We're living in the golden age of musical fetishism. Call it the byproduct of Jack White's obsessively vinyl/analog warpath or call it resistance to the way digital distribution has dehumanized the musical process. Whatever the cause, it's never been more fashionable to covet "old school" objects: records, hi-fi equipment, cassettes. In the case of Josh Gooday and David Owens, the duo comprising synth-pop band Vial of Sound, what started as a hobby in law school bloomed into a full-blown obsession: The two create and perform their music with vintage analog synthesizers. Unlike so much retro stuff, synths aren't the sort of thing you can pick up at the mall or Urban Outfitters.
"I've always had a fascination," Gooday says of his collection, which includes an ARP 2600, a Minimoog, and Oberheim OB-8. It started as a passing interest. "It was a 'collection thing' at first, just to have cool shit." But it quickly became more. As other connoisseurs of vintage synths Com Truise and Tycho have said, collecting these instruments can get addicting. Once you start, Gooday explains, you don't want to taint the sound with even a little digital. Before long, Gooday was blowing his college funds on synthesizers.
"In my old band, I played drums and keys, a digital keyboard," Gooday says. But the lure of thick and warm sounds drew him in. "When you read on the Internet all the hype, analog sounds better, punchier."
The band's sound — tight, powerful songs colored by the unique instrumental approach — quickly turned heads. In a little under a year, the Tempe band has taken its synth tinkerings from the garage to the studio to the main stage, opening shows for Zero Zero and Gospel Claws, hosting a Daft Punk cover show at Crescent Ballroom, and performing with noted influences like Nancy Whang of LCD Soundsystem and Missing Persons.
Gooday and Owens haven't quit their day jobs yet. Owens manages a NYPD Pizza in Gilbert, and Gooday attends Phoenix School of Law and will take the bar after the semester ends. Not that the songwriter resembles your typical law student. His hair sticks up in every direction as he slouches in a booth at a Tempe bar, sipping a beer called "Rare VOS" — the same three letters as his often-abbreviated band. It seems he's either fighting a hangover or just waking up. Such is college, right?
"Just look at me. I'm in disguise," Gooday says with a sideways grin. "A lot of the people in law school are super-preppy, stuck up. I'm just doing law school because I need to support myself. I can't be a broke musician forever."
Gooday's head principally is focused on taking VOS to the next level, even if it's easier to do things you're not proud of to earn cash. "We would rather work day jobs than be douchebags," Gooday says with a sweep of his hand.
"My dad always told me to do what I love," Owens adds. "My mom is the exact opposite. She'd want me to stay at my job and get promoted."
Still, vintage synths cost money and playing music "for the love of it" is easier when you can pay your bills, too. Gooday recalls his father "busting his ass" to go to school, and even Gooday's wife, Kym (who runs the video synthesizer during their live sets), would also prefer her husband to be a lawyer. But Gooday explains that when you have money, it allows you to do what you want, but when you need money from someone else, then you have to do what they want. He talks about Radiohead's enviable position — that of a band that records exactly what it wants, maintaining complete creative control — but adds, "They had to fight for it. They got ripped on. When they did Kid A, everybody talked shit."
VOS is making progress toward those goals. Last June, they worked with Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket Recording in Mesa to produce their first EP, VOS. Even more recently, they finished up their second EP, Substance Organique Volatile, also produced with Hoag.
"[Bob's] cool. Sometimes you gotta let go of the reins and let him do what he's gotta do," Gooday says. "A lot of bands have trouble . . . Even though he's producing it, they still want that creative control. He's got good equipment; he knows what he's doing."
"[SOV is] a more jammy, dance-y kind of vibe, whereas the other one was verse-chorus-verse-chorus," Gooday says. "You know, like a rock form."
In comparing the band's two releases, Gooday and Owens agree that SOV flows better than VOS."The Day We Both Died" wipes a glittery mask over death, the vocoder emulating Black Moth Super Rainbow, an influence that Gooday notes as "really cool." Other tracks like "New Dance" or "The Cycle" channel The Prodigy (minus the punk rock screams) or Chemical Brothers.
But for Owens and Gooday, their influences aren't always direct. They cite John Lennon, Grimes, Toro Y Moi, Neon Indian, Kurt Cobain, and even Bruce Lee as having an impact on their dance music.
"The thing about Kurt," Gooday says, "is you can be influenced by him and don't have to sound like him. It's cool to be original and do your own thing."
This and VOS' analog-only policy have given the band some issues, as it doesn't fit in well with Phoenix's guitar-rock indie scene or the "push play" MacBook Pro crowd in Scottsdale clubs.
Gooday recalls, "Some drummer was [asking] me, 'Electronic music — isn't that more like 'tracks' instead of 'songs'?' Yeah, whatever you say, bro."
At least Hoag shares VOS' love for analog gear. Though he edits in Pro Tools, he records to tape and he owns numerous vintage guitars and drums. "He edits all our drums," Gooday continues. "The way we record our drums, we can't manipulate them like we do live, so it just has to go the whole time. He'll go in there and edit the drums that drop out and drop in."
Naturally, with a drum kit missing from the stage, Vial of Sound has gotten numerous offers from local drummers (including Nick Ramirez, who adds live beats to local electro pop band Zero Zero's live sets), but Gooday claims his van already is packed full of gear and drums would just add more complications. Kym Gooday acts as a third member, running a video synthesizer that gives VOS' live shows a brilliant visual element. Instead of the oscillator turning electronic signals into noise, it creates vivid video signals by either sampling and distorting footage or creating scrolling bars and geometric shapes.The unorthodox lineup works for VOS, and adding another member wouldn't work, they insist.
"The thing about this band is it's really easy to just get two people on the same page," Owens says. "I've been in other bands with four or five people; it's just a lot easier."
And when even getting the synths to turn on requires a knowlegeable user's touch, you cut corners where you can.