin Fogelman—specializes in all-out, heart-on-sleeve emotion and the sort of perpetually shifting dynamics that convey the sense that an entire range of genres has been acknowledged, sometimes over the space of a single five-minute song. On 2009’s EP The Land of Giants, the group veers with ease from pole to pole.
“Channels” proffers big-band swing, full-on jangling pianos, surging horns, and “ba-ba-ba”s in service of a vibe that falls just short of 1950s/’60s showtunes. “Mallets” is pure prog magic: tribal drums, agitated guitar bursts, and subaquatic instrumentation. “The Four Rabbits” opens with an introduction that cuts back and forth between math-rock plectrum-chip and metal riff thunder, but before long Siskind’s vocals are surfing stratospheric peaks and scaling plunging ravines, uninhibited and full-throated when the tempo is windswept epic and pleadingly intimate against circular-scale figures, muted basslines, and slow-burning cymbals. The track is like the Patrick Swayze and Wendy Fraser duet “She’s Like the Wind” crossed with a low-level Radiohead jam session. “Rabbits” is among the band’s most successful songs in the sense that the band’s on-a-dime shifts in intensity feel entirely natural.
Vinny Vegas’ MO—Siskind’s confessional singing style somehow gelling with and taming the band’s oddly balanced, aesthetic patchwork of styles—is directly attributable to the myriad listening habits of its members. “Our keyboard player listens to a lot of R&B and does a lot of jazzy gospel stuff—he produces hip-hop,” Cohen says. “I like Aphex Twin and electronic stuff. Our current guitar player is into Tortoise and Radiohead. It’s so far out there that it makes our influences a little more hidden.” Siskind, meanwhile, can’t get enough of legendary solo belters Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Jeff Buckley, and Jackson Browne.
Siskind and Cohen started the band in 2006 after studying at Towson University. “Jason and I had been playing music together for a while,” Siskind says. “I’d been writing songs and wanted people to collaborate with. Ian came aboard and we had a different guitar player and keyboard player at one point when we started playing.”
The Vinny Vegas story is one of incremental growth: the occasional lineup change, a couple of singles here, an EP there, limited touring as life and work schedules allow. “The furthest we’ve gone to play a show is Nashville or Montreal,” says Siskind, a professional graphic designer who illustrated several Vinny Vegas releases. “We’ve kind of set a perimeter for ourselves, playing a range of cities 10-12 hours away.”
“Watch Out for Mastodons,” from Giants, is inspired in part by Siskind’s desire to escape boundaries and achieve great things, about “wanting to get out to the West Coast and see some other places,” he says.
Presently, Vinny Vegas continues to stalk its perimeter: playing locally and slightly beyond, tracking sessions with producer J. Robbins—with an eye to completing a full-length—and regaling a City Paper writer with tales of scary drug searches at Canadian border checkpoints. Two songs are in the can, with more brewing. But should Vinny Vegas’ unorthodox, no-holds-barred rock find an audience beyond the East Coast, Siskind isn’t worried about legal action from the aged WCW wrestler who’s the band’s namesake.
“I went with that name originally for my little brother to get a kick out of it, then it sort of stuck, I guess,” he laughs. “If [a lawsuit is ever filed], we’ll change our name to something else awesome.”
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