A Conversation with Kenny Vasoli of Vacationer

Paul Caparotta
Kenny Vasoli of Vacationer (Credit: Matt Schwartz)
Philadelphia-based, Vacationer, released their sophomore album Relief earlier this summer and hit the road this fall in support. They're scheduled to perform at Slim's on October 27th and we highly recommend catching this show. Tickets are still available here.

We were able to speak with Kenny Vasoli a few weeks ago about Philly, the new album, and the endless cycle of touring. Check it out in full below.

San Francisco Bay Area Concerts: Is this still a good time for us to catch up?

Kenny Vasoli: Yeah, it’s perfect. 

SFBAC: Excellent. Well first things first, I saw I’m calling a 215 number—are you a Philly boy?

Kenny Vasoli: I am, yeah. This is the only phone number I’ve ever had, and I’m still in the same Philadelphia area. 

SFBAC: Very cool. My friend checked out Dr. Dog yesterday at the Mann (in Philadelphia) — there’s amazing music coming out of Philly right now.

Kenny Vasoli: Yeah, I agree. It’s better than ever right now.

SFBAC: I don’t know if you had a chance to listen to the new War on Drugs album, Lost in the Dream? It’s been in constant rotation for me lately. 

Kenny Vasoli: Yeah. I love that band. 

SFBAC: Excellent. Well, let’s move from Philadelphia to San Francisco. So I found it kind of funny and ironic that you’re heading out to San Francisco – at pretty much the biggest vacation time of the year.

Kenny Vasoli: Oh yeah? I guess it would be out there. 

SFBAC: San Francisco in September and October is just absolutely amazing. The weather’s incredible, and there’s this literal influx of people into the city. It’s a real destination, I feel like. Given the nature of your music I thought that was kind of awesome and ironic. 

Kenny Vasoli: Yeah. It’s going to be a beautiful visit this time of year. We love that city and it’s always really beautiful.

SFBAC: Speaking of weather, and all the good stuff that you’ll be experiencing in San Francisco soon, "Paradise Waiting" has literally been in complete replay over the last couple of weeks for me. It’s this evocation of the season—with the background singers, you feel like you’re watching a crowd of people celebrating in the sun. Do you feel that this is a summer album? Or are there a little bit of all seasons mixed together? 

Kenny Vasoli: I think it’s been pretty appropriate for the summer, but we tend to make our records during the winter time. The last two in a row have pretty much all been made right around the holiday season. And I think it’s a nice escape from the cold weather over here. Being in Philadelphia and working up in Brooklyn, it can lay on you a little bit if it’s getting too cold. So we like to keep things up with the vibe of our music. And you know, I think the duality is – for us – it works as a year-round record. Because it’s sort of anticipation for summer every time we’re writing.

SFBAC: In "Good as New", you say, 'we’re in a new place.' Travel, exploration, touring – for you, it must be a combination of exploration, and at the same time, it is ultimately a job at the end of the day. How do you approach going to these new places? And how do you let it influence you, while at the same time, knowing this is kind of part of the process?

Kenny Vasoli: We try to – and this is something that I’ve learned throughout the years of touring and making most of my living on the road – is that you can’t really, or you shouldn’t treat traveling as a means to an end to get to the destination, and then just play the show and that’s the most exciting part of it. We try to make our routes as scenic as possible, and use the PCA’s when we’ve, when time allows it. But we really try to enjoy things, even if it adds a couple hours to a trip. Because then, we really try to adopt the lifestyle of vacationing when we’re on the road. We try to practice what we preach and have some fun wherever we go. And I made a habit on this last tour to bring a skateboard with me. My thing now is, once we get to a venue, and we’re all sound-checked and good to go, then I’ll Yelp the best record store that’s within skateboard distance of me. And then I’ll skate over there, and I’ll dive through the dollar bin. It’s a nice little adventure for me, an excuse to see the city. 

SFBAC: San Francisco is the perfect city for you to make your way around on a skateboard.

Kenny Vasoli: Yeah the pavement’s in good shape over there. 

