Ronnie Lee is almost always playing music, but you might not always notice he's there. It's not that he's easy to miss. With shaggy black hair, arms covered in tattoos, and an ever-present cap perched on his head, Lee couldn't be mistaken for anything other than a musician. But he's also quiet and soft-spoken, and -- in spite of often being active in several different bands at once -- more concerned with playing his music than taking the spotlight.
VATS is the one exception. A drummer and guitarist for bands like Toxic Shrews, Cereal Wizard, and Is/Is (who were featured on the cover of City Pages
last fall), Lee plays all the instruments for this long-time solo recording project. (Well, on record anyway.) That fact shines through in the droning, claustrophobic nature of the songs, which wind wiry riffs around distant-sounding beats and vocals that bleed off into the ether.
Gimme Noise: You're usually in multiple bands at once. Was there anything in particular you set out to do when you started recording as VATS?
This Saturday, Lee will be debuting a new VATS cassette, Iridescent Intent
(out via MJMJ Records
), with a show at the Hexagon. He won't be alone this time, with fellow members of Toxic Shrews and opener Todd Luffa joining him onstage. Gimme Noise even has an exclusive peek at the new single, "Jogger," after the break.
Lee: I dig being in multiple bands at once because it keeps me from being boxed in or bored. I can't imagine sticking to strictly one genre of music or one instrument. Previously the worry of "how will I pull this off live?" always held me back, but this time I just wrote it and worried about finding a band later.
When did you first start recording music as VATS?
Years ago. This is my first full-length but I've done a couple EPs in the past. This is the first album done in a full-band style, though.
Have you been very active with it in the time since?
I haven't really done much with VATS in the past. There was a tour to Florida and back with MAYMOK, but otherwise it's always taken a back seat to my other projects. I've just never had that much fun playing live by myself, so I was content mainly keeping it a recording project.
So you recorded everything yourself on this record?
I wrote and recorded every instrument and vocal part. Every VATS album has been done that way before, but not to this scale. This is the first album I haven't recorded digitally. Everything before it was done on a laptop, and Iridescent Intent was done on a straight-to-tape eight track.
Were these the songs you were recording when you and Is/Is were out in the desert last summer?
Yeah, this album is basically all the tracks I wrote and recorded in Joshua Tree. Three were mostly done previously, the other seven came later.
Did you have a particular vision for what you wanted to do as you started recording this set of songs?
I took more time to thoroughly sculpt the sounds on Intent. In a lot of ways, my previous albums were done in a bit of a rush, and for this one I was more concerned with it sounding exactly how I wanted, not [with] how long it was taking. Luckily it wound up not taking that long... This album is me being incredibly indulgent and maybe even a bit selfish, and I think it worked out.
The vocals are pretty buried in the mix. Do you sing often, and was it deliberate how you obscured your voice here?
Yeah, [I've sung] a few times, but not in a singer-songwriter way. The music usually comes first for me and the vocals are just another part of the overall sound. If the lyrics wind up obscured because of it, then well...
What's the live arrangement like for VATS? How different can people expect this show to be from the recorded versions?
VATS live is me on guitar/lead vocals, Gordon [Byrd] on bass, Andy [Todryk] on drums, and Tony [Amerman] on the other guitar. It's pretty different just in the sense that there's the added energy playing live brings, and because each of the other members plays how they play, not how I play.