Appropriately, given its moniker, trouble has followed New York's VietNam. The ragged band was famously exiled from Vice Records, the record label of the notoriously edgy magazine, after releasing just one EP. Speaking by phone with VietNam frontman Michael Gerner, who was in New York prepping for the second leg of the group's spring tour, I asked how he felt now about Vice.
"I'm just glad they're doing something more than toilet humor and exploitation," Gerner said.
When asked if he's maintained a good relationship with the company whose current empire seems—according to a recent New Yorker profile and its new HBO series—to be growing, Gerner's soft Southern accent gives slightly.
"Uh ... no," Gerner said, emitting a hearty laugh. "I mean, we got kicked off the label and that really kind of screwed us over. At that point in time, everyone thought Vice was a bunch of crazy people, not a bunch of cubicle interns. So to get kicked off of Vice for being, I guess, too Vice, kind of ruins your chances with everybody else."
Setbacks aside, Gerner and VietNam were resilient and released their eponymous and critically acclaimed debut full-length on Kemado Records in 2007. Rollicking and shaggy without being bloated or feckless, VietNam seemed a strong statement—one that encapsulated the excesses and hangovers of its time—by a young band on the cusp. Instead, VietNam followed up the album with years of silence.
Gerner, however, remained vigilant about relaunching VietNam even as his own path was ever-wending. According to Gerner, he has been working on this year's fantastic, sprawling An A.merican D.ream (Mexican Summer) since the group's debut, but extensive travel, with stopovers in Austin and Los Angeles, and additional work, including with his experimental outfit D.A. and film, preoccupied his time.
An A.merican D.ream seems a perfect synthesis of years of what Gerner called "maturing and gestating." Still, the album's seamless wedding of sonic experimentation with narrative coherence belies the countless setbacks that stalled Gerner's progress. To emphasize the peculiar delays that befell the making of An A.merican D.ream ("Songs took years"), Gerner spoke of what happened after he returned to New York from his sojourn in Los Angeles at the behest of his friend Jonathan Toubin.
"I moved back here into my old place with Jonathan and then he went out to Portland (Ore.) and got ran over by a car," Gerner said. "So then I was kind of in our place and all I had was my backpack and my guitar. It was mostly living in his world while he was up there for five or six months in the hospital. It was a weird time ... the apartment we were living in is actually the cover of the album."
The cover of An A.merican D.ream—Gerner is bathed in red light, glaring out the window of that apartment—is a perfect encapsulation of the album: big, mysterious, brooding and captivating. From the throat-scraping soul of "No Use in Cryin'" to the buzzing, rising washes of dissonance on "Fight Water With Fire"—to say nothing of the found sound of an auctioneer on the track—this album is alluring and dense. Bookended by alien ("A.D. pt. I") and waltzing ("I Promise ...Things Are Gonna Get Better") instrumentals, the album spirals out, apropos of the dream of its title and narrative, through avenues resplendent and nightmarish. One standout track, "Kitchen Kongas," segues from its fevered blues into a searching church organ solo, underwritten by live applause, and blends the profane with the sacred in a way that links both to damnation. It's all fairly dramatic material, and Gerner attributes his work on the documentary Fall and Winter ("about the collapse of civilization") for both the apocalyptic and the cinematic bent of the new record.
"It's a heavy movie ... and to start soaking that up for a year has an effect on how you look at things," Gerner said. "I think all of our records have been relatively conceptual. It just happened to come out more cinematic with all the work I've been doing over the last couple of years. Also, a lot of the influence of things I've been listening to—a lot more Klaus Schulze and Gavin Bryars, more so than rock 'n' roll. I think it just all came together pretty organically. Still, you throw something in a pot and it's gonna make it taste different."
The widescreen appeal of An A.merican D.ream is evident throughout. Whether the seasick tropical sway of "Stucco Roofs," the trebly cacophony and shout-alongs of "Flyin'," or the chugging buildup and cathartic release of "W.orld W.ar W.orries," Gerner and company match each emotional twist with its ambitious musical counterpart. Initially, however, Gerner's itinerant lifestyle suggested a subtler sophomore release.
"Originally I recorded a bunch of demos at home," Gerner said. "It was going to be more like a Nebraska, desolate record. I was just kind of waiting around [for engineer Matt Boynton to be free] and then all my friends started popping up and saying, 'Hey, let's play.' So it ended up being a cast of 20 people instead of one."
Despite the group's early kerfuffle with Vice, VietNam was mostly able to skirt serious controversy when it took to Kickstarter to raise $5,000 for its spring tour. Although the group met its goal without running up against the public backlash that recently befell Amanda Palmer, Gerner was reticent about asking for funding.
"We had a week to come up with the money for all these shows that were already booked," Gerner said. "Some people gave us shit on the trip ... I always have reservations about asking people for help, but at that point if we really wanted to do the tour then we would've screwed ourselves."
Free of debt or obligations, and riding the tide of momentum, Gerner hopes to quickly follow up the ambitious An A.merican D.ream—motivated in part by his song-a-month project ("I don't want to promise anything because ... our track record ..."). Having worked extensively from coast (Los Angeles) to coast (New York) on the group's previous output, Gerner and the band are entertaining a move to Austin, and future recording sessions in either Morocco or New Orleans. Gerner was partial to New Orleans: "Some weird voodoo shit happened in New Orleans when we were recording recently." Regardless of where the next recording happens, or VietNam's next home base, Gerner will stay mobile.
"I am most comfortable and free on the road than when I'm staying stationary," Gerner said. "But I'm a military brat; that's a big part of my psyche."