The crowd outside Atlanta’s Tabernacle is young enough to need chaperones. Lots of kids in skinny jeans queue up around the block alongside their cool dads and moms. One of the youngsters is talking to a homeless man with dreads. He doesn’t realize he’s made a friend for life, or at least until the venue opens its doors in an hour. The hardest thing is not to shake my head, to let the kid have his moment. This could very well be his first concert.
The thought reoccurs when Juan Velazquez of Abe Vigoda pops his head out of the door, sneaks a look at the crowd, and beckons me to follow him. I’ve been a little pissed up to this point about having to drive into the city on a Thursday, and the band rescheduled at the last minute via text while I was trying to navigate I-20. Any annoyance fades away when I get a minute to take in Velazquez. He’s in head-to-toe black, rocking the skinny jeans and sneaks, and nursing a cup of coffee. The striking thing is that he could switch places with most any non-dad member of the line.
Abe Vigoda has released three full-length albums and an EP, Reviver, that have received favorable reviews and have shown a pretty steep learning curve. An unfinished record awaiting release could be the band’s breakthrough to a much larger audience, and still the biggest impression is that Velazquez could be sitting in an algebra class next to one of his fans. Abe Vigoda could very well have been a high school laugh that suddenly got super real.
We’re joined on the way up the stairs by band member Michael Vidal, dressed in similar monochrome but topped with a hipster swoop haircut. He and Velazquez are joking about dinner, the venue, and plans for later that night. They both apologize for being "dead"; touring is serious business. The ebullience is palpable, however, as they decide at once to march into the venue’s VIP seating area to do the interview. If this is tired Abe Vigoda, the band on full batteries must be uncontainable fun.
Vidal and Velazquez wave to a noticeably mature bartender and get a “cute kid brother” smile back from her. The first thing I want to know about is the name, which is at once brilliant and terrible. There’s no question that it’s instantly memorable and clever, but it might have shelf life only as long as the actor's. There have also been a few cases of confused senior citizens showing up for an appearance by the actual Abe Vigoda. Velazquez feigns indecision, but launches into a response that belies at least a little thought on the subject.
“If I would have know that we were going to do it as our full-time thing, maybe we would have been a little choosier," he said. "It was chosen on a whim a long time ago. I feel like at some point I said that we should change it, and everybody said that it was too late in the game. In retrospect it totally wasn’t, but it’s fine. I still don’t know what else we’d call ourselves. It would be weird to call it anything else. It’s a goofy name, but people remember it. That’s all you really need from a band name, I guess.”
It's a funny thing, a band name, and it's hard to know what separates the good from the bad. Velazquez and Vidal can’t offer any further insight into their own band name, but quickly tag Puscifer as possibly the worst band name they’ve ever heard. After sitting stumped, Velazquez comes up with Royal Trux as a good one. Both consider the Pixies to be “simple and cute.” Black Flag gets a pass, as does DNA and Blonde Redhead, which Vidal is quick to note is named after a DNA song. They throw out everything from Tangerine Dream to Vampire Weekend, the band they’re opening for, and still can’t offer insight into the what separates a good name from a bad one, or, even worse, a joke pulled on the male equivalent of Betty White.
Fricatives and allusions be damned; the memorable part of Abe Vigoda the Band’s name is unquestionably the man himself. The members are for too young to remember the actor’s heyday in the '70s. They were turned on to him on Conan O’Brien's show, goofing on an Internet meme that he was dead. It would be easy to see that where a group of self-described “tropical punks” might get a cease-and-desist order from the actor whose name it’s appropriating. Vidal says that at the very least, the actor’s people are aware of the band’s existence, after an incident where a promoter was looking to hire a punk band. He said “it recently came out that Vigoda is a sex addict,” but the band and the man have yet to cross paths.
The exuberance shows here again. Both Velazquez and Vidal light up when talking about eventually meeting Vigoda and how it “would be nice to have a picture with him.” It hasn’t happened yet because both are worried that if Vigoda might tell the band to change its name, or the very slight possibility that a black hole might occur when the Vigodas meet. Though an open invitation exists, both are pretty sure that Vigoda would feel a little out of place at one of the band’s shows. Velazquez fires the first volley, and Vidal quickly jumps in to defend the band’s honor.
“I don’t know," Velazquez said. "I just don’t think that he’d like it. He’d probably be confused.”
“You don’t know that," Vidal said. "You don’t know what kind of music he likes. He might really like us. “
“I really don’t know much else about him other than he’s famous. I do think that he’d like Vampire Weekend better.”
