Good Times, Bad Times: Times New Viking bandmates recount the ups and downs of navigating national acclaim
At the top of a hill, amid the dorms of Czech Technical University, sits Klub 007 Strahov, a basement venue in Prague that has hosted rock, punk and hardcore shows since 1969. In 2010, Adam Elliott, Beth Murphy and Jared Phillips found themselves at 007, playing a gig with their band, Times New Viking. The venue is half a world away from Café Bourbon Street, which served as the band's humble North Campus home base before and after the trio's first show there in January 2004.
And yet, even on the other side of the globe, the club didn't feeltoo removed. It was a small space, and only about 30 people came to the show. "It felt like Bourbon Street, except we were in the Czech Republic," Elliott said. "Afterward we did shots of absinthe in this 400-year-old bar that had taxidermied birds. I remember Jared and I looked at each other, being like, 'This shitty little band got us here.'"
Short, fuzz-coated, in-the-red pop songs recorded onto cassettes in the basement of North Campus rentals took Times New Viking to stages in Prague, Sweden, Munich and London. The three friends shared the stage with some of their favorite bands - underground legends like Yo La Tengo, Wire and the Clean - and eventually signed to not one but two of the most respected, storied labels in independent rock: Matador and Merge records. The highs were high.
But the lows were low, too. Being gone for months on tour meant singer/drummer Elliott, guitarist Phillips and singer/keyboardist Murphy couldn't hold down jobs back home, and touring the country in an Astrovan barely paid enough to live on. Other than a brief period in 2007-08 that not coincidentally coincided with fawning reviews in national outlets, Times New Viking had trouble growing its fanbase. The band consistently drew between 30 and 80 people to a show stateside and abroad.
"The cost of going on tour - it's fine early on because you can live on nothing," said Phillips, 34. "But you get older and it's like, 'I can't live on this much money anymore. This is stupid. … I just opened for Wire in New York and yet I'm helping my buddy weed somebody's garden in Upper Arlington for $20? What the fuck am I doing?'"
Plus, for as many people who loved Times New Viking, the band drew its fair share of detractors who were put off by TNV's tinnitus-inducing, lo-fi sound. And record labels didn't sell as many TNV albums as hoped.
While Times New Viking never officially broke up, the bandmates stopped touring and playing music together in 2012. Murphy moved to Memphis. Phillips moved to Cleveland. Elliott stayed local. But on Saturday, July 9, the band will take the stage for the first time in four years, headlining 4th and 4th Fest at Ace of Cups. Until recent practices, the three friends hadn't been in the same room together since Elliott's wedding three years ago.
"I'm kinda surprised that people even care about this show," Phillips said by phone from Cleveland. "It's flattering! It makes me feel good that people care. I'm very happy to play. It's just, the way I perceived it in the last two years I was doing it, I couldn't help but feel like, wow, our 15 minutes are up."
'If you practice one time, then you're a band'
When Phillips entered CCAD in the fall of 2004, he brought along the four-track recorder he'd been messing around with back in his southwest Ohio hometown of New Lebanon. Settling into a dorm room two doors down from him was another southwest Ohio native - Adam Elliott, from Troy. For Elliott, whose brother Kevin fronted the Columbus-via-Dayton band 84 Nash, being around a musician tinkering with cassette recordings felt just like home. The two hit it off immediately.
"We had an art teacher - she was an art teacher at [Elliott's] school, and then she taught at my school my senior year and was like, 'There's a kid from Troy that you would be good friends with. You should meet this guy,'" Phillips said. "I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' Then [Elliott and I] were in Columbus and realized we had the same high school art teacher, and she had been trying to get us to meet in high school."
Phillips and Elliott formed the band Offending Instruments with one of Elliott's high school friends, Terry Adams, but the band dissolved when Elliott studied abroad in Scotland during his junior year. Across an ocean, Phillips and Elliott began laying the groundwork for their next band.
"I remember [Elliott] emailing me and telling me that he saw all these cool English and Scottish bands. And I was emailing him and telling him, 'Dude, I wanna do something like the Fall. Something weird and lurching. Something a little more menacing,'" Phillips said. "I think he came back with the same idea I did - that we should make really repetitive, lofty music. We gotta do something a little weirder and embrace our inabilities. We'd always been about the inabilities - the mistakes - but I think we finally realized how to make it work."
After Elliott returned, he and Phillips were at Café Bourbon St. talking with friend Beth Murphy about a band name they'd come up with: Times New Viking. "I wanted to be in the band because I liked the band name so much," said Murphy, speaking by phone from Memphis. "It didn't matter what medium I used as an artist. I could do this medium of music that I didn't know so well because it would make me more of an authentic, raw artist."
