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Full Q&A with the Virgins

(photo by Martynka Wawrzyniak)

The Virgins are the latest white-hot (in every respect, meow) NYC quartet you are going to really care about very, very soon, if you're not clued in already. In this week's issue of the Miami New Times, we tell you why in our music section's Live Wire department -- click here to read it. And as always, there was plenty of interview stuff that couldn't fit into the print edition, so scroll below for the full Q&A with the Virgins' founder and frontman, Donald Cumming.

How can you not love a band whose live show is basically a big, fun dance party where everyone is attractive? Check out the video clip below. -- Arielle Castillo

The Virgins perform Wednesday, May 21 as part of the Nylon Summer Music Tour at Revolution, 200 W. Broward Blvd., Ft. Lauderdale. Switches, Be Your Own Pet, and She Wants Revenge also perform. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and tickets are $16. All ages are welcome. Call 954-727-0950, or visit www.jointherevolution.net.

New Times:: So tell me about the concept for the video shoot you did last night. Which song was it for? I heard you had a Victoria’s Secret model dancing for you inside [East Village bar] Lit.

Donald Cumming: The video was for the song “Rich Girls.” The concept was like, it was filmed at Lit on Second Avenue. For the past seven years or so I’ve just been going there all the time, and I’ve met so many people there and gotten to know so many people from going there so much. So it was really cool to film the video there, because it’s actually the first place we ever played the song -- my friend Frankie DJed it for us so we could hear it loud at a club.

Then the Victoria's Secret angle was -- there’s a famous quote about “all you need for a movie is a beautiful woman and a gun.” We didn’t have a gun, but we had a beautiful woman. I think it was just, one of the reasons I go to Lit so often and have in the past is, you’re always hoping you’re gonna meet a lady. But you very rarely do; you very rarely meet a lady you don’t already know. So it's like the idea of going out to Lit any random night where it’s just the usual suspects hanging out, and the next thing you know, she actually shows up. It’s a fantasy, a little silly, being like, Oh shit, she’s here! But then at the end she leaves.

The other thing I wanted to ask you about first is, all your press clips sort of make a big deal about how you ran away from home at 15, and so on. But when I read an older one from i-D, it mentioned that you had actually been dragged down to Florida with your mom, and ran away from there back to New York. Is that true, and where in Florida was it?

That’s true. It was really north, between Daytona and Jacksonville -- it was not Miami. I did make a trip to Miami from there once with my friend from the city for his birthday; his parents got him a trip to Miami. We went down there and I met him from where I was at in Florida, and we spent the whole time shoplifting, all Versace and Gucci and Armani. We drove out to some place near the Keys, some flossy shit. What’s funny is that we fucking racked all these expensive-ass fancy clothes, but we ended up in jail over a fucking disposable camera, because we realized ten minutes before we left that we hadn’t taken any pictures!

So I guess that trip ended on a sour note. It was '98 or something. Then I ran away briefly, came back to New York, got arrested, and had to go home again, from New York to Florida on the bus. My mom went nuts about that….

How old were you at that point?

I had just turned 16 -- I was 16-and-a-half.

That "half" is especially important?

A lot of shit goes down in six months. The half gave me the extra that edge of maturity. When I got back [to New York] I moved back in with a friend of mine, because he moved a couple of blocks away from my high school. I didn’t spend much time in school, I hung out at his house more. His mother was renting out more rooms because his brother had gone to college. It was me, him, and this girl Sherry and we were all living there together.

A lot of your press of course also focuses on the story about how you met [photographer] Ryan McGinley not too long after this. Does that get tiring?

No, I mean, whatever. I guess we’re grateful to be getting press at all, and you can’t fucking control what people ask you about.

Is there anything you wish people would ask you about, but they don't?

Not necessarily…. It’s not my favorite pastime. Whatever you want to ask is perfectly fine.

So it seems you were quite interested in film for a while, and you were director of photography for a documentary. How did you get involved in that, and how did you then move into music?

Growing up, there was a point until sixth grade where it was rock and roll, and then something shifted and it was filmmaking. That’s all I wanted to do; that’s all I cared about. That’s why I dropped out of high school, so I could take courses at the New School. I made a couple of shorts, and they’re … very, very short.

What filmmakers did you particularly admire?

All of them.

Um, how specific….

What, you don’t like that? Okay. How about Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese, Fassbinder, Monty Hellman, Raul Walsh, John Ford…. Basically what would happen is I’d see a movie that I loved, usually by one of the big Seventies guys, and then end up reading a book about him, and then reading about all the movies he had been influenced by. And then it just went on and on and on and on. That’s all I did with myself. Dennis Hopper, I think, is also one of the top, top filmmakers as a director.

When did you start playing music?

