The path hasn’t always been straightforward for Melbourne’s RVG. As the story goes, eponymous frontwoman Romy Vager enlisted guitarist Reuben Bloxham, drummer Marc Nolte and original bassist Angus Bell to be a one-off backing band for a solo show in late 2015. That ostensibly ad-hoc union quickly blossomed into something bigger.
Debut album A Quality of Mercy was recorded live at local pub the Tote for all of $150, and released with little pomp or circumstance in 2017. Even with its scrappy, lo-fi sound, it demonstrates undeniable flashes of brilliance: jangly post-punk that channels Television Personalities and the Go-Betweens, Vager’s raw and expressive vocals, lyrics at once wry and empathic.
Since its release, RVG have become one of Australia’s best bands, finding a passionate fanbase and touring throughout Australia, the US, UK and Europe. Feral, their brilliant second album, was released in early 2020 — just as the world was starting to shut down amid the pandemic, making touring the record a prolonged slow burn.
With third album Brain Worms, things are starting to line up a little more naturally. “Everything with this record fell into place nicely. It hasn’t been as smooth for this band [in the past] as this time around,” Vager says. “One of my big considerations with this record is I didn’t want to be sick of the songs when it came out, and fortunately everything’s been timed really nice. It still feels really present.”
Brain Worms Is The Record RVG Have Always Been Trying To Make
Brain Worms is RVG’s finest record. In many ways, it’s a fully-realised version of the band they’ve threatened to be since their inception. Big and bold, loud and ambitious, sharp and incisive and severe and full of heart. Arrangements are lush but never crowded, synths gently accenting the guitars and drums. Vager and her bandmates – Bloxham, Nolte and bassist Isabele Wallace – sound truly in step with one another, with themselves; an unwavering belief in every note.
According to Vager, it’s a record that could only come after hitting pause on the trajectory she and the band were on just before the pandemic, following the somewhat unexpected success of their first few years. “When we made the last record, it was just, ‘go, go, go.’ There was a lot of touring. I think I was not in the right headspace for a lot of things.”
As 2020 approached, RVG were on the cusp of releasing Feral, with an (eventually cancelled) arena tour supporting American alt rock giants Faith No More on the horizon. Vager was grateful for the opportunities presenting themselves, but “terrified” of what moving forward full steam ahead might look like.
“So many things were happening in motion, and at the end of 2019, my mental health was not good,” Vager says. “I knew I had to sort my shit out a bit more. And then I was forced to sort my shit out. That was great.”
The “mandated break” Vager and her bandmates took during lockdown turned out to be a blessing in disguise for her. “I just sort of started from scratch in a way and took my time with things. All these other considerations weren’t really real. It was just kind of enjoying writing songs when I did.”
“Coming back to it now, I have a lot more control over it, and I have a lot more enjoyment over it. I know what I’m doing a lot better, whereas I was sort of just fumbling in the dark for a lot of the last couple years.”
Staying Defiant In The Face Of Absurdity
RVG’s last two albums drew upon a wide range of characters to dissect and understand the complicated web of human thoughts and feelings. The songs on Brain Worms feel a little more grounded in self-preservation. A defiance runs throughout, a refusal to let those who will never find common ground with you from stealing away too much of your precious energy, your time, your thoughts, your heart.
“I’m not going to comfort you for being stupid and mean,” Vager sings on ‘You’re the Reason’. On album closer ‘Tropic of Cancer’, she affirms: “If you think I’m strange, you ain’t seen nothing yet”. That sort of acceptance brims across the record, striving towards a kind of self-actualisation that exists outside the approval of others.
“I think it was just kind of naturally the position where I got to, mentally, after years and years of things being weirder than they should be,” Vager says. “I think you have to find a place in yourself where you can kind of cope. A lot of this record is trying to find that space.”
Often, that space takes the form of the mordant humour that also peppered the band’s first two records. On Brain Worms’ ‘Giant Snake’, Vager conjures up an absurdist image of serial killer Ivan Milat, draped in a serpent, getting a good look at her and being unable to comprehend what’s before him. “Keeps saying I’m the weirdest shit he’s ever seen,” she sings. “And I guess that’s pretty funny to me.”
