You'll remember your first time with the Virgins
The Virgins may be a touch inexperienced, but in this case, naiveté proves to be an asset. Their self-titled debut, released this past summer, is an unabashed pop record, the kind of dulcet confection that one would most readily associate with an artist like Madonna, not a rock band from New York City—and certainly not a New York City rock band circa 2008, with the detached cool of bands like the Strokes and Interpol still casting a long shadow over the Lower East Side. But the Virgins, perhaps due in part to their rather unusual genesis, don't seem burdened by the typical baggage and expectations. In fact, if you ask frontman and chief songwriter Don Cumming, the whole rock-band thing is little more than an unexpected, albeit not unwelcome, diversion.
"I never wrote songs with the intention of making a band my full-time gig," he says. "I've always wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to The New School, studied film, and had a very clear plan." But on a lark, Cumming decided to submit his home demos to labels anyway, and, much to his surprise, his "band" was picked up by Atlantic Records in 2006.
Suddenly, what had been something of a figment needed to be willed into existence. Cumming scrambled to fill out the Virgins' lineup, which at the time consisted of himself and an 8-track. "I basically fucked myself. I had to find people fast. Wade was my closest friend and he didn't have a job or anywhere to live, so he came to stay with me and every day I would wake up and would be like, 'Practice the guitar. Practice the guitar, please. I'm begging you.' Then Nick [Zarin-Ackerman] joined. We knew each other very casually. He'd been playing in bands and he was the most accomplished of us musically."
While Cumming had made good progress, the band was still desperately in need of a drummer. For six months, the three aspiring Virgins practiced to a metronome while holding auditions. "We tried out 40 different [drummers], and we could not find anyone," says Cumming. Finally, they happened on Erik Ratensperger. And less than three weeks later, they played their first official show.
Shortly after solidifying the lineup, the band cut a rather hasty and inexpensive EP. While they were pleased with the results, the Virgins were eager to compose entirely new material for their major-label debut. However, Atlantic wanted to have the band re-record all five EP tracks for inclusion on the album, a prospect Cumming and the band found somewhat perplexing. "We were confused because it didn't make any sense to record the same songs in the same way with the same arrangement. It just seemed like a waste of time and it would have been a waste of time for anyone who had the EP." It was the forced revisit of those songs that planted the seed for how the band would approach The Virgins. Rather than attempt to capture a stereotypically garage-y New York sound, the band opted for the antithesis—a slick, studio-polished paean to classic pop. "Once we realized we wanted to make a pop record, we felt free to compose other songs [in that style] and to look at the album as a pop experiment."
To help them achieve their vision, the band recruited Sam Hollander and Dave Katz (a.k.a. S*A*M and Sluggo). Seasoned Top 40 producers, Hollander and Katz's credits include Katy Perry, Gym Class Heroes, and Blake Lewis, and their contributions to Virgins, predictably, are anything but subtle. Indeed, Cumming confirms that the band encouraged the production duo to take a very active role in the recording process. "We were working with them for what they had to offer us," he says. "We were like, 'Tell us what you guys would do.'"
And, true to his word, Cumming seems to have indulged Holland and Katz's every whim to ensure the experiment's success. The Virgins is a veritable treasure trove of uncool—rife with guitar solos that sound like they're being fed through a vocoder ("Radio Christiane") and synth lines seemingly lifted from the sessions for "Borderline" ("Teen Lovers"). But ultimately, it's the band's shameless, unwavering commitment to the cause that saves it from pure guilty-pleasure status.
Be grateful they don't know any better.
THE VIRGINS perform with the Black Kids and Beatrix*JAR on TUESDAY, OCTOBER 7, at the 7th ST. ENTRY; 612.332.1775
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.