While the children at the Mexican bakery in Brooklyn stare with curiosity at the rock ’n’ roll Rasputin hunched over the counter sipping coffee from a blue paper cup, the staff and locals greet Michael Gerner with warm hellos. The VietNam frontman smiles and speaks through his (Rick) Rubenesque beard in a humble, down-to-earth tone, giving no hint that he is a rock star in the making, currently on the cover of Fader, and featured in Rolling Stone. Slowly and deliberately, but with bemused enthusiasm, he discusses the band’s long and winding tour of duty.
“It hasn't been easy,” Gerner says. “But like Tina Turner said, 'We never ever do nothing nice and easy, we always do it nice and rough'.”
Never derivative, but always familiar, VietNam create classic rock with the straightforward New York-feel of the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, the weary shadows of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, and the poetic jangle of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Gerner has a gift for drawing the dimmer side of contemporary life, delivering the songs with a coarse Roky Erickson drawl. Powered by two ES-335s, the band can shimmer and twang like Royal Trux, echo like Jonathan Fire*Eater, and rollick like mid-period Stones. Underneath the roaring semi-hollowbodies, VietNam’s secret weapon—the rhythm section—is as dynamic and subtle as the Band’s.
VietNam’s sonic dream has evolved, both deliberately and accidentally, through a combination of grandiose ambition, broken equipment, and hard times. These days find the band landing in the pages of nearly every major music publication, scaling college radio charts coast to coast, and burning down stages at every stop on their lost highway. After holding on through seven years of conquest and catastrophe, hope and hopelessness, VietNam’s recent successes are the spoils of a hard-won battle.
In 2000, Gerner and his pal Josh Grubb—friends from Austin, Texas—founded VietNam in New York City. After months performing in the confines of Gerner’s room, jamming and scheming to achieve the rock ’n’ roll dream, Grubb and Gerner moved back to Austin to save money, recruit a band, and work on material. There, the two not only spent months organizing the music and logistics, but also crafting a sonic approach. Gerner recalls, “I wanted my guitar to sound full, more in terms of keyboards than guitar, like Suicide’s synthesizers on their first album, or John Cale’s organ on White Light/White Heat, or the richness of the instrumentation on Spacemen 3’s third album, Playing with Fire.”
At the time, Grubb played a 1965 Melody Maker, and Gerner, who had no guitar in New York, played a borrowed, and profoundly abused, Epiphone Sheraton II. He explains, “Because the treble pickup was broken, I plugged it in, and only played on the rhythm. And it was smooth, warm, resonant … pure butter. So I went to the shop to try one out and was distracted by a Lucille they had—the tone was even richer than the Epiphone, and I knew from that moment I needed to have one.”
Upon moving to Austin, Gerner excavated three old guitars he had buried in friends’ houses for a trade-in. Though their combined value didn’t amount to a Lucille, they almost added up to one new ES-335. After taking the legendary semi-hollowbody for a test drive at Austin’s Guitar Resurrection, Gerner became fixated on a new bouillon gold model in the Gibson catalog. Unable to find one in town, he ordered one of two remaining guitars direct from Gibson in Nashville.
About a month later, Grubb traded in his Les Paul for a used, cream-colored 1985 ES-335. The basis of the VietNam guitar sound was born—both playing through the rhythm pickup and relying on their amps to alter the sounds. Gerner explains, “Mine is more of a solid bassy tone, and his is more chimey; he rings like a bell.” It also didn’t hurt that the two guitars formed a striking image together onstage.
Looks aside, Gerner had a pragmatic reason for his conversion to a 335. “It has such a full sound,” he says. “Because we didn’t have a bass player, or even a drummer in some earlier incarnations of the band, I had to hold down the entire bottom end. In addition to singing, I had to be the bass, the bass drum, and the rhythm guitar. My other guitars got muddy in that low a frequency, but the 335’s tone held its integrity.”
Though VietNam rapidly made a name for themselves in the local underground music scene, they were devoting as much time to their day jobs—driving cabs and working at coffee houses—in Austin as in New York. When a friend invited them to live at her house in Philadelphia rent-free, they immediately took advantage, as the move would mean more time to rehearse and a closer proximity to New York. It was in Philadelphia that the duo began using the deep reverb that is currently such an important element of the band’s sound.