SFBAC: Absolutely. I can easily see you making your way from Slim’s over to Amoeba, with no problem whatsoever, avoiding many of the major roads. Definitely give that a shot if you can. 

Kenny Vasoli: For sure. Anything to avoid traffic. A skateboard is a good way around it. 

SFBAC: So speaking of Slim’s—definitely a venue that I love; a  lot of history to it, with a lot of great bands. What do you look for when you’re trying to find a venue? What is it about a space that helps broaden, expand and compliment the nature of your music?

Kenny Vasoli: I think you can really see that in the history of the acts that have come through there. Even just by the monthly calendar, you can see what kind of vibe a place has, and we can see who our contemporaries are that we’d like to be playing in the same kind of ballpark as. And San Francisco is so rich with places like that. We have been impressed by pretty much every place that we’ve played there. We got to do the Independent a couple of times – beautiful theater. Then we got to play the Warfield with Bombay Bicycle Club, which was mind-blowing, and then we got to do a headliner at Rickshaw. And that place has such a cool punk/indie/dance vibe. And we’re all about that kind of thing. And every time we go there, the people combined with the atmosphere makes for a great time. 

SFBAC: That’s fantastic. And all of those venues represent a good cross-current of the different live spaces in San Francisco. Rickshaw is incredible—it has this amazing feel. In one sense it feels congested, but at the same time, when a good show is there, it just bursts open—it has an energy unlike any other place. Sloan are actually playing there on the 22nd. I know you actually won’t be in town for that, but that’s going to be pretty incredible. 

Kenny Vasoli: Oh yeah – that’s a blast from the past. I knew them from a very early age. 

SFBAC: You have to check out Commonwealth, if you haven’t had a chance. It just came out last week. It’s absolutely incredible. 

Kenny Vasoli: I appreciate that. I’m looking for a new thing to dig into. 

SFBAC: Getting back to Vacationer, I was trying to classify this type of music, and it’s literally impossible. It’s an explosion of R&B, electronica--you hear notes of Samba in there. When you try to explain to uninitiated people what the sonics are about, what do you try to, how do you explain this to them? 

Kenny Vasoli: To try to get too technical with people is sometimes not the right way to go about it for me. So I usually just boil it down to me by like, Beach Boys for today, or Beach Boys over top of hip hop. And obviously, I think that there’s a lot more going on in there in terms of influences. But Beach Boys and J Dilla are two of the primary influences that we go to, and they kind of rear their head in our music. 

SFBAC: That’s fantastic. Beach Boys – the evolution of their sound in popular culture – different decades, and different Beach Boys albums, which influence certain artists. Just like the Beatles, it’s something that never ever is going to go out of style. 

Kenny Vasoli: Oh man. There’s so much. The older I get, the more I appreciate the later years Beach Boys stuff. The 70s stuff, like Surf’s Up and Sunflower. Those records just blow my mind more every time I hear them. 

SFBAC: Absolutely. I was just listening to Love You last week, and it’s amazing the little nuggets you find in there, which you feel. Sometimes you might ignore it first. I feel like you have that in your music as well—there’s little crevices, little things that pop up. I’ve been listening to through Senheiser 600 HDs. And just hearing some of the ways that you’re panning audio, some of the little sonic touches here and there – it’s great that you guys reflect that subtlety in your music. 

Kenny Vasoli: I appreciate that. We’re very meticulous, especially in making this last record. We were raising the bar in terms of production, and there’s a lot of attention to detail and trying to capture the spirit of a lot of 60’s or 70’s soundtrack music. It was in a time where they had a lot of ensembles, and a lot of composition or orchestration that went into it. 

SFBAC: Taking a step back to live music, the first time I became familiar with Vacationer was through a Last.fm session. I find it interesting how social media and this really unique crosspoint between what you’re seeing on Facebook and Twitter, and how artists are reacting to their fans. It’s becoming more and more of an important element in the mix. How do you see social media as a way to engage with your fans? 

