I’m so confused about the weather, and nowadays I’m at least six degrees of separation from Al Gore and have no chance of getting the truth, inconvenient or not. The sun is high in the sky but the temperature remains low, and I want the winter that really never was to turn into a spring of boundless possibilities. I don’t know what to wear and everyone I know is in Paris for Fashion Week, trying to find out for themselves. I guess it’s the worst time to go to Le Bain or Le Baron with all those Frenchies having gone home for the spectacle – or maybe not. Le Baron has The Virgins tonight and that might be fun.
Donald Cumming has led and continues to lead quite a life. From the trials and tribulations of his youth to those that accompanied signing with a major label, the 31-year-old born-and-bred New Yorker has no shortage of stories illustrating his hustle, his hang-ups and his regrets.
Cumming’s cult band The Virgins—which loosely formed in 2006, was signed to Atlantic in 2007, experienced a meteoric rise in 2008, and continuously toured the world after that—has kept somewhat mum for a few years, but returns today with their sophomore album, Strike Gently, out now via Julian Casablancas’s indie imprint Cult Records.
In the interim since his debut, Cumming has overhauled his sound—essentially morphing from shiny pop to folk rock—and begun playing with three entirely new “dudes,” as he is wont to collectively identify his bandmates. Max Kamins (bass), Xan Aird (guitar), and John Eatherly (drums) round out the updated ensemble, which last month played an intimate set at Soho House and tomorrow plays SXSW. The remainder of March and early April the foursome will tour the US, and they can next be enjoyed in NYC at Bowery Ballroom on April 1.
Connecting with Cumming, who I’d feel more comfortable calling Donald, was particularly special for me, as The Virgins was the first band I ever interviewed. Last time, we crouched together at Highline Ballroom in the designated “VIP” section. Five years later we could be found at his studio space in the East Village—walls lined with blankets in an attempt to muffle their rehearsals—sitting on his beat up sofa beside an open window while he basically chain smoked. “It’s, like, my shame,” he told me, explaining that in part his shame stems from the fact that cigarettes are tested on animals and for the past few years he’s been vegetarian-turned-vegan.
He seemed to me to be in a better place, and said so. Married for two years to Canadian visual artist Aurel Schmidt, Donald, the only child who dropped out of high school, ran away, and did odd (and undisclosed) jobs to make ends meet, seems to have found his footing again. He was gracious and humble and open to talk. We caught up for an hour and a half, and what follows is the most meaningful, entertaining, and informative aspects of our conversation. Donald discussed a number of things, including his take on The Virgins’ audible departure, what he’d do if he didn’t have his music career, and how, despite a challenging childhood and professional woes, he feels ever so fortunate.
Tell me a bit about this switch. New members, new sound…
It’s been a minute. The dudes [and I] wanted to do different things. I love those dudes, those guys are like family to me, [but] we were ready to move on. We changed a lot. These guys, I’ve known them a while. We played together in a country cover band. When I was writing new songs, I started playing with these guys, and it felt really good. It just made sense that, since we were friends—we’d been hanging, playing music—they would be the dudes I worked with. It was a cool vibe; when we started writing new stuff, the songs grew naturally. It worked right away. I love these dudes and the way they play. We don’t have to tell each other much. Everybody does their thing.
What was the process of bringing the album together?
We’d been writing songs, started playing around the city. Because we had an opportunity to do a one-off, we had a single. We had, like, half this record written and started recording. We didn’t know who was going to put it out. We probably thought we’d end up putting it out ourselves. Through a mutual friend we found out Julian [Casablancas was] interested. We played him songs, talked about what [we] wanted to do, and he [told] us about the label. It felt really cool. The vibe was good right away.
Sounds pretty painless.
It was. This experience has been amazing. A lot of painful shit happened with the last album, with the label we were on.
What compelled you to maintain the name while transitioning the style?
The first thing I ever made was a demo in my room. I started giving [it] out and put “The Virgins”—I thought it would be cool to be in a band. Then, when I got a deal really quickly, I didn’t have a band, so I put the band together [and] made the EP. Things were progressing logically, except we had [signed with] a major label. When we went to make the record, a lot of stuff didn’t fit for me. It changed our direction, without us having control. We started having to deal with the business model and projected earnings and all the things that come with being on a big label.
