Just don't call them "goth."
It’s a ringing endorsement if ever there was one: Type O Negative frontman Peter Steele once called Lycia “the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” Steele enjoyed the Arizona-based darkwave trio so much that he took them on tour with Type O in 1995. A dozen years later, Lycia vocalist Tara Vanflower contributed backups to “Halloween In Heaven,” a sadly prescient song on Type O’s final album, Dead Again. (Steele himself shed the mortal coil in 2010.) Scott Conner of one-man black metal outfit Xasthur has sung Lycia’s praises. Interweb rumors abound that Trent Reznor is also a fan.
Though Lycia began as a bedroom project founded by multi-instrumentalist and all-around mastermind Mike VanPortfleet in the early ’80s, the band didn’t unveil their full-length debut until 1989. Embracing an icy, somber and highly melodic aesthetic, they enjoyed modest success throughout most of the 1990s and released several albums through the esteemed Portland, Oregon, goth/darkwave label Projekt. After a decade-long hiatus during which VanPortfleet struggled with diabetes and questioned his own songwriting abilities, Lycia began releasing music again in 2010. Check out a track from their latest, A Line That Connects, streaming below, followed by an in-depth interview with the band.
NOISEY: What was the initial inspiration for Lycia?
Mike VanPortfleet: The roots of what became Lycia actually go all the way back to 1981, but it wasn’t until 1988 that I really gave it a serious push. My initial inspiration was to imitate the post-punk bands I was listening to at the time—early Psychedelic Furs, Echo & the Bunnymen, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, and in particular Joy Division. But that naturally didn’t lead to anything because there was a lack of original creative focus. In 1988, I got a four-track cassette recorder, and that really opened the door. Very soon after the style and writing became influenced more and more by earlier recorded Lycia material, and that just fed on itself, and led to what became our unique sound.
Lycia are regularly cited as darkwave pioneers. Is that a term you’re comfortable with? Is it preferable to “goth rock”?
Van Portfleet: I really dislike being labeled as something. Lycia creates music. Genre tags tend to exclude. For years we were marketed as being a goth band, and we’ve heard statements along the lines of, “I never listened to Lycia before because I don’t like that kind of music, but now that I’ve heard it I really like it” quite a number of times. Obviously this was and is frustrating. "Come one, come all" is my opinion. I like a wide range of styles, and while Lycia is without a doubt moody and dark, I don’t see any label really fitting what we do. Darkwave? A term that represents two very different styles. I don’t know, really.
Tara Vanflower: One of the things that always frustrated me about the "goth" tag was that it was just inaccurate. Being into dark themes and even wearing black clothes does not equate to goth. So goths were upset we didn’t look like Edward Scissorhands—and I saw more than one example of that crestfallen realization on tour—and non-goths didn’t even bother listening to Lycia because most people think the whole goth thing is cartoonish. The darkwave tag is more accurate, I guess, but I’m not sure it’s right, either. At least it’s closer, and there’s no fashion statement associated with it.
Lycia is often mentioned as a favorite of well-known musicians like Peter Steele and Trent Reznor. At what point did you become aware that they were fans?
Van Portfleet: I have no idea where the Trent Reznor mentions originate from, but I’m asked about this often. I’ve never met him, I’ve never heard this from other musicians, and I’ve never seen it documented anywhere besides just vague internet mentions. So I doubt the validity of this. Perhaps it’s true; perhaps it’s not. I like NIN so it would be flattering but I have no idea, really. But Peter Steele of Type O Negative was a major supporter, which we became aware of in 1994 when Projekt Records told us that Peter really liked A Day In The Stark Corner and wanted us to open their upcoming tour. That fell through, but we eventually met him in 1995. Peter’s support of Lycia opened many doors for us, and this current wave of interest is a direct result of that.
Steele once said that Lycia was “the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” How do you feel about that description?
Van Portfleet: Well, I know he meant it as a compliment, and I likewise am attracted to darker styles of music, but it feels sort of strange saying that I like that statement. But I do because I understand where a statement like that comes from. Peter really had an appreciation for darker, atmospheric music. The last time I talked to him he told me of a side project idea he had that would involve Mark Kozelek from Red House Painters and Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine. I don’t think he ever approached either of them but he did ask if I’d be interested in also being involved. It was never mentioned again, though.
Lycia toured with Type O Negative in 1995. What was that experience like?
VanPortfleet: It was their Halloween tour in 1995, which also featured the Electric Hellfire Club and the return of the Misfits. In retrospect it was great being involved, and it was a great experience. But at the time, a couple of rough shows really tainted it for me. I was spoiled. Lycia headlined about 30 shows that year, and I wasn’t used to bad receptions. The opening show in New London was bad with non-stop booing. Syracuse was even worse. I was spit on, and I stood in front of my effects rack protecting it from all the shit being thrown at us. The house soundman told me he had never seen a crowd so angry. Besides that, the other shows actually went well. Our Halloween show at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC was amazing. I will always be thankful to Peter Steele and Type O Negative for giving us that opportunity. As I said before, it really opened a lot of doors for us.
Vanflower: In the immortal words of Nathan Explosion: brutal. I was only about 23 at the time, so it was pretty disconcerting and scary. The Syracuse show was particularly awful. We watched from stage as the security guards hauled people out of the crowd and beat the shit out of them before tossing them outside. I had never actually been spit on before, and that was pretty jarring. In the midst of all that male aggression, there was this tiny girl who looked about 15 standing front and center in a Lycia shirt, and I just thought, “This is for her. I’ll take all this bullshit for her.” We just viewed those shows towards the end as hit-and-run. I think we were only playing four songs a set towards the end. Peter apologized to us on more than one occasion, but that was never necessary. It was all just paying the dues. And it was worth it because I have a lot of funny memories and now a good chunk of the people who follow Lycia are there because of him exposing his fans to us. Some of the shows were amazing.