Kenny Vasoli: I’m starting to embrace it more and more. I think maybe I had a little phobia of it at first – because I’m probably right on the cusp. It’s sort of riding a line of generations, where there was a MySpace thing happening early on when I was making music, and that was – the way that a lot of people made their bones when I was first coming up. And then to adjust to the Twitter and the Instagram and the Tumblr, and the endless channels of social media – it was really daunting to me at first, and I had this sort of punk rock mentality, where I didn’t want to be bothered with it. And the more I embraced it, the more interesting it is to me. And I’m starting to realize how powerful it is to be able to get in touch with your fans at the touch of a finger. And so I’m trying to implement it more, and find creative ways to use it.  

I’m trying to do a monthly or bimonthly series on Tumblr. I’ll record a set right inside my bedroom, for like 30 minutes, and do some live vocals along with it. So I can drop a mix for my fans, and keep them engaged and listening too, and also give them performance from the house. 

SFBAC: That sounds like exactly the right strategy. I feel like so many artists mess things up by over-communicating, or providing content that’s not really relevant or doesn’t feel heartfelt. The idea is to provide tailored content to people in the right context. How to Dress Well, he does it really well on soundcloud. And like you’re saying, providing these little remixes that people might not get access to, it definitely sounds like you have a good feel for that. 

Kenny Vasoli: Absolutely, and it’s like anything else. The same dynamic as a friend – you just send a little something to let them know you’re thinking of them. And if it’s something genuine and heartfelt and thought-out, that’s a powerful thing to pass between fans. 

SFBAC: Speaking of ways that you’re taking your sound and getting it out there to your fan base, the new album – it definitely feels like you’ve taken everything and brought it up a notch. The hooks feel even tighter. The production value feels more streamlined without feeling slick at all. What were you trying to achieve with this most recent set of songs? 

Kenny Vasoli: You described it perfectly, and I really appreciate the compliment. That’s what we’re going for. I like pop music, but I got a little disillusioned by a lot of the pop that was coming through top 40 in the last 5 – 10 years. But then when I started to revisit pop music from the 70s and even 80s, I’m coming across these hooks that just infect me, and make me not so scared of writing pop music. And so I think the challenge was finding an interesting delivery of pop music that isn’t just hitching our wagon to the trends that are happening right now. 

SFBAC: I think that’s a fantastic way of looking at things. The 70s epitomize a really interesting, daring attempt to take pop music in a different direction. Which is funny, because so many people see it as the inception of disco, and a lot of monolithic rock becoming more and more stale. But if you listen to a lot of great 70s music, particularly coming out of Philly by the way, there’s just some great stuff there. 

Kenny Vasoli: It was such an exciting time in terms of production, I’m discovering now. I think that experimentation, and also the technology of producing music, has reached this point. It has all intersected at a point in the 70s. When I go on these skateboarding trips to find records, often what I’ll do is look through a genre and an era, and go off of that. Because chances are, there’s going to be something cool, and trippy, and interesting about the tracks on that record 

SFBAC: Absolutely. You talked earlier about a punk rock ethos. I had a chance to speak with Steve Diggle earlier this year, and it’s amazing that you see some of those great punk bands from the 70s still really bringing it. And on the other side of the equation, you have something like Gladys Knight and the Pips. And I think having that variety of music in the mainstream—that was a fantastic time. Hopefully we’re moving back toward that level of eclecticism. 

Kenny Vasoli: Yeah, me too. And I keep seeing more and more stuff, and people that are pushing the envelope and not straying away from pop while wrapping it in some art, and that – yeah it’s an exciting time, and it seems to be permeating the mainstream a little bit. So I’m really hopeful in terms of that. 

SFBAC: I really appreciate you taking the time. We’re definitely excited to have you in town, and hearing the album live, seeing how people are going to react to it – it’s going to be a great experience. I’m sure. 

Kenny Vasoli: We can’t wait. This will be one of the most anticipated of the tour. And I appreciate the kind words. 

SFBAC: Well listen, take it easy and good luck with your shows. 

Kenny Vasoli: Thanks a lot man, see you out there. 

SFBAC: You got it. 

Kenny Vasoli: Take care. 

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