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A Quietus Interview

Long Weekend At Vinny's: An Interview With Vinny Moonshine
Bernie Brooks , October 27th, 2022 08:27

Vinny Moonshine's Kevin McGorey talks to his friend and label boss Bernie Brooks about the eight year journey that brought him to his second album, Mass Extinction Fairy Tale, streaming in full ahead of release with tQ below

Vinny Moonshine pictures by Ian Rapnicki

Before we get started, there are a few things you should know. The story of Vinny Moonshine is one of arrested momentum, of false starts and recalibration. His new album Mass Extinction Fairy Tale, is a noisy slab of plunderphonic, bedroom dream-pop. It follows eight years behind his 2014 debut, Live At Waxwing, which was a tQ favourite upon its reissue in late 2020. Luke Turner called it “a gem of blissed-out, dubby, lo-fi pop." The small label I run with my partner Kristen Gallerneaux is releasing the former and reissued the latter. I am not, as they say, impartial.

That said, when Vinny's alter ego, Kevin McGorey, and I became coworkers back in 2018, I thought he had pretty much given up on music altogether. "I don't know if I felt like I'd given up. In 2018, I had just come out of a relationship, and I was feeling down, kind of in general. But I don't know if I felt like giving up," says Kevin. "It's like when people ask you, 'Are you still playing music?' I'm always gonna play music. It's what I do. But as far as pursuing it and releasing stuff? I think there have been times where there have been lulls and…"

"Retreats?", I suggest.

"Yeah, maybe retreats."

By 2018, Live At Waxwing had been out for about four years. In theory, anyway; hardly anybody had heard it. Kevin - formerly of noughties guitar rockers The Word Play and semi-known for his role as the pre-teen leader of his middle-school band Visual Purple - had dumped it onto Bandcamp in 2014, and promptly got sick. Unable to support the record, he fell away from the scene as a solo entity for a couple of years.

"When things sometimes don't work out for whatever reason, and you run into obstacles, it's just my natural tendency to take time to look inward and figure out what why I'm doing it, why it's important to me, you know? To just remember that," Kevin says. "And, for me, Vinny Moonshine is largely a studio practice. It's about writing and recording sounds, and that takes a lot of time. It just takes time. As I've said to you before, it's always like, 'Well, why even release anything?'"

I'd been friends with Kevin since the mid-noughties, but in 2018 I only had a vague inkling that he'd released a solo record once upon a time. I don't think I'd listened to it. Or, if I had, I hadn't really listened. But when I eventually tracked Waxwing down in 2019, it devastated me - its obvious dub influences, the overall sound of it, the songs, his brazen use of samples. Immediately, I knew two things: one, that it was one of the best records to come out of Detroit in the 2010s; and two, that more people needed to hear it.

If you're like my partner Kristen and I, there's a certain sort of derangement that sets in when you realise your friend and co-worker might be an unsung, skewed-pop savant. It's the kind of derangement that makes you think putting out records again is a good idea, maybe even fun. Fast forward a few years, and there's an entirely different sort of derangement that occurs when every copy of Kevin's long-gestating second album is damaged in shipping less than two weeks before it's due to be released. It's the kind of derangement that makes you question why anyone would put out a record.

In a sense, everything goes back to that question of why. Why do anything?

"I'd say, 'Why do anything unless you love it?'," says Kristen. "I think the thing that most simply sums up my ethos as far as the label goes is to paraphrase one of our friends, who is also involved in DIY releases: 'Do what you love to do with your friends, support their work in whatever way you can, and don’t lose your shirt in the process.'"

Our label, Metaphysical Powers, started out as a vanity press, a way to self-release Kristen’s early electronic music productions. By the end of 2016, it was mostly dormant. Kristen was determined to grow, to release her future projects through other channels. I had mostly lost interest. I played it cool, but now, I had a mission of sorts: I was going to reissue Waxwing. To top it all off, Vinny Moonshine was stirring.

By 2019, after some gentle urging from friends, Kevin was fully playing Vinny shows again. Turns out, as a project, Vinny Moonshine has had a strange relationship with the live gig. Though Kevin loves playing live, over nearly a decade, the sum total of Vinny gigs is perhaps just a few north of a baker's dozen. Despite that, and despite Kevin's assertion that Vinny Moonshine is largely a studio endeavour, major evolutions in the Vinny sound have can be charted via previous live commitments. For instance, a handful of proper club shows in 2016 helped Kevin explore the practice of sampling and writing, allowing him to develop a noisier, more intense sonic palette in the process.

"I was using [those gigs] as a way to kind of figure out what kind of story I was trying to tell. I also did a couple performances where I just had friends over in the living room," Kevin adds. "And I would sit there, you know, and have a PA and do it for them. It was a nice, intimate way to show people what I had been doing. I realised it was becoming a very personal kind of expression. That was a nice way to start doing it, because I wasn't really thinking about playing shows at the time."

Given that there have been so few of them, no Vinny gig has been unimportant, but it's no overstatement to say the entire history of the project hangs on two in particular. The first is the 2013 edition of the titular Waxwing, an annual get-together in rural Michigan. The genesis of Vinny Moonshine, it sowed the seeds for Live At Waxwing, which is, to be absolutely clear, not a live record at all.

"So, at the time, I had been learning and experimenting with the sampler for a while. When I was asked to play Waxwing, I said 'yes' because I think I missed playing music for people," Kevin says. "I had to get the set together quickly, so I decided to do covers, but of course, I use that term loosely. It was basically the sounds that ended up on the Waxwing record, but I decided to sing the lyrics to other songs over them, because I didn't have the lyrics yet. It was probably just a week of putting the set together. And then I finished the record by the new year. It was probably a couple of months just figuring out how to record it."

