RVG star at RISING: ‘I wouldn’t have written this album four years ago…this time around there’s breathing space’

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RVG star at RISING: ‘I wouldn’t have written this album four years ago…this time around there’s breathing space’

Credit: Nick McKinlay
Words by Bryget Chrisfield

Ahead of RVG’s RISING show, with dream supports Iceage and Batrider, Romy Vager discusses creating the band’s career-defining third album Brain Worms (on which she played an acoustic guitar once owned by Kate Bush and Tears For Fears), her preference for preserving the mystery of their songs and her mad love for Divinyls.

Singer-guitarist Romy Vager admits Brain Worms – RVG’s brilliant third record (also Beat’s June feature album) – is definitely her “favourite” thus far. So what did the band do differently this time around? “We did a lot of rehearsal leading up to [recording] it, which we didn’t really do for the other two records,” she reflects.

One of this scribe’s favourite album tracks is the lyrically absurd Squid, with its thrashing drums, shrieking keys and fuming vocal delivery: “Don’t. Go back. In time/ It’s not worth it!” – cannot wait to experience this track’s full fury in a live setting. “It’s been going really well live,” Vager teases. “Reuben [Bloxham] does a little trick where he plays guitar and keyboards at the same time, so it’s like his party trick; it’s very impressive visually as well as sonically.”

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In the record’s accompanying press release, Vager is quoted as saying Nothing Really Changes, the hypnotic lead single, started its life as a songwriting experiment “to write something catchy with an obnoxious riff, a cross between Divinyls and Smoke On The Water.”

“We have riffs, but they’re sort of like buried in the whole structure of the song,” she elaborates. “But to build something on a riff was something I maybe hadn’t done, creatively, before.”

Does Vager love Divinyls? “I fucking love Divinyls,” she extols. So what’s her favourite song by this legendary Australian group? “Oh, I like Science Fiction a lot. It’s interesting, it’s got that [sings melody] “WOO-ooh-WOO-ooh” kinda synthesiser – it’s great.”

When RVG flew over to record at London’s Snap Studios, Vager tells us they only had “skeleton versions” of both Squid and Nothing Really Changes. “We had tried to play Nothing Really Changes with Marc [Nolte] drumming the whole way through it and that didn’t quite work,” she recalls, “so we ended up just incorporating the basic drum machine that was on the original demo I made and kind of fleshing it out more, which was due to James [Trevascus, producer] taking the lead and saying, ‘You should do this, you should do that’.”

After happening upon an acoustic guitar that once belonged to Kate Bush – “according to the guy who owns the studio, she got it from Tears For Fears” – the band immediately knew this instrument belonged on their record. “We were just like, ‘We need to put this in the background of every song we possibly can’,” says Vager. “So there’s a lot more bright little acoustic strums because of it, because I feel like it’s a good omen, you know?”

Since RVG formed in 2017, they’ve often been compared to bands such as The Smiths, The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen and The Go-Betweens. Does that ever get old? “I mean, I love all the bands that we’re compared to,” Vager ponders, “but I don’t want us to be seen as a, you know, ‘80s throwback revival thing. I think the things that I’m singing about are quite modern and sometimes you’ll read something and someone goes, ‘This sounds exactly like The Go-Betweens,’ and you’re like, ‘Does it? Are you sure? I don’t think it does.”

When told that Shivers by The Boys Next Door sprang to mind when I listened to another standout Brain Worms track, the downcast You’re The Reason, Vager responds, “Oh, yeah, totally; I can hear that. There’s a bit of all of that in there somewhere, just kinda circling around. I love that song [Shivers]. I used to love seeing Rowland S Howard live back in the day when he used to play at The Tote.”

RVG’s debut album, 2017’s A Quality Of Mercy, was actually recorded at The Tote. “We released the first album three times, in different ways,” Vager recounts. “We released it by ourselves, then we released it on Our Golden Friend and then we released it on Fat Possum overseas, and it all got stretched out – you know, a year and a half of this album sort of weirdly coming out. And there was a lot of love for it and a lot of hype for it, which was lovely. But when it came time to write the second album [2020’s Feral], I think I did struggle with that; it became quite difficult. And this time around it’s like, you know, I don’t think any of us have anything to lose, really. We don’t have all that pressure on us so we just kind of did it the best we could do, which is nice.”

On whether she thinks songs can be ruined for listeners once the true meaning behind the lyrics is revealed, Vager shares, “I learnt that lesson with the first record, ‘cause I feel like if you just have to keep explaining stuff it sort of takes away the preciousness of the song.”

“You can give hints, but I think it’s nicer to preserve the song and have a bit of mystery. And I don’t think songwriters really know, either. You have some songwriters who are like, ‘Oh, no, I intended this,’ and I don’t really believe that’s true. So I think it’s sort of, you know, the front of your brain taking credit for the back of the brain whereas, yeah, I’m [of the opinion that] songs happen by accident. Like, lyrics happen by accident in a lotta cases – they come from somewhere that I’m not in control of all the time – so I don’t feel like I have the right to feel like it’s exclusively about ‘this’.

“I think a lot of our best songs have come from me being like, ‘I have this song,’ and then the band goes, ‘It’s quite good,’ and I’m just like, ‘Ah, actually, nah’. But stuff like Photograph, from the second record – which is, I think, one of our best songs – just takes a lot of, like, prying it out of me, from everybody.”

Lyrically, Brain Worms is sublime. “My main focus, personally, is the lyrics,” Vager admits. “They’re very important to me. They have to be right; I can never half-arse it.” So did Vager approach lyric writing differently while creating this album? “Yeah, I think on the last record I was quite depressed and very much putting the lyrics onto myself, and I think this time I’m trying not to do that.”

Sometimes humorous lyrical twists caught me by surprise, almost in a ‘you’ve gotta laugh or you’ll cry’ kinda way, about which Vager observes, “I’ve definitely improved my sense of humour in the last couple of years, and I think I wouldn’t have written this album four years ago, because I would’ve been a bit too hard on myself maybe. But this time around there’s breathing space and you can step back and be like, actually, you know what? That’s pretty surreal when you think about it.”

After teaming up with Julia Jacklin to record an inspired cover of Björk’s Army Of Me (for the RISING Singles Club series in 2021), RVG went on to support Jacklin on her Pre Pleasure national tour, which included a couple of Melbourne dates at the Forum. Vager says she’s chuffed RVG will return to this same venue for a headline show, supported by Iceage and Batrider, as part of the upcoming RISING festival.

RVG had mentioned they’d love to share a bill with the Danish punk band Iceage. “They said yes,” Vager tells, “and that’s insane!” Of Batrider joining the party, she enthuses, “I would never have thought that Batrider would get back together to play with us, but I’m so excited that they have – that’s huge!… It’s a really great lineup, I’m very excited for it.”

RVG play The Forum on June 14 as part of RISING Festival. Tickets here.