Vinnie Caruana Gives The Most Depressing Interview of His Career
It’s a glorious late summer day in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Vinnie Caruana is sitting outside a bar just a few blocks from where he singer lives with his wife, Laura. They’re going on honeymoon in two days — the sun is shining and the beer is flowing, and The Movielife and I Am The Avalanche singer is talking about death. A lot. But then, death — and mortality in general — has been on his mind a lot recently.
Not that he’s letting it slow him down at all. In a week or so, Constant Elevation — the hardcore band formed by Vinnie and scene (and former Movielife) drummer Sammy Siegler — will play their first ever gig. A week or so after that, Vinnie will see in his 40th birthday (a milestone for anybody, but especially a punk musician) with a solo show in Brooklyn. It’s all evidence that the title of his new solo EP, Aging Frontman, is more of a joke than a fact, despite the somber nature of its songs and the contemplative, mortality-obsessed mood Vinnie is in today.
Six tracks long, Aging Frontman is, to some extent, the culmination of the two decades Vinnie has spent playing in bands, something that started after his older brothers introduced him to the Long Island hardcore scene when he was a teenager. It begins with the brooding Better, a slow, savagely melancholy lament that drips with the kind of regret only felt by someone who feels that the good old days are long gone. Yet at the same time, there’s a hope there, too: that we can always make more good old days, that no matter how tough things can get.
That’s an attitude shared by the EP’s five other songs and — despite admissions about a downturn in his mental health and his preoccupation with mortality — also by Vinnie himself in conversation. For though he will later admit that this is the most depressing interview he’s ever done, his defiance, his happiness, and his love for his wife undeniably shine through.
Obviously the title of your new EP is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but are there some deep-rooted fears there, too?
Vinnie Caruana: Yeah. It’s not like I’m being melodramatic about turning 40, but it is a milestone, especially for all the guys like me that aren’t rock stars that don’t have to worry about anything and have their big houses and thousands of people coming to see them. I’ve always had a modestly-sized fanbase – but loyal and amazing – and I see people getting older and fanbases getting older and having kids. We sold a lot of onesies on the last tour! It’s not like I see an end to my career or anything, but everyone who’s in my position and depends on music to make a living, they have their doubts. And I still have them all the time.
So that’s part of it: I’m getting older and I’m going to have to do something else. I’m not going to be 55 years old expecting everyone to want to come and see me play still. Not that I’m going to stop playing music — but what am I going to do along with playing music that’s not bartending? Because every time I went back to bartending, my creativity would cease, because in New York bars close at 4am and after you get done counting the money and cleaning, you get home at six in the morning and you sleep all day. If it’s the winter, you don’t see daylight. When am I writing music during that time? So that’s part of it.
The other part of it is — and I get complimented on it all the time — ‘You don’t look like you’re turning 40. You’re in good shape!’ And the answer is always that it’s the inside that’s falling apart. There are tons of trouble areas with bones and tendons and joints going wrong, and I feel it. I’m in pain. All that stuff I was dealing with when I was doing the City By The Sea record, and all the stuff I wrote about on Wolverines is still there. I have chronic pain that only gets worse and it spreads. There’s new chronic pain! And then there’s the part that’s still tongue-in-cheek where I have friends of mine who are 50 and still sing in bands and stuff and I sent them my record and they’re like ‘Ah, fuck you! You’re young!’ And I know.
It’s not like this serious thing of ‘Oh no, I’m getting older!’ but more that I think it’s funny. I think Aging Frontman is the best title I’ve ever come up with for anything. The lyrics are really heavy – sometimes depressing, and all the time very serious – and I thought it would be nice to have a juxtaposition between that and the title and the cover of the record.
But you turning 40 had nothing to do with the more mellow sound of this record? It’s just what felt right for this project?
Right. I’m in enough rock bands. I don’t want to be a rock band on my solo stuff. Even Survivor’s Guilt was kind of a full band-sounding album, because artistically, that’s just what I wanted to do. This is a look at what other shit I’m into. Movielife is considered a pop-punk band by some people, some people call it a post-hardcore band. I certainly don’t listen to pop-punk and Movielife wrote a lot of that stuff when we were really young when maybe I was listening to some stuff like that. But this is more of a glimpse into who I am now. I want to be able to tour by myself with a guitar and I want to be able to play songs that make sense in that setting.
Would you say your solo stuff is more purely you?
