Vartan - The lies that soothe, the                                 truth that rocks

To hear a great musical hook can be something like witnessing something majestic, like the time in my childhood when I saw an albino deer run across the schoolyard looking out the classroom window on a typical boring day in Mr. Eckard's English class. One of those events hits your ears and it can fills your spirits for days with the wonder of something so new and captivating. It must be how all those listeners felt when She Loves You by the Beatles hit the airwaves in the early 60s. And every time you hear the song from that point forward, if you let yourself, you can immediately fall right back to the mood you were in when you first heard it. I had one of those weeks filled with a truly great rock song blaring in my head when I first heard Oh Well, by Vartan.


It is one of those rock songs that not only hit every possible cylinder musically but seem to apply to all areas of your life the whole time it's running thru your head, which in this case went on for quite the spell and as I even write this, it's back again! That was months ago when my friend Steve Ison threw me a link to this band, and I still love Oh Well every time I hear it, from the second those grungy guitars in the intro come out of my speakers and surround me. Eventually I got to know the person behind the song, a charming and funny guy named Vartan who seems so unassuming that I remember one of the first things I said to him was "Do you even know how good you are, man ?" Of course if you check out his page you will find out that pretty much all his songs while totally different from Oh Well are totally original and resounding as well. Lily Tries is another pop rock masterpiece, the lyrics profound and memorable. Vartan is just a gifted songwriter and probably the best thing I can say about his songs are is that they are fun and spontaneous like Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly, but make your feet move like the early Beatles, all within the context of an alt-grunge wall of sound, quite the combination ! Anyway Vartan has already had 2 number ones on the Kayak Big 50, which is as many as any other band, and he seems so prolific that you get a feeling there will be many more to come. So.. I had a chance to discuss with him just how these great songs came to be and some of the answers were surprising ..

Scott: Where should we start ? ok, when exactly did you start writing songs and when did you start getting off on the songs you write, I mean, do you remember when you first had the thought that you might be good at this ?

Vartan: Well, I still don’t really know that I’m any good at this. I leave the opinions up to everybody else. Sometimes things come out well. Sometimes they don’t. I just have always really enjoyed the process. Writing the basics then going into the studio and playing around until my ears are tickled. I started writing songs when I was about 12 or 13 years old and have always been in a band ever since. So I have a lot of experience. (Yeah, I’m getting old) When I listen back to some of the old recordings I did in my basement when I was kid, I am sometimes impressed by my own originality and daring, and sometimes I am appalled at my lack of sensibilities. I tend to plow through without thinking in order to stay true to the vision of any particular song I am working on, but that’s why my friend Justin Guip has been so great to work with on my new material. He’s engineering and co-producing my latest project with me at his studio in upstate New York. He has such an amazing ear for tonality and always pushes me to try and focus on feel. I think his direction is making me a better player in general. Not to mention he’s one hell of a freakin’ drummer. We’re having a great time these days.

Scott: ok, what part does your band play in your creative process ? Do you play live ? If so, I hope you put some versions up on this site, at least send me some bootlegs. :)

Vartan: Well, there isn’t really a band right now. It’s basically just me doing all of the writing and arranging of parts. And for the recordings, Justin and I are working closely together to really nail each part and refine arrangements. But I think you can’t have a solo type project sound like a real band unless you get other players on the tracks. I can play drums, bass, guitar, plunk a bit on the keyboards and sing, but when I do, I think it just sounds too uniform. So I call my friends and get them to come with me to the studio and do their own things on my songs. For instance, “Bye! Bye! Bye!” has a full band line up on it. Justin is on drums, Matt Daugherty is on bass, and John Robertson and I played all the guitars. I try not to dictate what I want them to do. We all have great communication and very similar visions when it comes to what we like to hear from ourselves and each other, so it’s just a matter of getting the fingers to do it.

Scott: This is a 2 part question. Referring to your song 'Till I stopped telling lies', what happened when you stopped telling lies ? And ... why not be a liar ?

Vartan: When I stopped telling lies……the truth came out. Truth is ugly. It’s not for the faint of heart. It can be brutal, disappointing, and even do damage to relationships. Nobody wants the truth. They might think they do, but you and I and everyone else wants the fantasy. The fantasy! It’s like the scene in the movie Delicatessen when the tenant is showing his landlord the Bullshit Detector he has recently acquired. He asks the landlord to give him some bullshit to show that it works. So the landlord thinks a moment….then says to the small machine, “Life is beautiful.” Instantly it goes off with a whirling and a little siren. That’s the truth.

