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Interview: Ramesh Srivastava (Voxtrot)

26 July 2022

Photo by Eric Morales

Issue 91 of The Big Takeover, due out later this year, will feature an in-depth interview with Voxtrot lead singer Ramesh Srivastava by Jack Rabid exploring the band’s history and recent re-emergence after a decade-plus pause. But, with the digital reissue (vinyl coming in September) of Voxtrot’s first two EPs (Early Music) and harder-to-find material (Cut From the Stone: Rarities & B-Sides), and a string of weekend tour dates from September through November, we wanted to check in Srivastava and give him the opportunity to talk about the reunion with bandmates Mitch Calvert (guitar), Jason Chronis (bass), Jared van Fleet (keyboards) and Matt Simon (drums).

Voxtrot formed around 2003 and, to me, that doesn’t seem that long ago, but, it’s been nearly 20 years. Does it seem that long ago for you?

RAMESH: If it starts with a 2, somehow in my mind it feels recent even though, at this point, that’s kind of a ridiculous rule to use. Because I thought Voxtrot would never play any shows ever again, for a long time it did feel like ancient history. I couldn’t remember so much of the stuff that happened. But then as we started digging up all of this archival material, and, of course, having now gotten together again in person and practiced, this whole beast is slowly coming back to life. And then it starts to feel not that far in the past, actually. It feels like, “Where has the time gone?” The time that Voxtrot was active on a national/international level was a pretty short amount of time. It was from about 2005 to 2009. More than twice that has elapsed since then. I don’t know if it’s because we lost a couple of years to Coronavirus or what the reason is, but it definitely feels like less time has gone by.

You’ve released Early Music and Cut From the Stone: Rarities & B-Sides digitally. And, I understand you’re doing a small run of vinyl that will be released later this year.

RAMESH: The main one, of the first two EPs combined into one album, has a 2,000 copy run and the B-Sides and rarities has a 500 copy run.

Are they limited because of finances? Because you wanted to make it something special and rare? Because you felt like you had to put something out so people would remember Voxtrot?

RAMESH: That’s a good question. Behind the actual chosen numbers, that’s just a guess. I was trying to gauge the level of interest and thinking, “This band has been inactive for 12 years.” I really can’t tell how many will sell so I tried to make an educated guess. It was like, “We have this many reunion shows that we’re going to do. If we can sell this many copies per show …” I had theorized that the one of the two EPs collected would sell much faster than the B-Sides and rarities but I guess I didn’t think about the fact that the B-Sides and rarities is more limited. They are songs that mostly have not been released. I’m really happy, the sales for both have been going well but the B-Sides and rarities sold out really fast. I think it was almost totally sold out within the first 48 hours.

With the internet, YouTube, and file sharing, is there music on the B-Sides and rarities album that truly has never been heard before? Or, has most – or all – of the music been out there is some form or another?

RAMESH: Well, now there’s not because the two totally unreleased songs came out as “singles” over the last two months. There’s no way anyone’s ever heard the original cassette demo of “The Start of Something.” That’s on there. I don’t think anyone’s ever heard that. No one’s ever, well, except for the record company, has ever heard the four-track demo of “Your Biggest Fan” which is also on there. I think everything else has either surfaced online or was released as a vinyl B-Side at one point.

Considering 2005 was not that long ago, was it pretty easy to dig up these songs? Did everything exist on hard drives or did you have to go back to a studio or a producer who had the masters?

RAMESH: No, it was not very easy, which kind of made it fun. It made it like a true project because Voxtrot recorded a lot of stuff on analog tape, almost all of it actually. So, those tapes, in the years since, half of them are sitting in this cabinet that I’m leaning on now so I have about half of them. The rest of them were split among previous recording engineers and Matt and Jason, who play drums and bass in Voxtrot, respectively, who live in a town about 40 minutes outside of Austin.

Among the band, we had this spreadsheet going of what songs would be the best track list and then once the track list was decided on, then it started the process of hunting the songs down. There were a few songs where it was easy because I had them on a hard drive. But, a very large number of them was me driving to Lockhart to get these tapes from Matt and Jason and then searching through a community of recording engineers in Austin to find somebody who still has a 1-inch analog tape machine, which is not very common, to transfer the songs. One of the songs we did have to have remixed from the tape because on no hard drive could we find a WAV file of the original mix. We realized that song, “Whiskey and Water,” the one that’s been floating around on YouTube for years, was mixed at the wrong speed. The tape machine at this guy’s house was slowed down so then when we remixed it for this, we put it at the right speed so it sounds very slightly different. I’m not sure that anyone can tell the difference.