It’s the name of my band. It was my name before the label, before the record and, after, it’s still the name of my band. When we started making this record, it was like going back to when things flowed naturally. We made what we felt like making. It didn’t feel like a change of direction. It felt like getting back on track. Personally, [“The Virgins”] doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s a name. I don’t have any attachment to it, emotionally or aesthetically. It just seemed like it would be more trouble changing it than leaving it alone.
Why the aesthetic shift?
For me, the music isn’t different. It’s just songs I believe in. I was deciding whether or not I even wanted to make music anymore, the conclusion I came to was, I’m not interested in doing anything I don’t believe in. It wasn’t a decision to change the style. I had to make what I wanted to make. I couldn’t have done anything else. If it throws somebody off, there’s not anything I can do. There might be fans that are like, “Oh, this sounds different.”And I understand. It definitely does. But, it just sounds like the way we play. We’re just doing it, and it sounds different. It’s not an ideology where we have to present a new thing. We didn’t say, “Let’s do it differently.”
Can you share a bit about your uncertainty surrounding continuing to make music?
Making the record with Atlantic was kind of crazy. I don’t want to go into it, but we all felt [that] wasn’t what we were trying to do. It affected all of us. Then we toured extensively. It was a strange experience. It wore away at me. I couldn’t identify with the music [anymore]. It got to the point where I was like, “I hate this. I hate this whole thing and I don’t know how to fix it.” So, I guess I had a bit of a spiritual crisis. [Laughs]
That was 2008?
’08 through ’10. Maybe ’11. It went on and on because we just kept touring.
Did you do anything else between then and now?
A ton of shit, but I needed to get my brain together. Besides getting married, finding out what means most to me, follow[ing] goals to their logical conclusions. There’s always somebody with an opinion, a reason you shouldn’t do what you want. Most times in my life, when I haven’t done what I wanted, I’ve ended up regretting it.
When I saw you perform last month, I kept thinking about Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. Have you gotten that before?
No. It’s great to hear. Everybody has their own take. So far it’s been stuff I like. It’s cool with me.
So, where do you like to play?
I love Mercury Lounge. I’ve enjoyed every show we’ve played there. It’s my favorite spot in the city. It sounds good. It feels connected. You’re sharing an experience with a room full of people. Obviously it’s cool when we play bigger venues, but the bigger the place the less personal things feel.
Do you become homesick pretty easily?
No. I really like traveling. It’s one of my favorite things about being in a band. Making records is amazing—it’s its own special thing—but the fact that you get to travel is quite cool.
And you grew up in Manhattan.
I grew up a few places, but I lived on Canal and Greenwich when I was a kid and, when my parents split, I [divided] my time between [there] and Astoria, with my mom. I’ve probably moved 10 or 11 times.
You have a favorite neighborhood?
I love Chinatown. I don’t live there anymore, but it’s peaceful and I like that. It’s gentrified, but doesn’t look like a mall. It’s heartbreaking to walk around the city and see how fucked it is. But, I love New York.
You’re a lifer.
Oh yeah, for sure.
Me too. So, of course this city influences your music.
Of course. All my memories are here and all my friends are here. Every place reminds me of somebody or something. It has an affect on me.
You didn’t finish high school, did you?
And no college.
You’re self-taught. How many instruments do you play?
I attempt to play the guitar and the piano. That’s it. I’m not that guy who masters instruments. I get by. Shit’s not sounding so crisp anymore, you know what I mean? It doesn’t have that pop. I’m not the world’s tightest rhythm guitarist. Any little addition to my repertoire feels like a big achievement. [Laughs]
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Getting back to a place where I [can] express myself and feel like [I’m] making music for reasons valid to me. I didn’t know if that would happen again and was prepared for that not to happen. I feel grateful to have had the experience [of] making this record and excited to make more and play with these guys. I just feel really fortunate.
Do you do anything else apart from this?
