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Michael Gerner of VietNam

Michael Gerner of VietNam

Let’s start with a simple question: Where’ve you been the past couple years?
I left New York and I went down to Austin. I always use Austin as a jumping off point.

What do you mean?
Well I’m from Texas, so I always have work and places to stay down there.

Did you go down there by yourself?
Yeah, and from there I went out to L.A. for a couple years.

Was there a discussion about whether you’d keep the band together? I was always under the impression that it was you and Josh [Grubb], and the backing band shifted here and there.
Josh went down to Austin to visit, but he had some personal family issues come up. From there, everything kinda fizzled out. And when I was in L.A., my friend Jonathan picked me up. He was doing a DJ [tour] across the United States, so he picked me up and brought me back to the old place.

Jonathan who?
Jonathan Toubin.

Ah, so he kinda rescued you in a way?
He definitely did. Things came up, and it just wasn’t right to stay there. I didn’t like it so much out there. I mean, I didn’t even have a car.

Was that your first time living in L.A. for a long period of time?
Yeah, the only time I’d been out there was when we recorded and toured there. It’s a great place to visit, but it’s also very insular. You don’t really interact with people too much. Everyone’s in their own orbit, with their own group of people. And I don’t drive on highways so it became a big issue. It’d take me an hour and a half just to get to the bus stop and work.

You were just doing odd jobs in L.A. then? Or that and your side project D.A.?
I started playing with my friend Christian in Austin. He’d bought a lot of analog synthesizers, so I decided to figure those things out. We started out doing Lee Hazlewood covers with guitar and some analog synths, but it takes a long time to learn how to wrangle those things. It eventually turned into us recording a bunch of stuff–very soundtrack-y, sci-fi music.

Did you release any of it?
We put one record out, and figured we’d do our double record opus next, but the label kinda went under. I don’t know if it’s up and running now; I think he’s trying to. It’s called Olde English Spelling Bee.

Oh yeah; I love that label, and was wondering why they stopped putting things out suddenly. So they put yours out before that happened?
Yeah, on vinyl. And then some buddies of mine really liked the music, so they wanted to try making a movie to it. We made it through half of the movie, but we never completed it. Of all the stuff we have, it’s pretty epic.

Did it have a plot or was it just visuals set to the music?
It was a sci-fi movie about landing on this alien planet. Me and Christian and my ex-girlfriend were in it. That eventually had to be postponed because he had started doing a documentary and he wanted me to do sound for it. Which was kinda cool; I was doing the [demos] for this record with the iChat microphone on my laptop. I wasn’t even thinking of putting anything out.

I thought you said you only made it through half of it.
Half of the sci-fi movie, but we finished the documentary. It’s coming out around the same time as this record. It’s called Fall and Winter. It’s about the collapse of civilization. My friend Dave Black was the cinematographer and my friend Manderson got the camera and Kickstarted the documentary funding. It took about a year on the road. We wanted to go all across the world:

Wait, so you did the sound for this film? You were the guy with the boom mic?
Yeah, and I did a lot of the music in it. One of the songs from this record is on it as well. I’m excited to see it.

What were you doing when you traveled across the country?
Just interviewing people. Basically he threw out a massive net–a cross section of scientists, professors, a guy who works for NASA; we went down to where the oil Gulf spill was and lived with some Cajun shrimpers who were still working on the cleanup.

So it’s a mix of theories and clear evidence of how things have already gone to shit?
Yeah. It’s kinda strange how all of these interviews from all walks of life intersect.

Is he going to release it on DVD, or is he shopping it around?
He sent it to all of the festivals. I don’t know how that works, but they’ll have a theatrical release. [Ed. note: It’s premiering at SXSW.] It’s really beautiful because everything’s in slow motion but the interviews. It’s interesting what you see when you slow the roll down.

Dave Black's cover shot

How did you meet the guys who made this film again?
Dave did the cover photo on this record. He’s been a friend of mine for a long time. He did all of our press shots over the years, and he went on tour with us for a while to document it all.

But he’s never done a full-length film before?
No, just photographs.

So when was most of this movie made?
I was in L.A. for almost two years, and then I spent most of 2011 on this.

Have you always had an interest in sci-fi stuff?

And you simply hadn’t explored it before musically?
I’d done it before in weird ways.

What sort of ways? I mean, you’re such a rock guy.
I’d make [synthesizer music] to calm my mind down a little and be able to write lyrics:I started writing this record when I was still in Austin. I’m very slow with writing; in fact, my track record with this band has been a new album every four or five years, although I’m halfway through the next one already.

Really? Why the change? Did you find some inspiration that simply wasn’t there before?
I think so. Going back to playing guitar helped. Jonathan had a lot to do with it as well.

In what way?
Just by moving back into my old room. We moved to New York together in 1998.

You’re old friends then?
Yeah, we met each other in Austin. We went to college together.

Were you roommates?
No, but we put out a split 7” together.

