Longtime friends James Bohannon (vocals), Conor Cook (guitar), and Nils Vanderlip (synth) make up the New York City based VHS Collection. Much like their name, the band’s sound while giving the listener a glimpse back as charge forward with a unique and distinctive sound that is original while still paying homage to an era that introduced the world to indie music, college rock and what became alternative. The trio, together since 2015 have just released their newest Night Drive at the end of February to rave reviews. Childhood friends, the trio have had their music featured in TV shows including Shameless, Sunday Night Football, The Perfect Date, Fifa World Cup, You, WWE Raw, and Love. Vocalist James Bohannon recently took a break to discuss the band, the new album and being a band who were actually born in New York City instead of migrating there to pursue their art.
You guys have a brand new album out, Night Drive. I like the concept of the album. Explain to me how that came about.
Going back, how we used to absorb music as teenagers; the car was crucial area and zone. You would feel a song, get acquainted with an album, and I had done some of my best listening in the car. It’s kind of hypnotic and trance-like listening to good music driving – night driving. Part of that and Covid, when we released the album we were spending a lot of time in LA. You can walk around, but the only break you can get was going out cruising around in the car. So we would hop in the car and head to the hills from the city and listen to music and we were just sort of jiving on the concept of these nighttime drives and cruises. It was kind of like a little time machine in the car. You can get into a zone while in the car.
You guys are based out of New York City. Traditionally the three biggest hubs for entertainment are Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. What is it like being a band in New York City? It seems that a and in a small town can become locally or regionally popular whereas everyone traditionally came to New York to make it big. How competitive is it for you guys?
We never really thought if the competitive nature of it. We were just making music that we like. New York is an amazing town with a lot of venues, culture and vibe and history here. We grew up in the city. It’s a unique experience in its own. I don’t think we thought about how competitive it is here, we wanted to be a part of this awesome music scene here. So much of the history of music going way back – the 2000 indie rock days of New York – The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem and all those groups – all these different phases of New York music. And the venues are right there. They’re within walking distance. I’ve been going to those venues for years and years. I think when we became a band we thought it would be sick to play some of these venues. Some of our favorite bands did and it’s part of this cool story of how the tapestry of art and music and all the magic that is New York. And we’re glad to cut our teeth in the city and one of the most chronic experiences was selling out the Mercury Lounge – one of the first shows we actually did. That’s a small but awesome venue. I’ve been there a bunch in my younger years and getting to play there was pretty cool. I never thought about the competitive nature. What is interesting is due to the atmosphere of the at home studio setup and the combination of media, tech and etc., all the business moved to L.A. shortly after we had formed. Left in New York you’ll see a lot of the corporate stuff, the Brill building and all that stuff, but the actual production stuff had gone to LA. We also found a few years into this band a following in New York from the smaller bands. We were one of the New York City bands to get to know, which was pretty cool. So we got to play a semi active role in the New York City music scene and we still feel like we do. And our New York City show, which we try to do at the end of the tour is always the most fun one. Many of our family and friends come out. I can talk about New York all day.
We’ve been living through some very interesting times the last couple of years and with everything that’s been going on in the world, how has your band’s music modified since its inception?
The pandemic definitely had an effect on how we record and in some ways we write music. We travel a lot for a show but also for writing and songwriting retreats we do as a band. We’ll take a house somewhere and hole up for two weeks, just the three of us and do a lot of writing and all that. It was on one of those writing trips – it was like the last flight out of L.A. before they closed all the airports I remember. It was a little scary for sure. It changed the tone of the music. It was scary for sure. It definitely changed how we record. We’re kind of a spread out group. When we had to record I had to cancel our initial sessions with Tony Hoffer, who’s in L.A. We had to kick things back a while. Then we would go out and would have to test every day going into the studio, had to wear masks. I had to record bass and vocals in a separate studio. The whole thing was fragmented. We had to figure out a lot of it. I remember when I cut the vocals, plastic was hanging all over the studio and the producer was wearing a mask, and the engineer was wearing a mask. I’m obviously not wearing a mask while singing. It was definitely weird. The other thing that was weird when we did some of these recording sessions was we has to quarantine two weeks beforehand. We made three trips during Covid to L.A. In the middle of the night we rented a house and the producer and everyone on the team said we needed to quarantine. Don’t go anywhere for two weeks. Two weeks. After about day one I was like this is crazy. I was isolating but having fun too. We were getting to write music. But sort of like the rest of the world we are a resilient band. We figured out a way to do it, powered through and put together an album we’re pretty darn proud of.
I was doing a little homework on you guys and one of the questions I see you guys being asked about is your name, VHS Collection. You guys so have a kind of ‘80s style synth pop sound. My take on it is it has an earl to mid ‘80s synth pop sound during genre’s true glory days. Did you guys come up with the name before you started writing songs or was it a thing that once you started listening to what you were writing you decided this would be a good name that reflects your music?