“Why would he like Vampire Weekend better than us?”
“They’re a poppier band. Really, they’re more accessible than us.”
“You know, you’re right," Velazquez said. "He probably should probably skip our set and just come in for Vampire Weekend. He’d probably have a much nicer time.”
A kid wanders over carrying an open laptop. It’s possible a high school newspaper is getting the scoop. He stands off to the side for a few seconds, as if he’s working up the courage to ask for an autograph. Eventually he hops a row, to the visible chagrin of the mature bartender, and joins the band. I’m nonplussed, but Velazquez and Vidal seem cool with it, so I don’t say anything. An awkward moment passes with the kid plonking away on his laptop before Vidal lets me in on the fact that he’s also in the band. He doesn’t look up from his computer and doesn’t offer his name, so we pick up where we left off.
Abe Vigoda, the band, is in the middle of a tour with Vampire Weekend and road testing songs from their upcoming album. The band is basking in the anonymity of playing in front of an audience of amped up people who aren’t necessarily there to see Abe Vigoda. Velazquez gives the standard answer about the new material: It’s been difficult to play some of the new songs live, but that fans seem to be into them. This would seem hackneyed but for the fact that he seems like the kind of person who would tell you if he thought the songs were falling flat.
Vidal adds that this is the first time the band has been able to use a full complement of electronics, and that having an opening slot is a fair trade-off for the improved soundboards of larger venues. He reiterates the fact that the larger crowds are also nice without giving a hint of jealousy. Despite Vidal characterizing the tour slightly ironically as “playing for the general public,” it’s clear that Abe Vigoda sees tours like this as integral in taking the step as a band.
There’s an urge to dig a little on this point. Being an opening band can be unforgiving; a little grumbling would be understandable. The men of Abe Vigoda won’t take the bait. Vampire Weekend are either seriously intimidating or they really are genuinely having a good time. They demur when asked if they’re buddies with Vampire Weekend, saying that “things have been busy and there’s really not a lot of time to hang out,” but looked genuinely shocked when asked whether they’d jump into a fight to defend them. The drummer, who I later learned was Dane Chadwick, looks up from his computer to ask why anybody would want to fight Vampire Weekend. Velazquez observes that there’s really no reason that Abe Vigoda would hone its fighting skills, given that only time the band has even been heckled is a little passive aggressive.
“I used to work at Amoeba, and we played with the Faint," Velaquez said. "I was outside the store taking a break a couple of days later. This kid is walking down the other side of the street and stops and looks at me. He waits a couple of minutes and then all of a sudden he comes up with ‘You didn’t deserve to open for the Faint!’ and then he dashes off. The weird thing was that he saved up all his animosity, and was able to access it so readily two days later.”
“He was probably thinking the whole time that if only he got his band together, it would be totally different," said Chadwick, who's suddenly becoming talkative. "I’ve got an ad out for a singer, and I’m talking to this bassist. Just you wait! I’ll show you!”
Random haters on the street aside, the music public generally loves Abe Vigoda. The only problem is that it’s been a long drought since the band released the Reviver EP in 2009. Velazquez says a new record is in the can, and that it should drop in September or October of this year. The band acknowledges that “been forever since the last record,” but Vidal says that extra time was needed, as the band will be stepping outside of its comfort zone. The three understandably respond with some doublespeak when pressed, and collapse into giggles when Chadwick opines that the new record will “totally rock.”
Velazquez gets hold of himself and explains that the new record will showcase more variation between the songs on the album, and that while the Abe Vigoda’s other records “were basically record every song we have, on this one we were able to take our time pick songs that flowed together.” Vidal and Chadwick chime in with similar takes, saying that album is more “well-paced, and that the songs are poppy and easier to dance to "than previous albums.” Velazquez says that this is the first time the band was able to hire a proper producer and that there will be both slow and fast numbers.
At this point an electronic dance beat straight from a Butabi brothers sketch comes over the venue’s loud speakers. The band is dumbstruck for a few seconds, and Chadwick breaks the ice: “The really important thing about the album is that starts exactly like this.”
Vidal thinks for a second and then agrees: “It starts out like this, and then builds and fades, but it comes right back to here. This is the important beat.”
Abe Vigoda loses it one more time, and the three excuse themselves to get ready for the show. As he gets up, Velazquez finally drains his coffee. Bringing the name of one of the '70s most beloved sitcom icons to the masses must be thirsty work.