Dances’ Trevor Vaz is not your average guy in a rock band

We talk to the leader of the Brooklyn art rock trio about their new single "Stretcher".

Not just another long-haired white kid in a rock band, Dances’ Trevor Vaz brings paranoia, love and New York stories to his band’s wide-eyed approach to rock and roll. In a pop world increasingly dominated by basement producers, algorithms and aggressive marketing, Dances are architects of Brit-pop, psych-rock influenced soundscapes that conceal Vaz’s intimate personal stories.

The band’s latest single “Stretcher” (premiered below with exquisite, mechanical-bull-featuring video) is an exploration of Vaz’s New York City childhood and his understanding of art as an essential process, not a vehicle for the pursuit of fame, cash or cars. Photography by @guari1x.

Talk us through “Stretcher”.

I wrote it all at once. I didn’t go back and change anything, there were no edits. The lyrics, the chords, the melody – they all happened at the same time. That rarely happens.

I didn’t feel all that emotional at the time, but when I first played the song the whole way through, I got to the third verse and I started crying. It felt like such a cathartic experience. It might be because it’s true to life. It’s an honest song with a balance of abstract and literal references in the lyrics.

What do you think prompted such a strong emotional reaction?

Well the lyrics are “I was raised in parking lots / windows up with the doors locked / I was raised in subway cars / taking me downtown”. As I was singing those lyrics I kind of broke my own heart.

My Dad lives in New Jersey and I had a very weird childhood going to visit him and there were a lot of trips to Costco and getting left in the car and waiting for what felt like hours and having nothing to do. I felt like I was on an island.

The other side to it was living in New York City and the adventure of being a kid and being nine or ten and taking the subway by myself. I lived on the Lower West Side and went to High School 45 minutes away so I spent a lot of time on my own discovering music and reading books and writing and experiencing on the train. A combination of those two scenes for some reason feels like it’s at the very core of my personality.

Did you feel like that was the first time you addressed that part of your life?

Yeah, I never really wrote that much about my childhood or anything like that. But the song is also about expectations and failed expectations and thinking when I was 13 that by the time I was 18 I was going to be a very famous musician.

That follows on quite nicely from the previous single, “Washed Up”?

The whole record [Venus Figurine] is about making art and changing your perspective on making art. It turns out that we don’t make art to be successful but because we have to.

But the album is about reflecting on that, realizing how wrong I was as a kid, thinking that it was going to be easy, thinking that it was always going to be fun and also just the nostalgia of feeling on top of the world and like you could do anything. The last line of “Stretcher” is “a drink is a time machine” which is a reference to the years that went by when I spent more time drinking than writing music or playing music.

Do you feel like nostalgia has an important role in music?

Yes I do. I think a lot of art that we enjoy is referencing older art. I think that the most powerful art brings us to a different time or a different place – not necessarily one that is real. Sometimes I’ll hear a song that I’ve never heard before and it reminds me of being in Coney Island in the summer. I don’t know why but it transports you. That’s nostalgia right there.

Or I hear songs from Paris. I’ve never been to Paris but I can imagine what it’s like when I hear certain music. Some of my songs I wrote when I was in India visiting my Mom. When I play them I feel like I’m in her living room late at night trying to write something really quietly and not wake her up. I think it’s important but I think you have to recognize that it’s not worth trying to achieve that. But you can’t make that the goal because you end up being derivative and making something canned.

It’s interesting how deeply your music is tied to your own experience. As a songwriter are you trying to tell a story or trying to encourage other people to explore their own experience?

I think my story is the only one I know how to tell. But it’s also a deep hope of mine that the story that I’m telling is relatable on some level. That’s why I’m not writing memoirs, I’m writing songs. I don’t feel like my experience is particularly important, but in a song format it can be interpreted to match somebody else’s. I hope that I’m not totally crazy in writing these songs and feeling so much and thinking that someone else could feel something similar. But I could be.