Growing up, until sixth grade, all I wanted to do was be a musician. Even when I switched my focus to filmmaking, I always had little bands, they just never went anywhere. Sort of around the same time, I realized it was going to take a lot to transform – I was way more capable of writing, and way more actively writing, than making films, and of course so I just started writing songs.

After I started writing songs, we were able to play them and record them, and you could follow the work to its logical conclusion in a lot more of an organic way, without a lot of – it was just more realistic. It was more immediate to have the work exist right away, which is something that I needed at that time in my life. There was a lot of time spent planning and daydreaming about beautiful movies that I could make.

So when did you start seriously writing music?

All the songs I’ve written I’ve been serious about.

Okay, let's say, this time around, what led to this band.

Professionally, I guess it started when I signed my record deal.

Did you ever take any lessons?

I took guitar lessons for like a couple months when I was in seventh or eighth grade.

And what kind of music were you into when you were growing up?

I was into David Bowie and the Doors and the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Chuck Berry. Then also simultaneously, the Boyz in the Hood soundtrack, the Deep Cover soundtrack -- all that shit came out right when I was a kid. The first Chronic album [by Dr. Dre], the first Snoop Dogg album, NWA, the Geto Boyz, 2 live crew, the first Redman album. The first Wu-tang album. All the Wu-tang albums. That was in junior high.

You were into 2 Live Crew up there?

I had 2 live crew when I was like – Banned in the USA, I was probably nine or 10 I bought it on 14thStreet. You could buy cassettes on 14th street; bootlegging was very allowed back then. You could just buy everything bootleg, so we had all those tapes. I also had the “911 is a Joke” single, which came in a little cardboard fold, that was nice. I also had the Vanilla Ice single when it came out.

What, of all that, do you think filters through to the music you play now?

I think all of it does.

In what respect?

In every respect. Every person is a compilation of their interests and experiences, right? So there it is .

Fair enough. So you met Wade [Oates, guitarist] on that Ryan McGinley shoot in Mexico. How did you meet Nick [Zarin-Ackerman, bassist] and Erik [Ratensperger, drummer] to round out the lineup?

Nick, I met through a friend named Christie. She knew that I was trying to get some music together, and I was really clueless about recording and arranging and recording -- there was no band to speak of then. She was like, You know, my friend Nick is a great musician, he’ll really help you record. And he was like Dude, I can't help you. I don’t know how to record shit, I’m a guitar player. A couple weeks later I guess he heard some of the tunes, and he was like, Yo, I’d be down to play with you, and we became best friends. So then it was me, Nick, and Wade, and we played together for a very long time, and auditioned about four drummers, and then of course through a mutual friend Eric joined.

It seems like you wound up in the recording studio kind of quickly. Did you then end up writing a lot of material in preproduction?

A lot of the albumw as written in preproduction, a lot was written in post-production! We finished the album twice, and then added more songs on it twice, just because we were on the road and we were writing, and then we were demoing it. And even though we were out of time, we’d send it back to our producers. So a bunch of songs got added. The rest were written for the EP, and then rewritten for the record. The only song that survived off the original [demo] was "One Week of Danger."

How do you manage to keep writing stuff while you're on the road?

Well, you take your day off and you go to a studio.

And how much of that songwriting process is collaborative, since you basically started the band based on your stuff?

It becomes more collaborative every day. At this point we’re pretty much all kind of settling into where, we feel comfortable contributing and what maybe the different specialties are -- kind of like the A-team.

How does your process start?

Generally, the process starts with, we need a song. Someone will tell us we need a song….

Someone tells you?

Yes. Now that we’re employed, we have to make songs whether we want to or not. So we’ll get to work. And usually what happens is I’ve got a lot of material – I record stuff every day and then once we have an assignment or something, we’ll take a melody or expand it into a song. So there’s always material – unfinished material usually is the foundation for a new song, and then it just evolves from there, and will usually sound nothing like the original.

What do you mean by having an "assignment," though?

I was completely joking when I said that. I guess I’m a little too dry, sorry. We just make songs – sometimes we’ll have a deadline, like right now, we are kind of working on b-sides. That's why the word assignment was on my mind, so I was I guess being a little snarky about it.

How did you end up on this Nylon magazine tour?

I’m not entirely sure. I guess Marvin [Scott Jarrett, Nylon editor-in-chief] heard of us, and he caught a show at some point. He had us play at SXSW, and then we played an in-store thing at Bloomingdale's with them that was pretty silly but fun.

How familiar are you with the other bands on the tour?

I’m really not. I mean, I’ve seen some web stuff. But I haven’t met anyone, but I haven’t heard too much. I’m looking forward to meeting Be Your Own Pet.

It's interesting, because, to put it nicely, people who would tend to be fans of your band would really not tend to be fans of She Wants Revenge, who's headlining.

I’ve heard that, and I can honestly say I don’t know. And I don’t wanna say anything like that because I have no idea what to expect. I like surprises.

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Arielle Castillo
Contact: Arielle Castillo

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