Generally speaking, yes. 110%. I wrote an entire record that was more in this folky sort of realm…because this was going to be a full-length and I changed my mind. I scrapped about 10 songs, poached a few good parts from some of them and I wrote Better. And many songs on this EP are my favorite songs that I’ve done. Better is probably my favorite song that I’ve ever done and it was written in like, 10 minutes, and there’s only a handful of songs in my career that I’ve written that quickly. Jamestown was one of those songs, too.
But I wrote Better, and the whole view of the landscape for my record changed; I began writing the record from that fork in the road. So to answer your question, it is all me, but Alone is a song I wrote with another songwriter and producer, Alex Fitts. I also work in publishing, and [Alex and I] got together to write because we like to create music for no reason and then figure out where it’s supposed to go. Sometimes it goes to a car commercial, sometimes it’ll go to another artist for their record. This song was always something that I really loved, and when Better opened my eyes to what the record could be, I had to revisit it and we brought it to a place where it made sense on my solo record.
How has your approach to writing songs changed over the years?
A lot of the early Movielife stuff, I wrote the lyrics on trains – which is why I sing about trains so much. I didn’t mean to, but I would always be on the train. I was working in the city, living on Long Island, and dating a girl in the city, so I would bring cassette tapes because we’d tape the songs at practice and then I would write to it. I still sometimes do it, but I don’t feel inspired during the day at all. I very, very seldomly write lyrics during the day. Although when I write lyrics for publishing, the sessions are in daytime, but I’m not writing for myself then. I don’t have any of my hang-ups.
The press release for this EP states quite emphatically that a big part of this solo EP is tackling the issue of your mental health – to make sure that people know that you’re okay, but also to make them know that it’s okay for them to not be okay. Did these songs offer the same kind of therapy that songwriting has always provided for you, or is there a difference?
There’s a difference. It’s been a few years, and things have gotten more bleak since the last time I wrote a record. I don’t want to write a bleak record — I like to think that there’s hope in all of the despair that you find in my tunes — but this one felt different. I have a friend in Ireland who asked me to do an interview for his podcast relating to addiction and mental illness. We check in with our friends and make sure everyone’s good. And over the last few years has been the first time where I’ve thought ‘What is fucking going on? Why am I feeling this way?’ Because my answer was always that I don’t have those problems. And then in the past few years I’ve been like ‘Oh, here it is – here’s what everyone has been dealing with.’ Not that I haven’t had anxiety issues and things like that, but this is a different feeling, where I know what that term ‘mental illness’ means now. You feel mentally and physically sick from it. And that’s something that’s crept into my realm and something I’m very happy I’m aware of and that my receptors are open to that and recognizing it before it’s too late and things unravel.
So this is a new feeling completely and these are the first lyrics I’ve written for myself with this new ‘friend’ in tow. I’ve never been shy of sharing everything with the listener – there’s just a passenger now who is part of me and who hangs out and I need to make sure that passenger is fed lots of healthy fruits and vegetables!
Do you know why that passenger has decided to join you?
Maybe reaching this point in my life. There’s new sets of problems and worries and new responsibilities, a new world that we live in, mortality, losing people. Every time you lose someone close to you it becomes this mark on your heart. And that keeps happening. I didn’t really experience real loss until I was an adult, which is a blessing, but it’s also a curse because it all started happening a lot. Even with younger bands that we’ve played with on the road, people who aren’t my best buds – but it affects me. I remember breaking down when Caleb [Scofield] from Cave In passed away, and I didn’t even know him. I just feel like we’re in the same weird boat. And I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read about and watched the whole thing unfold with [Scott Hutchison] of Frightened Rabbit. I didn’t know him either, but I felt somehow connected to it because we’re all soldiers in this thing. It’s really heartbreaking to me.
That seems to one of the unavoidable truths in life – that the older you get, the more people you lose.
Right. And I watch my parents, who are in their 70s, and we speak about this stuff. My parents are very aware that they’re getting up there and that their friends are dying. And I see them living, like ‘Damn the torpedoes – let’s go to fucking Sweden!’ That’s my parents’ vibe and I fucking love it because it makes me so hopeful that I’m going to live – and I fucking have to make sure that I live. It’s very inspiring watching my parents do the thing, and any time I’m like ‘Oh, my back, my foot, my knee’ – all these new things I’m feeling mentally and physically – I look at them and I go, ‘You’re good. You’re 40, man!’
