Chatting with Kenny Vasoli (Vacationer)

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Kenny Vasoli just wants you to chill. The Vacationer frontman, responsible for songs like “The Wild Life” and “Paradise Waiting”, is passionate about his listeners “just relaxing and enjoying life”. And he certainly seems to practice what he preaches: lounging on a tattered tweed couch, signature cloud of brown curls hanging loose like his wooden necklace, he is the image of hippie-cool. But Vacationer, his tropical-electronic project, is a lot to get excited about. Since their formation in 2010, the group has signed to Downtown Records, put out two full-length albums, and toured the country with notable acts like Tennis and Hellogoodbye.

In the basement of the Iron Horse, a cozy venue in Northampton, MA, Kenny and I sat down to discuss his musical transformation, the invention of the genre “nu-hula”, and the existence of aliens.

Could you give me a brief history of Vacationer?

I’ve been in rock bands pretty much all of my musical career, since I was like 14 years old, and it got to a point where I really wanted to do something that was electronic-based. I’d been a fan of that kind of music for a while… it all kind of started with Radiohead, and then Aphex Twin, and then I started hearing bands like Beach House and Radio Department that were sort of playing indie shoe-gaze music over electronic beats. I wanted to do something like that. But I didn’t really know how to produce that kind of music, so I asked Matt Watts (our current manager now) if he knew anybody in Brooklyn that knew how to produce or do that kind of stuff. He gave me a list of a few of his acquaintances that were in that world, and one of those names was Body Language—they’re this great future-disco, space-age soul band from Brooklyn. I took to their production right away and became a fan, and I ended up linking up and just having a session with them. Within that first session we got a good start, and then they were nice enough to keep inviting me back, and every time we just seemed to finish a track every time I went up there. It just sort of shaped itself into [Vacationer]. We had songs like “Gone” and “Trip” and “No Rules”, and once we had “Trip”, it became clear what kind of sound we had going.

How long have you known that you wanted to be a musician?

Pretty much as long as I can remember. I never had a backup plan. I started playing bass at nine because I had the mentality that I wouldn’t be able to find another bass player that was nine years old if I wanted to start a band—I figured I could find someone in my age range that played guitar or drums but I didn’t think I would be able to find someone that played bass. And it seemed simpler because it only has four strings, but it was a rude awakening that it’s a pretty tough instrument to master.

Did you ever form a band of nine year olds?

Kind of, yeah! At that point in my life, it was more just like, “Oh, Phil, you play guitar? Oh yeah, Chris will play drums!” It was just a fantasy band; we’d hang out at recess and talk about what we wanted to do. But then when I was like 10 or 11 I started jamming with this kid, and it was funny, we did a 2-piece record that was just instrumental drum and bass. So looking back it was kind of before the curve.

Were you raised in a really musical family?

My parents were really supportive of it, and they really loved music. They had a great record and CD collection that I was always digging through and stealing. My brother played piano and guitar a before I started bass so there was probably a little bit of a competitive thing there. My parents were really nurturing when it came to music.

Were you inspired by any local bands or did you feel like you had to cultivate the music scene in your town?

There was a ska band from my high school that was really cool at the time, and it was just cool because they had fans, and ska was the closest thing I could find to punk that was happening. But it was more just digging through the tapes at Sam Goodie and finding [punk bands]: I would read the liner notes and look at the bands that they were thanking and listen to all of those bands and go down a rabbit hole. It was like the dawn of the internet too, so I just sort of scratched the surface of what was out there. I was just always interested in digging through music.

What is your usual songwriting process like?

It usually comes from some piece of music. So, you know, there’s the traditional way of sitting down with an acoustic guitar and just moving my hands around until something sounds cool. But with Vacationer, it’s nice because Matt [Young] and Grant [Wheeler], my counterparts in Body Language, are such prolific dudes that they’re constantly making tracks, for Body Language or just for fun. And sometimes it lands within the field of being a Vacationer song, so they’ll send me these instrumental loops, sometimes just keys and drums. Then I put them in my little studio upstairs and play bass and guitar and sing along to it, and then I’ll loop it how I hear it. It’s a great way for me to write because I have a starting point—I don’t have to stare at a blank page.

Do you write on a guitar or piano and then add in the electronic, synth-y elements later, or do you directly come up with the electronic parts originally?

Yeah, it usually starts out on something weird like a synth. Well it depends… Sometimes it’s a finishing touch, but a lot of times [those elements] come in when we’re first just sort of messing around with something and just have this weird loop—then the more cohesive stuff starts getting stacked on top of there. Also if you double pretty much anything with a vibraphone, it just gives it this cool Twilight Zone exotica kind of sound.

How do you translate all the different elements on the records into your performances? How much of it is being played on live instruments vs computer loops/drum machines?

We try not to rely too much on just hitting the space bar, you know? We do have a back beat that’s constantly happening, cause we don’t play to a click [drum track] so we sort of do it hip hop style—we just like having the actual beat in there. We call it an “effects bus”, so there’s a bunch of stuff that’ll be going through the same effect, and that sort of gels a bunch of instruments together and gives it just a nice through-line. We’ll take that “bus” of all the sound of the effects, and we’ll keep that in the track with the beat, and basically everything else we play live. And if there’s stuff that we can’t bring with us, then we’ll add it to our “trigger finger”, which is connected to the computer, and that’s some like hardcore hip hop stuff of like, live triggering things. And we have a vibraphone too, so like onstage, that’s the cherry on the sundae.

