By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Bob Flowers.
If you’ve never heard of the term “Haunt Rock”, don’t despair – the oxymoron was affectionately coined by Virginia Reed’s former bassist some years ago. Necessitated by the band’s sound, the novel genre name seemed to be the only appropriate way to categorize their ghostly amalgamation of hardcore, folk, and dirge. L.A.-based troubadour Keith Hendriksen (guitar/lead vocals/organ/songwriter) began Virginia Reed as a solo project in 2003. Since then, the moniker has played host to what he calls a “revolving door” of collaborators. Their latest EP, Animals, which came out in February, 2013, featured Hendriksen (guitar/vocals/organ), Jim Goodwin (guitars), Lance Webber (bass), John Klein (organs), and Bryan Hamilton (drums). True to form, Animals tosses you into a sea of foaming dissonant guitars, swelling organs, and thunderous downbeats. Echoing above the din, Hendriksen’s siren voice draws you deeper into the fray. The eerie “Funeral Heart” is especially noteworthy – its gravity a stunning call to emotional arms. BTR caught up with Hendriksen to find out more about how Virginia Reed achieves such a gloriously raw sound.
Can you give me a little background about yourself as a musician? What brought Virginia Reed together?
I’m 31 years old and I’ve been playing music since I was about 13. I played in a bunch of bands – kept getting kicked out for whatever reason. The creative process is something that is very, very sacred to me, and when you have a vision and you’re working with people that don’t see it, it gets difficult. When I started Virginia Reed I was solo. I did a few demo recordings with a label and put it out and then they wanted more, so I did a record. But it’s very terrifying playing live by yourself! For a couple of years, I had just these backing tracks, but I wasn’t really happy about it. I wanted something fuller and to collaborate with people, so I asked a bunch of friends to come and play with me.
How long has the current lineup been around?
The current lineup of Virginia Reed has been around for about three years. We’ve had some changes, but the core consistent people of the band is myself and the drummer Bryan Hamilton, who’s been a friend of mine for over 10 years. We pretty much write and record all the songs. We’ve gone through four bass players in the past few years… it’s just, like, a revolving door. But there’s no animosity towards anybody else, everyone is still really good friends. Usually people leave to go do their own thing or leave to go get hooked on drugs… whatever the case is. I would like to say that this guitar and bass player are gonna stick around forever, but I can’t. Life happens, things happen and people want to move on you know?
You seem to have a very relaxed attitude towards that…
Yeah, I mean this is my passion. I don’t get paid to do this stuff. Or, I don’t get paid a lot to do this stuff. I work four jobs; I’m a full-time student and I just got married. Like, music is that outlet, that place where I can lay everything down outside – all that life stuff that’s happening – and totally lose myself. There was a period in my life where I was extremely controlling about the music, but I had to let that go because it just severs relationships with people, and what I realized over the past six years is how important the interaction between people is. I can’t get too crazy about it.
What are some of Virginia Reed’s influences?
I mean basically I can really only speak for myself, we all have our significant bands or influences. For me, ever since I was a little kid, a huge influence has always been The Cramps and The Gun Club. Just that sort of freaky, weird genius is something I can relate to. I grew up relating to the outsider and I saw those bands as outsiders. I mean, obviously they were a commercial success, but they really relate to the freak show of it. And, you know, singer-songwriter stuff. I really, really love Elliott Smith, I think he’s amazing. And typical bands like the Beatles.
But the thing that influences me more is just….life experiences. Like a lot of people, I come from a very unstable family background. When there is that much adversity going on in the house… the guitar was my retreat. To go play music, that was my therapy. So I guess death, love, loss, all that stuff is what influences all of us. Everyone that’s in the band has had extremely horrendous life experiences, but they’ve also had these really beautiful experiences and overcome a lot of tragedy. And that shows in some of our music. Words can go so far, but words with music is a little deeper in the soul. Oh – and PUNK ROCK! Yeah, punk rock and roll.
On Facebook it says your genre is Haunt Rock, can you tell me about that?
Our bass player is a VP at Warner Bros Records, and of course we don’t use that to our advantage, that’s just his job on the outside….one of his solos once morphed into this sort of “haunt rock” and the genre kind of stuck from there. It’s also an adaptation of a lot of the jobs that I’ve done. I used to write epitaphs, I used to work as an orderly in a mental ward. I used to be a social worker working with the homeless. There’s a lot of death around that so that kind of transitioned a lot into the music.
Tell me about Animals?
So we released that about a year ago. And every EP that we had done so far (I don’t even remember, it’s like three or four) were strictly about people. All the names of the songs had a person in it. They were all about people that we knew. But Animals was a strange transition. I was ending a relationship with somebody and I had just gotten back from spending a couple months in India, traveling alone with no plans, and I had this overwhelming feeling of embracing the animalistic instincts that were inside me when I was out there. I came back and I told Bryan about it and he wanted to stay along that concept, so Animals is an adaptation of letting go and letting everything out and letting that animal instinct out and…
Embracing your [Freudian] Id.