What school did you go to?
The University of Texas. He was a little older than me, but we’d see each other around a lot.

What made him want to rescue you from California?
I was having an incredibly hard time finding work out there. I did a bunch of weird jobs.

Like what? Construction, things like that?
I did some construction, yeah. We demolished a porn site and constructed a kitchen for a TV show inside it, which was kinda weird. I worked at a lot of cafes. I worked at Whole Foods for a couple years. Anything that’ll pay the bills, basically.

So I couldn’t find work and I called Jonathan to ask if he knew anyone out there who might need some help. He brought up going on tour as his roadie, and doing a couple DJ gigs for him in New York. But things went kinda south with my girlfriend, and it was one of those things where I called him to say, ‘So about that tour…’

Was your girlfriend the main reason you were in L.A.?
Yes and no. I always wanted to live there, actually. In fact, even when Josh and I first lived in New York, we’d tell people we were from L.A. because it was so uncool.

So did you just pack up your guitar and a little suitcase and move back with Jonathan?
Yeah, and we spent two weeks driving back, which was a great way to decompress. I don’t think I would have made the record, had he not picked me up.

You would have just went from odd job to odd job instead?
I don’t know. I just wasn’t thinking of putting out a record before that.

What was making the movie like?
It was a lot like going on tour–the coolest tour ever basically. I remember my ex-girlfriend’s dad made an incredible documentary called San Francisco Good Times where he pretty much did everything himself:I was kinda nervous about all of it because I’d gone to school for audio production but I’d never gotten the chance to apply it before. But anyway, he told me that when you start paying attention to the conversations is when you fuck up because you’re not paying attention to the sound itself. So it’s kinda weird. The wild thing is I don’t remember any of the interviews because I was just paying attention to the actual sound. I realized after the first interview that if I fuck this up, there’s no going back.

Did you realize how serious he was about this project when you first signed on?
Yeah. He originally was going to make a movie, and he asked me to star in it–to be the bad guy. This was before we did the D.A. stuff. But I bailed at the last minute because I didn’t feel like I’d be good in front of the camera and I didn’t want to fuck it up for everyone else.

And what’s the status of the D.A. footage?
There’s a portion of it online. If you look up “Dallas Acid,” a video should pop up.

Do you think you’ll release an edited version of the sci-fi film you did together?
Well the ending is so incredible. Eventually we’re gonna finish it.

You should wait for the documentary to take off so you can work on the rest with a real budget.
Maybe. Some people were talking about releasing it as a DVD but we got sidetracked with our other projects. There’s plenty of time though.

How did you find the locations for the documentary?
He mapped out a few that he wanted to hit, but for the most part, we just drove blindly and came across everything on our own. It was a really strange trip. I mean, it was amazing–like going on tour with your ears and eyes open.

Where was the D.A. footage shot?
Up in the mountains of Humboldt County, and in the desert outside Nevada. We stayed in this great hotel where they filmed a portion of a David Lynch film–Blue Velvet, I think. [Ed. note: Turns out it was ‘Lost Highway’.] We stayed in Red Skelton’s favorite room, which was super freaky. All of the walls were painted with circus performers. And it was owned by [Marta Becket] who has a theater next door where she puts on puppet shows every Saturday. But yeah, we were out in the desert, walking around, not realizing they were having one of the worst sandstorms they’d had in a while. We just figured that was the way things are out there because of what you see on TV.

You said you went to school for sound editing. Is that what you originally wanted to do?
No, I pretty much moved to Austin to play music.

Why did you go to school at all then?
Because I was the first person in my family to go to college. I figured I might as well take the opportunity to do it if I have it. College was easy for me outside of some of the cinema courses Jonathan coaxed me into. We were study partners basically.

Is that how you met?
No, we met through doing shows. It just so happened that we were in some of the same classes.

Do you come from a big family?
No, I’m an only child. The outside family is big though, especially on my mother’s side.

And they all have roots in Texas?
On my mom’s side, yeah.

Do you take offense to people who stereotype Texas?
No, because a lot of it’s true [laughs].

Did you grow up in Austin?
No, I grew up in a small military suburb called Copperas Cove. It’s kinda by Waco. Like I went to the Waco standoff.

You saw that?
Well it was 20 minutes away. They wouldn’t let you get too close but we all drove out there to see what was going on. It was completely fucked up on all levels.

How old were you then?
A sophomore or junior in high school.

So old enough to realize what you were witnessing.
Yeah:All I did was skate all the time. I met a lot of people through that, like these two German kids. Their mother married a U.S. army soldier guy, and they were basically like my older brothers. They definitely had a lot of different ideas about the world–much more different than most people in Copperas Cove.

