Progressive metal is a constantly evolving scene, and with so many bands each trying to climb to the top, it can be difficult to stand out. Enter Vangough, a US progressive metal band that takes a dark melodic sensibility and cynical atmosphere to heart. First impressing me in 2009 with their debut “Manikin Parade”, Vangough have now released their third full-length album “Between the Madness”, which has received a generally positive response throughout the progressive community. A big thank you to vocalist/guitarist Clay Withrow for taking the time to respond to these questions!
Hey, how’s it going? How are things in Oklahoma?
Hello! Things are so so. It’s cold here, snowing currently, and I’m ready to play some shows.
Firstly, I’m interested in the name of your band. What was the process of deciding upon the name Vangough for the band? Does it have anything to do with the similarly named and crazed painter?
It does and we came up with the name back in 2008 while we were making Manikin Parade. There was a band meeting about what name we should choose, and the idea came from the imagery that our music evoked- bold, raw strokes of color. Then I used an alternate spelling so we would not always get confused with the Dutch painter.
How did the band form?
It evolved from my solo project, which culminated in a record called Dissonance Rising in 2007. Right as that was out, I began working on the next project, which would become Manikin Parade. At the time, I was still playing with the “Clay Withrow Band” but working on Manikin Parade in the studio with Brandon Lopez, who would become our first drummer. He came into the studio to do his drum parts through the fall of 2008, which is also when I disbanded my previous project to focus primarily on Vangough.
If you could describe Vangough in less than three words, what words would you use to accurately convey the sound and purpose of the band?
Two words fine? Chemically unstable.
One thing that many listeners have brought up about Vangough’s music is the similarity or perceived influence from Pain of Salvation, a favourite band of mine. How weighted is Pain of Salvation on your music and art? What is your relationship to that band’s music?
I’m very close to Daniel and the rest of the band of course having toured with them as their guitarist in 2013, as well as spending time with them in Sweden. But really, as far as Vangough is concerned our influences were most prominent on the first record, Manikin Parade. As with any band, they are always influenced by their predecessors- I don’t care who you put in front me. For example, very few are familiar with the bands that influenced Metallica. But if you go back and look into it you can understand how closely they borrowed from their influences and still do today. Of course, in the tiny niche that is progressive metal, I think it’s even more incestuous. Most bands borrow heavily from Dream Theater or Yes, which surprisingly critics don’t seem to mind. But having a little influence from Pain of Salvation? Doesn’t work the same way. I’ve never understood this rationale personally. We’ve had most critics say we’ve completely stepped out of the shadow of our influences on this one, which I agree with. We’ve arrived to our own sound after kind of feeling around in the dark for years. Beyond that, I’m just not particularly fond of most progressive metal anyway. Outside of a few like Leprous and Pain of Salvation, I find it to be quite derivative and stale. So my main influences actually come more from genres outside our own- rock, R&B or whatever.
Compared to “Manikin Parade”, I would say that Vangough has pursued a more matured, song-oriented style of prog metal on “Between the Madness”. It feels like songwriting is becoming an ever-more important part of the band’s music; what is involved in the songwriting process for Vangough? Where do the initial ideas first come from?
We’ve gone through the phase where we attempted to “be proggy” for lack of a better phrase. That’s just a result of where I was at the time. And I think what we discovered after Kingdom of Ruin is that we’re just not that band. I’ve rediscovered my older influences while making Between the Madness- namely metal, rock and older R&B, which I think helped us arrive to our own sound. It’s far more sincere and honest. What you’re hearing in the lyrics are not a pose or me trying to sound like someone else. I can be a caustic and aggressive person. So anyone who says we’re trying to sound like this or that, well, say that to my face. Please. Because there’s plenty more hate and vitriol where that came from. I’d be happy to set the record straight with you.
The lyrics on “Between the Madness” range from personal experiences (“Afterfall”) to broad social criticism (“Corporatocracy”, “Useless”). Do you think the album has any sort of connecting theme, or was it meant more as a collection of songs?