Yeah, exactly. That’s a good thing. Sometimes you gotta just cut loose and say fuck it.
One of the songs on Animals that diverges from the others in style is “Funeral Heart”. Why is that?
It does, yeah. I wrote those lyrics probably about six or seven years ago, right after my father died. And during the process of writing Animals I spent a lot of time in our studio and one day I was just playing the organ and I found this old notebook with these lyrics, and I was just screwing around but Bryan came in and heard it and he was floored. He said “that has to go on there, that’s a side of you that is never really shown and it adds to the value of the connection.” It was hard for me to put it on that record because it’s extremely personal. I try to keep a little bit of a distance with our music – try not to write so much about only myself – but it was just a really powerful song. Actually, I hadn’t listened to it in months and then I put it on just the other day and was like “whoa”… not to say that’s a great song, but that is definitely a very vulnerable moment for me. A lot of people get turned off by that song, from what I hear, just because it’s too deep for them or whatever, but I think that’s the point.
What is the writing process like for you?
I just sit down and write just start messing around and going all over the place with a guitar or piano. Then suddenly there will be that certain change where I hear something and it’s stabbing me. If it stabs me somewhere, I’m obviously connecting to something right then. So it is organic, but it tends to come at moments that I least expect.
So you write and then bring it to the rest of the group?
Yes that’s been the approach. I’m usually the one that will write the ideas and say this is the rhythm and how it goes. But lately I’ve just been bringing those to the table and letting everyone else figure out the specifics. Like, I’ll have an idea of how I want something to go and then I’ll bring it to John, our guitar player, and he’ll just execute it perfectly within like two tries. We’re all on the same level now, whereas before there was so much of a revolving door that I kind of had to write everything. The record we’re in pre-production for will have everybody in it and collaborating on the writing. That’s really exciting for me because it is allowing me to trust everyone else and that’s a problem that I usually have. It’s good to get to a point musically where I trust others; trust what they’re gonna play and trust that they’re going to serve the song and bring their character out in it.
What was the recording process like for Animals?
I did all the recording and mixing myself in our studio, so it was labor intensive. I was tapped into something and I just wanted it to get done. It started with the drums. We really wanted to get this crunchy, distorted drum sound and then build everything off of that. So I spent a lot of time really rigging and mic’ing the drum set. I think in the end there were only two mics on the drums, and I remember just really trying to dial in the right sound from that. Changing things and then going back, then changing them then going back, until we found the sound that we wanted.
And our drummer isn’t even originally a drummer! He started playing drums two years ago because we couldn’t find a legit steady drummer, and that’s how it started. He’s become a really awesome Bill Stevenson from The Descendents like drummer. He’s one of my best friends, so watching him turn into an amazing drummer after he was already an amazing guitar player and bass player – it’s really great.
What did you use for the vox on Animals?
What I used for the majority of the vox was a microphone into a distortion pedal into a shitty amp, then the amp was microphoned into the recording device.
At the very end of “Funeral Heart” there’s an especially interesting vocal effect, how did you achieve that?
I recorded the last line sung really fast into a cassette tape and replayed the sound, slowing down the tempo to get that weird tone.
Do you do those effects live?
(laughs) When I’m ambitious enough.
The new album that you’re in the pre-production phase for, any idea what that one will be like?
We’ve been throwing around some stuff. When it started out it was more kind of nightmarish sounds. Obviously, still very haunting, but as we’re developing as a band the songs are getting stronger. I can’t really describe it… it’s more upbeat? It’s a little bit more technical, I don’t know how it’s going to come out, but I really, really like the songs. They are a more mature Virginia Reed, which is obviously because we’re all maturing. I just got married! You know, we’re getting older. That reflects on the music. It’s exciting, but it’s also scary.
Do you think that “up-beatness” is a result from you getting married and being in a happy place in your life?
I mean, it’s going to be as up-beat as I can be up-beat. I’ve always created really creepy kind of minor-scale songs, so it’s still gonna have that, but I think that there’s more hope than despair this time.
Any closing thoughts?
I’ve been doing this for an extremely long time and it can be totally discouraging, the politics of playing in a band. If you want to play, you’re going to have to do it out of love and not for financial reasons. Not even one percent of bands out right now are gonna make really any money. You just have to love what you do and not expect anything in return. I play music because it helped me be the person that I’m supposed to be. I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life whether I make money or not. I need to do it, we all need to do it, just for the love of creating.
And congratulations on getting married!
Oh thank you. It’s really pretty amazing. It’s probably the most punk rock thing I think I’ve ever done.