A Band of Non-Persons:
Picking Apart Cincinnati’s
Vacation Limb by Limb
By Austin Sorette
Vacation just released their third record Non-Person this summer on Don Giovanni records. From the very first listen, the songs seemed like a showcase of the kind of seat-of-the-pants rock that any punk fan would drool over. But there was something about the album that I couldn’t turn away from. Maybe it was the disturbing, disjointed collage on the cover; maybe it was the subtle, anthemic choruses hidden underneath distorted vocals cutting through the music like a drill against steel pipes.
One thing is for certain: the songs are a healthy combination of weird and melodic; a melting pot of different ingredients boiled down to all flow freely together. I couldn’t help but listen to the album constantly, and by the second dozenth listen, I’d be lying to myself if I said Non-Person wasn’t one of the best underground, independent-label releases of 2015.
The band, hailing from Cincinnati, just concluded a tour circuit around the Midwest and Northeast promoting the album. Starting in 2010, the band was originally a three-piece, featuring Jerri Queen on drums and vocals and Evan Wolff on bass. After multiple lineup changes, Queen switched over to guitar and the band added drummer and vocalist Dylan McCartney and guitarist John Hoffman, the latter also having recorded Non-Person and mixed the record with Queen.
Queen mentioned his switch to guitar came after their former guitarist Peyton Dabney left the band, around the same time McCarthy moved into a house the two band members lived in.
“Writing songs and stuff and teaching them to people and playing the drum parts just seemed kind of backwards after a while, especially since we all weren’t in one place anymore,” said Queen. “So then I could practice with Dylan playing drums and it would just make more sense.”
Being a group of musically diverse people, the band said writing songs for the album started off with various members creating demos with whoever from the band was available. Sometimes, the members of the bands would record all the instruments themselves and pass along the demos to each other to learn.
What transpired was a fourteen-song album of songs meshing together busy drumming, chugging basslines, and surf-rock style guitar drenched in reverb and distortion.
At it’s core, the album is a collection of whistle-worthy pop punk tunes. But for a band like Vacation, a three-chord song, apparently, shouldn’t be that easy. The band’s character comes from the abstract sounds: feedback screaming over the songs like bottle rockets, guitar riffs bent at every angle, wobbling in and out of tune; the touch-and-go rhythms that accelerate into hardcore only to slow into crawling post-punk in literally a matter of seconds. And, of course, layered over all of it are the infectious choruses of crippling self-doubt, surreal imagery, and of course‒greasy, greasy decay.
I was lucky enough to have seen these guys in a tight basement at a friend’s house in South Berwick, ME. The show was put on by some of Vacation’s New Hampshire punk contemporaries Notches and Black Norse. The vibe of this show was sweet because it felt more like small community of friends hanging out, supporting each other's bands, and drinking a beer or several, than just seeing an average “punk” show.
The show was decidedly punk; the spectrum of spectators ranged from about high school age to college students to punk-lifer grads, the place was loaded with boxes of PBRs and a crazy green tomato/vodka jungle juice; and the merch table was a couch tucked off to the side of the room. The stage was so tight that I was waiting (certainly not hoping) for one of the musicians to brain themselves on a low hanging wooden support beam taking up part of the stage.
At first glance, the four dudes in Vacation look like they could be members from four separate other bands (and, frankly, with the bands in the Cincinnati scene as incestuous as the Seacoast, everyone pretty much is). But just like their music, each band member brings a different style into the mix to create a uniqueness that is, arguably, incredibly hard to achieve in the thick of the internet age. From 80s hardcore to contemporary garage to a sloppy sort of New Wave. It’s almost as if they’re detaching limbs from a body and stitching them back in different places to create this brand new beast of unique, creative sound.
I met up with the band for an interview in the driveway of the house where the show was happening. They were all hanging out in their new tour van.
“We had a different van then this. It’s been kind of on the fritz,” Jerri Queen said, looking around the ceiling of the van. “Kinda like a new mentality.”
“Has the new van brought up some interesting stories?” I said.
“We almost got beat up by an MMA fighter,” Hoffman said, with complete indifference.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t because of this van,” Evan Wolff chimed in.
“Yeah,” Hoffman nodded. “It had nothing to do with this van.”
And so it goes.