“The reverb thing came accidentally,” Gerner laughs. “It’s funny that everything about our sound came from accidents. We practiced at a space without our amps and the only one there was an old amp with a huge reverb tank—so we both plugged into the two inputs.” Like the busted treble pickup that showed them the merits of playing exclusively on the rhythm pickup, the amp’s broken reverb knob also forged the band's sound. “The reverb was all the way up, and we couldn’t turn it off, and that immediately became our sound. We still drench everything in reverb because it broadens the notes and adds a dreamy layer of ghosts.”
After witnessing the band open for his old friends the Fiery Furnaces at Brooklyn bar Northsix, Austin acquaintance Mike Foss was so taken by VietNam’s performance that he asked to join the duo. Gerner and Grubb accepted under the condition that he play drums; the fact that Foss had never drummed in his life didn’t faze them, as they weren’t looking for a traditional drummer. With only a tambourine and a floor tom found in the trash near the band’s house, Foss began driving down from New York to practice. The addition of Foss’ minimalist technique and setup gave the band a dark primal feel.
VietNam returned with its new lineup to New York on New Year’s Day 2003. A few months later, Vice magazine, which had just started a record label, sent the trio to the legendary Magic Shop studio with producer/engineer Matt Boynton to record an entire EP in one day. The fruit of this short session, The Concrete's Always Grayer On the Other Side Of the Street, is a patchy yet charming slab of smacked-out urban grit.
VietNam found a manager and a booking agent, and finally embarked upon their first tour in November 2004 with Vice labelmates Death from Above 1979 and the Panthers. The band proved to be a poor match with the others, and after a personal dispute with Death from Above 1979, VietNam were informed by Vice, and its parent company, Atlantic, that they had been removed from the Canadian leg of the tour. Soon, VietNam’s brief relationship with Vice was also over.
Label or no label, VietNam soldiered on, embarking upon a six-week tour that took them everywhere from the Noisepop Festival to South by Southwest in early 2005. During this tour, they added roadie Ivan Sunshine as bass player. Sunshine was a veteran bassist who’d formerly played on the Social Registry’s masterful Ghost Exits. His soulful playing brought VietNam a much needed bounce and depth. Meanwhile, Gerner had come into his own as a dynamic and powerful vocalist, while Grubb’s guitar leads were now based on sophisticated, weeping Southern rock runs. And, after finding a full kit in their basement, Foss had quietly developed into a solid, restrained drummer. Gerner explains, “It sounds like a junkyard drum set in a way, but, to me, better than any kit I can think of.”
Upon returning from tour, VietNam moved into the New York storefront that they continue to inhabit with five other friends. Though they spent the summer of 2005 without electricity due to an unpaid bill, they were cooled and comforted when friend and fan Mickey Madden of Maroon 5 fame flew the band to Los Angeles to record their first full-length with Beachwood Sparks’ Farmer Dave behind the boards. A grab bag of West Coast friends, including Jenny Lewis, Future Pigeon, Paz Lenchantin, and Jesse Carmichael of Maroon 5, all stopped by to lay down tracks.
The resulting self-titled, full-length Kemado Records debut—the one currently garnering praise everywhere from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork—is an epic balance of ballads and rockers, silky Specteresque spectacles, and bare-bones burners. The intricate dual-guitar blues and solid chunks of rhythm glow with tube warmth under Gerner’s howls. Farmer Dave did an excellent job of accurately translating the dense organic quality of the band’s live guitar sound onto tape.
VietNam is currently traversing North America as the handpicked opener for the likes of Jenny Lewis, the Lemonheads, and Black Angels, with their first headlining tour set not long after their appearance at South by Southwest. Brooklyn’s hip and prolific Social Registry label has also initiated the first of a set of vinyl VietNam EPs.
While VietNam is brilliant and very real, it’s still no substitute for the ultimate culmination of their infinite adventures and misadventures—their live show. Audiences aren’t only struck by their distinctively hairy, tattered appearance, live chemistry, and distinctive musicianship, but also by the touchstone of their sound—the gargantuan tone of their two ES-335s—a collision of beautiful accidents and sonic dreams.
“Sure, it would’ve been easier if everything had fallen into our laps early on, but we'd never be the band we are today,” says Gerner. “We were a band with no audience, no record label, and no hometown. But that ended up being the best thing for us because no one expected anything from us, and there was no pressure to be anything but ourselves. The constant struggle year after year forced us to play better and make strong commitments to the band, and trial and error created our sound in the process.”
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