Upstream: Plague Vendor embrace vulnerability and 'graveyard groove'

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Plague Vendor
Plague Vendor (Courtesy of the band)

Upstream is a new series where The Current's digital producer Leah Garaas interviews and explores up-and-coming acts to fine-tune your music discovery radar.

There are certainly challenges for up-and-coming, newly-signed bands. There are the industry challenges – like re-releasing material that was recorded years ago, back when playing sweaty, tireless warehouse shows left you with an uncertain feeling of whether or not your music would take off. Or the challenge of working with big-name producers and engineers with impressive resumes. Having your art critiqued can also be a bit jarring. And then there are challenges involving band dynamics: How do you stay true to your bandmates, your music and your growing audience?

Formed in 2009, Plague Vendor's debut didn't properly release until 2014. But it didn't take five years to record a 20-minute album. While giving away their music for free in the Whittier, CA punk and hardcore scene, Plague Vendor got noticed by Epitaph Records, who wanted to re-release Free to Eat while the band worked on new material. Their 2016 follow-up, BLOODSWEAT, is a sort of Plague Vendor archive. Some songs were written shortly after its inception; some songs are less than a year old.

"Every show has been getting bigger and better with the audience knowing the music more," says bassist Michael Perez, who I caught up with over the phone. While satiating longtime fans' new music needs, Plague Vendor are winning over audiences opening for bands including Refused, Bad Religion, White Lung, and the Coathangers.

Plague Vendor's convincing live shows can be attributed to genuine pride in their songwriting and the sound of their record, which has been described as "voodoo punk" (though they prefer "graveyard groove"). "We shoot for something that's on the eerie, darker side because that's what we enjoying playing and hearing," explains Perez.

With a couple of names on the table, Plague Vendor were psyched that Stuart Sikes, a respected record producer, was willing and eager to take on the project. Among Sikes' past clients are the White Stripes, a band whose catalog Plague Vendor hold in high regard. "That made us feel like, 'Wow, we're doing something pretty good that these guys on this level are taking the time to listen to it and liking it,'" gleams Perez.

Another part of Plague Vendor's allure is their true showmanship. Frontman Brandon Blaine has been compared to Iggy Pop, one of the greatest live performers of all time. For their 2016 SXSW show at Barracuda Backyard, Plague Vendor ditched the stage and instead set up in the middle of the room for an intimate, sweaty performance, giving face-to-face fan interaction a new meaning.

But the most compelling characteristic of Plague Vendor is their vulnerability. When working with a new, big-name producer, Plague Vendor fully embrace their experience, skills and suggestions. Before shows, the band clears the green room of outsiders to drink a beer and enjoy each other's company. After shows, no matter how big or small the venue, Plague Vendor are more than willing to chat with fans about anything and everything. Sometimes, those fan stories end up as songs.

Whatever challenges up-and-coming bands are faced with, Plague Vendor keep vulnerability in mind: in songwriting, in the studio, on (or off) stage and with fans. Always.

Plague Vendor play Rock the Garden in Minneapolis on June 18, 2016 with the Flaming Lips, M. Ward, Polica and more.

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