Q&A: Donald Cumming of The Virgins

Categories: Q&A
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By Tamara Rosado

Despite that fact that they'd released their just album last June, the Virgins have already scored major media attention and acclaim. The band's rapid emergence from the hipper-than-thou New York fashion and art scenes and danceable New Wave meets Disco Rock sound have had critics throwing out accolades like "It Band" and "Next Big Thing" like confetti.

I caught up with Virgins frontman Donald Cumming before the band's headlining slot at Popscene's Holiday Gala 2008 on December 18th. When I arrived, he was sitting in the back of the club. He was quietly reading, a packet on Winston cigarettes on the seat next to him. (Note to self: smoking is cool again--all the New York kids are doing it.)

As quiet and still as he was at that moment, it was hard to miss Cumming. Tall and very lean, with expressive features, he could have stepped out of a fashion spread of the latest hipster magazine. (Considering that Cumming has modeled for Vice's favorite photographer, Ryan McGinley, the description is apt.)

Taking a break from sound check, Cumming opened up and talked about music, modeling and life as a member of the latest "It Band" from New York City.

How is the tour going so far?

Good. Yeah, we just toured Europe for a month and that was very fun. It was long. It was the longest time I've spent outside the country. And then from there we went to NY and headlined Bowery Ballroom for the first time which was, like, real special for us.

I can imagine, as a NY band.

Yeah, it was really cool. And from there, the very next day, we flew to San Diego and did the Troubadour last night. And now we are here, and it's raining.

Yeah, that's San Francisco.

The rain is literally...we haven't had a day without rain in a month. It's very strange--it's following us everywhere. And everywhere we go, everybody is like, "it never rains here." It's really strange. We went to Europe, and before we got there, it was beautiful and then we got there and it rained the entire time we were there. Really weird.

I've listened to the album and the sound is very layered. There seems to be a lot going on there--different styles and different sounds. Can you tell us about some of your musical influences?

Yeah, definitely. I really like rock and roll, obviously. And, I think we are pretty much influenced by most rock music up until the present. With this album in particular, we wanted to make a pop record, and so we listened to a lot of Nile Rogers production which is like, starting from Chic and going all the way to Duran Duran. And David Bowie in there and all that kind of stuff. The first Madonna record, Bell Biv DeVoe, Bobby Brown. Basically, a lot of pop music that we liked when we were kids. We basically wanted to point to the last period in pop that we felt represented or maybe that we felt, a connection. And then at some point in the 90s, I guess, the gap started getting really wide.

And basically being a band from New York and having the attitude that was do-it-yourself. Playing all these do-it-yourself shows--which is our natural vibe. We felt it would be fun to try and make record which is the antithesis of that. Or, at least try to challenge ourselves with something, outside of our...we thought it would be more difficult to make a pop album.

And I think it was (laughs) I don't know...it was hard.

I can imagine it would be hard to, not just record but, to make a really good pop album, especially now.

We basically had to sift through all the stuff that we loved about the 80s, and all the things that we hated, and decide which of those elements to use. Because we used some of the stuff that we hated as much as we used the other stuff. We tried to get the sound in a way that felt right.

You mentioned things that you hated. What were some of the things that you hated?

There is a lot about 80's production that makes my skin crawl. And I definitely really don't like stuff like some of the drums and stuff like that. Looking back, some of those choices made sense, even though they were painful.

You spoke of some of the bands that you felt a connection to when you were a kid. Do you find that the music you listened to growing up has a huge influence on you now?

Yeah, 100 percent, yeah. I guess I don't have a guilty pleasure part of my brain, and have been a loyal fan of all the music I've ever liked. I think when we started the group we wanted to be really transparent in that. It felt wrong to be a band...I don't know...when did we start...late 2005, 2006...it felt wrong to be a band in a specific style. Because, it was so disingenuous. Because I grew up, the first record I ever bought was Michael Jackson, you know? And then my Dad's boyfriend had Squeeze and I remember singing along to all the records when I was a little boy. All the music was always there, and to grow up and be like, "No, we should sound like this," didn't make sense to me. And I wanted to see if there was a way we could incorporate both the truth, the reality of who we were.

Yeah, I got that that immediately from the record.

Oh, cool. Thank you.

You have talked about your musical influences but, I am also curious to know about your artistic and cultural influences. Can you tell me about them?

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I really like movies and novelizations, like books based on movies. I like when they write the book about the movie after the movie was made. I like the idea of an interior life being projected onto a character that only exists in what was...like in a movie you basically have...there's only what's on the screen. Like, we don't know what got cut out. So people watch these movies and then write books and write about how the dude's feeling, what he's thinking, and I think that's really entertaining.

