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Interview

Always a wreck: an interview with Vanilla Poppers

Okay. What you have below is an interview with Christina Pap of the very excellent Vanilla Poppers.

The band play caustic-yet-catchy punk with a raw melodic edge, and they have releases out on labels like Lumpy, Feel It, Drunken Sailor, Negative Jazz and Christina’s own Blow Blood Records.

This chat was supposed to chime with the band’s European tour and that didn’t quite happen, and then it was supposed to coincide with the 7” that Drunken Sailor put out, but that didn’t quite happen either. Then I changed jobs, got sick a bunch of times, had some Life Upheaval and… somehow this thing stayed stuck in my inbox for the better part of two years.

In that time, the band has gone dormant – Christina has moved from the US to her native Melbourne, though the plan is for her to get back stateside at some point. In the meantime, she now plays in a band called SWAB, who you should most definitely check out.

That all makes this rather tardy, but the band’s records are still knocking around and Christina’s responses are thoughtful and interesting enough to be well worth a cup of tea’s worth of your time.

Please give us a quick Vanilla Poppers overview: who does what, how did the band get together, and what was the original motivation behind the band? 

Jo is on guitar, Steve on bass and I sing. Drew is the original drummer and still is but we’ve had a bunch of fill-ins over the duration of the band – to tour and also when we were based out of Australia for a half year in 2018. I moved to Cleveland for a few months in May 2015 and we started VP the day I moved there. Steve, Jo and Drew were already jamming for a one-off band participating in a fundraiser for Horrible Fest that year. Jo had some songs but I don’t think the original singer was keen on how mid-paced they were – they were more after what you’d expect when you think about Cleveland hardcore. I think everyone had their own personal motivations for wanting to the do the band but first and foremost we were all friends and got along and wanted to jam and hang out.

You have a couple of releases out now, so how would you say things have changed over time? 

I guess we’ve all gotten better or fine-tuned how we wanted to be or sound in the band; maybe not to a full extent. We’ve gotten tighter. I’d never sang before and didn’t know what I was doing (still don’t really). Jo was still fresh on guitar and was starting to write his own songs when we started. The only other band he’d being doing it in at that time I think was Perverts Again. Drew was used to a different sort of drumming so doing VP was a new style for him to adjust to. The whole thing has just been trying and learning and building. We’re still growing.

You’ve struck upon this really cool sound that’s both fresh and familiar. Did you genetically engineer the sound, or did things just come together by happenstance?

I don’t think anything was planned, Jo was experimenting and learning to write songs and so was Steve. It kinda just came what it became.

Am I right in thinking Vanilla Poppers is the first band you’ve fronted? Assuming so, how did you find stepping up to the mic? I’ve done it a couple of times and frankly found the whole experience terrifying…

Definitely terrifying, to the point I’d be nervous for weeks before the show. To the point I’d be black out drunk falling off stage, concussed, covered in scratches and bruises, not remembering the set…always a wreck. But I also just couldn’t give it up. As much as it made me so depressed to think that I wasn’t some perfect hot chick on stage and everyone was judging me or didn’t like the band because I didn’t look the part, or we didn’t fit the type of Cleveland hardcore, we weren’t fast enough or punk enough or cool enough. The thoughts would plague me and drag me down and I couldn’t cope but I was with my best friends and as much as it killed me it was still always the best time of my life.

How did/do you approach your vocals, and did anyone give you pointers in terms of style, technique or simply not shredding your voicebox? 

I shredded my voicebox a lot. Had to cut down on the cigs, try not to smoke before the gig and only have one after. Little rules you put in place for yourself to try work it out. Drink tea although I’d usually just drink coffee, which is bad because it dehydrates your vocal chords (or something like that). Don’t think anyone gave me any real pointers, I kinda just winged it and always wished I could be better.

There’s a real sense of desperation and ennui to the lyrics, as well as a darkly-comedic arched eyebrow when it comes to the punk scene and how people behave within it. What are you trying to get out of your system with your lyrics, and what kind of bugbears would you like to shine a light on? 

