Q&A: Girls Against Boys’ Scott McCloud On The Return Of His Band And Why It’s Good That Some Old Tensions Never Go Away
Later this year Girls Against Boys — post-rock, NYC sex-machine band du jour of the ’90s — will release The Ghost List EP, their first proper release in more than 11 years. It’s a long time coming for the much-beloved band, especially since back in their heyday (and over the course of six mostly excellent albums), they were a force to be reckoned with. The band’s most beloved records — 1993’s Venus Luxure No.1 Baby and 1996’s House of GVSB — we’re defining missives, neatly encapsulating everything that was sexy and dangerous and exciting and fantastically fucked-up about downtown NYC in the ’90s. With two bassists and a lead singer whose speak-singing scarcely ever rose above a sneer, the band invented an aesthetic that was uniquely their own … only to eventually see their own success eclipsed by a slew of young band they themselves helped inspire. Having played only a handful of shows since disbanding in 2002, the newly reunited Girls Against Boys — Scott McCloud, Eli Janney, Johnny Temple, Alexis Fleisig — are currently playing a string of dates in the UK before returning Stateside. We’ve already had a taste of the new GVSB material via “60 Is Greater Than 15” and “It’s A Diamond Life,” but fans will have to wait until September to hear the rest of the EP. In the meantime, I called up frontman Scott McCloud — in the Czech Republic, of all places — to find out how the GVSB reunion came to be.
STEREOGUM: I’ve talked to a lot of bands who have gotten back together after a period of several years apart, and it’s funny how often people tell me how quickly everyone falls back into their old roles. The same dynamics tend to assert themselves pretty quickly.
MCCLOUD: Yeah, I agree with that. Just the idea of touring again and playing shows … some shows are great and others are kind of duds, and you’re like, “All right, well, nothing’s changed there then.” [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Did you always have the feeling that at some point you guys would get back together and play shows?
MCCLOUD: Actually no, I didn’t. I don’t know what everybody else thought, but, no, I didn’t. We did a few things in the early 2000s. Like occasionally getting together and playing a show or two, and we were doing that at that time kind of just for the hell of it. We had the opportunity to go some places we never had been to before, like Russia. So it just seemed like, “Oh, let’s do that!” because we always like playing together, but then there’s the other side of things. When you are in a band for so long — and this is nothing new to anyone who has been in a band for a really long time — there’s also just a lot of work. You don’t wanna always do it all the time. I think when that stopped, when we kind of finished the last round of touring strange places, I thought, “OK, that’s probably it, we probably won’t do anything anymore.” And that lasts for a few years — many years, actually — and then you’re kinda like, “Well, maybe we could play again.” But the thing that actually kind of got this going was that Eli and I had kinda just started emailing each other at one point and we were kind of talking about music again — like writing music — and he had some song ideas. I still play in other bands and do things so it just felt right. We thought, “Look, if we’re gonna do a song, why don’t we make it a Girls Against Boys song?” So it just kind of started again and we were like, “If we’re gonna make some songs, why don’t we play?” That’s kind of the way it happened. Of course, once we kinda got going it became a whole band thing. It’s not just me and Eli. We just brought some ideas in, like we always did, and we recorded in New York. And now it’s slowly being finished up.
STEREOGUM: I know you guys originally came from DC, but you always came off as a kind of quintessentially NYC kind of band. Does everyone still live here?
MCCLOUD: Everybody except myself, I don’t really live there anymore. I live in Europe. I live in Vienna most of the time, although I still have a place in New York.
STEREOGUM: Once the wheels started turning, how was the experience of recording together again after being away from each other for so long?
MCCLOUD: It was good. As I said, we had played together a few times over the years, so it wasn’t that weird. Still, the last time we recorded something was in 2002, so to get back in the room together again with the concept of actually recording was pretty interesting. I mean, I was nervous about it; I didn’t know how it was gonna go. We settled right back into our form, basically, right where we had left off. That’s how the material sounds to me. I think now it actually sounds cooler to me than it might’ve sounded to me in 2003, if you know what I mean. We talk about this a lot. When you’re in a band for a long time … at a certain point you don’t wanna just repeat yourself endlessly and rather pointlessly. So you’re kind of always trying to push things in new directions, and this time, as a lot of time had kinda gone by, there was really no motivation to do anything that didn’t just come naturally. And that was a relief, because it’s like the expectations were almost gone completely. So it can just be what it is, and doesn’t have to apologize for itself in any way shape or form, which is actually a wonderful feeling.
STEREOGUM: I remember when Freak*on*ica came out [in 1998], it was right about the time I was moving to New York. That was sort of around the time you guys stopped making music. You had been a band for more than a decade at that point. I always felt like you guys kind of suffered at that time — not because you weren’t making good music, but just because you were no longer a new band. You had been the cool kids for a long time at that point and suddenly the tide was turning. I don’t know if that makes sense.
