In Conversation—with Via Intercom

Thinking with Art: Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigo Delivers Teen Angst Laced with Tenderness and Irony

Via Intercom is a Brooklyn-based duo almost too real for their own good, generating many-layered music to accompany lyrics with multiple meanings.  On December 8, 2017, they released Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigo, an album I’ve had on repeat for weeks, and not just because the seventh track gave me a case of the willies when, alone, late at night, I listened to it for the first time.

The duo is comprised of Maggie Colgan on vocals, glockenspiel, synthesizer, and assorted electronic instruments, and Stevie Jick on vocals, guitar, bass, drum machine, trumpet, and still more assorted electronic instruments.  The two are joined on the album by Hannah Glass on violin, Adam Kane on a drum machine, and Geoffrey Genova on vocals in “City of Smiles.” It sounds like they stopped at nothing to get exactly the sounds they were hearing in their heads, creating their own original blend of analog and digitally-based sounds.

In a weird way the album ennobles the most awkward developmental phase of a human life.  There’s no guile here, no cheap attempts to guild the lily; yes, adolescence is hell.  There’s a narrative thread, voiced by Colgan, that never does resolve on its own, so you’ll have to make up your own ending.  The place where it comes from is a place of pain, but the music is so beautiful, the lyrics so authentic, so full of irony and tenderness that you want to jump in and join this bizarre little micro-universe and create your own story in it.

Luckily the duo agreed to answer our questions about the album and what it is about them that brought them to create such delightful work.

What were your early years like?

MAGGIE: I think I spent them in my imagination.  I was really into fairies and tiny plant people and toadstools.  I wasn’t good at actually being present; I’d walk around and see little people flying around or a mouse talking to me, etc.

What role did music play in your childhood?

STEVIE: I’ve played and written music since I was really little.  I would wait until no one was home to quietly sing and play guitar.  I recorded hundreds of clunky little songs on Garageband that I would email to one or two friends with subject lines like “UNFINISHED,” or “PLACEHOLDER LYRICS—” something to absolve me of criticism.  I think it was really important to be able to share myself through music, though, as sheepishly as I did it.

What was the strangest thing that happened to you as a child?

STEVIE: This doesn’t really have to do with anything, but when I was very young my parents left me home alone and I decided to go outside.  I remember this thing on the ground.  It kind of looked like a leaf.  But it had “evil” vibes to it.  I got a stick and went to poke it, and it recoiled into itself, like it folded up a little bit.  I moved the stick back and it opened up.  I did it again.  I never touched it; it responded anyway.  I got nervous and went back inside.  The memory is really faded and distorted, but I remember the feeling of something being wrong, or scary—an inanimate object reacting to me.  I still don’t know what it was.

Your lyrics and music have a surreal quality.  Is this how you see the world?

MAGGIE: I guess so.  One time I was in this short story class and I decided to write a regular, realistic story so everyone would just “get” it and I wouldn’t have to explain what was going on.

The day of my critique the professor opened with, “So, what is this world? Let’s define the laws of people and physics, since they’re clearly not the same as our own!”

Crushing.  Never doing that again.

What’s the story behind the song “In My Mind?”

STEVIE: “In My Mind” is from an early experiment, trying to write songs and text in conjunction with each other.  It was our first “Let’s write something together, back and forth—I make a character, you make a character.”

We returned to it later on in the writing of the album and decided to finish it.  Looking back, I think in many ways it set the tone for that whole little world we created, in terms of how the characters interact, what level of surrealism there is, and what kinds of drama and dilemmas they’re dealing with.  The stories are made up, but the feelings are representative of things we’ve felt in real life.

Behind “Helen?”

“Helen” was written more from a personal conversation I had with a friend.  I actually wrote it a long time ago but kept it to myself for a few years because I thought it was too simple and emotionally driven.  Maggie actually wrote a long introductory passage for it that we played around with for a while.

Ultimately we decided to keep only the first line: “Here you are, my tiny friend, my imaginary friend.”

I have to say I had a slight crisis of paranoia at hearing my first name repeated in such bizarre lyrical contexts.  Who is the “Wanda” in these songs?

MAGGIE: Oh, whoops.  That’s hilarious.  I honestly forgot that someone named Wanda might listen to these songs.  I think Wanda just is who she is—she’s not really based on anybody.  She’s herself.  When I write I just sort of sit around and wait for a character to introduce themselves and develop enough trust with me to get to know them.  But I look up to her.  She does a lot of things that I’ve never had the courage to do.

What’s your next project?

STEVIE: We’re working on a number of lyric videos.  We don’t have much experience with film, but we’ve spent a lot of time with the vibe of the album, so it’s been fun working on representing it visually.  We have one for “The Photographer” that’s coming out very soon, and one for “Only Boy” that’s getting ready.

In what way do you think music in general has changed since 2000?

STEVIE: I think people use more computers.  Consumers are more accepting, artists are more interested, technology is more accessible, and it all feeds into one another.

I remember hearing auto-tune and electronic beats in 2000 and being really turned off because it didn’t have the nuances of a human interacting with a physical instrument.  Granted I was eight years old and only listened to classic rock, but it took a few years to get a feel for how a full human could really show themselves through computer music.

We used a lot of little homemade electronic instruments in Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigo, and were especially careful that we were connecting our physical bodies to the electronic sounds.  That’s how I hope that computer music continues to evolve, involving more and more of the human with the computer.

Is your writing—or choice of musical genre—influenced at all by current political conditions? If so, how?

MAGGIE: Yes, definitely.  I don’t think it’s possible to make anything that’s not influenced by political conditions; how we live is decided by politics.  And the art I make is me processing, so this album is me questioning myself, the structures around me, and how I and my peers are holding them up or breaking them down.

I think the current political situation is just an exemplification of what was already there, so our work is more side-eyeing our age-old systems than reacting to the immediate administration.  I mean, what has really been going on in that sacred idol of white upper middleclass suburbia? A lot. 

Its biggest problem is not that the teens are bored and doing jenkem! I want to look critically at it, see where I come from, how I’m part of everything that’s fucked up in the US.

I’m thinking with art.

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