And I've been thinking about rock and roll, or the idea of something...projecting all this depth onto something that is so two-dimensional...I don't know...it just seems...there is just something about it that I like.

And then besides books and music, there always is...we all grew up in Manhattan and art and artists have always been there and that had an impact on me. That's my favorite, too.

Speaking of Manhattan, every article that I have read about you seems to focus on the fact that you are a New York band. Do you like or dislike that? Do you want them to focus on something else?

I mean, I'm alright with it because...

It's New York

...because it's New York, which isn't so bad. And because, I'm obviously grateful that we are getting attention. It makes it easier for people to give us an identity to say that we're from a specific place. All those things are cool. Obviously, it gets a little bit...you know you get...we've only got one record and haven't been around for very long, so it's understandable. I hope that over time we can put more dimension to people's perception of what we do but I think that will happen naturally. I hope.

It seems like a natural thing for critics to do--focus on a certain thing about a band.

But it's fair because when there is a new band...there's a million new bands a week...they're just going to hit on the things like "New York band"...this is what they do...they met A, B, C, D, whatever, you know? That's fine. I understand that.

But like when people come to our shows...I mean, we haven't been in New York in almost a month now, we've been playing every night and having a ball...so it makes me feel like it's okay. As long as we can play outside of New York, and it's as fun as it is, then I'm okay with it.

Earlier, you talked about art and visual art. In researching the band, I found that you guys have some connections to fashion. Can you talk about that?

Yeah, it's funny. When I was young I met a photographer named Ryan McGinley, he's an artist, he's a photographer, and he started taking pictures of me. And from that...before that, I had been cast casually, a few times off the street, to be in ads and stuff like that. I left home when I was 15 or 16. And so, that was the only money. I worked in a coffee shop but getting that money. And a lot of my friends, too. Something about kids on the street in New York...the more f*cked up and passed out you looked, the more often you'd get booked for jobs. And it's kind of like a joke, because none of us are models, none of us are classically handsome, so yeah, of course I did that sh*t and just got 500 hundred bucks and was like, "the drugs are on me today," you know what I mean? That kind of thing.

And I met Ryan, we were friends, we went to shows and so on. From that, I guess, because his work got a lot of attention, I started getting more offers from actual fashion lines, and ended up with a modeling agent. At the time, and to this day, well...I was fortunate enough to be open-minded, to be penniless, so I was able to take those jobs.

Like, "I was young, I needed the money."

Yes. And a lot of them were f*cking miserable but some of them were really cool. And I've gotten to work with some amazing photographers, got to watch them work, and go to crazy places so I can't knock it, man.

And as much as...it always makes people say, "Did you really do that?" I find it funny because when they look at me, I feel like it's a genuine question. Like if you look at me, you're like, "You did?" and that's fun. (Laughs) Like, I'm no George Clooney...and people are like, "He's a male model? Whatever."

The fact that it even happened, that I was able to make a penny from it, is so amusing to me even, that I can't be upset about it.

So, as a male model, do you have a "look" like Zoolander? Like a "Blue Steel"?

I do, actually. I'm not very inventive. Just "Blank Stare" and "Complete Distraction". I do the blank stare very well. I'm also good at spacing out. I'm also really good at just...oh, he's got a picture of me looking completely in the wrong direction and sh*t. But those are my two: "Complete Distraction" and "Blank Stare".

The term "It Band" has been used to describe the band. How does it feel?

Awesome. All that stuff is really exciting. Anytime we can get feedback on what we're doing--positive, negative--good. This is basically all that we've wanted to do, so it's pretty exciting.

Do you take it seriously at all?

We take the songwriting really, really seriously and we take the rest of it in stride. And we like the live shows to be as fun as humanly possible so if we have to sacrifice a quarter or a note or a beat, to having fun, that's fine. It's hard to talk about rock and roll very seriously, but we care very much about it and our hearts are in it. And that's how it works for us.

So, what is next for the band?

I have really, really enjoyed playing live, and I want to make another record, a new record, as soon as possible. And then, tour.

What should fans expect from the next Virgins record? A similar sound or something completely different?

I wouldn't expect something completely different. I would expect that it would be a little different. We don't have to do the same thing. We don't have to revisit some of those feelings we had doing the record. But I have no idea, we haven't even started writing. But that, I am really looking forward to. That's going to be fun.

Final question: Anything special planned for the San Francisco fans tonight?

The San Francisco fans...I don't know, man...I f*cking love it here. We played Popscene like seven-and-a-half months ago, maybe? We were the opener before and now we're headlining so, I'm thrilled.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time for the interview and answering some questions.

Sure.

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