VHS Collection is one of biggest independent bands in the game, balancing it all on their own, while still making the music that mashes rock and electro-pop together. We sat down with them recently and talked what it is like being independent, how they got their sound and more.
So you just came off the stage from playing Gov Ball — how did that feel?
James: Good. Good energy, live, awesome.
Did you feel the hometown advantage, since you’re from New York City?
Nils: A little bit
James: A little bit. People knew the words, and the New York City songs rung out well, which is good.
So you’re coming up with your debut album this summer — is there any we should expect from it?
Connor: Expect to be disappointed — no (laughs). Expect a lot more of the VHS sound, which hopefully you have heard of, a lot of variety of types of songs. A lot of hard heavy-rock songs, but then also on the other side of the spectrum, a lot of electro-pop summery tunes and everything in between, and yeah, we spent a lot of time on it, so we hope you guys like it.
You recently released “One.” What was your process behind making that?
Connor: We worked with a guy named Tony Hoffer on that one, and I have written the original kind of idea for the song, that I showed to these guys, and we went to Tony and kind of developed the song within the course of a week.
Nils: It’s a good process creating it, and working with Tony is great; it was a first experience for us and went really well. We were really pumped with the final product.
Connor: We kinda felt like it felt like a natural kind of balance for us. We always look for a certain balance of like synth and guitar, electronic and rock, and kinda live, kinda produced, and there’s got to be a balance of all these things. There has to be — on top of that — a good song that we kinda believe in lyrically and melodically. I feel like “One” felt like it was pointing that direction right from the beginning, but it definitely took us a couple weeks to kinda fine tune it into what it is today, and we were messing around with all sorts of old synthesizers and trying out all sorts of different stuff. Tony Hoeffer was the one who mixed it, and we’re really happy with his mix. I think people are responding well to it.
How do you find your style and sound? You mentioned ’80s pop and synth, how did you find you wanted to make something like that?
Connor: It was kinda a mix. We were playing live for about a year, before we started recording, and we only went in the studio having this vision for the sound, when we were playing live but never really achieved it until we started getting producing. For our initial EP, we kinda had bands we knew we really liked, and [so we] pointed toward that direction — like these rock bands that also have this dancey, synthy sound, and I don’t know, in some ways, it is just what came naturally to us, I think.
James: I say it was an odd confluence of events — it’s kinda three musical personalities that had strong overlap, but also strong differences in what we thought and were grounded in. When we blended those together, there was obviously a natural tug-of-war, a push and pull — no this is good, no this is wrong. The perfect mix of when we are like “Oh s**t, this is on spot” is kinda where we are in the sweet spot of a VHS tune. It kinda mixes the best of all three personalities, and it has become the core VHS sound, and I think we are honing in on that more and more, as we recognize what it is to be a VHS sound, and we are saying, OK, let’s even evolve that further.
Connor: Yeah, I feel like it has taken some time for us to actually articulate what it is, or have a clear vision of what it is, but we knew from the beginning. From the beginning, we were always pulling little bits from different bands. That might be a band from the ’80s or a band from today — a modern band; we might pull a certain guitar style or a certain synth sound or a certain beat form one of those bands. It is always pulling from all these different directions, and eventually, it formed our sound.
When you first started out, were all your individual sounds different and then meshed into one VHS sound?
James: We all came from a similar musical cloth, and we had also been playing music together most of our lives, so there was at least the commonality of liking the same music. We were jamming tunes as kids, and Nils and I were in a band in high school, so we at least generally liked the same music. But once we sort of lifted up the hood and got into the nitty-gritty of what we really like, we had differences in where our natural abilities and preferences would lay, and then at that point was when we mixed and matched. But yeah, there has always been a good overlap.
Connor: But I felt like we more or less had the same rough idea of where our sound should be pointing. You know some songs have started with an instrumental track that sounds like that, but some songs have started with maybe an acoustic guitar that doesn’t have any kind of production electronics as we develop it.
James: We were joking in the car on the way throughout the tour bus that you can kinda hear the style of when Connor was DJing for a while and I was DJing for a while. I was putting on some Cat Stevens and Meatloaf and some ’80s random shit, and he was putting on some cool trancey electronic stuff, modern stuff, and you can see where the natural stuff was lying.
Is your name VHS Collection inspired by your sound? How did that come to be?
James: In a way, I mean it’s a mix of-
Conor: It almost happened in reverse — we kinda came up with the name, as we were coming up with the sound. We never intended to have an ’80s sound.
Nils: They were two independent things, you know. It just happened that they described the same things, an ’80s vibe. But that wasn’t the intent.
James: We liked synthesizers and big choruses, and those happen to be things about the ’80s, but it is not just about the ’80s — that’s just great music. In 20 years, it’s not going to be an ’80s thing, it’s just gonna be a great music thing.
Connor: We never set out to do an ’80s thing. Maybe there were elements of Talking Heads or The Cure, something we like. But there was just as much of stuff from the ’90s and 2015.
James: We find it odd, when people are like, what’s with the ’80s thing, and also a VHS tape is not even an ’80s thing — it’s like a ’90s thing. We weren’t even around in ’80s.
Connor: I don’t know, there are definitely ’80s elements, and synthesizers we use from the ’80s and stuff.
James: But also a lot of our favorite music from the 2000s had ’80s influences, too; M80 3, LCD, you’d say that there is ’80s in all of those, so what even is the ’80s any more?
Connor: We like to really go deep in the production and play around with a lot of the different parts; maybe to a fault, they’re not always the simplest songs, but we kinda have fun making songs in that way.
You guys are independent, and you’re one of the biggest independent bands out there. How does it feel being independent?
James: It feels good in some sense, it’s like you’re always going uphill, but at the end of the day everything we have done for ourselves and our fans. We really feel like it is us and the fans together as a collective unit that has gone every step of the way. We are eternally grateful that we get to have our own repore with all the supporters. At the other side of it, yeah you know it is tough running your own business, and starting your own thing. You do everything, there is a thousand little details.
Connor: A lot of bands who have major labels will have someone who has been doing this for 20 years advising them on lots of stuff. We’ve had to figure it all out ourselves and try to make those connections ourselves. It’s been a challenge, but luckily we have been able to have some great people helping us, and festivals like Gov Ball are still in to book us, even though we are not on a big label.
Would you always want to stay independent and not go to a label due to the creative control you mentioned?
Connor: Not initially. Initially I think we kinda wanted a label, and then it didn’t just happen. So we took it ourselves, and it started to get traction; we started to build our relationships with all sorts of different people in the industry who were down to help us.
James: We felt, do we actually need one now?
Connor: Cause we finally started to see the benefits of being independent.
What advice would you give to other independent artists out there hoping to make it?
Connor: I mean, first and foremost, be very careful about the music you make, don’t feel like you have to put something out immediately. You know, we have a pile of hundreds of songs that we have thrown out — didn’t think were good enough — so I would say focus on that. Primarily be very selective about that stuff, and then once you do that, I don’t know, maybe keep at it, you know? It doesn’t happen overnight, and we got a couple of really great opportunities early on, but it has still been a long road for us, so we still feel like we have a long way to go to get where we want to go.
James: I would say, don’t assume anyone will do anything for you, you must do everything yourself. No one cares about the projects as much as you do, and also never forget this is the hardest working industry of all time, you have to work harder at this then you’d ever imagine. It’s strange sometimes, as it’s rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s music and everyone is having fun, but at the end of the day, you have to wake up everyday and put in a full hours worth.