The first time I heard Via Intercom was at a house show in Queens. I had never encountered such a moving live performance in my life. They had this complicated set-up of home-made midi-rigs, pedals, synths, a glockenspiel, and a mysterious orb. Maggie was wearing a pop-star headset microphone, surrounded by instruments, as their spoken word lyrics and Stevie’s singing took me to another realm.
Via Intercom is as close as one can get to omniscience, as they describe experiences of a multitude of characters. (Many of which are named Johnny.) They create a genuine and idiosyncratic blend of traditional rock with a confessional twist.
The duo began playing together two years ago, and self-released their first record, Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigo in 2017. The album came at a time following their graduation from college when they were in transition between youth to adulthood. Post-graduation, they, quite literally, stepped back into their youth by spending time at one anothers' family homes while they worked on and toured with what would become Buzz Buzz. The pangs of angst and uncertainty can be felt in the stellar album.
When we caught up to chat, we ended up making our rounds between different establishments in Crown Heights. Somehow we’d move to each place as it was just about to close. Despite bouncing back and forth across Franklin Ave, we had a lovely conversation where we discussed the origins of their collaboration, their creative process, and bolo ties.* (transcribed in full below)
Today they are premiering their new video for “Helen” - one of the standout tracks off of Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigo.
The video depicts Stevie, from below a glass median, crying while cutting into an onion. The raw energy goes far beyond the onion’s layers and delves deeper into the roots of where art is made out of emotion. It doesn’t feel like they’re criticizing it, but simply acknowledging the presence of spectacle in any art. Making you wonder what is real emotion and what is real art? Can we ever really know?
A: I guess we can start with what you guys have been up to in the past year since you guys released [Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigo]?
M: The General trajectory was to release the album and then we had to figure out how to play all the songs live. So that was a long like two months I think of figuring that out and then we just played shows until we came back from tour at the end of summer. Yeah, so we did a lot of shows in Brooklyn and then we went on a month tour. We went around the country. The small towns that we went to that I would have never found were so awesome. We went to the town in Utah that was like five blocks and then there was just blankness around it and it was amazing. Everyone was very nice.
A: And you guys are doing it all yourselves? Booking and everything? Tour-wise and release-wise?
M: Yeah, we had someone else master the album. And then we’ve had people take pictures of us.
S: For each thing that we put out we like to find someone such as yourself: someone that like we think our music or videos relate to and then trying to pair up with them. So I don't know. what your definition of doing it by yourself is. It definitely is DIY.
M: Way long ago we talked about doing labels and stuff and I was not totally ready to think about that. I feel like we're just even figuring out what we're doing together. The idea of having someone else like expecting things from me or telling me what to do. I was like, wow, I would just get really angry at them. “Get out of my face!” So I was like, yeah let’s wait on that.
A: How was [Via Intercom] born? What's the origin story?
M: We did what you're doing now where we graduated and went to my house because my parents weren’t there.
S: We went to house sit at Maggie’s childhood home in California like a half hour south of San Francisco, but we didn't know many people and we were sort of stuck out in The Burbs. Maggie had been doing a lot of writing, which is sort of her main thing, and I had this music, and we were messing around pairing it together. Then we actually did a mini tour with that collaboration or whatever and then we were like this is good. Let's actually just make stuff from scratch. Like, this clicks. This is fine. I don’t know, I felt like it was something at least like vaguely unique, like the spoken aspects of it. And like we had just started building our own electronic-y things and that was kind of fun. We have been friends for a while so we have very similar aesthetics musically and sort of conceptually. So it was all kind of right.
A: How would you describe your common aesthetic? Like, if it were an article of clothing, what would it be?
M: I'm thinking about some sort of fashionable yet really utilitarian jacket. But then when you open it up, there's like a really cool like print. Like a Silk print on the inside. Shimmery threads and multiple colors.
S: Maybe like those… like fringes. But then I was like I don’t know, that’s a little biker-y or a cow-boy.
A: Well, you guys are kind of cow-boy-y in a way!
M: Yeah! “Hairless Cowboy.”
S: We do literally reference that.
M: You do want a bolo tie!
A: Bolo ties are cool. I want one so bad!
S: Okay! That’s it! It’s just a bolo tie with a big jewel right in the middle of it.
M: But a plastic one. Like, a nineties plastic jewel.
S: But it’s also weirdly expensive.
A: I feel like there's this mythology behind the universe that you guys have created with all these characters. I don't really know what's going on with their storylines entirely and I love that about it. Do you guys have an idea of these characters yourselves though? Like obviously to an outsider, I have no idea what is going on in this universe you’ve created. But are they as fleshed-out people? What is going on? I want to know more.
