The wisdom that emanates from Brooklyn’s Via Intercom may teach you something about yourself and the society we live in. The duo, comprised of Maggie Colgan and Stevie Jick, debuted their project two years ago with an ambitious 14-track concept record called Buzz Buzz Buzz Vertigo, which explored childhood and budding queerness. Jick has worked with music most of his life while Colgan claims to be more of a micro-fiction author, deferring to Jick’s sense of melody and rhythm. As a team, they explore delicate ideas with great force.
Today fans can hear their brand new album, Flex, Release. It is a departure from their debut in many ways; most notably, the stories themselves are closed and focused on existential power struggles, all told through quiet, experimental folk songs inspired by Sufjan Stevens and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. I had the chance to speak with the band about their new work and how it all came together, from their collaborative songwriting to the impulse to create instruments from scratch.
Via Intercom is currently on a short east coast tour as a warm-up for a long journey that they have planned for the winter. We can expect to see them in LA in early 2020.
Compared to your last record, Flex, Release has a different narrative style. There aren’t as many characters and it’s more direct. Was that an intentional change?
STEVIE: The last album helped us figure out how we work together. We took what we learned and built on that.
MAGGIE: I feel like also the last album was very concept-driven. We wrote the songs together, thinking about each would relate to one another other. These songs we wrote much more individually.
Yeah, Buzz Buzz… had a throughline and was one long story, while Flex, Release is made up of shorter stories.
STEVIE: This album was very much based on emotions. When we were putting the songs together, we asked ourselves, ‘Does it move me? Does it evoke anything?’ If it did, then it was going on the album. Also, I wanted it to be more aesthetically cohesive. Last album was more putting puzzle pieces together—we used different genres to build the larger picture, and on this one I wanted to use a more refined musical palette.
MAGGIE: We asked one of our friends to listen to the [new] record a while back and they asked, ‘Why don’t you write in the first person? Why are you writing through characters?’ That lodged itself deep in our brain. I remember being dismissive of it at first; I thought of that as my style, I’m not really writing about myself, I’m writing about these characters. But then in the last year, I actually have been thinking more about myself.
And there’s still Sal, and other unnamed characters on this record, so that’s not entirely false.
MAGGIE: I guess the last album was about certain people, like Johnny or Wanda. But this album is about the different characters of Stevie and I. Maybe not literally, but some version of us.
STEVIE: There are references to emotions that I don’t necessarily agree with but it was just what you or I or we were experiencing. There’s a whole host of things that can come from being honest about what you’re feeling with no analysis or mediation, just like blehhh, vomit.
That’s interesting, because I felt that these stories were almost surreal, based more in imagination than reality.
MAGGIE: I wonder how much of our last album was tied down to grounded plot elements, because we were telling this larger story and we wanted to be sure it was clear to people. In these songs it didn’t really matter if people knew what we were talking about.
Would you say that you write collaboratively?
MAGGIE: It’s very collaborative. A lot of the lyrics Stevie’s written by himself because I have no sense of rhythm whatsoever. I might write a paragraph and give it to Stevie to make into lyrics. Or I’ll keep it in a paragraph and speak it.
STEVIE: We’ve developed how to have a healthy back-and-forth: Maggie will write something and then give it to me and I’ll sort of song-ify it, like add a meter or maybe squeeze in a couple rhymes and then pass it back, and Maggie will make changes, et cetera.
You hide a lot of wordplay in your lyric book—it’s a surprise delight.
MAGGIE: I don’t know about Stevie, but for me, I think about the things that I write as being read as well as being heard. I just naturally think of the visual of the words at the same time as the sonic version of it. And if no one ever reads the lyric book, then it’s just kind of a fun inside joke for me.
Do you guys tradeoff with instrumentation writing too?
STEVIE: Sort of! I feel like [Maggie is] more about the textural, atmospheric, ambient, feeling of the songs. And I’ll be more about figuring out the exact notes or the micro-details of it.
The title track on Flex, Release feels very personally significant. Can you talk about that song a little bit?
MAGGIE: It was a good indication of what we were saying with the whole album. A flex and a release is a push and a pull. There’s an amount of tension that’s happening there. But then there’s also context: if you’re flexing for another person, there’s some showiness, but if you’re flexing by yourself when there’s no one else around, that’s different.
STEVIE: Also the words themselves. ‘Flex’ has this macho element, and ‘release’ has more of a gentle and emotional connotation. And on an even less analytical level, it just came to us. We were actually walking around the same spot where we named the last record.
Considering you’re talking about real emotions, a palpable intimacy follows throughout this record. But there’s this section on “Space Rider,” where you contradict that: “I wanna flex close… I wanna press close… I wanna kiss far enough away.”
STEVIE: That is a prime example of the push and pull of how to be vulnerable while also preserving yourself.
There’s another motif that probably fits with that as well, which are all the times you challenge strength.
STEVIE: On Buzz Buzz…, the story was more tied to gender and this one is more tied to vulnerability and emotional strength. Which obviously is a bit of a Venn diagram, those are intimately connected, but I think that would be the way that I would boil it down.
Absolutely. This time it’s broader: you’re challenging a perception of strength, like the upper class. “The Mill” is very much about that in my eyes. And obviously “Flex, Release,” which, now that you mention it, that one plays with gender, too.
STEVIE: We can’t help ourselves.
MAGGIE: In “The Shower/The Bath” there’s even more about gender and bodies interacting with each other. There’s nothing else to really make songs about. [laughs]
Is there an intentional political aspect? Not necessarily about the queer elements, but because of the mention of “blue bonnets” in “The Mill.” I found out through a quick search that “blue bonnets” were apparently Scottish laborers.
MAGGIE: Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting, I was thinking more like blue collar workers.
STEVIE: I did not know the specifics of that either. That was an image-driven song. We had a lot of these mental vignettes, and it took a long time for them to all come together. Maybe that’s somewhere in the depths of [Maggie’s] mind.
MAGGIE: Totally. I wonder about how my ideas and the images that come to my head are based in a cultural imagination, though probably not as literally as this story turned out to be. Maybe as part of some more rural image of men working elsewhere than the US.
Art imitates life. I do think that at least upon a first listen, I loved “The Mill,” it really stands out for its simplicity.
STEVIE: That song went through many iterations. Moving things around, there were many times where I didn’t think I was gonna get it to fit together. It still feels a little like a bunch of separate sections to me because I have all this past knowledge of all these different parts that are now gone, but I’m glad you connected to it.
There was also a very interesting mention of “god” in “The Shower/The Bath”: “I believe in god, does she know? I wanna kiss him too, does he know?”
STEVIE: It’s not necessarily calling ‘god’ a she. The ‘she’ could be a completely different person.
MAGGIE: You chose that word on purpose. Perhaps for its larger spiritual context, and there’s a level of gravity of naming god? And putting the she pronoun next to it destabilizes it?
STEVIE: It was ambiguity, playing with who’s who. There could be three people, there could be two people, there could even be one person. God is all genders. Gender non-binary god. I don’t really know why. I have a distinct memory of that line, it just came into my head. I remember even thinking in the moment, this is the epitome of just doing it because it felt right.
MAGGIE: God is an artistic evocation and nothing more. [laughs]
I also wanted to ask if there was any story behind your line against teachers. “All of my teachers, I’m sorry I got too caught up being right.”
STEVIE: Oh no, the line is: “I got too caught up in being right.” I was too worried about being right instead of learning.
Oh, I thought you were implying that you were more right than they were.
MAGGIE: I also thought that. [laughs]
STEVIE: That’s funny, wow. I kinda like yours more because it’s way cockier. But I wasn’t literally talking about high school teachers or anything. Just people who I have learned things from. I got too caught up in being right than gaining what I could. But now I’m gonna sing it your way every time. It is more of a triumphant moment.
Before I let you go, I wanted to ask about your homemade instruments. Where does the impulse to create your own sounds come from?
MAGGIE: Stevie does everything himself and doesn’t let anyone else do anything.
STEVIE: [laughs] I think that there is something to be said about our sound and, not to mention all the fun and excitement that comes from building something yourself. Really knowing exactly how it’s working or what’s going on, and knowing the possibilities.
MAGGIE: Also, we both got really interested in the idea of modular synths, especially when we became obsessed with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith after we wrote our last album. Since we didn’t have access to play a modular synth we were like, OK well then—
STEVIE: —how can we fake one?
MAGGIE: I especially wanted to be able to have a wave [synth] and see what happens when I play with the parameters of something really simple. That didn’t exist in an easy way, so we programmed that in Mac, and then spiraled out from there. We wanted to see how we could just do what we want to do with the materials that we have.
STEVIE: I think that’s another good point is using your limitations as creative parameters. Technically it is limitless with computer programming and synthesis in that sense, but there’s something to be said for hand-selecting what we want to manipulate. The two of us do more shit than two people should be doing for a live band, but that’s what I find most inspiring.