Man, this is most depressing interview!
But that’s kind of the point. Because, in the context of Aging Frontman, you presumably never imagined having to deal with this stuff when you started The Movielife. And yet here you are now, having to deal with all this extra baggage.
Right. The things I’m writing about now aren’t things that just pop into my head. I’m really considering it all.
But at the same time, you said Better is your favorite thing you’ve ever written. So would you trade any of that in?
Absolutely not. And as much as it’s difficult, and there’ll be more. That’s what life’s going to be – there’s going to be extreme moments of bliss, there’s going to be boring mediocrity and there’s going to be extreme moments of devastation. And we don’t know when they’re coming. But it feels awfully good to sing about it and helps me to feel kind of leveled out mentally. And boy, does it feel good to sing these in front of a crowd of people that I know feel what I’m talking about. I’m lucky that I get to do that. I don’t know where I’d be without being able to have that release and that outlet to write about it and then perform it. It keeps me happy. And that’s the thing: You could hear the record and be like ‘Fuck, man…’ but another reason I’m happy — and I’m not always happy, there’s darkness — is that I’m able to do my thing and enjoy life.
And there’s nothing like the fear of death to make you want to make the most of your own life. But at the same time, it’s also easy to forget to do that because real life always takes over again. Do you want this record to act as that kind of catalyst for people?
I feel like it always turns out that way. Because when we all connect and I come back to their town, wherever it is in the world, and I’m singing these songs, people will sing along and they’re never sad. They’re singing it and they’re smiling because it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you feel good. Like, I’m a big David Bazan fan, and I feel amazing from his sad songs. They’re not meant to make you feel sad. They’re meant to be like ‘Hey man, I’m here, too! Let’s fucking get through this shit.’ Could you imagine if it was just sad songs that made you feel more sad? Sad songs are so inspiring to me.
Bringing this back around to your career, do you think you would have ended up here now had The Movielife not encountered all that trouble with Drive-Thru Records?
No. If The Movielife had kept on playing in the early days and we didn’t break up in 2003, then no, I wouldn’t have become the songwriter that I am right now. Because I wasn’t really writing songs. I was more the singer and I was contributing way more by just writing vocals over songs. I’d be there for arrangements and stuff, but I’d let Brandon [Reilly] do all that stuff. So I wouldn’t have grown into the songwriter I am right now if The Movielife had kept going in 2003. So anybody’s who’s mad that we broke up in 2003 and who has listened to Better and loves it – I would never have written that song if I would have stayed in that comfort zone and kept writing lyrics over Movielife songs.
So presumably you wouldn’t change how any of that went down?
I wouldn’t have changed anything. If The Movielife didn’t break up and things didn’t fall apart, then I wouldn’t have moved to where I moved and met my first wife and then have that fall apart and learn a lot and become a better person and start I Am The Avalanche, who are some of my best friends. None of them were my best friends when we started. It was just a bunch of people that I brought together to see if we could be a band. And you can go down a real wormhole with those chain reactions, but I think that all the hard times and all the great times and everything in between has brought me to where I am right now. Where am I? I’m married to the love of my life writing the best music of my life. Somehow still making music and people are still coming out to see me sing. I’m just grateful that some of the songs I’ve been writing mean something to some people still. And I wouldn’t be writing any of them if I didn’t go through all of this. We all have these journeys that build us into the person that we are — let’s hope that most of the time it’s for the better.
As you say, you’re married to the love of your life and you’re about to go on your honeymoon in two days. So how do you reconcile the disparity between the life you’re living with your wife, and the melancholy of your songs?
When I’m with Laura, I’m never unhappy, because I’m in the moment with her and our life together. We’re not always just floating on a cloud – we’re living the same life that everyone else is living and we’re trying to get by and be happy. But the moment I’m alone — you know, those days where you order a sandwich in a deli or something and your voice cracks because you realize you haven’t said anything all day, when every single word that’s spoken is to yourself in your head — is where it switches.
So what’s next?
I think The Movielife has done a lot since we reformed and we should mellow out a little bit. So Vinnie solo stuff is going to be the move, and some Avalanche fun could be something that happens in 2020. That’s something that means a lot to me and I want to make sure it stays alive. But I really want to write and release a summer record. My entire life, I’ve never released a record in the summer, and I’d really like to do that.
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