Stop me if you've heard this one before: a girl (me) walks into a bar and says to four unsuspecting, slovenly strangers, "Hey, are you guys in Vagina Panther?" Two of the strangers scrunch up their offended faces like I just asked to ritual-sacrifice their moms, one of them snickers confusedly and the fourth, assuming that this is maybe code for "casual carnal encounter," politely instructs me to walk two blocks south and one block east and then stop at a warehouse with a red door. These directions are useless to me, as tonight I am not looking for a Craigslist orgy but in fact a four-piece Brooklyn band called Vagina Panther.
I head to a table at the back of the bar and wait to ask these psychopaths what's up with their moniker. I've already constructed a rowdy mental image of what Vagina Panther will look like, so when they arrive appearing hygienic and calm, I hardly notice them at all. They are kind and gracious people (with respectable day jobs, even) and it took approximately twenty minutes for anyone to make a dick joke. They'd been down the street at their rehearsal space (affectionately called The Fuck Box) preparing for their lone CMJ set — a slot at the Aqualamb Records Trash Bar showcase. It will be their first time playing together in nearly a month, but they are not nervous. Collectively they've played in at least a dozen bands, past and present, and they have a strict No Banter rule so that little time is wasted on small talk. That's right, the members of a band called Vagina Panther have a policy against wisecracks on stage — the joke begins and ends with their name.
Over the course of many pints (two of which end up as broken glass shards wedged inside the drummer's hand), Vagina Panther and I discuss a wide range of subjects including singer June Sung's dream to someday open a karaoke bar in Williamsburg, bassist Johnathan Swafford's adolescent part-time job at McDonald's (where he worked alongside his mom and brother), guitarist John McGill's recent honeymoon, and a bonus tangential Das Kapital shout-out after drummer Christian Rutledge tells us that his wife's grandmother was cremated and buried in a plastic Walmart bag. But first, the question that everyone including Billboard and The Village Voice has been asking: why the fuck did y'all call yourselves Vagina Panther?
"We were in grad school a couple years ago and we started jamming together," explains Swafford. "And we needed a name. And in two different conversations, one dude said 'vagina', and someone else said 'panther.' And we were like, that would be the best band name ever. And that's exactly how it happened. It wasn't a band then. It was a joke." This was roughly five years ago and well before Sung, Rutledge or McGill even joined the band. Everyone is more serious now. "We still do lots of humorous stuff," says Sung. "But there used to be a time when we really slathered it on. Now we have an actual interest in the stuff that we do. We decided to be more earnest about things. We can't just be jesters."
A shit-disturbing name like Vagina Panther causes a commotion and raises a healthy handful of questions. Is this a feminist statement? Is this sexist? Is this a joke? (No on all counts.) As the band becomes upwardly buzzed about, their name is the trait that's most often discussed, until one attends a Vagina Panther show and sees for herself that the whole thing's not a puerile gimmick or strategically salacious marketing move. "I'm always amazed when people actually have a problem with it," says Rutledge. "There is a social discussion to be had about the fact that people are so freaked out by the word 'vagina.' It's an anatomical term."
"The music was never a joke," says McGill. "At some point we realized that maybe we should rethink being so silly. We didn’t want to go overboard. We're not a comedy band." Despite conversations about whether to adopt a new name, Vagina Panther stuck.
At their Trash Bar show in Williamsburg, the band obeys the No Banter rule as they churn out a showcase slot's worth of songs, pausing only to remind attendees of the merch table and to request that the projector be turned off. ("The light was hitting me right in the retina," complains Sung.) Despite having just heard them explain their no-chatting-on-stage policy, I keep waiting for something obscene. Nothing happens. "We try to do everything Ramones style," says McGill. "It's best to bang out eight or nine songs and cut out the bullshit banter."
By not saying much to the crowd, many preconceived notions of Vagina Panther (that they're lewd, unserious, perverted, juvenile) linger a little as the audience awaits full-frontal nudity or a Gwar-style blood shower. People come expecting a raunchy spectacle, and what they get is an honest rock show. It takes a few songs to realize that they're not going to parachute into jokes about genitalia or scream out obscenities. Vagina Panther is the vulgar moniker of a good band who named themselves before they got real. "If we were smarter about it, we would have called ourselves The Black Keys," jokes Swafford. "But we weren't." (And also The Black Keys is a boring name for a boring band, so whatever.)
"A lot of music writers think we came up with a stupid band name to get their attention," he continues. It's not a completely unfounded theory. As I skimmed this year's CMJ offerings for bands I'd never heard of, my eyes involuntarily darted toward it. I assumed it would be all women, as using the name of our seminal sex organ to represent a mostly-male act is a preeeeetty gutsy move, bros. "I used to caveat it with, 'We have a girl for a singer,'" says McGill, about not wanting to offend people. "Oh, I always caveat it by saying I have a vagina," adds Sung.
After the show, we sit near the venue and drink cans of beer inside a parked car. Sung is occasionally distracted by the ringing burner phone she just bought for $19. Swafford is fiddling with the radio. Outside, two people wildly grope one another in the romantic late-night Trash Bar afterglow and collide against the trunk. "The rock 'n' roll lifestyle is really hard," says Swafford. "You don’t make any money from it. It’s hard to be in a band and keep it going."
Which brings us to the subject of their day jobs, all of which are dignified, and all of which make the very fact that they're in Vagina Panther seem like a secret lecherous moonlighting scenario in contrast. "Being in a band is the dream for all of us, but we're also lucky to have day jobs that don't involve scrubbing toilets," said Rutledge earlier, as he picked broken glass shards out of his fingers. "We all buy into our own poverty in this business. Why is it that a band should have to lose money? That Spotify dude should have musicians picketing his fucking house everyday. The guy's an asshole. He's making his money on the backs of other people who have no say."
Holding down a day job is a logistical necessity for economic survival. Playing in a band—especially a band called Vagina Panther—is not. "We all really enjoy each other's company," shrugs Sung, when I ask what the point of all this even is. "Playing out is super fun regardless of how the show goes. We're never gonna make money on this."
It all sounds very despondent, but that's life for Vagina Panther, a steadfast labor of quality love with a libidinous name they'll spend their whole career explaining to music critics in the middle of the night.