There is definitely a theme- anger and hate.
Over the last four years, do you think Vangough has changed the way it operates as a creative unit? How have you evolved artistically?
Vangough now has its core tenants- myself, Kyle and Jeren. Jay Gleason has also been a huge addition. We heavily collaborated on this one and are much tighter as a core. In fact, we’ve made a strong effort to disassociate ourselves with the tropes of progressive metal as much as we. I’ve been trying to get rid of the keyboard and circus antics and just get to the core essence of music and songwriting. Getting back to what makes rock so cathartic and powerful live. More emotion and sincerity.
Admittedly, I can’t think of too many other metal or prog bands off the top of my head from Oklahoma. How is the scene there; any bands in particular you would care to recommend?
There’s not much of a scene here. And I’m not in the business of advertising other bands. But I will say Jeren’s other band, Cascus, are a great group of guys that I highly respect. It’s progressive death metal. It’s very energetic and worth checking out. Those are my close friends so I have no qualms passing them along.
Based on the cover of “Kingdom of Ruin” and knowing you a bit personally, I take it you are a fan of rabbits. Any sort of favourite rabbit? What makes rabbits so appealing? What makes them more appealing than hedgehogs and guinea pigs?
I think my love for rabbits manifested from my disdain for people. How about that? I see the horrible cruelty we inflict on each other and our environment and to me I feel like I’m obligated to help this creature that is put in a very unfortunate position. House rabbits are misunderstood, neglected and cast aside as play things. It pisses me off to no end that we continue to think of cruel ways to make other’s lives miserable. I’ve learned a lot about the species, probably more than a lot of vets, and I work very hard to educate people about house rabbit care. My passion and love for rabbits just goes hand-in-hand with my lack of sympathy for my own kind. I honestly wouldn’t mind if we all disappeared tomorrow. I’m sure knowing that, you’ll listen to our album a bit differently.
You have to be a strong person to make it in this industry. I would advise against it honestly. You have small-minded people who think they have you figured out. You have critics who review your music that really have no businesses doing so and as a result you get mislabelled to a bunch of people. It will undue all your hard work. Then you have the shitty promoters, managers, labels, publicists, etc. If you’re not strong and smart, just forget it.
Do you have any sort of favourite cheeseburger?
Yes. Here in the heartland, we have a restaurant called Braum’s. I’m here to tell you it’s better than all your fancy burger joints! Our meat is born and raised right here in our great state. And the 1/3 pound jalapeño burger will beat your burger every time. I dare you to prove me wrong.
Any favourite albums that have come out recently? Favourite albums overall?
The only album from 2013 I enjoyed, or rather gave time to was Leprous’ Coal. It took some time but it definitely got its hooks in me. I think it’s better than their previous one. There’s less proggy elements here, less power metal stuff. It’s very moody and atmospheric. I love it.
What lies in the future for Vangough? What do you hope to accomplish at the end of the day?
My goal is to make enough money to keep this machine going but that’s easier said than done. We’ll see if that pans out. I’m obsessed with my music. Just insanely obsessed. I can’t stop. When I’m trying to relax I’m working on it. But I have to find a way to make it work. Listen, we’ve been trying to get on tour since Manikin Parade came out. We even signed with a booking and management company to make that happen. Well, four years went by and not a damn thing. We’ve been on the sidelines ready to go in and crush it but you know what? It’s a hell of a business. I can’t count the number of times we’ve had our booking manager say he had an opportunity for us and of course we’re totally ready. And then months go by and it fizzles out. I’m telling you the truth. And I’ve never told it before. But at this point I put a year and half into Between the Madness and in that time I’ve broken down, cried, screamed and endured the death of my closest companions. So I’m just ready for 2014 to clear the air.
Wise words for the road?
Hmmm. What should I say? A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Words to live by.
Vangough on the web: