Playing independent music in an experimental-leaning band isn’t exactly the most practical thing. But, given that, the Asheville-based duo called Via approach the music-making enterprise with a professional focus and entrepreneurial energy. Their music is sometimes rippling and hypnotic, but they have the work ethic of small business owners committed to bringing what they do to the public.
Via is, at its core, singer Karen Austin and guitarist Steven Gaona. The two sometimes perform and record with drums and bass and other auxiliary members, but essentially they are a two-piece. Via will perform at Monstercade in Winston-Salem on Saturday, Nov. 24, on a bill with Bolmongani and No Wammy. The duo configuration plays into their industriousness. They can write, practice, record, perform and conceptualize without having to coordinate around other people’s schedules entirely. Austin and Gaona live together, write and record at home.
The two met in Lubbock, Texas, where Austin had attended school for music business. Gaona was there, having worked for a time as a certified firefighter. Austin had been involved in the indie-music scene in West Texas, but Gaona had never played music before. He started learning guitar at age 22, around the time they moved to North Carolina 10 years ago.
“Basically our goal was to learn how to do everything ourselves so that we could create without having to be at the mercy of anybody else,” Austin said.
In keeping with that spirit, Austin runs a cleaning business that helps provide work with flexible hours to allow for the irregular schedules of many of the artists and musicians she employs.
Building a life that allowed for creative pursuits was always part of the vision.
Gaona puts it this way: “We learned everything on the fly so that we could be self-sufficient.”
Austin and Gaona often assemble their own videos using footage shot on their phones or archival material culled from public-domain sites like the Internet Archive (archive.org). They edit the final products themselves, applying filters and other effects that add to the unified tone and feeling that carries over between Via’s music and their imagery. A live show often consists of a visual experience as well as a sonic one.
“We have a projector, and we have a lot of footage, and we project movies and silent footage on our bodies and on the background,” Austin said. “Our priority is not to be entertaining; our priority is to create a sound and move people.”
Via calls their sound electronic shoegaze, and one can certainly hear a connection to bands like My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins. But Via is possibly a little more ominous, with overdriven guitar parts that churn and cycle like the idling of a loud engine while Austin’s vocals sometimes drift by in wordless cries and howls. The music exists at a place where industrial and ambient kind of crash up against each other. Sometimes Via sounds like you’re listening to heavy and abrasive music through a mesh of cotton, something that scrubs off the hard edges and blankets everything in a dark hazy cocoon. Sometimes there are pounding drum-machine beats, and sometimes there are cloudy atmospherics. Digital delays, controlled feedback, abstract washes, and mechanical rhythmic pulsations all come together in a dark, dreamy sound. It’s not nightmarish, but it’s not sunshiney either.
There are samples that float through the music, sometimes buried in the mix, and moved to the front and center at other times. Listen to “Rage,” the final track off the band’s debut 2014 EP. Ministry-ish drum programming and a cinematic keyboard arpeggiation set the tone, over which is draped a sample of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas reciting lines from his poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Austin picks up the phrasing of the poet and turns the lines into a high, whispered and darkly sultry plea.
Via released Vessels of Sound last year, and they’re working on another release set for early next year. The new record, a sort of continuation of the last one, will be paired with a series of short films, which Austin and Gaona are in the process of assembling in collaboration with other artists from around the South.
Austin and Gaona don’t go out of their way to make the music about themselves. Really, they seem to want to bury themselves in the music, behind it, inside it, under it. Via doesn’t appear to be on some sort of ego journey involving enlargements of themselves on a stage. Rather, Austin and Gaona seem to be trying to replicate the oceanic vastness of sound that they’ve found themselves lost in as listeners and fans. When Austin talks about her formative musical experiences, she mentions listening to songs from U2’s The Joshua Tree as a teenager who was raised in a strict religious environment on a commune in British Columbia, where secular music was forbidden. She snuck the radio under her dirty clothes and held it to her head. Something seriously intense happened. You could say it rocked her world. She knew she wanted to be involved in getting near and possibly recreating that experience for herself and others.
One doesn’t generally expect there to be a message of empowerment underneath such vaguely brooding music, but Austin and Gaona have a philosophy that’s akin to some minimalist composers and avant-gardists: they’re harnessing sound to make something happen to people, to blast listeners with vibrations that might effect change.
“Our motto for a very long time was ‘Love is a frequency, tune in,’” Austin said.
“We’re here to create an experience that makes people turn off their mind and become so inspired that they’re able to become who they want to be. Sound is the best way that I know how to bring that to people.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.