“I was kind of worried with that song especially, because I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea from me using that kind of imagery,” she says. “But it is just trying to find a bit of humour in just horrible fucking shit. I think that’s the kind of record that I want to make at the moment. Something that’s not, “World’s really bad is it?” but it’s not super saccharine and positive. It’s in between somewhere. Trying to find happy mediums is kind of what I’ve always tried to do with this band.”
It’s true that Vager’s work has always seemed more interested in the grey areas than the black and white. RVG’s best songs brush right up close against complete oblivion, pursuing a feeling as intensely as possible before pulling back and allowing space for empathy, connection, hope.
Taking Aim At Targets That Deserve It
Vager’s lyrics are often uncompromising but they are never truly unkind. ‘Midnight Sun’ was written during the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires, when Vager was watching conservative commentators more interested in directing vitriol at minorities than addressing the very tangible environmental issues laid out in front of them. “Why would anybody be so cruel/is it really worth your time?” she asks, extending the opportunity for a response while knowing there likely isn’t one on the other end.
Similarly, Brain Worms’ darkly comedic title track illustrates the consequences of being so fixated with a hyper-insular delusion you alienate yourself from everyone. Told from the perspective of a narrator who has fallen down an internet conspiracy rabbit hole, it paints a grim picture of what awaits that sort of paranoid monomania: “Now my kids don’t talk to me/Now my wife is leaving me.”
It’s a recognisable figure, the kind that probably reminds you of a distant relative on Facebook. What drives someone to be so consumed by a vague but all-engulfing mixture of fear, hatred and stupidity that they ruin their own life over it? That they guzzle poison by the gallon, expecting someone else to die? For Vager, being able to inhabit a character like that, to poke fun at them, is a sign that something has changed in her mentality.
“Maybe three years ago I would’ve written a completely different song about something like that,” she explains. “I’ve reached a full circle where I’ve got enough of a hold of myself that I can just sort of have a personal disagreement with people like that, but also, I can just find things that are funny about it.
“I think there’s a strength in that,” Vager adds. “There’s definitely room to just fall into a trap of feeling bad about the world, but if you can figure out ways to climb out of that pit, you can kind of get on with your life.”
Staying Grounded In The Now
Existing in the present is a central force on Brain Worms. The hypnotic, swelling ‘Squid’ imagines the surreal prospect of being transported to ancient times, accidentally stepping on a prehistoric fish, and irrevocably changing the course of your own future. In this case, that means being turned into a cephalopod, forced to grapple with all aspects of your regular life in your new incarnation.
“Don’t go back in time/it’s not worth it,” Vager warns on its chorus, communicating a foundational reality: one can’t — or at least, probably shouldn’t — live in the past. However simple, it’s an exhortation that feels vital in the current moment. Vager wrote part of the song as the band were recording Brain Worms in London, where she observed “a kind of neoliberal Thatcher revival going on,” a climate not too dissimilar to the one here in her home country.
“There’s these people who really do want to drag you back into the past, the same with Australia,” she says. As disingenuous, right-wing grifters dredge up and prolong the most regressive culture wars they can, it’s difficult, in moments of despair, not to feel like the world is moving backwards in the face of impending collapse. “If you go back to the past, you’re just going to make the same mistakes. The same, or worse as before.”
Vager has said if the band could make just one more record, it’d be Brain Worms. It’s a common sentiment when an artist releases a new album, but it feels both genuine and accurate in Vager’s case. “I’m my worst enemy. I’m my biggest critic for sure,” Vager says. “But I walked away from [recording Brain Worms] thinking, ‘Yeah, this is good.’
“I thought about all the things I didn’t like about the last couple records, and all the things I did, and definitely was very insistent to the rest of the band that I get my way,” she says. “I definitely had a bunch of things that I wanted to tick off in my head, and I feel like I’ve ticked them all off. So, yeah, I’m very proud of it.” She pauses for a moment. “It’s very weird to be proud of something,” she adds, laughing.
RVG’s new album Brain Worms is out now.
Alex Gallagher is a writer living and working on Gadigal land. They’re on Twitter @sensitivfreight.
Main image credit: @jamesmmorris_