I mean, I’m not really qualified to do anything else.
If you couldn’t make music, what would you do?
Honestly, without wanting to be overly romantic, washing dishes. That was [a] job I had that felt pretty all right. But you can’t support yourself doing that. Well, obviously people do. I don’t want to sound flippant. I’m lucky to make music for a living. But, when I washed dishes, I had some good friends and some good times. That’s a job I look back on without frustration or anger. A lot of things I’ve done for money in my life I really regret.
[Deciding] to do something because I needed money, as opposed to believed in or wanted to, that stuff stayed with me. I’m not resolved. I needed money, so it was good to alleviate whatever problem I was having. But, I don’t have that money now. And those things are indelible. So, is it worth it? I don’t know. When I was younger, I avoided all work all the time. I was always broke. Beyond broke. No money whatsoever. I would paint myself into corners. If an opportunity came up to [make] money, I had no choice. I feel like it was cosmic punishment for not working. Like, you do shit for money you don’t want to do. I’ve got hang-ups about this obviously. [Laughs] I’m grateful to be a professional musician, to support myself with music. But washing dishes was a job I don’t have bad feelings about. I just got into tight situations. You do what you gotta do.
Did you receive monetary support from your family at all? Were you “privileged,” as they say?
No, not at all. My dad had a liquor store, my mom worked in an office. My dad was an alcoholic and basically went bankrupt. Closed the store. Moved in with his boyfriend. He was a committed alcoholic and died when he was 41, 42. I was maybe 11 or 12. My mom worked in Jersey, I went to school in Manhattan and we were living in Queens. She would take me, then get on a bus and go to work. It was tiring for her. When I was, like, 14, she met this guy from Florida and moved there. I went with, but didn’t get into it. My life was here. So, I ran away. I left home and moved back when I was almost 16. I had a little bit of money from social security—from my dad dying—and I started renting a bedroom from my friend’s mom. I got a job working at a coffee shop and was trying to go to high school. But I stopped going to school. I stopped working. That led to figuring it out. I wouldn’t trade it or change anything.
Wow. So, no regrets?
Only petty stuff that fucks with my ego and shit. I regret not going to school. I regret not going to college. I’ve always had to do shit on my own. It might have been cool to have a professor and be with other students, finish an assignment, and get feedback. I would have been down. But, I was way more focused on the opposite of that. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Switching gears, you’ve got a certain look. Can you comment on your personal style?
I only buy used clothes. I don’t believe in manufacturing clothes. It’s a drain of resources, putting all that shit into the world. I believe in secondhand. I’m vegan. I don’t wear animal products that are new. There’s definitely enough clothing on the planet, not only to clothe everyone, but [also] to stop fucking with animals, stop polluting the world, stop using plastic, stop exploiting people—all that shit. Like, I’m just not down. I could go on and on.
Didn’t see that coming! What prompted the veganism?
I bought The Animal Rights Handbook: Everyday Ways to Save Animal Lives by Linda Fraser at a secondhand store, because I liked the cover. I was already vegetarian and it was on my mind. I felt super guilty eating cheese and was like, “Fuck, I know I shouldn’t be doing this.” I didn’t know what was going to be “the thing,” but I knew it was coming. I started reading this book and that was it. I have never thought about going back. It’s not difficult at all. It makes perfect sense. It’s quite strange how willing people are to not give a fuck.
This week’s playlist is dedicated to being a teenager, which is something that people seem to be universally nostalgic for despite the fact that we can all agree that a lot of those years sucked. Does it have something to do with missing when you didn’t have any real responsibilities? Whatever. Shout out to anyone who knew me in high school who’s still friends with me now, because all the awkward stuff that happens to me currently doesn’t even compare to how bad it was back then.
Veronica Falls – “Teenage”
This track inspired this week’s theme. It’s the first single from the London band’s forthcoming album Waiting For Something To Happen, promising more wistful lo-fi guitar pop.
Broken Social Scene – “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”
This is never going to get old, right? No, no it’s not.