That was good enough for Phillips and Elliott. "We were very much into the idea of, if you say you're a band then you're a fucking band," Phillips said. "Anything you do can be legitimate, whether you can play or not. And I still believe that. If you practice one time, then you're a band."
"We were deeply into art theory," Elliott said in a recent conversation at an Old North bar. "We liked Dadaism and punk rock. We saw it all as the same thing. We loved music and the idea of being in a band - the art of that. For us, that was freedom, as opposed to academia and making fine art. … American rock 'n' roll is my favorite art movement that has ever existed."
Murphy, who began dating Phillips about the same time the band formed, wasn't initially comfortable in a band context, but with some liquid courage at late-night parties, which doubled as rehearsals and recording sessions, it became exhilarating.
"Everyone would come over and we'd get super high, and I'd use the four-track every day. That was the beginning of it," said Phillips, who lived in a house on Duncan Street that became the social locus for a tight-knit group of Columbus artists and musicians who dubbed their corner of North Campus "Washington Beach."
"My role is thinking of a ditty or riff," Murphy said. "Adam would come with a skeleton of a song [and] then we'd flesh it out at practice. Part of having me in the band was the wild card element."
Each member had 100 percent creative control at all times - "nihilistic freedom," Elliott explained. And while Times New Viking didn't have any grand ambitions, the band eventually burned some songs recorded during practice sessions onto a CD, which then made it into the hands of local underground luminary Mike "Rep" Hummel of Mike Rep & the Quotas.
Around Christmas 2004, another Columbus music legend, Ron House (Great Plains, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments), was playing host to Tom Lax, who ran Siltbreeze Records out of Philadelphia. After some drinks, Hummel came by.
"Mike said he had a CD-R by a band I needed to hear," Lax said. "The music made an immediate impression, but I was too lit up to remember the name. So for what was probably four to five songs in, every time a track would begin, I'd ask, 'Who's this again?' …I wasn't expecting to hear demos from the band that was about to rewire the label. I had pretty much thrown in the towel on Siltbreeze. I had no idea what was crawling underfoot - the teeming urgency of Times New Viking."
Soon after hearing the demo, Lax got in touch with TNV and released the band's 2005 debut LP,Dig Yourself, and then the 2007 follow-up,Present the Paisley Reich, on his respected and now-revived Siltbreeze Records.
But Siltbreeze was just the beginning. Media took notice. Matador Records came calling. Buzz continued to build around the band and its raucous amalgam of pop hooks and rudimentary recording methods, which sometimes became more of a talking point than the music. While the media assumed the band was making a statement about technology, the bandmates were genuine Luddites. Until 2010 or so, Elliott said he had to walk a mile to check his email.
"It sounds naive, but [a four-track recorder] is literally just how we thought it was done," Murphy said. "We listened to a lot of Guided by Voices, and Jared had the four-track leftover from high school. There was no reason to go into a studio or buy a computer to record. It was just how we did it."
"I never thought it was that big of a deal, but I guess it was. I understand now," Phillips said. "I kinda wish we'd done things a little differently - still made it a little lo-fi but not quite so lo-fi. … It overshadowed everything else. That always bummed me out a little bit."
Matador Records didn't mind the primitive quality of the recordings one bit. "We sentRip it Off to them," Elliott said, "and the mastering notes just said, 'Master fucking loud.' … I can't believe they said yes. Listening back to it, it's a buzzsaw, man."
In many ways, signing to Matador was a dream come true for Times New Viking. "I remember at 14 my teacher asking me what I wanted to be when I grow up, and I had no musical skills whatsoever, but I said I wanted to put out a record on Matador Records," said Elliott, who was also in awe of Matador's former art director, Mark Ohe. "I'm a collage artist, and his artwork is more influential to me than any artist you'd see at a museum."
Rip it Off, TNV's 2008 Matador debut, garnered an 8.4 out of 10 and a coveted Best New Music tag on tastemaking website Pitchfork, plus features inNME andSpin about Columbus' "shitgaze" scene. A play on the shoegaze genre, "shitgaze" was coined by Pink Reason's Kevin DeBroux one night while listening to Psychedelic Horseshit songs with that band's leader, Matt Whitehurst, who then put the term on Psychedelic Horseshit's Myspace page.