You often have projectors set up onstage to display colorful, rippling patterns behind you. How do visuals play into your live show? How did you make the decision to do this?

That was something that Matt [Young] from Body Language suggested that we do cause they did it a lot when they were first starting to play shows, and it’s a great way to have a light show without having to set up too much. As long as we can keystone it and have a good throw on it, then we pretty much just let it do what it does. We have the capability to launch a video with the song, but our computer’s sort of towards the end of its life right now, so we just have it running as a constant video. But even that kind of has some magic in it because it’s all just very flowy—you’ll notice that a lot of it’s water at this point, like videos of light reflecting off of water—we try to make that the theme, and when its not exactly consistent it’s kind of cool because then there are these certain parts where it locks in and there are these little magic moments.

That’s so cool, so it sort of cultivates the vibe?

Yeah totally, and in the beginning when I did it, I took a lot of archive footage and cut scenes together to make almost music videos. But now I’m trying to make it more of a background atmosphere.

You came up with the term “nu hula”, right?

Yep, we coined it!

How would you describe the genre?

To somebody who’s never heard our band before, I’d say that it’s like a modern take on the Beach Boys. Especially if it’s someone maybe my parent’s age that doesn’t have the context of a lot of the modern bands that we’re influenced by, so that’s a good basis for what I want it to sound like, is just sort of modern Beach Boys.

You’ve played bass for pop-punk and hardcore bands, most notably The Starting Line, but also bands like Say Anything, Hit the Lights, and Valencia—what inspired you to make the drastic switch in genres for this project?

I just didn’t want to have to sing loud anymore, and I also didn’t want to have to listen to loud bashing cymbals and distorted guitar volumes for the rest of my life. I wanted to sort of segue into doing more relaxed stuff, because this is just me acting my age. It’s just a much more pleasant experience for me to be out on the road playing this kind of stuff every night, rather than tearing my voice apart like hitting the roof of my range.

Do you think this genre will catch on and produce a new wave of nu hula artists?

You know, I can’t take responsibility for it, but I have noticed that there’s much more of a tropical-influenced sub-genre of indie music that’s happening right now. I’m not gonna say that we’re in any way responsible for that, cause I don’t think we are, I think it’s maybe just the way things have gone. But there were a lot of people doing it before we came to it. That’s what was so cool about stumbling upon some of these bands, it’s just like tropical music on top of hip hop; I’ve never heard this before. I was really excited that I was doing something that was completely fresh in my mind.

What is your biggest goal as a band?

I just wanna be able to fill rooms, no matter what size they are. Like if I could fill a room this size and just keep filling it, and have hardcore fans that wanna come and dance, and just sort of keep my wheels moving that way, then I can live very comfortably. I’m not looking for a yacht or anything like that, I just wanna keep playing music and not have to get a real job.

Any advice for young aspiring musicians?

Just keep your head down and do your thing. Don’t try to read minds of what you think other people want to hear, because I think you start being an illegitimate artist is when you try to write for other people. There’s nothing wrong with taking influence and keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s happening, cause I think that that’s a good part of it, but you should stay true to what you want to hear—you should be the band that you want to hear that doesn’t exist yet.

If you could eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

That’s easy—breakfast tacos. All day, every day, no problem.

Any certain kind?

I make ‘em with just like scrambled eggs, and then just like whatever vegetables I have. Actually, I usually do scrambled eggs, avocado, broccoli slaw, and then some Sriracha mayo on top of that, and I’m good to go.

Do you believe in aliens?

Yeah, totally. I don’t know that they’re flying around in like, saucers in our atmosphere, but I think it’s conceited to think that there couldn’t be any other life besides us.

As of right now, who’s your favorite artist/band?

I’m constantly switching who I love. Historically, it’s been Radiohead—that’s a band that’s been able to keep putting out records that always blow me away. But as far as new bands that really impress me, there’s this band called Sego that I’m really into. They put out an EP that’s just smokin’. It’s so hard to describe, it’s like rough-around-the-edges punk disco.

Favorite and least favorite vacation you’ve ever been on?

I got to spend a week in Amsterdam, and I think that was a key time for me to cleanse my spirit and really get into the energy of what I wanted this band to be. But I don’t think I’ve ever really had a bad one. Oftentimes now it’s music that’s taking me somewhere, so if I do make a point to go somewhere, I’m pretty good at enjoying myself. There aren’t a lot of disasters happening on my vacations.

Any final sentiments?

Thanks a lot for anyone who’s listening to our band, and is reading or listening to this right now, because there’s a lot of stuff out there that you could be listening to and I’m glad that you find this unique and special. It means a great deal to me because I honestly feel like we have something to say. The message of this band is that life is worth relaxing about and it’s easy to get stressed out, but I want to be the reminder that you should just let go of that stress, cause it’s useless. Unless you like have a tiger chasing you, it’s pretty useless. So everybody just relax and enjoy this.

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