"I have to watch The Last Waltz about once a month," jokes Josh Grubb, his East Coast stoner drawl crackling sporadically under a fuzz of cell-phone static. The guitarist and vocalist for Brooklyn-based psych rockers VietNam is killing time before a gig in his former hometown of Austin, Texas, and we're discussing the eternal value of the Band, the rich subject of Martin Scorsese's documentary about that outfit's legendary swan song concert in 1976.
Discussion of Band frontman Robbie Robertson's genius is tabled to excavate Grubb's musical roots. Though his ambitions were seeded in the early-'90s indie-and-punk scene in Austin, they didn't fully take hold until friend and eventual bandmate Michael Gerner gave him his first guitar at the age of 24. "Actually, we didn't get along the first few times we met," recalls Grubb, ruminating on the trajectory of their friendship. "But one weekend we realized we saw things the same way in terms of life around us—and our ideas as far as writing goes just sort of clicked. We knew that there was something the two of us could do better together than separately."
While Grubb got his skills up to par (Gerner had been playing for several years already), the pair bonded over a mutual appreciation of mid- and late-'70s classics by the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, as well as contemporary icons like Sonic Youth and narcotic cult favorites Royal Trux. They agreed on the name VietNam, a moniker inspired more by aesthetics than any outright political leanings, and began writing the songs that would appear on their debut EP, The Concrete's Always Grayer on the Other Side of the Street. After various academic detours in Philly, the two eventually wound up living in Brooklyn, and the EP was put out as a one-off release by hipster tastemakers Vice Records, an experience Grubb has few kind words about. "They sort of just threw us to the wolves and didn't promote it at all."
Luckily, the band soon made a fortuitous connection with Maroon 5's Mickey Madden, who agreed to act as executive producer and financier of the band's eponymous full-length. They also hooked up with former Beachwood Sparks guitarist David Scher when VietNam played a few shows with Scher's now-defunct band All Night Radio. Scher's refined appreciation for psychedelic pop immediately caught the band's ear and he was pulled in as a second producer, along with Rick Rubin protégé Jason Lader, creating a balanced, three-pronged approach. "[Scher's] pop sensibility was perfect; he's also really good at controlling the vibe and keeping everyone in a great mood," explains Grubb. "Jason was the taskmaster and was always pushing us to work harder. And Mickey was the Wizard of Oz," he laughs.
Enlisting that triumvirate of talent was also a smart move considering the caliber of the studio they were entering: Los Angeles's hallowed Sound City Studios, the sonic birthplace of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Nirvana's Nevermind, and Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, among many others. They were also operating under the fiscal pressure of recording, overdubbing, and mixing entirely in analog, with nary a Pro Tools trick at their disposal. "It was a pretty amazing experience," Grubb recalls. "The first two days at Sound City we were just excited to be recording there, but then the ghosts kind of got to us and we began worrying if our songs were [worth the expense]. It felt like it was time to step up to the plate."
Step up they did. The final collection of slowly simmering songs that make up VietNam (to be released in January on Kemado Records) sounds extraordinarily rich and layered, swimming in celestial atmospherics and laced with the spooky, shamanic vocals delivered with Gerner's trademark Dylanesque cadence. Thanks to the latter trait and a preponderance of lyrical drug references, comparisons to both Dylan and the Velvet Underground are already flying like shrapnel, leading one critic to quip that "Lou Reed wants his lyrics back." Though he audibly ruffles at this, Grubb also takes it in stride. "They use it like it's a bad thing, but any band out there you can compare to something. People who do like us really let it get into their bones."