It’s a crazy world we live in. There’s a lot of things that could make a person go insane: racism, gender inequality, homophobia, transphobia, you name it. You could go crazy, you could get really depressed, or, you could throw yourself into your art and make a record. Ian Vanek did the latter. Or, rather, a combination of the former and the latter. The cofounder of Brooklyn art punk stalwart Japanther is releasing his third album under his new project Howardian, Do You Know I Wiggle, today, and it’s the second album the band has released this year. He calls it an “accidental” album that was borne out of sadness this summer around the Pulse nightclub shooting and other racism he was witnessing.
“I got so depressed I stopped eating and sleeping,” Vanek, 36, said. “After that experience I got really bummed out, so I went to Chicago and was really moved to write by depression/mania. I was in the studio recording for like 10 hours at a time. Instead of being really overwhelmed by everything that was happening, I purged it through music. Being a cisgendered white male, watching the struggles of other people, you take on the emotions of other people.”
It was recorded with the help of John Doe of X, which is pretty rad. Vanek, a multimedia artist in his own right, worked through the depression by making a really awesome, cathartic record of lo-fi scuzzy punk mixed with a healthy dose of psychedelia. Fear not, though, Japanther fans: there’s plenty of the garage fuzz and technical poly rhythms you loved in his first band. And here’s another instance of the world being crazy: we have the same last name. I got to talk to Ian Vanek about his life on the road (but also in Brooklyn), addressing injustice through art, and whether or not we’re secretly related (spoiler alert: probably not).
Vanek is originally from the West Coast (Washington State, to be specific) and has been traveling a lot these past couple of years. Howardian is currently on tour, one of many tours that has taken Vanek around the world, especially after 13 years of playing with Japanther. I asked him how many tours he’s been on. He kind of gave me an answer.
“Musicians live on the road. I think it’s not so much how many times you’ve been away but how many times you’ve been home. I haven’t been home in a while,” he laughed. “I have bands in three cities — New York, Chicago, and Seattle — just because not everybody can be on tour all the time. It’s nice to have a network of talented musicians you can count on wherever you play. It’s kind of like a backing band situation, but all the players are amazing, so I wouldn’t call it that. I just record a lot and play live as much as possible.”
Throughout all that traveling, Vanek has maintained a residence in Bushwick. Though most folks will know him from his work with Japanther, Vanek says that Howardian actually came first.
“I started Howardian with my brother in 1993. He came up with the name, because my nickname as a kid was Howie,” he laughed. “I moved to New York and did Japanther for 13 years, but I quit Japanther almost three years ago and went back to Howardian. Even though I had success with Japanther, it wasn’t really making me happy. I wanted to remain authentic. This feels really authentic and really good, closer to who I am as an artist.”
When we refer to Japanther as a Brooklyn institution, we refer to another Brooklyn institution, legendary venue Death By Audio. Japanther played Death By Audio’s first show, ever.
“I don’t think it was even a music venue at the time,” Vanek laughed. “We had a gig at another venue that got shut down when [one of Death by Audio’s founders] volunteered their space. An entire show, band, audience, everybody, walked up to what became Death by Audio. It was really beautiful.”
I found out yesterday that Market Hotel, another Brooklyn DIY institution, is temporarily shut down (read: TEMPORARILY) while they arrange things for their liquor license. All Market Hotel shows have been relocated to other rad venues, Death By Audio not being one of them (because it’s defunct). Vanek says that there are still amazing venues around the country, and told me what makes a venue great.
“A lot of people talk about Death by Audio because they think Death by Audio was forced out of the city, but they willingly closed their doors. They got to see more music than I ever will. It was a really cool space, especially in that it was artist-run, artist-led; the people doing the sound also did noise music. A lot of what goes into creating a space like that is the intention behind it, but that intention, that culture is under attack. The cultural intention in cities now is to pay the rent rather than create a great art scene.”
In terms of intention, Vanek has got plenty of that. As I mentioned before, he’s a multimedia artist, and he taught a class at Black Mountain School over the summer. It was at this summer session that a (supposedly) well-intentioned artist showed a controversial piece of work involving blackface that, combined with the Pulse shooting in Orlando, racial injustice and general climate of the world, threw Vanek into the depression that would fuel this new album.
“This was an unexpected album, like an accidental child,” Vanek said. “It’s a mistake child that you really love. I went to North Carolina and lived for a month, and was teaching drumming and music at a college there. [Black Mountain School] was this radical art school that got ripped apart by different people’s ideas of race and gender, especially in one instance [read about another artist’s interpretation of said instance here]. At the same time we had a lot of sadness with the shooting in Orlando.”
Listening to the album, it doesn’t come off as preachy or overtly political. It’s really a loud, fun, garage-y record with major hints of psychedelia. But knowing the amount of emotion that went into the record gives it another dimension that is really important to listen to. The way Vanek cares about other people is intense and important, like his music, and the record couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I didn’t plan for the record to be released during the presidential debates, but I’m excited about it,” he said. “It’s a really intense time, but I’m trying to focus on the positive side of things. I’m excited about electing our first woman president.”
In that vein of positivity, Vanek says, “don’t curse the darkness, just light as many candles as possible.” So Vanek is intentional in his art, saying that this is the most authentic project he’s done, and that he feels like a more authentic Ian Vanek.
“Eventually you get trapped by your creativity a little bit,” he said. “Japanther had a lot of expectations attached to it, as anything would after thirteen years. This project is relatively new, and there are zero expectations. We’ll make it as real as we can. I included violins and saxophones because they were sounds I heard in my head. That’s a really cool thing, to hear something in your head and then bring it into reality.”
So that’s all well and good. But being that I’m also a Vanek, I asked him how to be a more authentic Vanek in general.
“No way!” he exclaimed when I told him my name. “That’s so rad. Are you Czech?”
I said yes, and he continued.
“Well, I don’t know, but Eastern Europeans are really funny. Your entire picture is funny. The things I do are funny. I’m in a fucked-up band that my brother started in ’93 and we’re trying to figure out how to hang off the ceiling with a trampoline. I think to be a more authentic Vanek is to embrace that humor.”
That last bit is a reference to a video Vanek is planning to make, but the first part is a thing I have to agree with. I am, of course, hilarious. Also, I like the association with my name and being funny a lot more than, as my dad likes to say, “my name is Vanek and I have to panic.” He has pretty bad anxiety. It’s kind of funny. See? There we go again. Vaneks are funny.
So Howardian is touring right now, but they’ll play a super rad show at Tender Trap on Oct. 28. Vanek says some other gigs will be announced, so keep tabs on their Facebook page. For now, Do You Know I Wiggle is available for purchase and download, and you should listen to it. Now.
Lilly Vanek (no relation, maybe) is the music editor for Brokelyn. For more about local music, and especially if your last name is also Vanek and you are therefore intrinsically great, follow Lilly on Twitter.