What Lies Beneath
With a new CD, Vermillion LIes, Monterey’s most original musical export, talks about the past and ponders the future.
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Inside a brick block of a building in Oakland, Kim Boekbinder’s studio loft explodes with creative expression. On top of a chest of drawers, an old typewriter sprouts miniature plastic trees between its keys. The bureau itself is a work of art; several open drawers reveal the unexpected: a chalk-white mannequin hand, an old-time telephone and several dried roses clumped together like a flaming red torch.
The space is filled with curiosities, including a collection of old pulleys, a mannequin that seems to be from the Victorian age and a 13-foot-long homemade squid of purple crushed velvet. On a huge window facing the Oakland Hills and a track where Amtrak trains slink past like oversized silver caterpillars, a series of foot-tall, white letters announces to the people below “to love is to live.”
While the loft showcases Boekbinder’s artistic mind, most people know her for her musical act Vermillion Lies more than for her creative interior decorating.
One of Monterey County’s most successful recent musical exports, Vermillion Lies consists of Boekbinder, an outgoing woman with a shock of red hair, and her more reserved, dark-haired younger sister, Zoe. The pair like to tell people they both are 23, but that Kim’s birthday is two days earlier than Zoe’s. In reality, Kim is 30 and Zoe is 23.
The band has won fans in Monterey and beyond with their quirky songs about unconventional subjects, including a pair of twins conjoined by a fountain of red hair, and their theatrical stage shows that often feature well-choreographed burlesque dancers. While some of the best Vermillion Lies songs have a timeless quality, remininscent of an old blues number or a jazz standard, the duo has a clever gimmick: an arsenal of found objects, from a typewriter to a wooden puppet, that they employ while performing on conventional instruments, like acoustic guitar and piano.
In four short years, Vermillion Lies have seen impressive artistic growth, completed two albums they are proud of and embarked on several tours.
As pigeons tap dance atop the roof of Kim’s loft, the sisters talk about their unorthodox childhood, the formation of Vermillion Lies, the group’s fast-paced evolution in the studio and on stage, the band’s near-implosion and its previous tours of far-flung locales, including Russia and Portugal. They also discuss the upcoming release of their long-awaited second CD What’s In the Box? and the national tour to promote it.
The two tell their story while trying on costumes and beads from a large suitcase Kim has dragged into the center of her studio. Before diving into their past, Kim models a red-spangled top.
“Where did you find it?” asks Zoe, whose Oakland apartment is just 10 minutes away.
“Goodwill,” Kim says proudly, holding one arm up theatrically. “I’m quitting the band and joining the Ice Capades.”
Last year, Vermillion Lies played 98 shows, including performances at Portugal’s Theatro Circo de Braga and Moscow’s The Gogol Club, where the sisters’ stage banter and song titles were translated into Russian for the crowd.
It turns out their upbringing prepared them for a rigorous touring schedule. While the two rummage through the suitcase, they tell the story of how their parents sold the family farm in rural Ontario, Canada, in 1989 and hit the road in a 36-foot trailer with their brother Oliver and sister Tessa. “We were studying communal living as a family,” Kim says.
The Boekbinders parked their trailer at well-known communal-living spots like Ananda Village, a spiritual retreat in the Sierra foothills, and the Tennessee hippie commune called “The Farm.” Though the two say the only music they were exposed to during that time was at “bad hippie jams,” trailer life made them comfortable with the amount of travel now required by their vocation.
“I’m pretty much the happiest in the back of a tour van,” Kim says.
While they lived in close quarters during some of their formative years, Kim and Zoe really didn’t know each other during their early adulthood. (Their parents had divorced and each sister lived with one parent.) That changed in 2004 when Zoe visited Monterey after traveling in Central America. The siblings’ father had moved to Monterey County in 1998 and opened the Carmel Holistic Veterinary Clinic, and Kim had just rented a house in Seaside.
During the 10-day visit, the sisters bonded and started playing music together. Both had taken piano lessons as kids. About 18 months before her visit, Zoe taught herself how to play guitar, and while at Kim’s, she began teaching her sister how to play. Before the vacation ended, Zoe decided she wasn’t flying back home to Victoria, B.C., and moved in with Kim.