S: Short answer is: not like the way you say it. There isn't an encyclopedia with everybody’s, you know, stats and characteristics and backstories and whatever. I definitely think of it as more of a big, sort of character collage, if you will. I don’t know does that sound right?
M: I feel like there a number individually that I feel like I know really well even if I don't know the details about them. They seem real to me, but I don't know if I would be able to sit down and be like they've got this many siblings and were born in 1983 or something like that.
S: Sort of like, you know if you watch a couple episodes of a TV show, and you could feel like you got to know someone. In theory, there is a real person here, but you don't necessarily… I don’t know. I experienced that sometimes with movies or whatever. You only have a brief amount of time with them and only learn so much.
M: But at the same time like I feel like Johnny isn't always the same person throughout the songs.
A: That’s actually something I kind of took away from it. I felt like Johnny was more of like a everybody's a Johnny type of thing.
M: And that gets confusing then because I feel like Wanda is always the same person. Okay, and so that's not easy. We didn't plan that.
A: How did they come to be themselves? Like were you guys just using random names when you were writing things or is it something you guys decided upon? To have these characters that you address or song about? Or from the perspective of?
M: Mostly we always write songs about people named Johnny.
S: I did have a streak of doing that. I don't know. I think I think they came about in a more organic way. We did a lot of experiments where we sort of set a thing and be like, let's just do this tonight! See what happens. And then out of those either full songs or just like little snippets or characters would come out. From there it was a little more like, okay now we have this, we have this, we have this, let's start kinda putting it together. It wasn't totally random but it definitely wasn't totally planned out from the start.
A: So are there concepts and ideas that you guys go into it being like “maybe let's like try to talk about these things”? There's a lot of like stuff about disassociating, queerness, disconnection and technology, and how that affects relationships. Maybe that's just what you guys gravitate towards, but did you guys set an idea of “this is what I want to talk about on this album. This is what we should sing about or write about”?
M: I feel like it was a lot of what we were going through at the time. Yeah, and I always write about body shit and queer stuff. And I feel like I would say I always write about cyborg stuff and you would say you don't. But if you really think about it, you do always write about cyborgs stuff, sooo... Maybe it's back to the like shared aesthetic. Yeah. There were a few things that we did talk about in advance. Like at least being like “are we both thinking that these concepts?” Oh, yes, we both are. But we didn't sit down and be like, “let's write a song about this topic.” It was more like we were already thinking about this stuff.
S: Yeah, I would say sort of the same thing that I said to the last one. Through just sort of throwing things at a wall. Seeing what sticks and then like developing from there. SO it was a little of both.
A: You guys don't have to know that much about her or even tell me that much about her. But since this is going to be for the “Helen” video, could you guys talk about Helen? Like what is she like? Or I don't know. I feel like maybe just discussing what that song means to both of you and also like how the video plays into that?
S: Before this Maggie was like “Stevie, you’re going to have to answer all of these questions.” Because, well I wrote the framework of that song long before the band existed. That was the only song that wasn't a hundred percent written for the band. So it's past and meaning is shrouded in history. So I don't know, it kind of related in a unique way to the rest of the album terms of like the characters. It’s sort of like here's this like little snow globe of a world we’re making with these ideas and sounds and characters and then it was like what if we just put this other song in there that has so much of its own like emotion and sound and characters?
A: Yeah. There's a new one introduced in every other line.
S: Yeah. I think we just thought it kind of fit in all three of those ways. At least enough. And we liked the song. So let's add it. Incorporate it into the world. Or vice versa too because we sort of l et the world take over hit as well. So there's like all the electronic vocal harmonizers and there's all the weird little instruments that we make in it.
M: Yeah, really really different than the original voice memo Stevie had.
S: I actually have a couple demo recordings, like full recordings. There’s me clunkily playing violin and trumpet and harmonizing with myself and steel string acoustic guitar. It has a different vibe but I like how they blend. I think it was the right move.
A: So what does it mean to you I guess? I know you said that Stevie had to answer this, but I want to know how you adopted it. Because that's interesting that it's the one song that wasn't 100% a collaborative thing in the beginning.
M: I first heard that song when Stevie performed it alone. I was like “what the heck is this amazing song?” We moved to California and we each had our own room. And for a little while Stevie’s studio and my studio were connected by a heating grate so I could hear anything he was doing. So he's practicing the song all day and I was sitting in my room every day just weeping because he's just playing the song literally non-stop that is the saddest song I’ve ever heard in my life.