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – “A Teenager In Love”
Most of the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s songs sound sort of inherently nostalgic, but “A Teenager In Love” really nails it. If only more bands had been mixing twee and shoegaze when I was in high school, it would have made lying facedown on my bedroom floor way more special.
College – “Teenage Color”
This track from French electronic producer David Grellier may be carried by a carefree synth hook, but there’s still the constant reminder that one day, you must grow up.
Marina and the Diamonds – “Teen Idle”
This ballad from the Welsh chanteuse is a look back on the bygone years that nails all those conflicting feelings. Feelings! Those sucked, didn’t they?
The Virgins – “Teen Lovers”
Remember when fashionably sleazy Gossip Girl/Nylon magazine rock was sort of its own micro-genre? It was pretty alright while it lasted, though.
TEEN – “Sleep Is Noise”
The lo-fi synth-pop outfit delivers reverb-laden vocals over a rattling beat. It’s comfortably fuzzy while staying firmly grounded.
T.Rex – “Teenage Dream”
Marc Bolan’s glam rock sprawl recalls the idealism of adolescence. We’ve all been there.
Girls Aloud – “Teenage Dirtbag”
A Wheatus cover done by British pop stars is a thing that happened a while ago. I don’t care if you care that it exists.
The Undertones – “Teenage Kicks”
I think it’s some sort of law in the English-speaking music world that if this punk classic doesn’t do anything for you, you’re a worthless shell of a human being.
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BlackBook favorites The Virgins are having a busy year, having just released their new seven-inch EP Venus in Chains. The band’s currently recording their new record. More importantly, the New York-based band has signed on to play the first-ever CBGB Music Festival, a show that will take place on July 6 at Bowery Electric in the East Village.
The festival, which runs from July 6 through July 8 at over 20 different venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, will also feature acts such as Wyclef Jean, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, and Guided By Voices. Appreciating the other mediums that go hand-in-hand with rock ‘n’ roll, the festival also features two days of film screenings and a full day of spirits tastings.
Check out the full line-up for the festival here, and you can take a listen to The Virgins’ new single, “Venus in Chains,” below!
New York’s The Virgins haven’t released an album since their 2008 self-titled debut, but the group is starting to kick around new tracks in advance of a new record rumored to be coming out this year.
On March 5, the group debuted “Flowers,” “Blue Rose Tattoo” and “Slave To You,” three as-yet unrecorded songs, at The Encore! Sessions at Le Baron, the Parisian import nightclub in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Presented by < FORWAR:D >
The band themselves were thrilled to try out new songs before they had the chance to lay them down in the studio. “It’s cool recording a live show especially when you haven’t made a record of the songs—so thanks to Encore Sessions for having us,” the group said to BlackBook in an exclusive statement
You may have already been exposed to the charms of Anya Marina and not been aware of it. The Michigan-born, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter has not only had her songs featured on television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl, but has also had an acting stint in the film 100 Girls, a role which the pixie chanteuse had to appear in sans eyebrows. Her sophomore album, Slow & Steady Seduction, Phase II, was produced by Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Louis XIV’s Brian Karscig and, with Marina’s breathy vocals and sharp lyrics, is best enjoyed with a snuggle companion and a glass of something tasty in hand. Marina is currently on tour with The Virgins and Lissy Trullie, but she took some time out to talk with us about getting topless while recording, her Roman Polanski-inspired video for the single “Move Me”, and gender play when covering T.I.’s “Whatever You Like.”
When did you first decide that you wanted to pick up an instrument? Truth be told, I didn’t ever want to pick up an instrument. My father insisted that I take piano lessons. And that went abysmally. And then he insisted that I take flute and/or clarinet, both of which I failed miserably at. I just had no interest in playing instruments at all. I always really liked singing. I love melodies, I love sitting by my record player and listening to music. And I was always coming up with little melodies and singing to myself.
Do you have memories of your early attempts at songwriting? I never even thought about that until recently, but I used to walk every day on this little route, and it was only about five blocks, but I remember looking forward to that time every day when my mom would drop me off at this particular place every day and I would walk the rest of the way to school. I would always make up a song that would go with the beat of my feet, and I I must have been like, eleven. And every day I would write a new song to a new beat, however fast.
