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You can't keep a good band down. A chat with Foster C. Johnson on the return of Vegas DeMilo

13 February 2024

While the lockdown saw many bands fall apart, it was the catalyst for Vegas DeMilo’s reunion. Can you explain what happened?

Dave, thanks for giving Black Sheep Lodge a listen.

Originally, there was no plan for the band to get back together. During the height of the pandemic, everyone was essentially trapped in their homes for months. You could go outside, but if you did, you had to avoid other human beings at all costs because just having someone breathe in your direction could potentially kill you.

One antidote to the resulting stir craziness was Zoom calls. For no good reason, I texted a bunch of former Vegas DeMilo bandmates, and we started having weekly (and pretty boozy) band calls on Zoom.

Keep in mind that Vegas DeMilo had essentially been a kind of musical collective. The only two permanent members were my brother, Alec, and myself. Outside of that, the band had what amounted to several different versions. There was the version that made the first record. The version that got big in San Francisco. The version that got signed to a record deal and toured, etc.… There were eight of us who regularly participated in these weekly Zoom calls. At first, the calls were mostly about catching up and having a laugh. But—being musicians—the other thing that started happening was we all started to trade musical ideas, mostly via text.

Eventually, as songs started to pile up, we began talking about making a new record. The first vaccines came out in July, and by October of 2022, we all met in a recording studio in Austin, Texas, to start working on a new record. We all stayed in a big house there and spent something like a week laying basics. After that, everyone went back to where they lived (Seattle, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston) and the record got finished over the next year in a variety of studios around the country.

For me, the best part was that this group of eight musicians had never all played together before. It was fascinating to have so many different former VDM members get together and contribute. I think that’s why the record sounds so different (and hopefully better) than anything that we’ve done before.

The resulting new album, Black Sheep Lodge, also has a fascinating concept. Again, could you expand on that?

We wrote and demoed a lot of songs for the record. There were easily more than 50 songs that were kicked around in some form during the year that we spent doing pre-production. During that time, I was listening to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville a lot. It’s a record that has always meant a lot to me personally. When it came out in 1993, the record really captured a moment in time. When I listen to it, it takes me back very vividly to how I felt in my 20s.

I had always been intrigued by the concept of Exile in Guyville (which was essentially fashioned as a song-by-song response to Exile on Main Street) and had often joked with my brother about writing my own song-by-song response to Exile in Guyville. I started to finally do that as a writing exercise during the pandemic, and the songs that my band liked the most all spilled out of that. Our original plan was to make a record called Exile on Jane Street, which functioned as a song in response to Exile in Guyville. We did, in some form or other, either record or demo all 18 songs for this project. But as we got closer to putting a record out, it didn’t seem viable to put out a double vinyl LP. The time and cost involved just became overwhelming. Instead, we cherry-picked the bands’ favorite songs from the Exile on Jane Street album and put them all on Black Sheep Lodge.

The songs on Black Sheep Lodge come from a lot of different places. Often I was trying to imagine the stories behind the various characters in the Guyville songs. So, for example, “Imaginary Blondes” is very much written from the perspective of the guy who’s about to get kicked to the curb in Liz Phair’s “Divorce Song.” Other times, I was writing from my own perspective about what the Guyville songs meant to me. So, again, “Tuesday Night Fever” is a very direct response to “Fuck and Run.” But TNF is about the emptiness that the characters in the songs are trying to escape and the ways they try to fill that emptiness up.

The other songs are like that, too. It may not always be obvious, but there was always a direct emotional inspiration from the Guyville songs for the tracks on Black Sheep Lodge.

How did it feel to be back working as Vegas DeMilo, and does it feel like a new chapter of an old story or the first chapter of a new one?

Both. When bands break up (which VDM did) there’s always a lot of bad feelings. It’s inescapable. Being able to reconnect with my old friends and make a new record was a very healing process. I think we managed to put the past behind us (finally) and make a record that we’re all really proud of. If we never make another record, then Black Sheep Lodge is a very nice coda to the VDM story. If we keep making records (and it sure looks like we will), then Black Sheep Lodge is the first chapter in a book about being older and wiser.

So, what can the listener expect musically from the album?

The one band that all 8 of us can agree upon is The Replacements. So there’s a lot of Paul Westerberg’s musical influence on the record. For that matter, there’s also a lot of Wilco, a lot of the Hold Steady, and a dash of Springsteen thrown into the mix. It’s guitar rock, for sure.

And what about lyrically? Can you tell us a bit about the narratives and characters who inhabit them?

I think a lot of the characters on the record are lost or (like the rest of us) just trying to find their way through the world. One of the first songs that I wrote for the record was “Suicide Queens.” That song is about a lot of different things, but it grew out of the realization that a lot of the things that we love the most (drinking, smoking, staying out, playing rock n roll music) are the same things that are most likely to kill us. Those are the “Suicide Queens” the song is about.

This seemed particularly ironic during the pandemic when just breathing around other people (even friends and loved ones) could be potentially fatal. But even knowing all this, you still have to live. The bridge in “Suicide Queens” is my favorite lyric on the record:

“Won’t you meet tonight
In some downtown dive
We can lose ourselves
Just for a moment
We can never get back
All the things that we lost
But when the band kicks in
It doesn’t really matter to me
And Suicide Queens…”

That’s more or less how I feel these days. I’m going to keep making music—even if it kills me.

Like I said before, many of the characters on the record are kind of how I imagined the boyfriends/bad boys/lotharios in Liz Phair’s songs. That’s, in part, where the Black Sheep Lodge album title comes from. I might have a little more sympathy for them than Liz had in 1993. But that’s not to say that I’d want my sister dating any of them.

Are there any plans to tour the album, or do you see it more as a studio project?

We just played our first show in more than a decade in Houston last week. At this point, the idea is to do one offs around the USA. It’s hard to see touring again like we used to, but anything is possible.

Beyond the album’s release, what does Vegas DeMilo’s future hold, and where would you like to see things go in the long run?

The album has already been a success from my perspective. My only goal was to find an excuse to get everyone back together, drink a bunch of beers, and make music again. Mission accomplished on those fronts. Like a lot of bands, VDM has a tremendous amount of unreleased music. We’ve agreed to issue several archival projects in the next year, including California Death Wish, which should be out shortly and includes a lot of music from the tail end of VDM that was never officially released.

The other songs that got left off of Exile on Jane Street will also be coming out this year. And we’re currently slated to return to the studio in August to start work on our next record. We’ve been waiting for an Oasis reunion for years. If Noel’s not getting the band back together, then we may just have to make our own Oasis record.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, best of luck with the new album and everything beyond.