If I write something good that I like, the process of writing it will bring me to a scene that feels familiar even though it never happened. It’s kind of like creating a space. It’s very visual, music is very visual.

What do you visualize when you listen back to “Stretcher”?

I see myself living in a house in upstate New York by myself. There’s a big studio there and a big yard and I still smoke cigarettes and I have a dog or two and an old car. I’m starting to grey but not fully grey. I haven’t shaved in a while because no one’s seen me in a while and I’m making music that people are really excited to hear. I think that’s the life that I have been dreaming about ever since I realized that art was hard.

I don’t dream about playing Madison Square Garden. I’m a writer at heart, more than a performer, a player or a singer. I used to dream about playing MSG but you can wear it out. Those kind of dreams have a shelf life.

You’ve said in the past that you’re not a typical guy to be in rock and roll…

Yeah, I guess that’s something that motivates me. I feel like in some ways people are bored of long-haired white dudes, often from privileged backgrounds playing  music that sounds like music that has been made in the past. Or trying to write garage rock.

I think all of that has been done but the genre of rock and roll has not necessarily been done with alternate perspectives. There’s a lot of uncharted territory there. The songwriting format is still a really powerful means of expression and there are a lot more people who have a lot more to say who have been on the fringes of rock and roll until now. And all those people are kind of bubbling to the surface now.

Did you have idols that looked like you and had experience like you growing up?

No. I started playing guitar because I heard Nirvana when I was 10. I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because a friend sent it to me. It was around ten years after Kurt Cobain was gone. It really struck me. I knew I wanted to play guitar, I knew I wanted to make music. I didn’t know anything about him – I didn’t know what he looked like. I didn’t know he was dead. I didn’t know he was a heroin addict. I didn’t do my research. I just thought, “this is cool, I don’t care.” And then I slowly found out.

I remember being a 12 or 13 year old learning to play guitar and I took a photo of Tom DeLonge from Blink 182 with me to get my hair cut. The barber was just like, first of all – you have curly hair and he’s got straight hair that is longer than yours. He was like “I’m sorry kid, you’re never gonna look like this”. I was like “oh shit, OK. Well what am I gonna look like then?” There was  a moment when I started to try and dress like Jimi Hendrix, I was thinking maybe that’s my vibe. But I looked like a total fool.

Now I’m like “fuck all that” and finally I feel like I have something to contribute because I’m not trying to be Julian Casablancas or Iggy Pop or Lou Reed. I didn’t realize I was white-washing myself because I was raised in New York, not speaking any Hindi, not being raised with much Indian culture apart from the food my Mom would cook.

Do you feel attached to the Indian side of your identity now?

I don’t feel attached to it but I do feel curious about it. I’m still exploring it. I feel proud of the fact that a lot of amazing music comes out of India and there are a lot of musical roots in India and the music that is being made there is very spiritual and very moving. I really love Indian classical music. Whenever I got there and visit my Mom, I try to see as much music as I can. I do feel a connection to it but I also do feel like a tourist. I know that I have roots in those places but I don’t reflect those roots. For me it’s like I’m a Scorpio. I identify with it for sure but does it really say anything about who I am and how I represent? It’s hard not to identify with whatever you’re told that you are.

Back to “Stretcher” – the video features you riding a mechanical bull. Why? And was it fun?

Yes it was fun and why – I’m not sure. It wasn’t my idea. My girlfriend shot the video. We were in New Orleans together hanging out and walking around going to bars. There are a lot of mechanical bulls and mechanical gators down there. We were like “Oh man, I wish we could shoot this.”

So we decided to try and find one in New York. We came back, did some research, found a few spots, called them and they all quoted about $500 for us to film the experience. So we had to do it guerrilla style. I was intimidated. I thought I wouldn’t be able to stay on long enough. I thought it would hurt. I thought I would make a fool out of myself.

But I think, as is evidenced in the video, I did a great job. I wasn’t thinking about looking cool, I wasn’t think about making a music video, I was just thinking about staying on this bull for as long as I could.

22 August 2018