As summer vacation season arrives, it's hard not to immediately dread the rigors of travel — security-check congestion, speed traps, and, of course, escalating gas prices. Well, imagine that you're a group of four dudes who look like members of the Charlie Manson Appreciation Society and you've been on tour since October, getting hassled along the way. Oh, and the name of your band is VietNam, which may or may not be an incendiary political statement. "Crossing the Canadian border was the worst," says lead vocalist and guitarist Michael Gerner. "We got strip-searched and quarantined, and then they brought out this CSI-looking equipment to check the van."
Gerner seems pretty laid-back about the grueling, extended tour. "Maybe it's because I'm a military brat," he says, "but I'm very comfortable being on the road."
In fact, growing up in a military family also served to be one of the inspirations for the band's name. Both Gerner and lead guitarist Joshua Grubb have parents who served in the Vietnam War. Gerner and Grubb, the core members of the group, met in Austin in the late 1990s when Gerner was at the University of Texas and Grubb was kind of hanging out. After moving to Philadelphia and back to Austin, the pair finally ended up in Brooklyn in 1998. They played under a couple of names before deciding on "VietNam." Gerner recalls, "Our favorite band is Suicide, and, like them, we wanted a one-word name that packed a punch and had some significance."
The other members, bassist Ivan Berko and drummer Michael Foss, helped the band arrive at a signature sound — druggy, blues boogie in the tradition of the Velvet Underground and Royal Trux. In 2004, they released an EP called The Concrete's Always Grayer on the Other Side of the Street on Vice Records. The relationship between VietNam and Vice ended badly, and the band is tired of talking about it. The Vice entertainment conglomerate, which includes a magazine and a record label, has always represented everything hipper-than-thou. A backlash was inevitable. "I think it's died down by now, though," says Gerner.
A particularly mean-spirited review of VietNam's self-titled debut on Kemado Records in The Village Voice earlier this year seems to indicate that at least a little of that backlash may still be there. In the review, critic Garrett Kamps writes, "These guys think they're ripping off Derek & the Dominoes, but they're actually jacking the Black Crowes" and "Throughout, guitarist Josh Grubb slathers on the reverb the way shitty cooks use too much butter, sounding more like Eric Johnson than Eric Clapton." Ouch. Gerner refuses to get all riled up about the negative press, saying good-naturedly about the review, "That's cool. I think we sound more like the Rolling Stones, though."
The self-titled record owes its existence to an unlikely source of funds: Mickey Madden. That's right, the bassist from Maroon 5, the nice-looking Hall & Oates revivalists who are currently sitting pretty on top of the Billboard charts.
"Josh met him through a mutual friend," Gerner says. "Mickey was wearing a Moss Icon T-shirt, and they started talking." Madden came to see VietNam, became a fan, and ultimately their primary patron. He paid for them to fly out to Los Angeles and record at the legendary Sound City and Sound Factory studios with vintage, analog equipment. He helped get vocal contributions from indie chanteuse Jenny Lewis and production help from "Farmer Dave" Scher and Rick Rubin's protégé Jason Lader. Of the album and Madden's help, Gerner says, "It definitely wouldn't have happened if he hadn't come along."
VietNam also has some unlikely connections to Memphis. When Rolling Stone asked Gerner to name some of his favorite records and influences, he listed Three Six Mafia's Most Known Unknown. "I love their cadence and lyrics and their whole grass-roots origin," he says. Another local tie-in is their cover of "The Dark End of the Street," the classic soul song written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman in a Memphis hotel room and recorded by everyone from Elvis Costello to Dolly Parton.
"When we first started playing it live," Gerner recalls, "people would tell us that they liked our Gram Parsons song. I told them I hadn't even heard his version. I knew it from a Percy Sledge cassette that was one of four tapes that we had in the kitchen at a barbecue restaurant I used to work at back in Austin."