LADYGUNN – Goodbye Cruel World, Hello New World:  In Conversation with Voxtrot’s Ramesh Srivastavra

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It’s the aughts of indie rock and it’s taking over the radio airwaves and coveted gigabyte spaces of music lovers iPods that would continue to influence the trajectory of music for years to come. Distorted guitars, fuzzed bass and boisterous drums became the cornerstone of the genre spearheaded by the revered lifestyle that seemed to ooze with effortless cool with the help of leather jackets, burning cigarettes and let’s face it – a nice, sheer glean of a few trust funds – that decorated much of the scene. Yet in the midst of an expanding musical landscape, thanks to a rapidly connecting new digital world, much of the music that permeated its way through to the mainstream were successions that sounded rather indistinguishable to a certain point.

Enter Voxtrot. Hailing from Austin, Texas, the indie quintet stepped into the scene with a centrical sonic and emotional shift that breathed a refreshing new life into the world of indie. Releasing their first two EPs in 2005 (Raised by Wolves) and 2006 (Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives) – they gained a rapid climb of success with leading singles like The Smiths-esque “The Start of Something” leading the way. While they offered the key elements of all their fellow big name counterparts — an upbeat digestible alternative sound marked with an inimitable and effortless cool, they also offered an experimental twist that shifted them into their own lane on the fast track to the top. The equation that skyrocketed their journey to success was fueled by robust symphonic compositions, analog forward synth dance breaks and wax poetic lyricism that tapped into the emotional cores of audiences. 

They moved on to release their album in 2007, which riding off the success of prior singles, was not as well received as their earlier music. Still touring and releasing singles, it was after the release of their final, the incredibly elusive “Berlin, Without Return” in 2009, the band shortly called it quits for good just a year later in 2010 leaving their legacy to remain in the imagination of indies greatest what could have beens. Voxtrot would then remain one of indies comets. A bright and promising spectacle gone from the sky too soon leaving a lingering wonderment to their return. 

With 12 years disbanded and a few solo projects spared between, the awaited reunion seemed more unlikely with every passing year. However, their legacy long outlived their physical form as digital streaming and social media booms helped keep their revered spirits alive through a greacefully aging discography that sits in the essence of exploring the multifaceted human experience through its conglomerate post-punk, alternative indie and twee-pop intersection. An essential moment in indies history, Voxtrot – while not merely a household name – remained mainstream enough for success, but with an underground enough edge to remain one of the eras leaders of a certain secret indie cool kids club.

Now, in a year of unprecedented times, one of indie’s greatest what could have beens has returned with a chance of answering the great mystery. Their reintroduction included the release of Early Music – a collection of favorite early hits and Cut from the Stone – a collection that includes B-sides and previously recorded but not released singles. Providing even more contempt to the long awaited return – they are accompanying the releases with a return to the live stage with a string of tour dates across the U.S. The recent activity begs us to ask the question on everyones mind “Is this the end or just the start of something really, really beautiful?”

Luckily for us, we had a chance to catch up with frontman Ramesh Srivastava to catch up and discuss as much as we could regarding the last 12 years. We learn more about social media’s role in reuniting the band, how Voxtrot’s return to the stage feels like the good kind of fear, and how therapy helped the frontman find himself again and emerge confident in a very uncertain climate for artists. 

Interview has been condensed for clarity. 

I’ve been lighting a candle for 12 years and we did it – we got a Voxtrot reunion! 

You did it – you made it happen! Thanks! Happy to be back. 

Staple first question – How are you? Today and in general? 

I am…I am good. The most boring answer, but I am good! It’s funny. I was texting this friend of mine that recently moved to London and was trying to give a good “Hi, how are you” recap. I was like “how can I summarize my current life into one very short text message?” So, well, my life right now is preparing for this Voxtrot tour, writing my next album, and working at the restaurant where I work. That’s pretty much the pantheon of what I do. And it’s hot as hell in Texas right now. So I go swimming almost every day, but that’s pretty much it for now.

You have released music independently more recently, but it’s been roughly a decade since you’ve all played together as Voxtrot right?

Yeup, it’s been 12 years!

Wow, I feel a little too dated knowing it’s been that long. 

Me too! 

Back to attempting to summarize a long period of time in a short context. What have you been up to these 12 years and what has been happening that helped lead up to this reunion? 

