There’s a delicate balance when it comes to thinking about the past and the future. Spend too much time dwelling in the past and you’ll never move on, constantly stuck thinking about how things were or how they could have been different. Turn your gaze too far to the future and you’ll lose track of what’s happening now, and current opportunities will slip through your fingers. One must have a healthy balance of taking the lessons from yesterday to apply to plans for the future in order to thrive in the present. This is a lesson New York band VHS Collection (James Bohannon, Conor Cook, and Nils Vanderlip) have taken to heart. In the lyrical content and musical style of their debut album Retrofuturism and on the sounds of the music they’re writing now, VHS Collection have paid close attention to what came before in order to poise themselves for a bright future.
VHS Collection have been building towards this moment for years now. The band released their three-song self-titled debut EP in 2015, and followed it up with second EP Stereo Hype in 2016. The trio working on music non-stop is a common theme, as some of the track from Retrofuturism began to take shape at that time. “Certain songs on the album were finished over a year ago,” Cook explains. He says it was fun for the band to revisit many of these tracks closer to the album’s release and see how they’ve grown.
Another upside of revisiting tracks as Retrofuturism was released was the band’s chance to explore incorporating the tracks into their live shows, which are defined by their high energy and spectacular production. Cook says that while a lot of the creation of these songs happens in a production suite on a computer, the band is always thinking about how they can play a song live and what it will look and sound like on a stage. “We started as a live band before we really started producing so it’s always in the back of our mind,” Cook says. He further explains that while they don’t want to be held back in their production by this mind frame, they’re also “a band, we’re not trying to be DJs,” meaning they want to always find a happy balance between their live sets and the work they’ve put in growing as producers.
That growth can be heard even track to track on Retrofuturism, which stems from the fact the album was not recorded in one brief period. Instead, the band reveals it was a nearly year and a half long process full of stops and starts. Cook paints a picture of this process by saying “We were going in spurts of we’d all be together doing writing, and we’d all be separate writing, and we would be in the studio together, and then we would take some time off and play some shows.” That time was also spent working with other supremely talented producers, including Chris Zane (Passion Pit, St. Lucia) and Tony Hoffer (M83, KT Tunstall). Cook also says this served as an advantage in the array of themes and stories that appear in the tracks on the album, a variety that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. In all of this growing and working with other producers, the band agrees that the sounds you hear on Retrofuturism are definitely moving towards the true sound and voice they want to embody.
Any true voice or sound doesn’t start fully formed, but it doesn’t take much for VHS Collection to find inspiration. As they tell me, they just try to find one thing that interests them to begin the writing process. That one thing could be a chord, a lyric, or even just a sound. From there, they quickly dive into branching things out. They do explain that melodies are what they find most important in any song, but the process of getting there and then creating production to go along with it is very fluid. “All those things kinda have to balance in the right way for the track to feel like a VHS track,” Cook explains. This process is also where the collaborative nature of the trio comes in handy. Cook says “an individual person might get so focused on one idea in a track, like one melody or one hook or something, and then you might get stuck trying to come up with melody two or three.” With three minds working together, those roadblocks happen less often and are more easily cleared when they do occur.
The passage of time forms a large part of the narrative in Retrofuturism‘s lyrics as well. Songs like “Sign” revolve around reflecting on past relationships and decisions, for both better and worse. Bohannon explains “I think that’s one of the beauties of music in a way. It invokes memories and feelings and emotions you were having at certain times.” He further says that it can not only be cathartic to get that emotion out in the present, it also provides a nice sign post for the future to look back on and see how far you’ve grown. This attitude not only inspired Retrofuturism‘s tracks, but the album’s name and even VHS Collection’s band name.
VHS Collection are definitely looking to the future, as well. The band is planning on going on tour again in the early months of 2019, and are already writing more music. When asked what will change in the new tracks, the band revealed they’ll be creating something different by doing things the same. Cook says “I think we’re actually trying to do the next record in a more focused way, so it’s all going to be more consistent… The guitars are going to sound more similar across different tracks, the synths are going to sound more similar. We’re going to try to use the same kind of drum sounds and it’s because the last record was not done that way, we’re excited about this idea of having as much continuity as possible for the next record.” He says the band is carrying this attitude down to the smallest details, including using the same amps and microphones across every recording session.
The balance of past and future is a tough one, but VHS Collection have clearly mastered it. Their debut album Retrofuturism is a testament to their thoughtful reflections and production capabilities, and their live shows reveal the joy this balance has brought to their lives. Listeners can look to the past to take this lesson for the future: VHS Collection are here to stay.