“We just clicked,” Zoe says.
Living together, they wrote a jazzy ode to Kim’s guitar titled “Amiga” and played the Mexican folk song “La Llorana” and the Johnny Cash numbers “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” – numbers notable for the way that the duo’s vocals weaved in and out of the song. They decided to call their collaboration Vermillion Lies, named in part for their mutual favorite brilliant red color.
Their first public appearance was a birthday surprise for their visiting mother. While practicing for the show, which occurred at the now-defunct Barbary Coast Theater, the duo realized one of their songs called “Do Something” lacked a compelling element. A few moments later, Kim tripped over a typewriter, one of the many old objects the duo likes to collect, and had a wild idea to incorporate its sound into the upbeat number. This led to one of Vermillion Lies’ most recognizable attributes: the inclusion of found objects in their music.
The Boekbinder sisters were amazed by the audience’s reception at their first concert. After the show, people asked whether they had any CDs for sale. They didn’t.
“We put so much work into that show,” Kim says. “It was like we can only do one show a month.”
The young women kept performing at local venues, including Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library and Outer Edge Gallery. They also traveled to Santa Cruz and recorded an eight-song EP titled Heart and Tongue.
Notable for its handmade packaging – the CD was wrapped in brown butcher paper and tied with white twine – the release included songs like the country ballad “Red Pickup,” along with numbers still in their repertoire like “Louder,” “Shady” and “Drift.”
Even in those early days, Vermillion Lies stood apart from other local groups by cultivating and maintaining a specific image. The Boekbinder sisters chose to play unorthodox venues in Monterey County – possibly because Zoe was under 21 – and all the group’s promotional photos were art-gallery-worthy shots of the two in sexy garb doing something unusual. One early shot had them crammed into a tiny room sitting on piles of junk and another had Kim’s face in an empty picture frame with Zoe staring into it like a mirror.
In 2006, Vermillion Lies made a huge artistic leap with the release of their first full-length album Separated By Birth. Though Heart and Tongue came out the year before, most people were unprepared for the band’s sonic evolution in their latest album.
The 16-song CD is a melting pot of circus songs, straight-ahead ballads and jazzy folk numbers that sound like Billie Holiday with an acoustic guitar. “Circus Apocalypse” is like a mash-up of Tom Waits and Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, while “Louder” is an emotional, lyrically precise acoustic ballad.
One aspect of Separated By Birth is how the music seems to reflect the lyrical content. On “Shark Serenade,” the icy clink of the toy piano evokes a shark’s gleaming teeth. Meanwhile, the plucking of the mandolin in “I Should Fly” sounds like fluttering wings before the airy chorus comes in about taking flight.
The album was produced and recorded by Myles Boisen, who has played on a couple of David Lynch soundtracks and a couple of Waits albums. The sisters recall Boisen’s improv background coming into play during the recording sessions. For the hazy ballad “Drift,” Boisen recorded Kim’s vocals and then played them backwards, urging Kim to sing them that way. The finished project features Kim’s backwards vocals played backwards. “It’s basically a palindrome of music,” she says.
For “Shark Serenade,” the recording sessions also were unusual. The band opened a grand piano and ran drumsticks along the exposed strings to create what they call “whale sounds.” The two sat with percussionist Gino Robair, who also has played with Waits, and beat on slabs of metal and a gamelan, a set of Indonesian instruments composed of xylophone and gongs, among other percussive elements. Besides “Shark Serenade,” the sounds eventually ended up on a couple more numbers, “Monkey” and “Drift.”
Looking back now, the sisters see other reasons for the album’s success. They recall that at the time they had started practicing every day, and had just moved to Oakland, where their eyes were opened to lots of other musical possibilities, including the city’s vibrant improvisational music scene centered around a warehouse-like venue called 21 Grand.
Even though the move helped foster their artistic growth, the Boekbinders say that the band getting off the ground in Monterey has been crucial to their success. “I think we were really lucky to begin the band in Monterey,” Kim says. “We had a lot of support.”
After the move to the Bay Area, the duo immersed themselves in penning the songs that would become the backbone of the Vermillion Lies catalog. “We were a lot more prolific at the beginning,” Kim says. “Writing, writing, writing.”