What was the first song you learned all the lyrics to? Do you mean a popular song? The first song I learned on guitar was Freedy Johnston, “Bad Reputation.” I just love singing it from my point of view. I’ve loved doing that ever since — singing songs written by men and not singing the gender when I’m singing it. I’m doing it right now with this T.I. cover I’ve been doing every night, and the crowds seem to love it.
What song? It’s called “Whatever You Like.” I’m sure you know it.
I read somewhere that when you were recording a few songs on this album, you decided to take your shirt off while recording. Why did you feel that you needed to do that? I think it was hot. It was in the middle of summer, and I had the entire studio all to myself, and the engineer was in the other room.
Can you discuss your relationship to Jungian psychology and how it relates to the song “Move You”? Well, my dad is a Jungian psychologist. I read a lot of Joseph Campbell growing up. I don’t know a whole lot about Jung, but I do love that one quote that I read of his, “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” I just really like that notion, and I just ruminated on it for a long time, and it got me thinking that sometimes the simplest physical task can help you out of a jam that your mind is struggling with. And then I started thinking about how physically, sometimes getting it on can help you get through it. Everybody knows make-up sex is the best, right?
True. So how did the video come about? It wasn’t my concept but I was thoroughly won over by the concept. Scott Coffey directed it and he sent me this treatment for it which was based on this Roman Polanski film Repulsion. And it had all these beautiful textures in it. I knew his work because I’d seen his film with Naomi Watts called Ellie Parker, which was so good.
The video is beautiful, and you seem really comfortable in front of a camera. Is that because you have an acting career as well? Is there anything coming up that we can look for? I started acting when I was about 17 or so, just trying to go out for things. It never really took off. I have a one-line role in this Kevin Spacey film called Shrink that’s coming out. It was at Sundance, and it was directed by Jonas Pate, who is an upcoming and fantastic director, and it’s written by this guy Thomas Moffett, who worked with Wes Anderson for years. He’s an incredibly gifted writer.
Your song was on the soundtrack to Grey’s Anatomy. Any other TV shows you would love to be associated with? Mad Men would be amazing but that’s highly unlikely. I would love Anthony Bourdain to have me on his show. I know he had Queens of the Stone Age for a Christmas special. But I think he only likes dude rock.
You were a radio-station DJ for a while, so I’m going to appeal to your musical expertise. You’re living in L.A. now. What are the best places to check out live music out there? I love the Hotel Café, and when I can get out to the Troubador that’s always a great room. Sometimes you can catch some great stuff at Tangier and I just played the Echoplex when I was filming this TV show Rockville, CA, which I am going to be in with my band. But you know what, I go out a lot to see more comedy shows. I love going to Largo.
Finally, say I’m looking to have a slow and seductive kind of night. What’s the best drink to pair with your record? If you’re going to listen to my record and get your drink on, I think a nice Beaujolais, and if you’re in the mood for spirits, a vodka martini. Dirty.
Hanging on the ledge. Swinging from the scaffolding. Rocking jeans and T-shirts or slipping into a ball gown. Anything can happen in a New York night. And hometown buzz band The Virgins are on it. See full gallery, and also be sure to check out our behind-the-scenes video. Photography by Roxanne Lowit; styling by Elziabeth Sulcer.
“Follow the hip-looking kids,” says I, as we navigate a maze of escalators and booby-trapped hallways (marked down Chanel can be quite a snare). “I feel like we are about to see Tiffany,” my plus-one replies, descending the escalator at Bloomingdale’s. Donald Cumming of the Virgins, oddly enough, feels the same way: “I feel like we’re Tiffany up here.”
I wouldn’t exactly compare the Virgin’s set to Tiffany circa the mall tour days, and though I’m tempted, I’ll spare everyone the Mallrats parallels (unless one can equate the cast of the cult classic to the likes of Olivia Palermo and Charlotte Ronson). The fashionable young assembly—holding martinis and sushi, bopping to the sounds of “Rich Girls”—was enough to make me stay put, even after the alcohol reservoir had been depleted.