First off, we had been writing for a very long time. I’ve been writing music since I was 13 or 14 on the acoustic guitar – just for myself. I had a big catalog in the early days. When we came together as a band we knew we wanted to play some of those original tunes and a few covers, but we did not have a name. But we all knew we had our own tastes in what music we liked. I like a pretty wide mix. From this point there was no ‘80s element at all. In the early days we would go to cabins in the woods and hole up and write tunes. At such a cabin in upstate New York we would go into the house and look next to the old TV and look in the cupboard. There was a collection of old tapes. Me, being an old movie buff along with Nils and Conor – a little less of – we loved checking out what movies were there. I saw the collection and it kind of came back to the room and said the name out and it sort of clicked. It really wasn’t even a debate. That’s a cool name, let’s go with that. And the more we thought about it, it really fit our vibe and we’re the last generation that grew up on VHS tapes and I remember as a young kid renting movies and VHS tapes, having to put them in, rewind them, the size of them, the covers and going to video rental stores, etc. That was a part of the movies and culture that we saw in these VHS movies and stories. We thought it was a good name. It’s a VHS collection – a collection of stories of what the band is. We kind of liked it. It’s a collection. We also like this idea of technology throwback thing, which is kind of a theme we play out a little in the album before this, which was called Retrofuturism. So that’s how the name came. In term of the ‘80s, we never in a million years thought we would have an ‘80s reference, be an ‘80s band. That wasn’t even in the cards. We kind of got painted into that. It’s probably from a few things. The ‘80s are awesome. We love a lot of awesome music and incorporate those things. And people I think take the name and those tones and feel there’s an ‘80s throwback element. There’s kind of two pieces: we knew we wanted an electronic element i.e. synthesizers. The synthesizer is a really cool instrument that puts out this cool sound that we wanted to be part of our sound. We wanted rock and roll with a synthesizer. The combination was crucial to us – sort of a common theme. A third element is kind of like exaggerated characterized vocals, which I’m the singer; they’re coming from me. There’s an ‘80s vibe there for sure. It’s like an over exaggerated delivery. I don’t know where that comes from. I think part of it is the music I always resonated with was the more piercing, more guttural, more characterized vocal, like Modest Mouse is a good example, and a David Bowie over the top enunciation. If you mix that with some of the synthesizers and you take the name, people will get an ‘80s reference. We do like ‘80s elements as well – ‘90s elements, 2000 elements as well, etc.
A lot of people don’t realize New Wave and college alternative at that point in the early ‘80s were the original independent music. It did not do things the way traditional corporate rock was at the time. Punk, post punk and New Wave were fighting back against corporate rock that young people were getting tired of at the time. You no longer had to write that three minute and out pop song and you had an explosion of young artists and a second British Invasion. You had all different personalities – more personalities than you did styles. The band were defined more by their personality than the style of music they played. It wasn’t disco or dance, while a lot of it was rock and roll and danceable music, it wasn’t tried and true to the way corporate music and radio were accustomed.
I think that’s right, and we always liked disco and early electronic house stuff and I think all of those elements with an indie flavor as well and confluence of those flavors do present what some people call an ‘80s sound – and the poppy stuff. I’m a sucker for a major chorus and traditional Beatle-esque chorus mixed with darker verses, tones and intonations.
A lot of stuff I read about you guys is that you’re a proud indie band. What are the perks of being an indie band?
For us, it means being an independent band since day one. We really haven’t had a manager. We have a booking agent, but most shows we book ourselves. It’s just DIY from day one for the band – just three buddies who had wanted to play a show for their friends. It really just grew from that. We’ve done everything ourselves – how to connect with Spotify people and get our foot in the door here and there. For us, most of the industry is not trying to help you in today’s world. They have things they need to do to capture market share, etc. We knew in our case if we were going to get anywhere we were going to have to do it ourselves. We did and we like doing that. We’re savvy guys and we like doing things ourselves from day one. We did release this last album with a distribution label partner, but we’re independent and do everything ourselves. We haven’t gotten any help from any industry insider.
You guys have played all over the place and have played some of the largest festivals out there like Lollapalooza while playing just rock and roll clubs as well. You’ve played in many different sized venues. Is there a venue you think is best suited for the band?
