It’s not unfair to think that I’m currently surrounded by the biggest Vivian Girls fans in New York City, fans who know all the words to “Wild Eyes” and have crammed into Death By Audio on a Saturday night to watch what will be the band’s second-to-last show before breaking up. Even so, there’s a limit to their intensity—there’s movement and some mild moshing up front, but not really until the band directs the crowd to get on with it. “Feel free to dance,” bassist Katy Goodman says; “I want to see a circle pit!” singer Cassie Ramone follows. And lo, she does: the tension in the room is uncorked as fans start jostling into each other, with some crowdsurfing and even stage diving in sweaty repudiation of the frigid evening.
It becomes a celebration, just as it should be. Because there was really no way to look at the news of the Vivian Girls’ breakup with excessive pontificating over what they “meant,” as with breakups from LCD Soundsystem, Das Racist, or even My Chemical Romance. They were never that big, nor did they pretend to be—when they announced they were breaking up, there was no news of a grandly choreographed farewell tour or final show vinyl box set to follow, just a short statement thanking their fans and some information about how to go to their last shows. It was less of a signing off and more a wave of the hand—an appreciation for sticking it through.
In the cutthroat buzz band economy, that doesn’t always happen. Hyped acts disappear every day, and Vivian Girls were never hotter than when they first came onto the scene. The story, as it’s been preserved: Formed by Cassie, Katy, and Frankie Rose in 2007, they quickly developed a local following in Brooklyn and New Jersey before releasing a debut album a year later, which sold out of its 500 copy run in a matter of days. Upon being re-released to a wider audience, they won tons of critical acclaim for their reinterpretation of catchy girl group dynamics through C86 sonics, delicate harmonies cloaked in reverb and fine-tuned to a blissful mess. Detractors protested that they weren’t original, which dissuaded absolutely no one—as Frankie said years later, "I'm not gonna say at all that we were doing mindblowingly original. I just thought it was something that we could do, something that was within our skill sets. And not have it sound terrible.”
Songs like “Where Do You Run To” and “Tell The World” became mixtape staples for sensitive boys and girls, and the band went from local staple to playing overseas festivals. Frankie left and was replaced by Ali, who completed their most recognizable incarnation. A second album provided more of the same a year later, and if it didn’t make them any bigger it solidified them as a working act. Ali left, too, to play with Best Coast, and was replaced by Fiona Campbell; a third, lesser-acclaimed album came in 2011, around which time Cassie and Katy started recording with side projects The Babies and La Sera, respectively. Eventually, Ali came back. And then, before they recorded a fourth album with this reunited lineup, they announced they were breaking up. “Well, we were all just doing other things,” Katy says in a short interview conducted before the show. “It was time to close this chapter of our lives so we could go on and do other things.
It happened in no time at all, which was sort of the point. “I feel like we set out with pretty small goals and we accomplished a lot,” Katy says. “We surpassed any expectations that we ever had.” Cassie only cites not touring South America and Eastern Europe more as a regret; Ali, after a few minutes, apologizes and walks away to watch Waxahatchee’s opening set, which I can’t fault her for. There are more exciting things to do than give an exit interview when there’s a room full of your friends and fans just outside, here to sing every word to “Wild Eyes”. The show itself is typical, too—most of the songs blend into each other, as they should, and the banter on stage is relatively clipped. There are no grand monologues about what this means—the most anyone acknowledges the significance is when Katy says, “We played here a bunch of times, and we’re happy to be here.” They started and ended as a band playing Death By Audio on a Saturday night, which feels nice. It’s the last (or second-to-last, technically) normal act of a normal career.
Last November, the Walkmen announced they were breaking up… only to quickly announce they were getting back together for a charity concert during NBA All-Star Weekend a few months later. At that show, frontman Hamilton Leithauser preceded the final song of the night with a miniature speech that summed up the indefinite nature of “breaking up” when everyone in a band still likes each other. “It's not easy to knock us down because we have like five or six final shows, right? Like we have one and then we have another and we have another and then we have another,” he said. “And then we have a reunion and then we have another reunion and then we have another reunion. 'Cause why the hell not? It's so fun playing with these guys.”
It was a casual reminder that for all the hullabaloo surrounding bands giving their farewell tour, there’s a flip side which states that breaking up is just a part of life. You start a band with your friends, you play together for a little bit, and you move onto something else. It’s what happens, and years from now it’ll be hard to talk about Vivian Girls without acknowledging that normalcy. They were a group of friends playing together, not the unjustly named leaders of the lo-fi or girl-fronted garage band movement—the reality of their existence always underscored whatever narratives were heaped onto them.
But tonight, it doesn’t matter how people talked about them. Strip away all of the narratives, and what remains is a roomful of fans enjoying a band. “We’ve gotten to do so much that it’s hard to sit around thinking about things we didn’t do,” Katy says. “We could sit around talking about things we did do, and that’s crazy—that’s so many things. It was the greatest time of my life.” There’s an encore that closes with “Tell the World”, which is preceded by Katy saying, “I’m not going to cry.” She doesn’t. When they finish, they hop off the front of the stage and blend back into the crowd.
Late '00s indie rock bands are the best. Read our recap of the Hold Steady's 10th year anniversary show.
Jeremy Gordon remembers 2008 like it was no time at all. He's on Twitter. - @jeremypgordon