In what ways?
Just not necessarily:it was the time of yellow ribbons. When you grow up living on a military base at the same time as Rambo it’s:

Photo courtesy of VietNam

Since you were a military kid, did you have to move around a lot?
I grew up in Germany, but yeah, I moved around a lot. I was born in Kentucky, moved to Germany and was there until first grade, then we moved to Copperas Cove and I was there from first grade through some of high school. Then we were in Alabama for a year, and Germany again. The U.S. had just bombed Libya during the second tour of Germany, and terrorists were blowing up nightclubs all around the base. Two tanks would cover the road as you walked to school in case there was a car bombing. And there were dudes with M16s and grenade launchers, but you know, at that time I was into G.I. Joe so I thought it was really cool. I was nervous subconsciously though.

Did those experiences–seeing what war does to people first hand–make you and your father feel less patriotic, or more patriotic?
Not less or more; it was about the same. It definitely shaped a lot of how I view things now. I remember my dad always saying, ‘You can’t stop doing what you do or they win.’ I think those are good words of advice for what’s gone on the last 10 years as well.

Is the name of the band a deliberate reference to the Vietnam War?
Yeah. Josh’s dad was in the Vietnam War, and my dad did two tours there. It’s kinda the last dirty word in the dictionary, you know?

Did you and Josh bond over that?
Not really. We thought it was a cool band name, and it’s taken on a bunch of different meanings since then. It’s funny; right before I moved to Austin and the band was even called VietNam, we played our first show here with Eleanor from Fiery Furnaces. Jonathan played guitar then. I had a week to pull everything together because she asked me right before I moved to focus on this:It made more sense for us to move down to Austin and focus on the band:We had quite a big band back then, but then Josh and I bolted, and moved to Philly. A lot of people didn’t like us there, in the City of Brotherly Shove. I love it there though. I’m going there this weekend actually.

Is Eleanor an old friend too?
Yeah, we had an audio class–our first weed-out course–together.

What do you mean by ‘weed out’?
Well it was 300 or so people in an auditorium, deciding what specialized line they would follow–television, radio or film. I remember the teacher said, ‘Who wants to be a director?’ and there was a sea of hands. And then he said, ‘Okay, now who wants to be on TV?’ and there were like 15 hands. And finally he asked who wanted to be in radio, and just Eleanor and I raised our hands. I didn’t really know her that well then though. I didn’t know her until she moved here, really. I’d jam with her on the Fiery Furnaces stuff and she’d jam with me.

When did Vice decide to sign you?
That was when we were living in Philly.

You seem like such a transient person.
If I don’t like a place, I leave within a year, and if I do like a place, I usually leave within three years. New York’s the only place I’ve consistently ended up in, though.

How long have you been here this time around?
About a year and a half.

So you’ve got another year and a half until you’re gone again?
Jonathan always gives me shit about that. I’m already thinking about it.

Where are you going to go?
Well, I want to go to Europe. I’d love to go to Sweden, and I’ve love to go to Paris. I haven’t been to Berlin since the Wall went down, either. So I think it’d be interesting to go back. There’s tons of places I’d live. There’s Nashville; there’s New Orleans, although I’m saving that for when I’m old.

Why is that?
It seems like a good place to die, a place to have a nice balcony and look down at what happened the night before with a coffee in your hand…Philly is so close and so cheap, so that’s always in the back of my mind too. My friend Jamie and I moved out to Amish country, Pennsylvania for about a year.

Closer to Harrisburg. That’s where Josh lives now.

Does it feel weird playing without him?
I don’t know; we’re still good friends.

Is the door open for him to collaborate in the future?
Sure, but at the same time, the people I’m playing with now have definitely put their time in. I wasn’t even going to keep the name, just out of respect [to Josh].

What was it like living in Amish country?
For the first week, people hated us.

Couldn’t you just fake it with your beard?
No, they knew. It was really weird, like walking through a Bruce Springsteen song, where you can either work at the state school nearby or the toilet factory. I tried to get a job at the local record store but they said I’d scare the customers away.

When was this?
Right before our tour for Vice. It was strange out there…Within the first week, we were banned from every bar and basically trapped inside the house. The day Bush got reelected was the first day of the tour if that helps put it into perspective at all…I was working at this weird Persian rug shop for this Israeli dude with dementia and frostbitten fingers. It was really wild. He’d take me out once a week to eat at Friday’s because he was worried about me.

You and your weird jobs.
I was a porn extra in L.A. too; that was my first job there.

In the background, or an ‘extra’ extra?
Just in the background; like in one, I was a cello player, and this girl was celebrating her anniversary by having sex with all of the hors d’Å“uvre guys. And there was one called Cocks on a Plane where they said, ‘Turbulence!’ and I had to be like, ‘Woah!’

How did you break into that business?
My roommates were construction workers, so they built the sets and stuff. When I had a hard time finding work, they suggested being an extra. It was interesting actually–very strange, lots of working with weird, rich Persian dudes in the valley.

Sounds like you could write a book about all this.
Oh yeah. You’ve got to work on your biography man. That’s how I look at it at least.

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