“Did I tell you guys that last night I had a dream the Wu-Tang Clan hired me to fight crime in New York City?”
Tristan Baribeau is seated at the end of a table in his rented Burlington house regaling his Villanelles bandmates, who are scattered in various states of repose around a large, rustic kitchen. Behind Baribeau is an old electric church organ. Against the wall opposite him is a battered piano, covered in a stack of books, topped by a precariously balanced house plant.
“I was, like, this is real,” he says, nudging framed glasses up the bridge of his nose with his forefinger. He grins, crinkling a thin, unkempt mustache. “This is serious.”
Battling the forces of evil in Gotham with Cappadonna and RZA certainly would be serious business. For a few minutes, Baribeau and the other three Villanelles carry on as if he could be called away at any moment to do just that. Soon the conceit unravels in a din of laughter and increasingly corny one-liners.
“Sorry,” says Baribeau, addressing an amused reporter/interloper. “Where were we?”
Until we were derailed, we had been circuitously discussing the indie-rock band’s newly released EP, Kiss My Grits, a follow-up to last summer’s self-titled full-length debut. Asked about the differences between the two recordings, each member of the band points to a certain irreverence in the new album that stands in contrast to the relative rigidity of their debut. The repeated non sequiturs of the current conversation, such as the Wu-Tang detour, highlight that new mood about as well as the band members manage to do when they try. Though bassist Evan Borden does offer a succinct — and accurate — assessment of the new material.
“It’s just got more balls,” he says.
That newfound testicular fortitude is apparent from the first searing notes of the raucously goofy opener, “Cereal Killer Whale” — written during a late-night session fueled by absinthe, claims Baribeau.
“The lyrics are just ridiculous,” says keyboardist Zane Gundersen. He and Baribeau say the song grew from contemplating what would make for the “worst morning ever” — one imagines it might involve absinthe the night before — and then filtering their musings through a playful pop aesthetic.
“Plus, that was when that killer whale at Sea World kept killing people,” adds drummer Seth Gundersen.
Throughout the EP, there’s a sense that Villanelles have lightened up, which is not to say they were particularly buttoned down before. Still, even the title, Kiss My Grits, suggests a shift from forced artistic statements toward a more natural, visceral approach. So does the EP’s cover art, which features a close-up of Zane Gundersen’s face slathered with yellow grits.
Baribeau met Borden and Zane Gundersen while working at a Champlain College coffee shop called the Grind nearly four years ago. An early incarnation of the band emerged almost immediately with original drummer Kevin Marcello. Though a childhood friend of Baribeau’s, Marcello never quite clicked with the group musically. It wasn’t until he left and Zane Gundersen’s older brother, Seth, joined the band that Villanelles really began to take shape.
“That was a turning point,” says Baribeau. “It really opened things up for us.”
Seth Gundersen’s background is in metal and hardcore music, which requires of drummers incredible speed, power and precision. While no one will confuse Villanelles with a heavy-metal band, Gundersen’s dynamic chops do lend the quartet a more muscular edge. That allows the group to take more risks and generally play more aggressively. Their debut EP’s title track is a fine example. Following a blistering drumroll intro, the band explodes, teasing the kaleidoscopic melody from the lead track, “Summertime Hit,” with sinister zeal.
“Seth is the finest drummer I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with,” declares Baribeau.
Villanelles, the album, was composed of older tunes and some then-new material. While the collection of songs is generally solid, the band views it as a stylistic mishmash: an inconsistent mix of slow and pretty art rock and lean, up-tempo indie jangle.
“It was almost like a ‘best of’ record,” says Borden. “And it had a lot of delicate songs on it. Songs that were made for the studio and that we don’t play live anymore.” Some of the record’s best moments, he says, such as “Summertime Hit,” were more upbeat and reflected both the band’s live sound and its members’ cheeky personalities. Kiss My Grits takes that energy a step further.
“It was, like, Let’s get the rock out,” recalls Borden.
The EP’s primary tracks were recorded live in a single session last summer as part of an exhibition curated by Burlington City Arts called JazzLab. The project, produced in conjunction with the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, invited bands that had not yet released a recording — Villanelles was released later that summer — to record with Rob O’Dea and Ben Collette of the Tank Studio at the BCA Center. The sessions were open to the public, meaning that, for most of their four-hour recording, the band had an audience. At the end of each of the EP’s four tracks, you can hear a smattering of applause or banter among the band.
“We wanted to keep that emotional connection with those sessions,” explains Baribeau.
“Recording in that setting just created a different energy,” adds Seth Gunderson.
Baribeau interjects, “And that’s what we wanted to do, and showcase a bit more of how we sound live and are evolving with each other.”
While most of the instrumental tracks were laid down during JazzLab, Villanelles recorded all of the EP’s vocals in the basement of Baribeau’s house, which is also where they tracked their debut. The house is something of a local-music petri dish. Burlington hardcore outfit Lord Silky were the previous tenants and built the small basement studio — an uncommon luxury for bands in a town where noise violations are part of the cost of doing business. The space now claims a number of local acts as at least part-time tenants, including the Dirty Watts, Maryse Smith and the Rosesmiths, and Parmaga.
The studio is partially soundproofed. But the band’s neighbors still listen in on practice and recording sessions, often whether they want to or not. Fortunately, they usually do — or at least don’t seem to mind. Baribeau says he recently learned that a young girl who lives a few houses down often sits on the steps of the band’s house to listen during practices.
“That’s just kind of cool,” he says.
Villanelles currently have at least another album’s worth of material ready to record, which they hope to do later this summer. Though the new songs address more serious and personal topics than, say, homicidal sea mammals, Baribeau says they have made a point of retaining the lighter touch that elevates Kiss My Grits.
“That keeps it interesting,” he says. “And addicting.”
“And ballsy,” says Borden.