MCCLOUD: Absolutely, it does make sense. I think that in rock music there’s this total focus on newness, and so when you’re not brand new anymore, then you’re old, and then you’re tired. So it’s this kind of constant newness, but then at a certain point, you know, as some indie band, I forget their name, said in a record, “Newness Ends.” [Ed. Note: The New Year] So at that time it definitely felt like the music world that we had kind of been part of and comfortable with was just turned over on its head. I think part of it was that the millennial change actually had something to do with it in an abstract type of way. During Freak*on*ica we were kind of struggling with trying to find new directions but it didn’t feel entirely successful to us, and that was a difficult period. That was followed by label difficulties, and … well, by the time we made the record in 2002 [You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See], it was kind of like we were done. It felt like a last-ditch kind of effort to do something and it felt like things were over, basically. Music had just moved on. There was a different sound, there were different things happening, and we didn’t feel like we fit in.
STEREOGUM: Was Freak*on*ica a one-off major label record?
MCCLOUD: It was. It turned into a one-off major label record because it was originally supposed to be three. There was a contract for three records, but just as that record came out Geffen Records basically collapsed. The record came out in June, we were on tour with Garbage in the autumn, and we learned during that tour — in like November — that Geffen Records would cease to exist as of January 1, 1999. We were basically just lost at that point. We had no label but we were still a part of, you know, someone owned our asses, but I don’t even know who it was. [laughs] And they weren’t interested, so we kind of just spent a lot of time floating around in this sort of strange corporate landscape limbo trying to make music, but I think we were also really frustrated. At a certain point it becomes internal. The frustration gets more intense and, you know, it’s not fun anymore. It’s not fun to go to rehearsals. It feels like a job. It feels like nothing’s happening right in the rehearsals and it just becomes an endless business meeting about everything going terribly and how we should somehow fix things. And that’s sort of contrary to making good music. So that really also fed into our failure to do that many things between Freak*on*ica and You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See. There’s like four years there where we didn’t really accomplish much because we couldn’t. We were stuck.
STEREOGUM: In the years since GVSB became inactive, everyone in the band has gone on to do a wide variety of projects. It’s not as if you guys haven’t all kept very busy.
MCCLOUD: Definitely not, I mean, everybody’s remained active doing different stuff and playing with people, doing collaborations, making records. All kinds of things.
STEREOGUM: There always seemed to be a really interesting tension in Girls Against Boys, which made for an interesting tension in the music as well. When you come back to doing this, now that everybody is a little bit older and, perhaps, a little bit mellower, does that tension still exist? Does your way of making music change?
MCCLOUD: I know what you’re talking about, but I think it’s still there. I think there was a tension between us. I mean, there’s a tension in the music and there’s always been a kind of tension within the personalities of the group. It’s something that our group overcame just by being together for so long. And we were so fortunate that things went well for such a long period of time. Still, there’s always this tension with us, but it is something that … well, it’s interesting you ask that because it’s something that in the past I would think, “This is a really a problem.” Coming back together and doing it again it’s kind of cool to see that it’s actually still there — exactly, crystallized — and it’s exactly the same as it was before. But now I see it differently, I see the four people playing and it’s something about the way we interact that makes us the band that we are. It’s not really a tangible thing that I can put my finger on, but there’s something about the four of us. It’s a real four-member group. That dynamic — whatever it is — is what makes it work.
STEREOGUM: As I mentioned, I’ve talked to a lot of bands who have sort of had the same experience of going away for a while and getting back together, and people often say like, “Oh, we’re a lot older now and everybody’s kind of more mellow and not so anxious or whatever. It’s way easier now,” and then I talk to them again a few weeks later, you know, after they do a tour together, and they’re like, “Uh actually no, it’s still the same. Everyone is still the same jerk they used to be.”
MCCLOUD: Right! In all likelihood, everything’s exactly the same from the first minute. It’s kinda how it feels like with Girls Against Boys, but it was never horrible between us, I don’t mean to imply anything like that. I just mean that there was a certain amount of tension, and I guess I don’t have much to compare it with, but I suppose all bands exist in the same way, right? I mean they have this kind of tension within the group that helps to define a sound — and when that’s going well it’s really good, and when it’s going bad I guess it can be disastrous.
STEREOGUM: Have you been surprised to the fan reaction of your getting back together? People seem really excited.
MCCLOUD: It seems like a lot of older people remember us and know us, but there has also been a nice mix of younger fans, too. The amount of people that seem to remember this stuff is pretty great for us to see. After so long it’s also fun to play the songs again, and to also have some new songs. A song that we might have not been too excited to play back in 2002 sounds really different to us now. Given some time away, you start to see the whole thing differently. You forget about how the songs feel, and it’s a surprise when you return to it.
STEREOGUM: Hopefully it also gives people the impetus to go back and re-examine your back catalog. You guys made a lot of great records.
MCCLOUD: Well, we hope that’ll be the case. We’re very proud of the stuff we’ve done, and it’s great to be in a position to be able to do it again. When I think about it really objectively, I think we’re just kind of happy and quite lucky just to be able to do it at all.
STEREOGUM: The EP will come out in September. What do you anticipate the next year or so being like? Will you guys do a lot more touring?
MCCLOUD: Yeah, we’re going to continue to do more dates. Again, we’re going to do it in bits and pieces. We have December in the States, and then in December we’re gonna go to the UK for the first time in a really long time and also do some more European dates. Next year, we’re planning a few different things, but we hope to just continue at our own pace, much less aggressively than we did in the ’90s. You know, we’re not going to be touring all the time and recording all the time, but we will do stuff, as long as it’s making sense to us.
Girls Against Boys’ The Ghost List will be released 9/24 via Epitonic