A: Did you know this?
S: No. It's all coming out now.
M: Yeah, so it took probably three months for me to be able to not cry when I heard the song. But then that was I mastered that because we were performing on stage and I was like I can’t cry on stage. I feel like in the context of the album though, Helen always felt like a graduated version of the characters in the rest of the album. This isn't exactly it, but almost as though everyone else is like a few years younger. She’s connected to them but a little bit separate and so it kind of allowed me to feel like the album was expanding a little bit more. It wasn’t just this one line. It was also this other layer added.
A: I’m just so fascinated by it but I will stop like harping on the characters. So when did you guys meet in general and also personal things would like when did music come into your life?
M: We meant in 2012.
S: Hampshire College.Western Mass. Friends from there. Nothing, no insane origin story.
M: We were in the same class for one day but Stevie doesn’t remember.
A: But you did!
M: Because he looked really intense and I was a little bit alarmed. Also at one point he hit my arm and I saw his expression and was like “Ah!”
S: What? That’s not true! I’m sure I was just thinking very intensely. I was deep in thought about the class. The class I was about to drop. Like, “what the hell am I doing here? This is garbage.”
A: What was the class?
M: It was like a high art class. I had no idea what was going on. “Anatomy of Pictures.” It was for people that have been studying art history for ten years.
A: Okay, so music in your own lives. Or performance or writing. Creating things. When did that start for you and why do you do it? Whichever question you want to answer is fine.
S: I played music for a long time. I was in bands in high school and college. They were a little more straightforward indie-rock/alt/folk-rock. I don’t know what to call it. I mean, I’ve always liked music. Ahh Pass.
M: Well you’ve been playing guitar since you were ten, right?
S: Maggie knows more about me than I do. She could just answer all the questions. It’d probably be more flattering.
M: Yeah exactly. Say all the good things. Yeah, I feel like I didn’t really listen to music until I got to college. So I’m still sort of figuring it out.
S: I was going to comment on your musical career, or lack there-of. Because you were in the orchestra for many years.
M: But I kind of faked it. I was good at making it look like I was playing the violin, but the strings were not touching the bow.
A: Did they not have check-ins to make sure you were practicing?
M: Let’s just say I got really good at sweet-talking the professor. I really wanted to play the harp when I was little. So my mom gave me piano lessons because she was like, you have to learn how to play the piano before the harp. But I hated playing the piano. I'm realizing this is similar to what I did with my other music teacher where I would go to piano lessons and then just talk to my piano teacher about his problems and he would give me chocolate.
A: So you're just like a really great con artists and not a musician. It’s just been this really long con since you were a child.
M: Maybe they were just giving me the wrong instruments.
S: Should have given you a microkorg from day one. You really still don't know-
A: So it it just a memorizing of the physical motions that you're going through if it's not notes?
M: Yeah, I’ll do a visual map and I mean, I know where the notes are. So I know that like, “this is D,” but like I don't know any chords. If Stevie plays something, I’ll be like what notes can I play that would match with what you’re playing.
S: I feel like most of your musical artistry, for lack of a better term, is in the tone and timbre, and sort of the whole package. [It’s the] impression of the sound as a whole instead of amazing chords or a great melody. It’s always just wash.
M: It also is just nice to have the collaboration where I don’t have to figure out how to write a melody in order to make sounds. I can ask Stevie to tell me some notes to play and I can figure out how to change the tones on the korg. That’s more fun than figuring out how to write something.
S: And also you don’t need to write a melody at all for it to be music, you know?
A: But the spoken word stuff - was that something you’d done before? Do you perform poetry?
M: Yeah, I’ve been writing for a really long time. But doing out loud was definitely a new thing. But it was really fun. The other things I could with my writing seemed really boring but this is fun.
S: I keep being like like “Maggie, are we sure? Is this the fullest- is this what you want to be doing like with your creative energy? You know, this is veering further and further away from just writing little stories.” And she’d say “No, this is good this is good. This is the creative outlet.” But that was a constant fear that Maggie was just along for the ride and I was like “Alright, we’re doing the band thing now.”
We then discussed traveling, special salt, and fried pickles at great length so I will be sparing you from that.
A: What are your plans going forward?
