The RVG story so far
You don’t forget the first time you hear RVG. For me, that was back in August last year when they opened Two Steps on the Water’s album launch. I stood practically dumbfounded in front of lead singer Romy Vager thinking how have I gone all my life without knowing this band? We briefly spoke for the first time at the Thornbury Bowls Club later that year. I asked if she’d be up for an interview some time, and gratefully she said yes and followed this with, “no one ever wants to interview me”. Months later, I met with Romy at The Bank, a week after RVG had played there. It was a gig that was particularly special for the band, given The Bank is where RVG made their live debut fifteen months ago for what was meant to be their only show.
Now we’ve come full circle — RVG’s debut album A Quality of Mercy has been out for a month now, radio stations all over the country are back-announcing their songs, 3RRR and PBS have both featured the album in the first two weeks of release. A sold out Tote launch and an almost completely sold out record is the cherry on top.
Vager starts by recounting how recording coincided with the day David Bowie died. “It was a horrible day. When we recorded ‘A Quality of Mercy’ and ‘Heart Paste’ we were in The Tote and we all turned off our phones and just sat there recording. When we finished recording for the day Gus [Angus Belle, bassist of RVG who also served as the album’s engineer] just turned to me and said the worst three words I’ve ever heard. I was in shock, I think everyone was in shock that day. We came back to The Bank and all my housemates were sitting around the kitchen table. Never has there been anything more tragic. We just did the vocals for the two songs upstairs. So the music — the guitars, drums and bass were recorded before we knew, and the vocals after. It’s weird to listen to.”
What may strike you initially about RVG’s album is its name — A Quality of Mercy. “It’s the name of a Twilight Zone episode,” explains Vager. There’s an episode set in World War II in the Philippines. The Americans have cornered these Japanese soldiers in a cave and this soldier’s really trigger happy. And then basically he gets knocked out and he wakes up and he’s one of the Japanese soldiers in the cage. It’s a great juxtaposition on perspective. All of these songs are sort of related to perspective I think, it kind of made a lot of sense to call it A Quality of Mercy.”
RVG are a compelling band and as such, people are quick to form an opinion of what they think the music sounds like. “If you like a lot of the music we like you’ll get it a lot quicker than people who are casual music listeners,” says Vager. “We don’t quite fit sometimes. A lot of people say our music feels like it’s being performed in the 70s and while some people see that as a negative I don’t see it that way. That’s the music I started listening to when I first started listening to music on my own. All my friends were listening to shit, I can’t even remember, Green Day or something. I somehow got myself into this weird niche where I was listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees, I saw Bowie when I was 16. That’s sort of the music that set off a spark in my brain. I really like the strength of it. All the bands I’ve been the principle songwriter of have been riffing off that strength. I love the strength of it and people pay attention to music of that period.”
The goth and glam influences that hark back to this bygone era make RVG a band that instantly intrigue — think melodic guitars with intricate parts, bold vocals and an unfiltered emotion that is even more powerful and awe-inspring live.
Considering that the band were only formed to play just one gig, the four individuals gel well together on stage. “It’s so comfortable,” smiles Vager. “I just write lyrics and assemble chords and that’s pretty much the limitations of what I know how to do. Gus basically sets up my pedal for me each show, he’s going to know what sounds better rather than me. That’s kind of what makes a lot of bands. I think bands need to have a couple of people who have a really good ear for what’s just noise and what’s kind of textural.”
Watch RVG perform live and you’ll see just how much emotion Vager pours into the performance. “I think a lot of things have changed in the last year,” says Vager. “I think I’m a much more open person then I was previously and as a result things have become more emotive and harder to control. I think I just hit a nerve somewhere. It depends on the songs as well — certain songs will open up this hole in my brain where I don’t care so I throw everything into it. I feel very wrecked after we play and I don’t want to talk to people but that’s when people want to talk! I just kinda wanna be like, ‘I need to go away! I’m tired!’” Vager laughs.
“I feel very sort of confused when I’m done. It all goes so quickly. It’s a very weird thing to do,” Vager continues. “I don’t think I’ve really appreciated how weird it is to play music on a stage until probably last year. It’s always been quite histrionic but I think it’s only gotten quite good recently. My old band Sooky La La sort of sounded like a metal band, it still had that energy but the energy was very closed off and confused, outwardly male energy. This is much more me.”
Having played music in Melbourne for almost four years, Vager — a trans woman — has watched the scene become more inclusive and representative. “So much has changed in the last few years. LISTEN happened and I think a lot of the stuff June Jones [of Two Steps on the Water] did as well has changed things for the better. I remember when I played with my first band here it was so male-dominated. This thing popped up on my ‘On This Day’ about four years ago for this gig at The Old Bar that Sooky La La played. Other than me, before I came out, it was an all-male lineup of eight bands and it was on Invasion Day. Looking back on that now, it’s sort of becoming more and more bizarre, but that’s what it used to be like. I was pretty uneducated about a lot of things back then and in a different state of mind I suppose. I want people who come to our shows to be comfortable.”
Vager is remarkably humble for someone who is gaining a lot of attention for their music, and when asked what the band’s ultimate aspirations are, she’s more appreciative of the opportunity to play music with individuals who make the experience worthwhile. “We want to be in a position where we’re quite comfortable and we just do things that people like. I don’t think that there’s major aspirations to be a giant entity. I’m pretty fucking happy where I am now to be honest! Everything’s a bonus after being in a band that makes decent music.”
In the time between the interview and now I’ve probably listened to A Quality of Mercy around 8–10 times. Each listen unlocks a new favourite line, a new moment in the instrumentation that makes me feel something I haven’t felt before. Sometimes I feel pure glee, but other times it makes me nostalgic and sad for a time in my life that I’ll never get to live again. It’s strange and beautiful how music has that ability to conjure memories, but I’m glad that the melancholy in this instance is replaced with a love for a band that unites me and the Melbourne music community I love in a way that I haven’t seen a band do in a really long time.
RVG are once in a lifetime band. A band that are testament to the thriving scene in Melbourne that’s putting trans and non-binary performers, along with the queer community, at the front and centre of the music scene — as they rightfully should be, given they’re making some of the best music you’ll ever hear. Belonging to a movement that feels more powerful than any oppressive force is a truly incredible thing.