I would say the last few years have been pretty good. I released my first solo album in 2014, and recently a second solo album. 12 years…there were some good parts. I would say at least eight of them. But actually, a lot of those first years after Voxtrot were kind of a dark night of the soul for me. As Voxtrot was ending, I was already experiencing the kind of existential dread of “I thought this thing was going to be my life. What am I going to do with my life now?” – Being in a well known band, it becomes your identity. And as that starts slipping away, you feel like you have no identity – or at least I felt like I had no identity. So the next years after that, was just a process of all this self discovery. 

What did that process look like for you? 

I just wanted to get back to a place of feeling like I knew who I was, and really feeling back in touch with music. I had to go through what, for me, felt like a lot of really humbling processes. What it looks like, logistically, has just been working in jobs outside of music. But also, especially in the last five or so years, still being totally dedicated once again to my music and having to work equally as hard to do that. So it has felt like I’ve had two jobs for the last five years. Pretty much non-stop work, but I see the fruits of it. Of course, my 24 year old self would not have wished that things would have gone this way but I see now that all of that happening has led to a feeling of self empowerment that I couldn’t have imagined before. So it’s one of those things in life that makes sense – in hindsight.

You’ve become incredibly open and vulnerable in regards to therapy and the exploration of coming back to yourself in recent years. It’s refreshing, and also a bit of a juxtaposition. Coming back in an era more empowered and self-assured in a climate that’s really difficult for artists and often finds them in quite the opposite headspace. I’m intrigued on how that feels from your perspective?

I definitely feel more sure of myself, but I actually will say that stepping back into it is kind of – terrifying. Initially, stepping back in is like “I’m now more sure of myself!” Then when I’m really on the podium, so to speak, and I’m really talking to people and making an effort to be as transparent as possible, of course I’m terrified of saying the wrong thing. I guess I can feel this sort of bravery rise up in me where I feel like I need to tell the absolute truth in my experience. It usually is a freeing feeling. And I can tell that telling the truth has, or can have, positive ripple effects. But it’s also really uncomfortable for me. Not uncomfortable for me as in you should stop asking these questions…

Great, because I have many more. Do you have a hunch as to where that uncomfortable feeling is coming from?

It’s uncomfortable as in…I can’t remember who I was talking to about this, might have been in another interview, but I was talking about the difference between two different kinds of fear. One is this natural, good type of fear…like approaching a stranger. Let’s say you go into a room and see somebody and maybe you’re attracted to them, or think maybe you’ll have even minimally a good friend vibe or a good professional opportunity. You just feel there’s some kind of cosmic thing that’s pushing you to talk to that person. It’s kind of the same fear when you’re about to go on stage and perform something. It’s fear, but you know by overcoming it there is growth. Then there’s the other kind of more negative fear, where you know you shouldn’t do something. Like going down a certain street that looks actively dangerous. So this process of putting out releases again, and doing all this press and social media, which has to be done directly and I try to do in this authentic way – it feels like the good kind of fear. 

On the topic of fear, do you ever worry you’ll be too transparent or too open with your audiences? 

Sometimes after an interview, I’ll have this sort of searing regret, or just more “Did I expose too much about myself? Is what I’m saying gonna make other people uncomfortable? Or turn some people off?” I don’t know. Because a lot of what I’ve done in the last 10 years is a lot of spiritual searching. It’s not religion, it’s not having a religious awakening. It’s about this other thing that begins with therapy and kind of understanding that the point of life is actually to go inside and first untangle your psychological issues, so that you can really be at peace. It’s not about looking outside somewhere for the answer. Because no matter what you think is the dogma or the system that’s finally given you that answer, it never lasts. It is really about a journey inside, cheesy though that may sound.

I came to learn that social media also came to be a big reason behind the reunification. Can you talk a bit more about social media’s role in bringing you all back to the live stage?

Yeah! I mean I guess without social media and more modern inventions like Spotify, that weirdly enables you as an artist to know how many people are listening to your music, I don’t think we would’ve been aware of how much of a fan base we had — and still have. Spotify numbers sound like sort of a cold thing, like studying statistics. But with social media, you can see the emotional part of it all. It’s not just numbers, but you see the people covering the songs, you see the tattoos and stuff…It’s amazing because the people covering the songs more often aren’t even my age or older…not even a few years younger! Some of them are like 20 years younger than me and that’s amazing! But maybe it makes sense. When I was 19, I definitely loved a lot of artists who were 39 or somewhere around that age, maybe even 69. So it’s not crazy that people would find the music, but it’s crazy because it’s not like Voxtrot  was a household name or a clear channel radio band. It’s a band that existed only for 10 years, but really only 5 years in the spotlight, then just went away. So it’s amazing. I’m super grateful. I can’t or don’t even know how to explain why that listenership is still there. 

