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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Vic and Gab Open Their Hearts

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As watershed cultural moments for music go, the mid-’00s Fox drama “The O.C.” probably won’t be remembered up there with The Beatles playing “Ed Sullivan” or the early years of MTV. For a certain segment of youth in the mid-’00s, though, the escapist teen soap opera doubled as a pipeline for new music, introducing viewers to the kind of indie-rock that had previously flown under the mainstream’s radar. Count sisters Victoriah and Hannah Gabriela Banuelos, the eponymous siblings behind the band Vic and Gab, among those viewers. For them, “The O.C.” changed everything.

“We were just so amazed that that kind of music even existed,” Gab recalls. “We’d never heard any of it before, so it just brought us into this whole new world of music.” The two would watch each week’s episode with a piece of paper on hand, in order to write down song lyrics and look them up later. “I think it made us indie,” Vic says. “That was all we’d listen to. There were a bunch of bands coming out of that show that we totally fell in love with, and are still into. I still have all the ‘O.C.’ mixes.”

Before “The O.C.” introduced them to the Death Cab for Cuties and Shout Out Louds of the world, the Banuelos sisters’ musical upbringing could have perhaps best been described as sheltered, albeit happily so. Their dad was a classic-rock buff who passed down his love of Rush, The Who, The Police and the like to his daughters. “We just listened to what he listened to, and we always thought that was what was in style, because we were so young,” Gab says. Of their middle school years, Vic recalls, “we didn’t know who The Backstreet Boys or N’Sync were, but we did know Supertramp.”

Vic and Gab had been playing songs together since they were 11, mostly taking cues from their dad’s record collection. The bands they discovered through “The O.C.” made them more excited than ever about songwriting, but growing up in El Paso, Texas, there weren’t many outlets for music. “There was no culture of music in El Paso,” Vic says. “We didn’t have anything like a WMSE or an 88.9; we just had radio stations that played the hits.” There wasn’t much in the way of venues to play at, either. The biggest show they played was at a coffee shop, which may have been just as well because—perhaps most frustrating of all, in Gab’s retelling—they weren’t able to find a drummer to play with. It’s hard, if not impossible, to live out your rock-band fantasies when you don’t have a drummer.

All that changed when Vic and Gab moved to Milwaukee, where they found the kind of supportive music scene they could’ve only dreamed about in El Paso. They quickly secured a drummer—Jesus Nanez, who they recruited after catching his band Purple Tongue play Summerfest—and began landing shows. “It was hard at first because guys in other bands would look at us like, ‘What are these little girls doing here?’” Vic recalls of those early gigs. “That’s true of a lot of women bands, but especially us because we look so young. People think I’m 15. Once you get off the stage, though, those same guys are so friendly. After you prove yourself they’ll greet you like, ‘Oh my god, we should do a show together.’” Within a year or two, Vic and Gab were opening for acts like Dessa and Low, and were getting airplay on WMSE and Radio Milwaukee.

Vic and Gab’s new album, Love of Mine, is the work of a band that realizes it now has an audience and is beginning to write with them in mind. If the record feels brighter than last year’s Bridges and Guns EP, which offset the sisters’ fundamentally good-natured guitar-pop with some heavier sounds and themes, that was by design. “We wanted it to sound happy,” Gab explains. “I know that sounds weird, but I feel like our previous release was sad and dark, and we wanted to put out something that was summery, sunny, happy music—something dancey, because when you play live, people like to dance and have fun, and they don’t want to listen to you complain about how sad you are.”

The sisters put one other perimeter on the album, one that’s hinted at in its title. “We also wanted to talk about love,” Vic says. “The previous songs we’d written didn’t talk about love directly. I don’t know if that was because we didn’t want to sound cheesy or what, but this time we wanted to be really upfront and direct about it.”

For Vic in particular, those guidelines presented a challenge. It’s easy to overstate the differences in each sister’s songwriting. They are, after all, siblings who share the same upbringing and many of the same tastes. Judging by how often they finish each other’s sentences, they’re clearly on the same wavelength. But in general, Gab is the pluckier songwriter of the two, Vic the more serious one.

“I have a tendency to write more hardcore songs, so I would play them for Gab and she would be like, ‘No! We need to keep it happy and dancey!’” Vic says.  “She kept telling me, ‘Less distortion, not so heavy!’ So it was really a struggle to write this album, because I totally had to change everything in my approach.”

“I’m a huge fan of my sister’s songs,” Gab says, “but it was a month or two before we were scheduled to record the album, and I was like, ‘Vic, you still haven’t written a song yet that makes me go, ‘Yes! This is the Vic song!”

“She hated all of my songs,” Vic jokes.

“I didn’t hate them,” Gab tells her. “But she hadn’t written her best song for the album. After I told her that, I don’t know what happened. She went downstairs, and came back with a song to play for me, and I was like, ‘Yes! Finally! That’s it!”

That song was “Come and Stay,” one of a pair of tracks from Love of Mine that Spin magazine has previewed online ahead of its July 9 release. Like much of the record, it’s a catchy, lovesick shuffle, addressed to a commitment-phobic partner: “You come and you stay / long enough to say you came.” The sentiment isn’t happy per se, but it’s delivered with sweetness and acceptance.

“That’s one of the things we realized when we started this album, that it’s hard to write about love and make it happy, because love is sad sometimes,” Gab says. “We tried to make a happy album, but we ended up with an album that was more like happy-sad.”

“Sappy,” Vic offers.

“I guess we’re making people dance to sad things,” Gab says.

Vic and Gab play the K-Nation/Cascio Interstate Music Stage at Summerfest Sunday, July 7 at 7:30 p.m. They’ll play a release party for Love of Mine at the Cactus Club on Friday, July 12 with Mutts and Fable & the World Flat at 10 p.m.

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