The 500 to 2,000 capacity room is the most fun. It’s small enough to where it’s sweaty and packed, you have a view of the crowd and you’re really just in the zone with the audience where it’s kind of like one unit. That’s probably the most fun. People are there and they’re staying there, like the Troubadour in our early days. A sold out Troubadour show is so fun being on that stage, being in the room where Guns N’ Roses. Elton John, you name it, played. It’s something epic about those rock and roll clubs. Even the whole process of playing a show. You show up at a club early, you move in all your gear. As a vocalist I have a lot of walk around time, so I’m checking out the stickers and scrawling on the wall, and the graffiti and the grime and smell of the theater, the history and funk and glory. You spend a day at the club sort of doing that and see it transform over the afternoon and evening. You see the first few people trickle in, and then you usually go off to dinner and do prep for the show. I kind of have my own routine. Then you come back and it’s like show time and the place has taken on this whole new light. It’s filled with people and there’s this hum. You really then see the club for what it was meant to be in it’s prime. They’re all ready and they’re all waiting for you. People say hello when you come in. They’re wearing t-shirts. That’s the best. There’s a marquee with you name on it and that’s cool. Best case scenario you can park the bus out front, which is super fun. Those rock clubs are just the best.
I read recently where CBGB’s was reopening. I was wondering if you guys ever got a chance to play there or if it is of interest?
Never played there. Definitely been there and thought they changed it into a John Varvatos store. I think I heard a rumor, too, that it was open. I don’t know how big it is. OI think it’s probably pretty small. I would love to play there. I think when we do our New York show we’re only trying to do like the next step venue and kind of keep scaling up. We’re on a trajectory here where I think we did our last show at Irving Plaza, which was super fun and probably do another room that size. I think we’re going to do another one-off show there and that would be great history there.
The new album is Night Drive. I was wondering how the songs came together for that album? Did you have a number of song written and decide it would make a great album or did you find yourself needing another couple of songs to round out the album and make it complete?
We have a ton of songs sort of in the hopper at all times – like 80 to 200 songs we’ve been kicking around. I would say there’s always a few we have at the bottom of every list that we really haven’t had a home for yet. There were definitely some songs we wanted to include already, and we had kind of six to eight songs worth of material we were really in a good writing zone. It ebbs and flows coming up with great work. There are times when it comes easy and keeps flowing. We had a great period of about 15 months where we turned about probably five of the songs. We did five, probably had three in the hopper and then added a few more here and there that came along. There is definitely no shortage of material. The pace of this album, we wanted to feel cohesive and kind of one body of work with one producer, playing them all together sort of the same timeframe and palate so it really sounded like and album. Other albums we’ve done jumped around recording a couple of tracks in the UK and New York. This one we all did in LA with Tony and it reflects that kind of cohesiveness. Like any album it has its peaks and valleys. It’s got it’s more rock and louder tracks and more mellow tracks. It’s important to have those dynamics in any album. It’s like a movie. It’s got to have its climactic action scenes. It’s got to have its love scenes, it’s slow period; that comic relief. The album has all those pieces. The cohesion is crucial, too. We wanted that with this album.
You’re also the band’s lead singer/vocalist. Was there a song on the album that you found more challenging than others?
Some songs are definitely easier than others. You know what’s funny? The song “Anyway” is a song that came so naturally in the writing process when we demoed it, but it had been years later that we recorded it sing it like I did on the original demos a long time ago. I really had to practice that song. I almost thought that one was going to be so easy that I didn’t prep for it as much and then we got in the studio and I had the most trouble singing that one. Other tunes came very easy and others more difficult. “Space Between Us” needed a lot of delicacy. Some of the verses had a melodic shift and were a little tricky. The others were pretty straight forward.
I understand as an artist each creation is your baby. You’re supposed to love all your children equally. Is there a song on this album or your entire catalog that you enjoy more than others – either as a listener or performer?
We actually haven’t performed this album yet, which is going to be really exciting. I know when I put on “Anyway”, it’s one of those tunes that kind of has this magic to it and I don’t know what it is. I had it on the demo and we restored that magic about 85/90 percent on the final. When we put that on, I’m really happy with that. It sounds really good – you know that flutter you get when you hear one of your favorite songs. When you get it from a song you made, it’s an incredibly rewarding feeling. It doesn’t happen a lot. I get that with a few of our songs, so I love hearing that one. I listen to the whole album and I’m pretty happy with it. I’m pretty self critical, but I heard the whole thing in the car the other day and thought this is a good album. I would say anyway is a favorite. “The Party”, I’ll always have a soft spot for. It’s a fun, soft acoustic song and I’m so proud of us for putting that on the album because it’s kind of random, very sweet and cool, fun song that we had around for a long time and wanted to add that.
The album came out in the end of February. What are you guys going to do? Are you going to rest on your laurels and go out and tour or does the songwriting process continue?
The plan now is to play a bunch of shows and get out there live and reconnect with our fans after having a long time off. We want to play some lives shows and then it’s back to do it – get back, work on the next album and the next few singles. We’re looking more forward than ever to put together another album and start the writing process. It took a little time to put out the album and enjoy and now it’s time to get back to the creative process.
– Dave Weinthal