That was the way the band reminisced about the tour, not necessarily through their music or past performances they thought were good or bad, but through sharing hilarious road stories like silly encounters with friends’ parents and relatives, and lighting farts on fire just for the fuck of it. As an outsider, I got the sense that these guys had a special bond that you don’t find in many bands, especially after a 23-day, 22-date tour.
Even when I asked them general questions about the Cincinnati music scene and their line-up changes, the band members would give a decent answer and then immediately regress into a light-hearted nostalgia about the history the members had with each other and how easily parts move within the scene and themselves.
“When we first started...there was a lot going on. It [Cincinnati] is a fairly big-sized city, but anything that we wanted, we brought or made friends from doing it,” said Queen. “Now, it’s grown a lot more. We’re not the young kids anymore. But there’s always a lot of good stuff going on. We’re all in way too many bands.”
“Sometimes it’ll feel like there’s just too much for anyone to even care,” said Wolff.
“Being pulled in every direction, man, you can’t spread yourself too thin,” Queen said.
But regardless of their concern, Vacation is still supportive of their side projects. Later that night, right before the band started to play, I stalked the merch couch and saw a couple of cassettes lying around. I asked Hoffman if I could buy a Vacation tape.
“Oh those aren’t Vacation,” he said. “They’re side projects of ours.”
He hands me two tapes. “This one,” he said, pointing to a Cookie Monster blue colored cassette with the words Swim Team printed on a blank white sticker, “I play guitar in.”
“This one,” he points to the other with a white cover that reads Mardou on the spine, “is Dylan’s side project.”
As expected, the two bands sound very different from each other, and both sound equally as different from Vacation. Swim Team screeched through my speakers. The production, whitewashed with noise and feedback, seemed like a marriage of an even lower-fi Jesus and Mary Chain and some of the pre-Crazy For You Best Coast singles. Mardou, on the other hand, came through with a bit more clarity, and added a couple extra shades of goth to Vacation’s punk sound.
The most important thing, however, is that regardless of the different directions Vacation pulls itself in, all of its members share a common core. A flawlessly cohesive unit, the band ripped through a 30+ minute set of classics from Queen’s drumming days and new songs.
The frenetic energy with which the band played never slowed once, not even through a thrashy cover of The Cure’s “Inbetween Days”. The only time Vacation ever took it slow was during the song “Heat” when, mid-song, Queen and McCarthy discussed whether they play one part of the song fast or slow. Some people in the audience said fast. They played it slow, tongues planted firmly in cheeks.
After the show, once the audience made a rather rushed exit from the basement, the band stuck around drinking and jumping right back into stories about people they met, grew up with and knew in Cincinnati (including several about Ernest Mahoney, lead singer of the Mansfield-based band Mahoney and the Pliers, who made a ridiculous appearance during the interview which will be saved for another feature). I tried to interject the occasional question or comment, but after a while I took a back seat, and let the band bounce comments and stories off each other, entertained by the enthusiasm of the crazy people they’ve met in their lives.
The band, obviously, is making a name for itself. Being on Don Giovanni and receiving glowing reviews in publications like the A.V. Club and Punknews.orm, Vacation is pushing itself along the route of popularity. But while they’ve got one hand on the door knob to success, they’ve got the other reaching out to all those still sitting in the room with them.
The Non-Person album cover is a mish-mash of body parts layered on top of each other to create this Frankenstein-esque creature loaded with warped joints and various snapshots. Their artwork, posters, and even music videos share a similar aesthetic where things are randomly chopped up and screwed back together in a variety of unique and unconventional ways. I think what the band was able to successfully create was a reflection between their music/art and their perspective on life. It’s not simply the elements of their music spliced together or each member's’ different personal style culminating into one band. It’s the sense of community embracing it all. Some element of everything that comes in contact with the band is another limb attaching itself to the Frankenstein, whether it be a new idea, style of music, band, project, or person (or non-person, I suppose).
Non-Person, then, becomes more of an idea than an album. No matter how fucked up one facet of music or life can be, if you can find a way to ajoin it into a common core with other random things, you’ve got something new, surreal, born out of the decay of an older idea.
Queen mentioned the band has plans to work on a new album, as well as release some tracks that didn’t make the cut for Non-Person. But if you haven’t heard what has made the album yet, rest assured, the timelessness of figuring out this trippy-ass band is enough to tide anyone over for the year.