Zoe now notices the variety of styles on the rambling CD. “The album is charmingly unfocused,” she says matter of factly.
When the album was completed, the sisters just felt excitement by what they had created. “It really felt like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Kim says, “ ‘We are going to be famous.’ ”
Vermillion Lies’ songwriting leap was matched by their growth as performers. Their stage shows became a spectacle featuring their inspired playing, vaudeville-style banter and a rotating crew of skin-baring burlesque dancers who perform interpretive moves to some of their numbers.
Most importantly, Vermillion Lies decided to detonate the “fourth wall,” a theater term that refers to the imaginary boundary between performer and audience. During the powerful gospel blues song “She Comes,” the sisters cajole the crowd into providing the beat by clapping along. For “Global Warming,” the pair divides the audience in half and gives each side of the room instructions to scream different parts of the chorus at certain times in the song.
“We involve [the crowd] in our show, and it’s a collaboration,” Kim says.
Longtime fan and Monterey native Justin Lawrence Devine recalls seeing the band at their second show at the now-closed Outer Edge Art Gallery in 2005. They were not the act he thought they would be. “I had seen a fair number of vaguely timid singer/songwriters,” he says. “It wasn’t like that at all.”
While Devine, who has seen the band more than a dozen times, initially was impressed, he admits noticing a significant change in the duo’s performances over the years, particularly because of the audience interaction. “I think it’s grown from a musical performance to a performance art piece,” he says.
During a performance at Monterey Live earlier this year, what sounds like circus music plays as a stream of burlesque dancers flows into the crowd. While Kim plays piano, Zoe sings: “Come down and join the circus/ It’s the end of your world/ Come down and join the circus/ You dead boys and girls.”
Throughout the song, titled “Circus Apocalypse,” the dancers tug and tease at members of the audience while moving seductively around the crowded venue. After the two sing a line stating that to join this circus you must die, the song becomes increasingly noisy and chaotic. Then, the music gradually subsides, and the dancers slowly fall to the floor like wilting flowers.
“Circus Apocalypse” is one of many instances in a Vermillion Lies show where the music is only part of the experience. In another number during the gig, “Love Junky,” Zoe bashes a large metal gas can with a rubber mallet as Kim sings lines like “Why do you fuck me up?”
Vermillion Lies admit they have had mostly positive experiences on the road outside of Monterey except for a few instances. The band completed a full national tour last summer, a tour of Portugal and Russia this winter and multiple shorter jaunts, including three tours on the West Coast.
They recall a surly rock-club crowd they played for at a Salt Lake City dive bar called Burt’s Tiki Lounge. There, the sisters performed between acts by a group of strippers called the Slippery Kittens, who purported to be a burlesque troupe but instead spent much of their performance showing off their surgically enhanced breasts to the crowd.
To get the unruly crowd’s attention, Kim tried to pull off a rock-star-style high jump during the manic original song “White Picket Fence.” But she ended up falling and twisting her knee. In pain, she crawled across a collection of plastic lobsters the band uses as props in their stage show and announced: “I’m broken.”
The band soldiered on and completed the show, but at a later tour stop in New Orleans, Kim’s leg hurt so much she had to use a cane to get around.
Zoe also has had a few rough moments on the road. During the group’s Russian tour, she developed a high fever. After rushing around the city all day, she and Kim traveled to the Moscow airport to catch an important connector flight. As Zoe sat down to rest, she passed out. Kim immediately put her hand over Zoe’s heart to make sure her sister was alive. The pair missed their plane.
And this past January, they were hired by a group of Russian expatriates to play at a party for the Russian new year at Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace. Though they took home $6,000 for performing only four songs, the pair were not impressed with the audience, whose members wanted to be entertained without contributing to the show. “Vegas is my hell,” Kim says. “There’s no energy exchange.”
One thing the sisters did take home from Vegas – besides the money – was the knowledge that their flamboyant costumes paled in comparison to those worn by the performers in the shows there. “You know what we learned in Vegas?’’ Kim asks with a smile. “Vermillion Lies is a subtle band.”