S: The way I see it, the last album was a big, okay, this is us just jumping in. Let's see what floats, what sinks, what sticks. Give it a lot of effort but I don’t feel too emotionally attached to it. I'm sort of ready to do the next thing. Taking what we learned from that - which I feel like is a great deal about what we like, what we’re able to do, and what other people like that we’re able to do. And how to pour it out and play shows, whatever, make videos. Just like all the things we. Do it again, but better. I have no problem with that sort of iterative mindset. You know. Now we're making this last video which I feel like, it's sort of the last nail in the coffin of Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigo.
M: More practically, we are writing a lot of material. Like next week or the week after, we're going to go out of New York for a week and a half to just get away from the noise and work on stuff that we’ve been puttering around with for a couple of months. Which is really exciting. But yeah, it feels more like like all the songs that we’re making now feel a little bit more organically created than the last one. The last album, like I had a lot of side-by-side - Like I said something and then Stevie says something. This feels more like from the ground up, we're really creating it together.
S: It's more sonically cohesive. I'm finding that important to me right now. Whereas with the last album, it’s more like conceptually cohesive or character cohesive or whatever, but the songs, a lot of them sound lie they’re taking from other genres or whatever. I like the idea of the aesthetic or the sound being what keeps it all together. So we're trying to choose a set of percussive sounds, like electronic drums, and just use that, you know. Not to box ourselves in necessarily, but I'm finding myself writing things that sound very similar. Rolling with that. And we’re making a lot of electronic instruments, which is fun. I recently started building little synthesizers, which I had never really done before this month.
A: All I know is that - so I watched one of your videos where you guys talked about the little ball thing? I still don't fully understand. Is that like a completely new thing for you? Making instruments?
S: Yeah, that was kind of the start of it. That's one’s actually super simple. It just measure voltage when you’re touching it. Recently I've been doing more straight ahead synthesis. Just combining waves.
M: I feel like Stevie’s very individualistic. So a lot of times he will tinker away at something and then be like “what if I just made my own version of it?” That's what happens like with his beats, where he makes his own sounds and like makes electronic instruments. We have our own symbol instead of buying a symbol.
S: Yeah, I think that it kind of has two sides to it. Where things sound a little bit like DIY and clunky at the end, but it also is as “us” as we could have been, which is satisfying. Hopefully that translates in some way.
A: What is the next one like? I know you're setting up the framework of sounds, but do you guys listen to other musicians as someone you want to draw from or is it entirely just a “what do we like” type of deal? Like do you have inspirations at all?
M: We're always listening to Sufjan.**
We then had a group therapy session regarding our musical heroes putting out music that didn’t live up to their good shit. We also discussed Mitski’s brilliance and chair choreography.
A: Okay. So Sufjan. Any other artists, media, or books that you guys draw from or is it more-so from your own life experience?
S: I’d say we’re surely influenced by musicians. The last album, unavoidably - I used to be very into Radiohead.
A: I was going to say that! “I Know You’re Friends” is the most Radiohead-y song ever. But in a really good way!
M: Yeah, so Thom York. Karen O, definitely for me. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is a huge one.
S: Oh yeah. More and more. I feel like we’re going from the Bon Iver/Radio Head to a more Sufjan/Kaitlyn Aurelia. That’s who is emotionally resonating with me more these days. So I don't know that’s necessarily what our music sounds like, but in a more cosmic kind of way. Do you agree?
M: Yeah. And I read a lot. Stevie doesn’t really read.
S: I read sometimes. You always throw that around! “Stevie doesn’t read.”
M: In the past two years you’ve read two books!
S: One book a year!
M: One of them was Carrie Brownstein’s.
A: A good book to choose as one of your books!
S: The other one was the BFG. Which is also great!
A: [laughs] I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting that!
S: Neither was I! Maggie was like, “Do you want to read this?” And I was like “Sure!” It was so random. It sort of just happened, and I was like, “Okay, I guess I’m reading this.” And I finished it!
M: I’m always trying to get Stevie to read books because they’re such a big part of my life. So I’ll find a book and really want Stevie to read it, so I’ll try to maneuver the perfect way to get the book in his hands.
S: Well, that’s not true. I’m currently in the middle of Notes from No Man’s Land.
M: It’s a book of essays by Eula Biss. Really good, really dark. I don’t know if it’s influencing the record though.
S: The new music we’re writing isn’t more dark. It’s probably sadder.
A: Are you guys sadder?
S: I don’t know. Hard to say from inside my own life.
M: I don’t think that either of us are sadder. Probably more subdued. After graduating life just explodes outward. But now it’s getting a little calmer. It’s like, when you put the pasta in and there are little tiny bubbles. I feel like that is what’s happening.