What’s the best theory you’ve come up with to explain that phenomenon, even to yourself? 

I feel I’ve said this before, but it’s kind of a Belle and Sebastian effect. I know this from being a fan and listener of other artists, where it really is about the emotional connection to the music. There are lots of bands that might have a really specific sound, and it’s a super cool sound. There’s nothing wrong with that! I love bands like that, but that’s usually a harder thing to make work over a long span of time. Almost like a hot flame burning out. But music that you feel truly emotionally connected to, that becomes sort of part of your DNA and I think that is what builds the long term relationship between the artist and the listeners.

Absolutely. I can’t say I’ve listened to EVERY indie band of the mid 2000s, but your music and lyricism was so visceral and poetic in comparison to a lot under the umbrella of the era. Musically, it was fun and easily digestible, but the lyricism often tapped into emotional storytelling of the human experience, often referencing your own personal experiences. What is behind your creative process behind song writing and sharing what you do through your music? 

The songwriting process for me is usually about taking one central idea, and then that is the seed. Everything then has the DNA in it, everything grows upwards around it. Occasionally, it’s just a melody that I wait until the right inspiration to come in to know which word should go with it. A lot of times, it’ll be a singular phrase I’ll read in a book, and it’s not that the phrase is applied in the book in the same way I’m going to apply it to my life. Or words will just come to me and for some reason these words are sticking with me, but I just know that’s it when it. does. Wherever it comes from, the seed becomes the centerpiece. The process kind of feels the same as when I was in college and I used to write essays or something long form. I have the thesis at the beginning, then there’s the material way you could point out all the real life examples of actual situations in my life that apply very directly to this title. As soon as I start doing that though, there’s usually all these abstract things that come up for me that also apply to the title and are sort of like poetic imagery. But in the end, it all makes sense to me and they’re all just being inspired by this one central idea.

You once mentioned in an interview that making music feels a bit indulgent and you have to find meaning to be able to create music as it is the most important thing to you. What meaning was found behind this middle space of re-releasing “rarities” that are new to audiences but rather older gems that have been hidden in the Voxtrot vault? 

It’s funny because – you’re right. This is new music to audiences, but I suppose we’ve been living with those songs for so many years that I think the releases, because they’re both older, are archival. For me, it’s more that I try to detach my identity from them. I can look at it and say “oh, that’s who I was,” and “that was me speaking my truth back then,” and now I’m a totally different person. But actually, if I subtract what I think it means about me and if I subtract that quandary out of the situation, I feel like these songs have a lot of universal truths in them. And that is sort of a thing across a lot of Voxtrot songs actually, they can be kind of broad spectrum realities and I think that’s what makes them do well over time. 

Do you ever feel too far removed from them when looking back at them with the lens of detachment? 

Yeah, I can look back and some of it feels a little bit immature to me, but a lot of it still resonates. Any fears I have, especially with these recent songs we’ve put out and have never been heard by anybody else, those were written towards the very end of Voxtrot at a time when I was deep in existential dread but I wasn’t aware. What do they call that? Unconsciously unconscious? 

Now that’s a phrase! Love it – tell me more.

One time, I was talking to my cousin in India who’s a reiki healer before I actually started down my whole healing path. She was describing these stages of “consciousness” to me. First there’s unconsciously unconscious, where you don’t even know that you’re unconscious. Then there’s consciously unconscious, which is obviously way more painful because you are now aware that you’re unconscious, and that’s horrible because that’s when you like “Oh my god! I am a maniac. How am I going to get all the way to (of course the goal) consciously conscious.” Like how do I get there? 

Aw yes, the long and winding road. 

Yeah, exactly. So I’d say the time I wrote those two songs, I was unconsciously unconscious. Or maybe I was slightly consciously unconscious because I was aware that I was looking for an answer, I was aware that I wasn’t happy. 

And being some of the final songs before Voxtrot’s end – I can only assume you weren’t finding the answers in music at that time? 

I had some awesome times, a lot connected to music. But all of the things that had made me happy, I mean there’s some happiness in living a crazy hedonistic life, were no longer bringing me happiness. And I was so used to that being a part of my identity. This kind of hedonistic rockstar thing, and I was just experiencing this total self split inside. And so hearing the songs now and having them go out into the world as singles leading up to the releases – I had a lot of fear because I felt like it represented such a negative time for me. 

And how have you managed to cope with those feelings now, post single releases? 