This winter, a rumor spread around the band’s fan base that Vermillion Lies were breaking up. Zoe had embarked on a solo tour and put out a solo CD titled Shoestrings, a great EP where her singing sounds like Billie Holiday and her acoustic guitar playing recalls country blues artists Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten.
Zoe admits the strain of such an intense relationship with her sister had started to take its toll on the band. The sisters declined to be specific, but they were concerned about the band’s future, as well as their friendship.
“We started off as sisters and best friends,” Zoe says. “It’s more intense than marriage.”
They ended up seeing a therapist after their mom called Zoe while she was on her solo tour.
She pleaded with her daughter to work things out with Kim and to keep Vermillion Lies going. She also told Zoe that the band no longer was hers and her sister’s alone. Instead, the mother said, the band had come to belong to the fans.
Kim says that although they have only been to therapy twice, the sessions with an objective listener have helped the pair work out their differences.
“Both of us have renewed energy for our friendship and the band,” she says.
This becomes apparent as the two goof around for a photo shoot at Kim’s loft. Zoe holds an umbrella over her head, and Kim runs into the kitchen to fetch a teapot that she then pretends to pour from on top of Zoe’s umbrella.
They put those props down, and Zoe picks up the fake squid and wraps a tentacle over her shoulder as if it’s a fancy scarf. “Pretend like the squid is attacking you,” Kim instructs her sister. “And I will save you.”
This month, Vermillion Lies released their second full-length CD What’s In the Box? before starting a two-month national tour. The itinerary includes a couple of performances at Monterey Live, March 10-11.
The sisters say recording the new album was unlike creating Separated By Birth. While the first CD came about during a two-month flurry of recording, What’s In the Box? was made over a year-long period between tours. This time, the two were more confident in the studio.
Boisen, who once again produced and recorded the album, says he and the Boekbinder sisters were aiming for something different on the second CD.
“We were going for a little more of a stripped-down sound on What’s In the Box?” he says. “What’s In the Box? is a little closer to the sound of their live show.”
What listeners get is a collection of tracks finely polished by the duo’s frequent touring. The CD includes live favorites like the environmental goof “Global Warming” – which features a chorus of “Global warming, it’s hot/ Global warming, it’s not cool/ Global warming, it’s too hot for school” – and the jazzy folk of “Blue,” which features ringing bells, kazoo and percussion by a tap-dancing puppet controlled by Kim.
The album also further reveals the band’s quirky sense of humor. Some of the duo’s most offbeat lyrics appear in the album’s opener, “Grandfather.” The song begins with the two singing: “Mommy, when grandfather dies/ Can we cut him open to see what’s inside?/ Mommy, when grandfather dies/ We want our grandfather’s eyes.”
Since most of the songs on What’s In the Box? have been performed frequently by the band over the past year, the release probably will not surprise people the way Separated By Birth did. But the CD is essential for fans who have waited a long time to have a disc filled with Vermillion Lies favorites like “Found Myself” and “She Comes,” and for newcomers who want a taste of the band’s sound.
Currently, Kim has just finished recording a five-song EP titled First the Bees…The CD, which she says is much darker and more piano based than Vermillion Lies material, includes numbers like the stripped-down but catchy “More and More,” and the title track, which has the theatrical kick of a show tune. With both sisters branching out individually, they will have to decide which songs should be added to the Vermillion Lies catalog and which should be on their solo releases. “What is a Vermillion Lies song?” Kim asks. “A lot of times, they tell a story.”
Today, the sisters are wondering what’s next for them.
They have some ideas. Zoe says she acted in high school and thinks making a film starring her and her sister with a Vermillion Lies soundtrack could be an artistically fulfilling next step.
Kim says putting on fewer, but more extravagant, shows also might be a logical move.
“At some point, it would be really fantastic to play just twice a year, and play a really big show,” she says. She stops and thinks for a second and adds, “Then what would we do the rest of the year?”
Most people who have seen Vermillion Lies’ stage show agree the band is destined for big things. Whether the fickle music industry will allow the sisters to shine on a bigger stage is anyone’s guess.
But even if they don’t become as popular as many believe they deserve, the sisters say that won’t stop their creative flow.
“It’s not really a choice,” Zoe says. “It just happens, and we chose to share it with people.”