S: I don’t know. I wouldn’t relate it so heavily to Hampshire. I like New York. I think New York has a lot of positive energy. I feel just as open and energetic as I did at Hampshire. You don’t though. You don’t like New York.
M: Um, I’m fine being here. Yeah, there’s not somewhere else I would live instead. I’m from San Francisco, so why would I live on the East Coast?
S: Where it’s cold and everyone’s ironic.
M: Everyone’s grouchy and you can’t go to the beach.
A: I feel like a lot of what you guys write about has an adolescent feeling to it. Does that come from memories? Do you guys draw on past feelings, or is it what you’re currently feeling? Or is it simply for giving the characters a story-line?
M: On Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigo, it was a lot of reckoning with being in high school and being a teenager. After graduating college, it’s like “Okay. I just did this experience and spent four years not being a high schooler. Now I’m processing that.” We were living in my house and then we were living in Stevie’s childhood house after that.
A: Wow! You guys really dug deep!
S: Just hopping around to parents.
M: We were method acting.
A: Really though! Did you guys go back to high school?
S: It was research! “We’re making an album, alright?” And they’re like, “Aren’t you guys like 25? What are you doing here?”
A: So that, in a way, even if indirectly, affected it.
S: Totally, totally. I can't speak for you, but I feel like it was the first time that I had really gotten perspective on all like my childhood, wrapped up in a little box. So I think it was on both of our minds. SO that’s kind of how it manifested.
M: And just growing older and seeing all the effects of all the same things we’ve experienced across different states and different types high schools. All these similar experiences and the effects that that have that was something that I was thinking a lot about. There were things that really frustrate me that happened to all of us.
S: Definitely. Relating it to the larger “we did not have a unique experience.”
A: Like, the Johnny Experience of high school.
M: Right, exactly. And being like “ I'm not okay with it. So just, really feeling those emotions. Especially about sex. A lot of thoughts about how that plays out when you’re younger.
A: It’s a weird thing. I don’t think anyone is ever done processing it. Could you guys tell me more about the “Helen” video? And what the process was?
S: It sort of popped out one day! The song is very old and it’s very deep inside me now. I kind of wanted to make a video for it for a long time, but it was always thing, “What could I do? How could I make something now? It’s so old and I have so many emotional ties to it to just throw in a whole video. Often it’s just as important as the song. And not only is it associated with the song, but it affects people’s opinion of the song. I wanted something that would justify it, but also I don’t make videos. You know. We've made lyric videos for two songs. Those are complete experiments and just shots in the dark. I think they’re fine. They’re not masterpieces.
M: The stakes were way higher with this one. I mean, even without being one that wrote the song, I have such an intense relationship with it that if we just like made some like fun aesthetic thing -
S: Like, follow me around town with a camera and I’ll mouth along to the words. That didn’t feel good.
M: It feels rude to the song.
S: Not that anyone has to appreciate the song at a higher level. I’m just saying for me. But yeah, I was messing around one day,
M: But you were thinking about it for a really long time.
S: Yeah, I have all these other drafts with weird effects. I was trying to capture how it’s part acoustic and part electronic. Trying to match the soundscape of it, but then I was like “this doesn’t work.” Matching on a purely conceptual level also didn’t work. So I don’t know where this came from. I liked the idea of the ambiguity of the angle itself. I liked the idea of things dropping and exploding onto it. And I actually tried a couple times to listen to sad music and cry. But knowing the camera was there, I just couldn’t do it. So I googled: How to make yourself cry. And one of the last things on there was “You could just cut an onion.” And I was like “brilliant!” So I went out and bought some onions and there it was. I showed Maggie and she was like “this is good.”
A: For me, it was kind of like- and I don't know if this is something that you wanted to be taken away from it- but it was kind of like a like cutting into the onion and having that be something that you're capturing on video is almost the act of making the song itself and performing it for other people. It’s like you're cutting into yourself and being vulnerable and making a show of your tears. But also there's a barrier there and people don't know what the fuck you're talking about anyway. So they're just watching you sad but have no context. It felt very close to how I feel about your music in general. So I thought it was brilliant.
S: I sort of had the same reaction. When I watch it back. It actually works on a lot of levels that I didn't even mean for it to. Yeah, it was a total accident.
M: They were our subconscious.
A: It's that one day of that class that you took!
S: Symbology. Genius.
A: You had a good experience in that class though, right?
S: Wait, you took that whole class? My god!
A: I know it’s strange, but people stay in classes for longer than a day.
M: Clearly, enough was learned.
*The band would greatly appreciate if you were to gift them bolo ties when attending their live show.
**even the 2 hours of Christmas music