Actually now that they’ve been released, I kind of detach them to my own image. I see it like “this is a true part of my life, and a true part of the life of the band.” I think the band was playing together better than ever by that point because we had just been busting our asses for five straight years touring – so that is just a part of our history. And it’s more important to me now to tell the truth and just put it out there and say “this is how it is,” and let it be a record of the human experience, than it is for me to constantly try and manicure Voxtrot’s image or my own image. Even though the desire to do both is very strong.

I mean, that’s natural right? Your job is quite literally dictated by the consumption of your music. And in tangent, consumption of your public image. 

Right! Yeah…

I feel much of your identity, was really vital to the importance of Voxtrot. Being a queer, front person of color was a real deviation to the common public images of much of the eras mainstream representationI don’t want to tokenize your experience, but with an incredibly unique perspective. and insight, how did you view your role regarding representation in this music scene? 

Well – thats great to hear! I mean I didn’t, at the time that Voxtrot started or during the time that we were prominent, I don’t think that I was…I was unconsciously unconscious. I don’t think that I thought about being either brown or gay. I would joke about it sometimes, that I was this double minority in this world, but I didn’t think of it as a unique – powerful thing at the time. It’s actually only in, or correlated to, having done all these different types of therapy and having to really learn what shame is. A word that I’ve heard many times before, and thought I knew what that was, but not really understanding exactly where shame comes from or how shame lives inside of a person and all the manifestations of it in the ways it shows up in your life. Until I went through therapy, I didn’t see all the ways that shame was manifesting in my life and how it’s usually inherited, literally from your family or you’re conditioned from society. Certainly a large degree of the shame that I had of course had to do with being gay and raised in Texas in the 90s, and then being brown and raised in Texas in the 90s. That thing of feeling like a total outsider, you know, it’s weird. Once I learned about that, I started to realize how significant it actually was that I was and am a brown, gay person who was in a very visible place in the industry.

As a woman of color with a high affinity towards indie music, growing up was…definitely fueled by the strange, misfit type of experience to grow up loving something you never felt fully a part of or catered too with mainstream representation. 

Yeah. Even before Voxtrot started I always thought, because I worshipped — and I mean I still musically worship — all these bands that are predominantly fronted by these straight, white men, I really did feel that I would have to change my name. Or that I would have to lie about being gay or overcome it somehow. Or that Ii would literally have to get plastic surgery. This is when I was like 17 and had all these dreams of fame, before it really happened for me. I really believed that all of that stuff would have to happen or else I wouldn’t stand a chance at being remembered by history basically. 

Completely relatable, except the part of eventually having a beloved indie band. Still waiting for that one to happen to me. 

The interesting thing is, and I see it now so clearly, is that all of those factors that I wanted to erase about myself are part of what make me powerful.  Or rather, me being powerful and owning all of those things and embodying them is actually my true purpose, you know. If I tried to change myself to be  what I thought I should be, I don’t think I would be on the road to achieving my true purpose, I would just be stuck in a sort of cyclical hell. So it’s crazy how your psychology leads you to believe that your life should be one way, but then life is showing you how by going towards your truth, that is how you become powerful… I think I actually got a fortune cookie once that said “if you want to be powerful, go out into the world and be yourself.” I never forgot that fortune cookie. 

Would love to imagine a world where the answer behind your incredible lyrics was always “I got this fortune cookie once..”

Exactly – and they’re all just fortune cookies! 

Now – the most anticipated part of a return. Voxtrot is going on tour! “Goodbye Cruel World, Hello New World” was quite an amazing connection to link these eras of the band. What are you most looking forward to in terms of getting back on the stage?

From the tour – Were doing all the hard work, all the practicing now and that’s fun! So what I’m most looking forward to is to see what it’s  like when the spirit really comes back on stage. I think there will definitely be some magic there. You can plan for it, but thats the divine part. That you as an artist, you do the hard work and you show up, and when that undefinable spirit is there —  its the most incredible thing. I think that you feel it as the band and you feel it as the audience.

We’re so excited for your return and we’ll see you in LA! 

Can’t wait! 

 

Voxtrot Tour Dates

September 17 – New York NY @ Webster Hall (tickets)
September 18 – Washington DC @ Black Cat (tickets)
September 23 – San Francisco CA @ The Independent (tickets)
September 24 – Los Angeles CA @ The Regent (tickets)
October 21 – Chicago IL @ Thalia Hall (tickets)
October 22 – Minneapolis MN @ Fine Line (tickets)
November 12 – Austin TX @ The Mohawk (tickets)

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