Tara sang backups on Type O’s “Halloween In Heaven.” What can you tell us about that?
Vanflower: I was friends with [Type O keyboardist/producer] Josh [Silver] on MySpace—remember when that was a thing?—and he asked me to do some backing vocals on a project he was working on. That track never came out, but we remained in touch. When they were recording Dead Again he asked if I wanted to do some more backing vocals. Of course I said yes. We transferred files via AIM—is that still a thing?—and that was that. I later got to perform it live with them in Tempe, Arizona, which was surreal. The whole experience was a true honor for me.
Lycia was inactive for many years after 2003’s Empty Space, but you resurfaced with the Fifth Sun EP in 2010 and have been consistently making music ever since. Why the long break, and to what do you attribute the recent resurgence?
Van Portfleet: Empty Space was actually recorded in 1999 so the break was even longer. During the decade of the 2000s I really just lost confidence in myself as a performer and songwriter. Plus it seemed as though the interest in Lycia had evaporated. In 1998, when Estrella came out, we could go to a record store and we’d see a full Lycia bin, and we were often in listening stations and magazines. Two years later, that was all gone. We were perceived as has-beens by the scene that had previously supported us. Stores no longer stocked our releases. Shortly after that we were just forgotten. That really messed with me and my confidence, and I just drifted away. When I resumed working with Fifth Sun I had no expectations at all. I just wanted to do music again. In fact, I seriously toyed with not even releasing it. My mindset was I just wanted to write and record music again because it was something I loved and wanted to do. Fifth Sun then fueled [2013’s] Quiet Moments, which, in turn, fueled A Line That Connects. I have no idea why there is a renewed interest in what we did and what we are now doing. Handmade Birds and Rich Loren had a lot to do with it, actually.
Many of the song titles on A Line That Connects seem to involve various aspects of time and nature. Are the lyrics centered around those themes? From where did you draw lyrical inspiration for the new songs?
Van Portfleet: Time, space, and nature have been constant themes for Lycia over the years. With A Line That Connects, for my lyrical contributions I focused on, as the title suggests, lines and connections. There are connections between parents and children, which I explore over several songs—between my mom and I; between my son and I. There are lines that connect then and now. For example the song, “A Ghost Ascends”—that song was originally written back in 1983, and for this album it’s just being revisited. In fact the song's original vocalist and lyricist, Michael Irwin, appears on this reworking providing backing vocals. Then there are a series of abstract connections that I explore, mostly to times and places from my childhood.
Then there is “Silver Leaf.” Last year, a young boy was killed by another boy on a playground in my old childhood neighborhood. Because of the location, it resonated with me, but it became magnified because I was working on material slated for A Line That Connects, and I was mentally revisiting the times and places of my childhood. Over the years my memories of that childhood place became a foundation of safeness, comfort and purity. And I drew on that—personally and also as creative inspiration. And that was smashed. As I read more and more about what had happened my moods and emotions shifted much more towards empathy, and I really felt for the family. In the details there were also subtle connections between then and now that opened up some long-closed doors for me.
Vanflower: I recently realized that all my lyrics are about love and death. Time is tied to death, true death and the passage of time. Every second dies. It has been something that has haunted me my entire life. Even as a child I hated when the year changed because it signified death. I’m not a depressed, morbid person, despite how this sounds, but it’s always bothered me. My lyrics are a way of trying to express that, I guess. This intangible other life that hides behind time, inside time, around time—it’s out there behind a veil. A homesickness for something passed away or hidden; another dimension that exists somewhere else that’s not affected by time. “Hiraeth” touches on this idea a little. I was happy to have Sera Timms [from Black Mare and Ides of Gemini] on this song because we had previously had discussions about the concept on a few occasions. Everything is connected somehow, the reasons and realities too big for our brains to comprehend, but maybe some of us just feel it in our bones. Or maybe I’m making something out of nothing.
For this release, you’ve brought back David Galas, who played on The Burning Circle and Then Dust, Cold and Empty Space. Why was it important for you to work with him again, and what do you feel he brings to the songs?
VanPortfleet: David was part of Lycia’s mid-90s highpoint. Most people see The Burning Circle And Then Dust and Cold as Lycia’s best works. For years I often wondered what Lycia would have evolved into if David never left. We tried a couple of times to collaborate again but something always derailed it. Quiet Moments was me exploring my A Day in the Stark Corner way of writing and creating again. The end result was the most satisfying release I’ve ever worked on. This led to a desire to revisit the mid-90s style and approach, which led to David’s return. Yes, it was important to work with him again. Cold was so powerful that I needed to know what Lycia could do with this lineup again. A Line That Connects surprised me. It became more than what I hoped for, and we explored a lot more territory than I anticipated. This is Lycia’s most collaborative release ever, and David was more involved than he had even been. He even sings lead on two songs, “The Rain” and “Autumn Moon,” which he also wrote.
Around the time that Quiet Moments came out, you said that you didn’t think Lycia would ever play live again. Has that changed in the last two years?
VanPortfleet: A real live show will not happen again. If I was younger perhaps it is something I’d explore. There will be live performances, but it will just be Tara and I and an acoustic guitar in our living room in front of our son, Dirk.
In the interest of full disclosure, J. Bennett should probably mention that he plays bass in Black Mare, a band that released a split seven-inch with Lycia earlier this year. So he’s mentioning it now.