I’m guessing you never thought, between 2005 and 2009, that you’d ever need to go back to those songs and thought that you should save them all in one place rather than scattering them around.

RAMESH: It’s funny, I guess, at the time, we weren’t precious about it although I guess I was precious enough to have all these preserved tapes that I have behind me. I must have had some sense to save things but, at the time, you’re just moving really fast. And then, like in my situation, when a band breaks up, it’s like a romantic relationship where you break up and you throw all the fucking photographs out into the trash. For a while, I didn’t even what to think about anything Voxtrot related so I definitely didn’t feel precious about it. Now that I’ve come full circle and I have a lot of love and positive regards for it, I’m glad that we have the archive. That’s one of the main catalysts for doing these vinyl reissues. Some of it has existed and has been on Spotify for years. People have the CD EPs. Some of it’s just on YouTube. We wanted to have a really good and remastered – we got them done at this place called The Lodge, and they did a beautiful job – collection of all this stuff that could be archived beautifully in one place for people to listen.

With this many years behind you, as you look back, which of these do you think best describes Voxtrot from 2003 – 2010? Were you a band that was barely keeping your head above water among your peers? Did you feel like you were a contender and just as good as your peers? Or, did you think that you were leading the charge and others were following?

RAMESH: I guess the bands that I can think of that would most likely have been considered our peers were The Strokes, Interpol, Bloc Party, and Vampire Weekend. I feel like these are the big indie bands that I remember being around. I guess, at the time, I had a little bit of a warped perspective. In the beginning, you are not a popular band so you have no context about that. You just play shows and don’t worry about it. It just all exists in this little carefree universe. Then, once it starts to take off, it’s just how it is no matter what industry you’re in. Gradually, you acclimate to each new level. You get to a new level and it’s like, “Oh my God, it’s so exciting to be here.” And then within a few months, you’ve acclimated and it’s no longer exciting to be there. Then you get signed and you’re like, “Oh my God, this is unbelievable.” And then within a few months it’s totally believable because that’s your world and you lose sight of the fact that that’s a pretty rare thing for a band to be signed by a label with a worldwide deal. If you think about the number of bands and artists on Earth, it happens to so few.

I can look back and chastise myself for being ungrateful but, really, it happens and it’s incredible but it’s just your job. You’re doing what you love and it’s artistic but you do feel like you’re competing at this very high level because you are. It comes with a certain amount of stress and it becomes an ego act to balance. It’s really hard to be in that position. I mean, I was only 22 and, first of all, you have to live up to your own expectations. Second, you want your fans and listeners to be happy. You want to retain that connection with them. And then, also, you know there are board rooms full of people on either side of the ocean who are meeting and talking about the thing that you’re creating and figuring out what to do with it. It’s really, really tough to try and stay in this place of total artistic authenticity while balancing all of those concerns.

It’s something that I, in some respects, didn’t deal with as well as I could have. I did the best that I could given that circumstance and I’m really proud of what we created. I certainly had an identity crisis of “Is Voxtrot a big band or is Voxtrot a little indie band?” What is the identity supposed to be once we were at that level? I felt very confused by it. In retrospect, I understand that position we were in is just so incredible and rare that all you have to do is just continue to focus on making great music and your identity doesn’t really matter that much. The music is what drives the machine. I do feel like we continued to make some great music but I also felt the pressure.

Was there a point in your career where who you were making the music for changed? Maybe because you were signed to a label, were there expectations that you were making the music for the label rather than for yourselves?

RAMESH: I definitely reached the point of confusion as to who I was making music for. I will say that even though our decision to make our self-titled record using none of the songs from the two popular EPs was a commercially controversial decision, we were making music that was true to us. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth over it so many times. “Oh, if we had just released those first two EPs as an album, it would have sold so much better and then we would have gotten a second record with the label and my whole life would be different.” I felt so burnt by the experience that, at the time, I didn’t like it. I had this really negative view of it. But now when I go back and listen it, I think it’s so great. I hear so much musicality in it, there’s so much artistry in it. I can understand why, commercially, it didn’t perform like an album containing the existing popular songs probably would have performed. I do feel like it’s a true expression of what we were experiencing at the time.

To answer the question of “Who were we making music for?” Now, having been through this unusual experience of being in a band that goes from not being known to being known, I see that the answer is that the relationship as the artist is really just between you and God. Not God in a religious sense, but it’s between you and the mystery of life that you get in contact with when you’re writing songs. You hear it all the time, the songs are just channeled by people. And I think that’s true. When you’re in the zone, it’s like the mystery of the universe speaking through you. So, if you’re wondering who it is you should be writing songs for, I think all you really need to do is look inside your heart and tell the truth about your experience at that time. Telling the truth always simplifies things.