The second of those pivotal shows wouldn't happen until August of 2020, on a guy named Bob's porch, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before March, Kevin had been steadily building Vinny Moonshine's reputation as a live act, playing sets both solo and with a backing band, working up a real head of steam, but lockdown put a stop to that.

"Was it like getting sick all over again?" I ask.

"Yeah, it was, but in a weird way," Kevin says. "First of all, I was able-bodied. But going through the pandemic, it's like it broke my heart open. I remember – especially around the time that we got furloughed – just having this feeling of epiphany. The veil just fell from everything. You know, you have your everyday life, you're just going day-to-day, doing whatever, and then, all of a sudden, you realise that life is amazing, and precious. So, for me, at that time, it didn't feel Like a setback. I was lucky to not get sick at that time, and it felt very productive, reflective. And I just started writing, man.

"I feel like the lyrics on Mass Extinction Fairy Tale are pretty dense and different than stuff that I had been doing before. But I had started writing some of that in January of 2020. I remember that vividly because I was really excited about it. It was a ton of stuff - just like, every night, such a focus on words and lyrics. It was something I was feeling in the air," continues Kevin. "Honestly, it sounds weird to say, but it felt kind of prescient, you know? Like I felt something coming. And it was just pouring out. And then suddenly, when the pandemic hit, I was already on this track where that's what I was focused on. Like I said, I was lucky, I was healthy to write. But also, it almost felt like the pandemic elevated my writing in a way. And I mean, I want to be careful, because I don't want to use a tragedy, but it just felt more - I don't know if urgent is the word but I just felt very alive at that time.

"You realise that it's a beautiful thing to be alive," Kevin adds. "You feel the wonder of life. And feeling that, I realised that making music is something I love doing and I just kept doing it every day. That led to the Bob's Porch show, which made me focus and see how I could start putting a set together, and then from there, I started work on Mass Extinction Fairy Tale, which took a while."

Bernie Brooks and Kristen Gallernaux, by Trevor Naud

Earlier that summer, Kevin had sent Kristen and I an incredible, spare version of 'Capital Of Pain', an utterly heartbreaking and immensely quotable track that, for me, serves as the centrepiece of Mass Extinction Fairy Tale. Stuffed to bursting with words, it was unlike anything he had done before. Whereas Kevin's earlier work as Vinny Moonshine was concise, almost mantra-like, this was more of an epic poem set to music than a proper song. A fully fleshed-out world built around a few short phrases lifted during pandemic-era media consumption, it was impossible not to believe in.

By the time Kristen and I were settling onto a blanket on a berm across the street from Bob's porch – socially distant but surrounded by friends for the first time in months – the Live At Waxwing reissue was awaiting production, slightly delayed, as all things were back then. By the time the evening's Vinny performance was over, we knew we had to release its follow-up. It was supposed to be a quick and dirty sort of thing. That was over two years ago. But we pushed and prodded and pursued it doggedly with more than a sense conviction. Me, throughout the whole process, I was practically proselytizing. Preaching Vinny to anyone who would listen. But also, I was pulling out my hair. Because, for real, eight years between records is a pretty long time, huh?

"Yeah, I don't know. I mean, it was all important in developing where I was going with the project. I think Vinny Moonshine is the most personal expression of myself in the most developed way, and it took going through the process of writing this stuff and working on it to realise what I was interested in doing," Kevin says. "It's me figuring out my relationship to the world and my relationship to myself and the people around me and digging my heels in to that and being vulnerable with it. It's about confronting my own fears and doubts and neuroses and wading through that stuff.

"And I do think that the time in between records was definitely a personal and creative time of growing. But even making Fairy Tale, it was still difficult to - I think I go a little bit crazy when I'm on a record," Kevin adds. "Going through this process, and doing a record like this, it definitely gave me perspective. I feel pretty confident about how I can kind of tame the more destructive impulses that were maybe driving [everyone] a little nuts in the process of making the recording. I mean, maybe it's just that you have to go through the gauntlet. And everybody's different, but what was I saying?"

"We’re talking a lot here about these deep spans of 'the time between'," says Kristen. "Back in 2007 or 2008, Kevin and I] worked together for a whole summer, the sole occupants of a windowless media lab, scanning and levelling old architecture photos for the local uni’s art history department. One day, Kevin sheepishly turned up to work with a leaked version of The Walkmen’s You & Me. We listened to it all day. What brought this back was the realisation of a kind of charming full-circle moment. During one our moves away from Detroit, Bernie and I ended up befriending The Walkmen's sound engineer Christopher Colbert, who remastered that Walkmen album, and has now mastered the Vinny record. He was the obvious choice. Life is weird, man."

That question of "Why?" again. It's a tough one for me. Why have a label, and sink so much of yourself into something someone else has made? Lord knows, it's not for press, fame, or stress reduction. The economics of it stink, and we're not trust-funders. Maybe it’s because there's a lot of history there. But I think sometimes, when the world is falling apart, you just want to believe in something. Put your all into it. Plus, there's just something about Kevin you want to root for. Kristen and I are far from the only ones doing it. There's a longstanding, small-but-growing circle of people here in Detroit deeply invested, cheering Kevin on. And in this process of cheering him on, somehow our label became real.

Yeah, for whatever reason, you just want to see Kevin win. But even then, I'm not sure that's why you do it, not sure that's why we did it.

"Why even release anything? Even just saying that right now. I mean, that's silly. Why do anything? Yeah, you just do it. It's great! It's great to make stuff," Kevin concludes.

Vinny Moonshine's Mass Extinction Fairy Tale is out on 28 October via Metaphysical Powers