BAND WITH THE STRONGEST WORK ETHIC Viva Voce

Despite expanding their lineup to a
quartet, the husband-wife team still makes it a family affair.

 

BY MIKE
SHANLEY

 

 

If Viva
Voce doesn’t take honors for Band with the Strongest Work Ethic, they’re
definitely in the running for such a designation. For a few years, the band was
just as likely to be on tour as not. “Our m.o. has been to put a record out and
basically tour for a year and a half to two years to support it,” says
guitarist/vocalist Anita Robinson, who started the Portland band, along with
her drummer/vocalist husband Kevin. “Then we tour as much as humanly possible
during that time.”

 

The
road is such a good friend to the duo that Anita inadvertently mixes her
metaphors, saying she’s “very at home” while touring. “I thrive on being on the
road. I love traveling,” she says. “I love playing music. It’s what I wanted to
do my whole life. I mean, it is my
life.”

 

In
addition to headlining their own shows, Viva Voce supported hometown friends
the Shins on their tours in support of Wincing
the Night Away
. Anita, who sang harmony on the album, reprised her efforts
onstage and in the performances the Shins played on the late night television
circuit throughout 2007.

 

While
the Robinsons spent much of 2008 off the road, the work didn’t cease. They
formed a second band, Blue Giant, which taps into a countriefied Byrds/southern
rock style and departs from Viva Voce’s psychedelic dreams. At the same time Amore!Phonics,
their home recording studio, was restructured so it would be separate from
their living quarters. “Before, whatever tiny living space we had would
temporarily be converted into a recording studio and basically life as we know
it would have to be put on hold,” Anita says. “You’d have amplifiers in the
bathtub, cables hanging from the ceiling and sleeping bags stapled over the
windows so your neighbors don’t hate you.”

 

After the
other efforts were in motion, the duo resurrected the Viva Voce model and recorded
Rose City (Barsuk). Their fourth album, it includes
the same blend of heavy guitars with dreamy melodies and harmonies, but this
time they deliver it in more concise blasts that average three minutes, without
any excess. And finally, 11 years after starting the duo, the Robinsons have
added two new members to Viva Voce to recreate their heavy sound organically.

 

Kevin
and Anita met in Muscle Shoals, Alabama
during the late ’90s and began collaborating almost immediately. In 2002, they
moved their base of operation to Portland, continuing in their manner of
recording all their music themselves. Although their husband/wife, guitar/drums
axis could draw comparisons to the White Stripes, a more apt comparison would
be Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley with an instrument swap. Like
YLT, Viva Voce’s sound combines guitar freakouts, which Anita often plays on a
double-necked axe, with the couple’s lilting harmonies landing on top of the
music. In the studio they take turns on bass, and Kevin handles piano and
keyboard parts. Live, their duo augmented their sound with triggered samples
and keyboards, which Kevin often played while keeping the beat with the other half
of his body.

 

Now
Kevin has switched to bass and newcomer Evan Railton has taken over drum
duties. Corrina Repp rounds out the new lineup, playing guitar, keyboards and
theremin. The addition seemed inevitable to the Robinsons after years of doing
it on their own. “We did our last show in Portland in December 2007 and I just
knew that it was the last time that particular set was going to be performed
with just the two of us,” Anita says. “It was a really awesome, fun,
challenging way to play and I think we just took it as far as we could take
it,” Anita says.

 

The
swirling, heavy-cum-hypnotic sound of The
Heat Can Melt Your Brain
(2004) and Get
Your Blood Sucked Out
(2006) also recalls the best production work of
Kramer, whose similar technique left an indelible mark on the catalogs of
Galaxie 500 and his own trippy unit Bongwater. This continues on Rose City,
where the understated “Midnight Sun” could be a Northwest counterpart to Damon
and Naomi, who anchored Galaxie 500 and continued to work with Kramer on their first
few duo albums.

 

The
similarities are a happy coincidence, though, according to Anita. She professes
a love for lo-fi and garage rock, but her inspiration comes from more popular
sources. “I love classic rock and I love delta blues,” she says. “I love some
new music being made now, but I have to admit, I listen to a lot of older
things probably more often.”

 

Besides,
she prefers not to put any limits, stylistic or otherwise, on the work of Viva
Voce. The group even recorded a few soundtracks for some Portland filmmakers
last year, a project that Anita describes in manner that epitomizes the band’s
sonic influence. “I really like lush, ambitious music and recordings,” she
says.  “Those are the kinds of things
that I get inspired by the most.”

 

 

[Photo
Credit: Alicia J. Rose]

 

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