ISLANDone of the most striking songs on RVG’s third album almost didn’t make the cut. ‘Squid’, a strange and sprawling meditation on turning into a sea creature but remaining unable to escape human despair, is one of the band’s best – but frontwoman Romy Vager reveals she brought it to the band at the last minute .
“‘Octopus’ was just made up on the spot,” she shares over Zoom. “I wrote down some lyrics and the band said, ‘do you have more songs?’ Out of desperation, I pulled out this song I’d kind of been working on about an octopus, with the lyrics half-finished.”
That a song as distinctive and evocative as ‘Squid’ started as a half-baked idea testifies to Vager’s songwriting and storytelling ability, and her ability to combine the bizarre and the real. The thunderous, synth-drenched song, inspired by a Ray Bradbury short story and The Simpsons episode that riffs on it is the epic centerpiece of the Melbourne post-punk quartet’s new album, ‘Brain Worms’, a record that delves deep into the personal and the universal through both angst and dark humour.
“A lot of the songs are about the fact that there’s some kind of decline everywhere in the world – a fall from a point that’s already pretty bad. The songs are me processing how to live in it”
‘Squid’ captures the existential crisis of modern lifestyle through an absurdist lens, and ‘Giant Snake’ ups the ante by conjuring up a strange, visceral image of serial killer Ivan Milat with a snake wrapped around his neck. The latter was inspired by a lookalike of the killer’s abuse of messages to Vager when the band first entered the Australian mainstream consciousness.
Elsewhere on ‘Brain Worms’ Vager is more direct. On ‘Tambourine’ she says goodbye to a friend through the impersonal medium of an online funeral; the title track takes aim at conspiracy theorists; and ‘Midnight Sun’ is a howl of rage in the face of government inaction and media bias following the 2019 bushfires.
“One of the things we kept talking about while making this record is the frog in the boiling water,” says Vager. “A lot of the songs are about the fact that there’s some kind of decline everywhere in the world – a fall from a point that’s already pretty bad. The songs are me processing how to live in it.”
But it’s not about a descent into doom and gloom – it’s about maintaining a balance. “You can’t be super miserable about things, but you can’t be super saccharine either,” she adds. “That’s what I keep trying to hit with this album – you have to acknowledge things, but you can’t ruin your whole life over it.”
Msome of Vager’s songs revolve around the challenges of communication, and her bare lyrics spell it out explicitly – see ‘I Used To Love You’, from 2020’s ‘Feral’, which is brutal and blunt in its delivery: “I used to love you but now I don’t.” On ‘Brain Worms’ lead single ‘Nothing Really Changes’ she sings, “I hate deep down that I still miss you” before the song swells and the kicker arrives: ”I think I’m about to burst into flames”.
“You’re always fighting the immediate suppression of people’s perception of you,” she says. “As a trans person, I’m always going to be trashed and stereotyped in a way that I don’t want to be, and I’ve always tried to fight and find ways out of that all the time.”
But on ‘Brain Worms’, Vager also steps out of himself and his immediate experiences, almost as a means of self-preservation: “I didn’t want to dive into myself in the way that I had previously on records. I would definitely try to write different songs in my world.”
Combining the vibe of Joy Division with bright, jangly guitars reminiscent of The Go-Betweens, RVG’s proven sound treads new territory on ‘Brain Worms’: it’s packed with synths and elements of coldwave, from the gentle buzz of the opener ‘Common Ground’ to the delicious climaxes of ‘Nothing Really Changes’ and ‘Squid’. The change has been a long time coming.
“After the last few records, there was definitely a mentality that I didn’t want to be exclusively in a guitar band – maybe I got a little self-conscious about it because we had been doing the two guitars, bass and drums for too long,” says Vager .
“When we started the band a long time ago, Reuben [Bloxham, guitarist] was meant to play keys… For the first time in this band we have the resources to do that. We got a grant during the pandemic for musical equipment and we ended up buying a lot… It definitely enabled us to do this a little bit differently.”
“You can’t be super miserable about things, but you can’t be super saccharine either… you have to acknowledge things, but you can’t ruin your whole life over it”
Working with a new producer in a new place also helped give RVG, rounded out by drummer Marc Nolte and bassist Isabele Wallace, a fresh perspective. The band traveled to London to record the album at Snap Studios with English producer James Trevascus, spending an intense 13 days straight in the studio: “I never got over my jet lag, so I woke up at 5 in the morning and went to a big walk and find the cemeteries and things like that, and then I went to the studio,” recalls Vager.
RVG were a long way from Melbourne, where they live-tracked their 2017 debut ‘A Quality of Mercy’ at the iconic Tote Hotel for a whopping $100, and recorded ‘Feral’ with New York-based Australian producer Victor Van Vugt. Both Trevascus and Van Vugt have worked with Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, making them the perfect fit for the equally dark and atmospheric RVG.
“James really took the lead and got us out of our box,” says Vager. “Having played for years together, you get a bit comfortable – sometimes you need a fifth person in the room to say ‘what about this?’
Snap Studios has many notable alumni, including Kate Bush, who sold the studio a number of her guitars after recording there. Vager played one of Bush’s acoustic guitars on this record – rumor has it that the instrument has also passed through the hands of new wave legends Tears for Fears and Icehouse. RVG pounced on the opportunity to exploit his lineage.
“This is why I wanted to go to London: I wanted to be around this cultural center,” says Vager. She recalls her involvement in ‘Truckload of Sky: The Lost Songs of David McComb’, a 2020 tribute album to the late Triffids frontman: “Rob [McComb] was like, ‘you can play Dave’s guitar if you want’ – he had this big Gretsch guitar and I was sitting there playing it. I like the moments where you can feed on that musical history.”
Next week, RVG play their first major show for ‘Brain Worms’ – headlining Melbourne’s Forum for the city’s winter arts festival, RISING. Their biggest hometown concert to date will feature “cool lighting and visuals, which is something we’ve never really thought about,” reveals Vager. “I’m scared, but I’m excited.”
However, before RVG took the acclaimed Forum stage, they warmed up with a free, intimate in-store performance at Sound Merch in Collingwood on the same day as ‘Brain Worms’ was released. Anyone who has experienced RVG live knows exactly how intense their performances are and how exceptional Vager is as she gives her all in communicating the emotional weight of her words.
This was a typically blistering set and the first time many of the new songs had been performed live. I stood so close to Vager that I could see her sweating and spitting as she built towards her trademark spine-tingling roar. By the end of the performance I was crying. I couldn’t help myself. There is simply no other band like RVG.