What caused Voxtrot to break up? Was it burn out? Was it the label thing? Was it people not getting along?

RAMESH: I think it’s all of those things. They feed off one another. To be fair, the label was great to us. Beggars Group is a huge international indie conglomerate that has the power of a major label. They were so good to us, even if they were surmising that that self-titled album was not going to sell very well, they still gave us total creative control. They never forced us to do anything. They supported us right up until that record came out and through the touring cycle. Ultimately, we didn’t get picked up for a second record but if I was in their position, I would have done the same thing. The band was falling apart. The interpersonal relationships, I don’t know if they were broken by the intensity of the whole experience, the cycle of hope and then despair. I don’t know if that’s what broke it but it just happened. It happens to a lot of band. With that experience, now I feel very seasoned. I feel very available to the relationship I have with the band and accept that sometimes it’s amazing and sometimes it’s really hard work. And that’s how it is in life. At that time, I think we were just all pretty crushed by what had happened.

I have some college friends and former roommates that, when we all graduated, I didn’t keep in touch with and didn’t talk to for 5 or 10 years. We had lived in close quarters for so long that I needed a break from them. But, with enough time and distance, you can go back and remember what it was that made you friends in the first place and maybe not remember some of the little things that made you want to leave and never look back. Is that what it was like when you got back together with the other members of the band?

RAMESH: Well, we’ve kind of kept in touch, all of us, the whole time by necessity because we still have a small amount of streaming income and we do quarterly payouts and stuff. So, for the administrative reason only, we’ve been connected the whole time. For sure, right after we split up, I definitely didn’t have much of a relationship with any of them for a couple of years. But, even administrative duties aside, the ones who don’t live here anymore, if they’re in town, I usually see them and hang out with them and we have a good relationship. But, before the reunion thing started, I would frequently go out to Lockhart where Matt and Jason live. Jason and I have been hanging out frequently and talking more and more over the last few years. So, the reunion felt a bit like a ramp up into this. It didn’t feel like Stand By Me or The Big Chill. It’s interesting because you’re testing the waters. You have this fixed idea of what people are like and what life is like based on the past. Even in the present and projecting into the future, it’s based on this set of rules laid out by the past. “Oh, I remember this guy is like that. That’s why this is going to happen like this.” But it’s not always true because just like you’ve changed, everyone else has too.

You’ve got seven shows lined up in September, October, November. Did you build those dates around each of the band members availability? I’m betting at least some of them have day jobs and they’ll have to take time off work and it looks like you’re spreading them out so that they are mostly on weekends which keeps work vacation days in tact.

RAMESH: It’s funny because when I think about it, I’m like, “Would it be smarter to just do 10 dates in a row?” But, no, because the dates cover the whole U.S. so it would be a horrendous drive. They are for sure built around schedules. Two of the members have kind of 9-to-5 jobs so it’s definitely planned around that. In a way, it’s a lot of dates but since the only ones in the south are in Texas, and most of us already live here, it’s really just like three big weekends away.

Some of the dates are already sold out. Is this something you could see yourself doing a couple of weekends per year in the future?

RAMESH: I could see myself doing it if people wanted to do it more than just weekends! I have so much creative energy and I live for music so much. I could keep pursuing my solo career and then, yeah, sure, why not do some Voxtrot dates? But that’s not really how my heart works. For me, music is not relegated to my past. I don’t want to have a scenario where it feels like this hobby that is loosely entertained a few times a year. I understand not everybody’s life is all about music but, for me, I want it to be a thing that’s always growing. It should be growing in its quality. It should be growing in its diversity. To me, it’s a lifetime trajectory and, just like everything else in your life, it should be advancing and changing. I don’t think I would want it to be something that wasn’t growing because it would stagnate artistically.

Have you been talking about writing and recording new Voxtrot music?

RAMESH: There’s definitely been a discussion about it. I think it’s at a place where no one knows. That’s the impression that I get. I brought it up at the beginning when we started planning this stuff and then intentionally have never brought it up again in the group setting because I’m aware of the fact that it’s one of those things that feels like you should leave it up to fate. You put all this energy into this thing which is right in front of you, which is the release of the two albums and the tour dates which is a lot of work – joyful work – and organization. You know that once you actually get on stage and do this whole thing again, then I think everyone will kind of know at the end of that if they’ll want to record again. There’s excitement about it but also uncertainty. I think time is going to deliver the answer to us.

 

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