The Vitamen’s essentials


By Aileen Torres

Childhood friends discuss their present day band

On a recent Thursday night at the Cake Shop, a bakery/record store/bar/club on Ludlow St., audience members cheered on the Vitamen and shouted requests as the band played a show in the basement. One young woman hollered: “Molested!” Not that she was being harassed. She was simply asking the band to play a song from their debut album whose chorus includes the phrase: “Was every girl on earth molested, or am I just bad in bed?”

The Vitamen’s songs are characteristically droll with an upbeat musical vibe along the vein of laid back ‘80s pop music. The lyrics are personal, with common themes including dating and relationships, dissatisfaction with daily life and individual insecurities. But there are also songs about just wanting to have a good time. One gets the sense that hanging out, playing music and congenial imbibing are all healthy things, according to the Vitamen.

The three guys—guitarist and front man Jesse Blockton, bassist Matt Hyams and drummer Dave Rozner—have been together four-and-a-half years and have known each other since childhood. Hyams and Rozner attended elementary school together, and all three went to the same high school in Mamaroneck, NY. Hyams met Blockton in Hebrew School, and Blockton played music with Rozner during high school, “but we were in disparate musical communities,” said Hyams, 30. “I was in a classic rock cover band, and Jesse and Roz were more into rock fusion, like instrumental, off-time stuff… John McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa.”

In the late nineties, all three guys found themselves in Los Angeles, and they took a shot at playing together there. But the incarnation of the Vitamen—there have been several previous ones—with Hyams on bass didn’t come together until all of them returned to New York after tiring of LA. Blockton had just written “a bunch of new songs, and we ended up playing, and it was easy,” said Rozner, 32. “We just played a gig as soon as [Hyams] was ready to do it. He learned, like, 13 songs in two days.”

“Fun,” the band’s debut album, was recorded on a four-track machine and released in 2002. “All the songs are more funny [than those on the later albums],” said Hyams. They’re “about, like, being afraid to live alone because you’ll masturbate too much, and, like, ‘Molested’. Silly, fun stuff.”

“Yeah, a lot of the songs were about penises,” deadpanned Rozner.

Their second album, “Mujer,” an eight-track recording released in 2003, is also very playful, continuing the adolescent-esque-romp-through-daily-life aura of the first album in a similarly wacky, unabashedly self-conscious manner that has become the band’s trademark.

All the band members agree, however, that their third and latest album, “Children of the Bear,” released this past December, isn’t all that funny. At least, they didn’t intend it to be. While the band’s sense of humor does pervade the record, there is a noticeable air of sadness throughout. The tedium and aggravation of everyday life thread through the songs, often in the form of complaints—for example, in the tracks “The Problem with America” and “The Best TV Watchers in the World.” Many of the songs also reveal emotional vulnerabilities, particularly with regard to love. Yet, the guys manage to keep things light overall with touches of self-deprecating humor and catchy pop hooks. They did, by the way, grow up listening to tapes of Duran Duran, the Culture Club and Cyndi Lauper.

“We’re not artsy people at all,” said Blockton, 31. “We like normal popular music. We like songs you can sing to.” Rozner cites The Beatles, the Kinks and the Beach Boys as seminal influences on the band as well.

“Children of the Bear” was recorded in a house in Cape Cod, with their producer, Bo Boddie, hunkering down with them to work on the album. It was a busy, crazy time spent virtually in seclusion as a group. “Bo’s girlfriend came up one night and thought we were disgusting,” said Blockton. “We hadn’t showered. We tore the whole house apart. I think I wore the same outfit every day, for nine days. I slept in it in the car.” Rozner, meanwhile, slept in the hallway, by the stairs, and Hyams claims to have eaten a raccoon in secret (whether done in a moment of delusion remains a mystery). The place became awash in beer cans, recounted the guys.

“By the end of it, I was ready to go home because just being out in the woods and not seeing other people, it’s just weird,” said Rozner. “I think we may have seen just one waitress. I don’t know if we saw any other people the whole time.”

In contrast with the first two albums, which are populated mostly with Blockton’s songs, the Vitamen’s third album has more offerings from Hyams and Rozner.

Typically, a song will be written and composed by one member, who will then unveil it to the rest of the group in order to work out musical arrangements. “We’re starting to collaborate more, but it’s been all Jesse mostly, or me,” said Hyams of the band’s songwriting process.

Individual ego’s don’t seem to be a complication in the band. Basically, whoever writes a song will sing it as well, with the other two members contributing their instrumental bits and backing vocals. Blockton naturally became the front man because his songs ended up being the most popular ones among audiences, said Hyams.

“I think it’s tough to have everyone writing a song,” Hyams explained. “There’s too many cooks in the kitchen, and when you start, everyone’s got their own different vision. Because Jesse’s songs are sort of the thrust, the personality of the group, [that’s become the] vision for the music.”

The Vitamen will play next at Sin-e on June 15 as part of “Girls vs. Boys Indie Rock Night” there, sharing the bill with Johnny 5, the Marianne Pillsburys and the Domestics.