So, everyone should lie. It’s the only way to make life pleasant. If you think that you don’t do it then you are telling yourself lies, my friend. But that’s ok, because it makes your fantasy that much more of a reality. Enjoy!

Scott: One thing I find really enjoyable about your music is that the lyrics really seem spontaneous, like you sort of throw them up there real fast and have fun with it, don't spend hours thinking them out. Am I right about that or is there a more involved method to your approach ? How long would you say the lyrics to Oh Well took you, for instance, if you feel like sharing that..

Vartan: I do try and make my lyrics fun. Though they may portray a bitterness sometimes, I try and show the irony of my own life through comedy. Mel Brooks said it best when he said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”

So, a song like “Oh Well” I think I wrote pretty fast. I usually get the basic lyrics down quickly, then I’ll hone them over time while I am working on the recordings, just to make sure I get the message across in just the right way.

Scott: Are girls the best topic for a guy to write about ? Do you love women or do they make you insane or both ? :)

Vartan: Relationships are the best topic to write about. For me, relationships I have had with women best portray the problems that I have stumbled across in my own personality. I can be selfish, disinterested, and mean. I can also be just the opposite: kind, caring and sweet. The real problem here is that I always seem to be one way with a woman when they are craving the other. The ones I really like and care for are looking for the bad boy, and the ones I am the bad boy with wish I wasn’t such an ass. Life sucks right? Right. So write a song about it.

Scott: Your song Oh Well is like an anthem of sorts, kind of saying here I am, if you don't like it, oh well.. It's one of my favorite indie songs of all time, absolutely. Care to tell us any anecdotes about either how you came to write this song or how you feel about it ?

Vartan: My friend John Robertson always gets a good laugh out of my lyrics. He’ll say something to me like, “Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?” Hahaha. Yeah, I can be blunt. That song really is an anthem for me. It basically takes two things that are important to me, women and music, and breaks it down to a level of resignation. And you nailed it in the question on this one. If you don’t like it, Oh Well. There’s a myriad of sayings about things like this. “You can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time”, or “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody’s got one and they all stink.” It’s that kind of humor that really puts a sick smile on my face.

As for anecdotes, well, I think there’s a line in there that everybody who’s ever made music will relate to:

Well, I guess I don’t understand.
Can you lend me a hand?
Cause every time that someone asks me,
I can’t describe my band.

Right? RIGHT? How do you describe music? I don’t know who said this but it’s a great saying. It goes, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It just doesn’t translate. I never know what to say when someone asks me what kind of music I play. In my search to try and come up with an answer for people I started polling the audience. Whenever I would finish playing a show and someone would come up to me to tell me they enjoyed it, I would ask them, “So what do you think we sound like?” And I always got pretty much the same response. Something like, “I dunno, but I like it.” Or “It’s original” So screw categorization. Well, ok, I see the need for it. I just wish that it wasn’t so. 

Oh and by the way, that’s Auggie Wilson of Mooney Suzuki fame playing the drums on that track. He and I played in one of our first bands together in 9th grade. He’s so super talented. Go out and buy their records! And mine too if I ever finish one.

Scott: About your song Lily Tries, is Lily based on a real person ? By any chance is she the same woman as in Bye Bye Bye ?

Vartan: It is based on a real person. Me. I’m Lily in this song. It’s me singing to myself. I chose the name Lily because of its negative connotation when applied to a man. Sort of like ‘wuss’ or ‘pansy’. I used to be very depressed and I still go through bouts now and again. I was just trying to comfort myself. If you take a look at the lyrics you’ll see how it’s not about a woman at all really. But “Bye! Bye! Bye!” Is most definitely is about a girl.

Scott: Do you believe in UFOs, had any strange experiences in that realm ?

Vartan: I don’t know if I believe in UFOs, but I do love to read about them. I was a huge sci-fi nut when I was growing up. I read tons of books from Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and other authors like them. I have never had a close encounter unfortunately. But I will always agree with Perry Farrell when he sings, “We’ll make great pets!” So true….so true….

Scott: Did your life have any big turning points you'd like to describe ?

Vartan: Aside from the usual dropping acid and seeing God thing, not really. My life has consistently been one big disappointment after the other. But don’t worry, I will channel all my bitterness where it belongs… music.