I don’t know if there’s any songs you’re thinking about in particular. ‘I Like Your Band’ was making fun of the Melbourne Punk Scene but also myself, because I did that shit too. My friends are party animals and speed is the drug of choice. The joke was that you spend all your time at the show in the bathroom doing drugs and then when you see your friend whose band played you lie and pretend you watched them and tell them how good they are. “I like your band”…

All the lyrics have come from something that’s been on my mind… problems I can’t shake that lead to self-oppression. Angry for not being able to move on in life, for not being better… also a lot of irrational and paranoid thoughts, reading into things or blowing things out or proportion. When you have those thoughts in real life you talk yourself out of it and know it’s in your head but with Vanilla Poppers I ran with it and became the crazy and paranoid I had to hide to try be a normal functioning person. I dunno, this shit is probably something I should be trying to work out in therapy more so than dissecting in an interview question.

How did you tackle the LP? Did you write it as ‘An Album’, or was it just a case of collecting songs you had and putting them into an order that worked? 

A bunch of songs we had, that we ordered the way we thought sounded best. The album is more just a snapshot of us in the year that we wrote it than writing it to be anything in particular.

How did the European tour go? What were the most memorable shows/events/aspects, and what kind of life-learns did you get out of the experience?

The Euro tour was a lot of things good and bad. The further in the past it becomes, the easier it is to forget the bad stuff and remember all the good things. It’s better to look back on it fondly than with resentment and annoyance, which is what I had a lot of after we had just finished it. There were six of us in the van – the four of us in the band and then the person driving and the person that booked the tour. None of us four had ever been to Europe before.

Obvious question that you’re probably been asked loads: how did you come to relocate, and why did you choose Cleveland, Ohio? 

I remember before I’d left, I would tell people that I was moving to Cleveland and their response was always the same – “Why??!!” or they’d point and laugh at me, hah…I had been to Cleveland a few times over the years and there was (still is) a place in my heart for that shitty city more so than any other place I’d been to. I was sick of the Melbourne punk scene at the time. Sick of dudes and their dumb boring crap in the scene. Sick of fighting to be a part of a scene that didn’t give a shit about me (or at least it felt like that at the time) so I got out. My plan was to stay in Cleveland for half a year and then move to Canada on a work holiday visa, which is what I did.

The first time I went to Cleveland was for Horrible Fest in 2011. It was the weirdest weekend I’d ever had at that point. I saw a car get smashed and flipped and set on fire (for fun). At the after party show, I couldn’t even watch the band playing because if I took my eyes of the bins being thrown across the room I was sure to get hit in the head by it.

Cleveland is crazy. It’s can also be super bleak. People ride on those stories about what Cleveland is about or used to be about. The fireworks, shows getting shut down, shit getting smashed, people getting beat up, whatever. They are really ignoring the other side of the coin – poverty, depression, being help up at gun point, having your house rolled constantly, drug and alcohol addiction… how would I know anyway, I was only there for half a year and I’m from Melbourne. But within that place and at the time, I found more acceptance in just being me than I’d ever felt in the Melbourne punk scene, a community I’d initially looked to find family, camaraderie, acceptance…

Upping sticks and moving to a new town (let alone a new country) can be pretty daunting, but I always think ‘the scene’ offers punx a semi safety net: it’s not entirely abnormal to contact strangers out of the blue (especially if they run a label or put on shows) and you find yourself meeting and knowing people by osmosis the more you go to gigs or schlep around record stores. How was moving cities, and how daunting/welcoming was getting involved with what was going on? 

 That’s definitely all true…I think I knew one person when I first went to the states in 2011 (Sam Richardson, who I knew from trading zines). Then I’d meet another, they’d recommend somewhere else to go or I’d go a place I knew no one and had to talk to people and make friends and suss stuff out for myself (Cleveland for example). By the time I moved to Cleveland in 2015 I knew a few people so it wasn’t a totally new experience. Plus I like being alone…I guess I didn’t really think about a lot of it, I just did it y’know. You do it and you work it out along the way. I couldn’t wait to leave Melbourne, doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard. I didn’t want to leave Cleveland, and it was some of the most heart wrenching shit I’ve been through. I remember going back for shows and on the bus back to Toronto I would cry for hours. Some of those people were my absolute family y’know, being forced to leave every time feels like something in me is dying over and over… maybe it sounds lame. I won’t ever forget it though. You learn to live. People over there were very welcoming and keen on what I was doing, doing the zine and later the label and generally trying to be active in some way in the scene and help out or hang out. It was more time than I felt anyone gave me in Australia at the time.