vivian girls walked so the next generation of indie rockers could run
As they release their new album 'Memory' after a five year hiatus, i-D talks to the band and the musicians they've influenced.
Photo by Neil Kryszak.
I first fell in love with Vivian Girls at the height of my teenage angst. I was 15 years old and looking to connect with music at a deeper level. While white male bands dominated indie rock, Vivian Girls offered something different. They were three women, who weren’t afraid to be loud, or vulnerable, and felt far more accessible than any other women in rock I admired at the time. It was appealing to see a band that didn't try to manufacture a persona; they were being unabashedly themselves. They were intimidatingly cool, yet I could instantly identify with them, even though I didn't grow up in East Coast suburbia.
Vivian Girls was formed in Brooklyn in 2007 by Cassie Ramone and former drummer Frankie Rose. Katy Goodman, who grew up in Ramone's hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, joined as a bassist shortly after. By the time Vivian Girls released their self-titled debut in 2008, they had already become one of the most prominent bands in the growing Brooklyn music scene, alongside some of Ramone and Goodman's high school friends from Titus Andronicus and Real Estate, even opening for Sonic Youth a month before their debut album came out. In an era where music blogs had the power to shape who'd have a prominent career, Vivian Girls never lacked attention – whether it was positive or not.
Vivian Girls' rise to fame meant inadvertently becoming icons for other misfit young women who could identify with the band. Their lyrics about trying to feel comfortable being yourself, nasty heartbreaks, and dejected loneliness, eloquently encapsulated all those complicated feelings that come with adolescence.
When the band announced their breakup in 2014, it meant the loss of a band that, in just seven years, made waves beyond the local Brooklyn DIY scene. It felt akin to losing a close friend. But in their time away, Vivian Girls were far from forgotten. They had inspired a new generation.
"I first discovered Vivian Girls during sophomore year of high school, when they released their second record [Everything Goes Wrong] and I came across the video for ‘When I'm Gone,'" said Shamir Bailey, known as Shamir, a 24-year-old Philadelphia-based musician who has become one of the most prominent voices of indie pop. “I was so inspired, I started my first band a week later."
Vivian Girls’ influential Everything Goes Wrong album was released in 2009, one year after their self-titled debut. It had the balance of quick punk songs and dreamy harmonies, with relatable lyrics about heartache and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that poked fun at the objectification they faced from internet trolls. By that time, Vivian Girls had established themselves as one of the most notable bands from the Brooklyn scene, selling out of the physical copies of their debut within less than two weeks from its release. But they still dealt with polarizing reception from critics. Male critics, for the most part, often didn't didn't get it. Consequence of Sound gave the album a C+, with the site's founder Alex Young writing "By the time of 'The End' I hope that this is the end of the album, but fear that it instead is the end of my (sane) life. By the time of 'I’m Not Asleep' I mutter something like 'Yeah, but I wish either I or you were.'"
"Back then, it used to be a much more controversial issue, the fact that we were three girls in a band," Goodman recalls while meeting in the band's rehearsal space in Northeastern Los Angeles. "We were young and very naive to the fact that people were mad that we were a band. It took us a long time to be like, 'Wait a second, people are just furious that we're making music because we're young girls doing it ourselves,' and that was hard, because people would add their narrative to why we were doing things, and how we were doing it, and we weren't doing it good enough, and it was just a lot."
Rolling Stone cited the rampant misogyny the band faced as the reason behind their breakup, particularly in the music website BrooklynVegan's notorious comment section, which wasn't moderated until 2016, two years after Vivian Girls broke up. But the band clarifies that while it was an obstacle, it wasn't the catalyst for them taking time apart.
"I think being in a 'girl band' in 2009 was a shit show. But that's not why we were like, 'We can't do this anymore!"’ drummer Ali Koehler said. “We just knew that that was the landscape, that this is what we have to deal with if we are a band right now and we are okay with that, which is nuts!”
Dealing with constant harassment online was an obstacle. But for fans, Vivian Girls' music became a reminder that no matter how much others will tell you that you don't deserve a space, you must do everything in your power to carve it for yourself and be heard.
"I think they were instrumental in breaking up the boys club that indie rock was becoming in the 2010s,” said Bailey. "They came on the scene unapologetically themselves and got a lot of shit for it, and took a lot of public relations bearings because they didn't care to align themselves with their male counterparts.”
Vivian Girls gave young women and non-binary people a reminder that they belonged, even if the scene didn’t readily embrace them.
"It felt like music that could only be made by women and that was a cool thing to see," explains Bailey, looking back at what made Vivian Girls so appealing to them. "It was completely theirs, and even though I'm not a woman, it made me feel okay with making music that only a non-binary person like myself could make, and be unapologetic about it. I didn't have to try to sound like the boys, I just had to sound like me."
"I like to think we live in a time where Vivian Girls have proved that their music isn’t about gender; it’s about excellent songs and their impact on a whole generation of musicians," said Den-Mate lead Jules Hale. "They paved a path on how the media focused on women and how it was not OK, and they endured. Now that they are back, it only cements that women deserve and demand to be treated with respect."
Earlier this year, the Vivian Girls announced that after a five year hiatus, they were getting the band back together to release a new album titled Memory. As much as their personal lives have changed, with Vivian Girls establishing themselves on the West Coast, and Goodman and Koehler becoming mothers, their lyrics still explore those insecurities and uncomfortable feelings that fans identified with from the beginning.
"I wrote a lot of the album my first two weeks living [in LA], just because it was all so new and crazy, and I had to figure out how to live my life again and start from scratch," said Ramone. "The album isn't about that at all, but the process of being in that mindset already was very inspirational."
Memory comes from how easily it fits for Ramone, Goodman, and Koehler to work together again after so much time apart. Lyrics like "And I’m not myself/ I am someone else/ I’m everyone they wanted me to be/ And I’m not ok/ I’m sick every day,” on their lead single “Sick” channel the same vulnerabilities that fans first fell in love with.
Upon finishing our interview, the band began practicing the opening song off of Everything Goes Wrong, "Walking Alone At Night." Hearing Ramone sing "It's over now, but it might not be for long" became the perfect reminder of why we eagerly needed Vivian Girls to return.
"Just seeing three powerful women shred will have an impact on any aspiring young musician," said Hale.
"It's the dream, anything that inspires young women, I feel so thankful to get to do [that]. It's one of the most rewarding things about it for me,” said Ramone. "And me!" Goodman chimes in.