For better or worse, the term briefly caught on as a shorthand way to describe the scuzzy sounds coming out of Columbus' burgeoning scene, which connected TNV and other like-minded art-rock bands on Columbus Discount Records to the city's previous generation of weirdo rockers like Ron House, Mike Rep, Tommy Jay, Nudge Squidfish and others.
Other than touring constantly, very little changed for Times New Viking on Matador. Four-track was still the recording method of choice. All three members still created every album cover and flier from scratch without computers, which made for a consistent visual aesthetic.
Their bank accounts didn't change much, either. While Times New Viking toured the world and released another album on Matador, 2009'sBorn Again Revisited, Phillips said all he really wanted was to not live in complete poverty.
"We lived a couple years very poorly, but we got money from the label to record records, most of which we spent on living," Phillips said. "It wasn't much, comparatively. I know somebody like Kurt Vile went and bought a house. We weren't getting that money. We were getting next to nothing."
After the second Matador album, which didn't sell as well as the band or label had hoped, Times New Viking and Matador parted ways. Elliott and Murphy said there were no hard feelings, though Phillips is more dour in retrospect.
"We were being naive about it. We thought a record label puts out your band because they like your music, but there's so much other shit involved," Phillips said. "I think [Matador co-owner Gerard Cosloy] and those guys genuinely liked our band and liked what we did. But I think the pressure of having some sort of return and making something feasible out of it became too much."
"I don't think it would be fair to say low sales contributed to their departure from the label," said Matador's Cosloy. "Another question might be whether or not a label as large as Matador was able to properly focus on Times New Viking amidst everything else that was happening in the company. I bristle at any suggestion that modest sales were the fault of the band or that they were somehow penalized. … Personally, I blame the public. Maybe the media, too, but mostly the public."
After Matador, Times New Viking regrouped and reached out to friends at Wichita Records, who paid for the band to record its next album,Dancer Equired, at decades-old Columbus studio Musicol Recording. Wichita releasedDancer Equired in the UK, and Merge Records, one of the only indie labels with as much cachet as Matador, signed Times New Viking to release the band's fifth album and first high-fidelity studio recordings in the states.
"We thought, we'll do this one more, and we'll give it a shot making a somewhat more polished record," Phillips said. "If that does well, we'll try again. And if not, we'll just say, 'Fuck it, that's it.' It ended up being 'fuck it.'"
On a tour with the Clean in the spring of 2012, Times New Viking knew the end was nigh. The trio was out of gas. They were tired, poor. Crowds weren't getting any bigger. Reviews ofDancer Equired were mostly positive but not glowing. TNV had recorded some songs in March at Minbal in Chicago, but it was an EP's worth of material, and Merge wanted an LP, so the band came full circle and released the six-song EP,Over & Over, on Siltbreeze. The final show came in June of 2012 at Columbus' Megacity Music Marathon, local promoter Bobby Miller's precursor to 4th and 4th Fest.
"We plateaued," Phillips explained. "How many people wanna listen to that kind of music? It's not that someone is wrong - that Matador is wrong or Merge is wrong or we're wrong. There's just only a certain number of people who wanna hear that kind of band."
A reunion, and the prospect of new TNV recordings
These days, both Elliott and Phillips are tending bar and making music. For a time, Elliott played drums in his brother's post-84 Nash band, Connections, and now he sings and plays guitar in a new band, Long Odds. Phillips formed Counter Intuits with Ron House and also plays guitar in Long Odds.
And while Murphy, who works at St. Jude in Memphis, has no desire to tour again, she likes the idea of recording new music with Times New Viking. "I love the creation aspect of music - creating songs, creating albums," she said. "We have tentative plans to do more of that."
For now, though, this reunion show at 4th and 4th Fest is the only firm plan for Times New Viking, and the three members are enjoying the excuse to reconnect and play music for longtime fans and also younger fans who never had the opportunity to witness the carpe-diem fury of a TNV live show.
"Our band can at least bring people together again," Elliott said. "Some kids who grew up on the internet in 2008, they knew what Pitchfork was and were using the internet, but they never got to see us. I'm a bartender, and I have people say that all the time: 'I never got to see you, man!'"
Even if the three friends (all 34 now) wanted to distance themselves from the art-school trio they formed 12 years ago, they can't. Times New Viking made a permanent imprint. And despite the hard times and disappointments, all three say it was the most fun they've ever had. The good times outweighed the bad.
"It's still the thing I'm most proud of in my life," Murphy said. "It's always front and center in my mind. Those were formative years, and my identity is kind of based around it. It seems like a long time ago, but it's still who I am."