Most jam sessions rarely make it out of a basement. But for the members of Vishnu Basement, time spent riffing and jamming amounted to something larger than any of them had anticipated.
Since its inception, the band has accumulated a massive following on campus, has gotten signed to a label, has recently finished recording their EP and are set to go on tour with SUPERTEEN, another campus band, at the end of May.
Musicians Max Goldstein ’15, Sam Fritschel ’15, Ben Parra ’15 and Sam Judkis ’14, compose Vishnu Basement. They refer to themselves as “the lowest level of Rock at Vassar College,” but that may not be the case. Vishnu Basement achieved a cult following on campus and host shows that are always widely attended.
Members of Vishnu Basement are indispensable to their fans, but the group was not always a foursome. The three met when Fritschel, guitarist and occasional vocalist for the band, was practicing in Skinner. “I was practicing in Skinner when Sam Judkis, the band’s drummer, came in and said, ‘Hey! I’m going to be playing with this guy,’” said Fritschel.
“This guy” ended up being Max Goldstein, guitarist and vocalist along with Fritschel. “We operated as the three of us [Goldstein, Fritschel and Judkis] riffing for a while. We were very jam-based and were kind of just hanging out. We didn’t even have a name for the first year and a half when we were playing together,” Goldstein said. “We had some pretty sloppy, odd-time jams.”
Parra, a campus trumpet player who jammed with Goldstein, Fritschel and Judkis, was recruited to join Vishnu under one pretense: that he learn to play bass. “It’s funny hearing that you can learn bass to join our band, but it happened,” said Goldstein. And Parra did exactly that: “I spent a summer learning bass and then joined the motley crew,” he said.
The four have been playing together ever since, nameless or otherwise. “Sam’s parents had been holding the name Vishnu Basement for a long time and had apparently been suggesting it to him,” said Goldstein. “So when we were trying to get this thing off the ground, Sam told us the name and we were all pretty sold. That was when shit started to get really real.” Vishnu Basement since made a name for themselves by performing in venues accessible to students. The band most prefers playing at Ferry and performed there five times since the end of the 2012-13 academic school year.
Although Ferry is their preferred venue, Vishnu Basement performs in whatever space they can. “I think the first time we were like ‘Wow. We are really good’ or we got really psyched about ability to put on a show was during our show in UpC,” Parra recalled. “It was a post-serenading show through ViCE, and we were really psyched after that. It was the first big show that we had really prepared for. After that, the scope of the operation has really hit us and we have been trying to get even better.”
Vishnu Basement’s success can largely be attributed to their passionate and wide-reaching following. Two key members of Vishnu’s fan base include Niccolo Porcello ’16 and Tim Brown ’16.
“SUPERTEEN and Vishnu Basement are probably two of the bigger bands on campus. One night I was talking with Tim Brown about how insane it would be if the two bands went on tour together and played shows together. We just got carried away and thought, ‘why don’t we take them on tour and organize shows for them?’ and got even further carried away,” Porcello said.
That is how Sad Cactus Records came to be. “About a month later we had a record label, which is totally nuts,” said Porcello. “We are a registered business in New York State, we pay taxes and we even have an office—which is in my house across the street from school.”
The label, which Porcello and Brown launched and run, signed four other artists in addition to Vishnu Basement, including SUPERTEEN, Tundrastomper, Aural Burrows and Geyser. Sad Cactus Records is soon to release Vishnu Basement’s first EP, titled “Strange Machine,” with album art created by Ethan Hofmayer ’15, the band’s art director. In addition to creating the album art for “Strange Machine,” Hofmayer is designing Vishnu Basement merchandise.
Besides providing Vishnu Basement with a performance space—the living room of his dad’s house—Porcello is particularly instrumental in recording the band’s first EP. “In the beginning of this year, we starting wanting to make our first album. We were looking for a space to do the drums and he volunteered the living room of his dad’s house over October Break, which is where we played a show, because it was a big open spot and his dad wasn’t going to be there,” said Goldstein.
The group is currently pressing their first album, titled “Strange Machine,” onto vinyl—a process that is as complicated as it is exciting. “I was under the impression that we would record their three song EP over the fall break—well, we just finished it last week, nine-months later,” said Porcello. “We recorded in my house, in Skinner and spent all of spring break in Blodgett. So those are the three spaces that we’ve used—diverse spaces that create really interesting sounds. It’s been a really fun and even amazing process.”
Due to the nature of Vishnu Basement’s sound, recording can be incredibly time-consuming. “It’s not like Vishnu Basement is Jack Johnson, recording with just a drum, a bass and a guitar playing in four/four. Their whole thing is that they play in absurd time signatures, which make it really hard to record it. If you mess up, you have to re-record,” said Porcello.
“We’ve done probably 5,000 takes for three songs—granted for Vishnu Basement, three songs is 30 minutes. Still, we have just been plugging away, and Max and them have all done really great and have worked so hard. I don’t even know what I’ve done—I’ve just found them places for them to do their thing.”
The group’s EP will include three original songs, and a preview of one of the songs, titled “Jakeelis,” will be released next week. The song-writing process is an intensely collaborative one for the group.
“Max and Sam [Fritschel] or Max or Sam will come up with a part and then we will all listen to it and talk about it,” Parra said. “Changes will be made as necessary, and then Sam [Judkis] and I will come up with parts. It’s usually the guitar parts that come first, but it’s not a monopoly. It’s just a coincidence that that happens. Basically everyone critiques everyone’s parts until they are the best they can be.”
“Strange Machine” can be categorized under the genre of prog rock, but that does not necessarily reflect the current direction in which the band’s sound is headed.
“The album right now is loud and very aggressive and a bit raucous. It’s pretty capital R ‘Rock’. And, speaking for myself, I am very much trying to get quiet now,” said Goldstein.
Vishnu Basement’s signature loud and head-banging sound is developing into something less turbulent, but that does not mean Vishnu Basement will sacrifice their signature complexity. “At the beginning, I was very much set in my ways as a loud and frenetic guitar player…I think we are all a lot more interested in exploring things that are more textual and less going crazy,” continued Goldstein.
“We are now just interested in trying to say something valuable. We are about to be on the precipice of doing a lot of looping and a lot of layers. So the record won’t really reflect that much, but it’s still a really good sound and we are about to tour on it. So we are still super stoked.”
Both Vishnu Basement and SUPERTEEN’s repertoires include a variety of sounds and interpretations of their prospective sounds. Parra said, “[SUPERTEEN is] kind of post-punky, but what makes them really cool and close to us, at least spiritually, is that across their album they have a very wide diversity of what post-punk can mean. They have a lot of different sounding stuff on that album.”
Vishnu Basement’s upcoming tour with SUPERTEEN will take place May 21 through June 4, with performances in Portland, ME, Boston, Providence, Poughkeepsie, Baltimore, Richmond, Raleigh, Charleston, Chattanooga and Savannah.
Before Vishnu Basement depart on their tour, however, the group plans to play at Vassar at least a couple more times. “We have two shows coming up. One of them is on April 18. We are playing in Rocky 300 of all places with SUPERTEEN, with whom we are going on tour. That will be fun because it is a pretty fun place,” Goldstein added. “Niccolo is saying we are going to open the windows so we can be really loud.”