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The Natural Evolution of Donald Cumming

Interview

Cumming, a shag of brown hair framing a pale face, looks, acts, and feels like a New Yorker—a native cool kid who’d probably hate you for calling him that. When he talks about the dissolution of The Virgins and, subsequently, the start of his own solo project, it’s with the casual matter-of-factness of a man uninfluenced by the pressures of his industry and the city in which he lives. Unlike the countless imports who flood New York City looking to claw their way to the top, Cumming didn’t come here to make it. He’s just here, and this is where life is happening to him. Marriage, divorce, addiction, sobriety: Cumming’s story is a New York story, one that gets told in his music.

With the June 2015 release of his first solo E.P., Out Calls Only, Cumming is officially striking out on his own. It’s an effort rife with rock n’ roll nostalgia, its jangling piano and vocals more reminiscent of Tom Petty’s Ventura Boulevard than the downtown New York scene that The Virgins once embodied so absolutely. If you’re looking for another “Rich Girls,” look elsewhere. Relationships, bands, cities—things change. Cumming will be the first to tell you that. 

Office — Did you already know when you were recording the last album with The Virgins that you were going to move on afterwards?

 

Donald Cumming — No, no. We started the record and we had no plans for where it would even be released or anything like that. So when we put it out on Cult Records and we toured all the big festivals, it wasn’t really until we had finished the first [circuit] and we were about to go back to Europe for the second tour that all of a sudden we just felt like it was time to do something else. ‘Cause we had done way more than we’d planned even, you know? It was a good time to just end it while we were happy.

 

O — What were your initial ambitions with The Virgins when you started?

 

DC — We really didn’t have a plan, you know? We were just playing local and doing shows, and then made a single, then made an album, then found a deal, put the album out, toured around. You know, it all grew very organically. We did some supporting tours and we got to play some really fun shows. But we were about to just start repeating things. When you do that on a record it just stops feeling—it’s not inspiring to go out and play the same songs again. So we were faced with, like, we could do the tour, keep playing shows, cancel the show, do another record, or, just, straight, you know, end it.

 

O — In what I’ve read about your process there’s this dedication to authenticity as an artist. Being true to something. How do you feel about that in your work?

 

DC — Yeah, I mean... I can’t really control the thing that’s gonna inspire me. You just kind of know. Making that record [with The Virgins] was just the thing to do at that time. Ending it before it got stale—it just was the right time to do it, you know? Obviously it’s different for everybody, but I’m not particularly interested in what a band has to say on their third, fourth, fifth record. It’s not my thing really, and I don’t know, I wanted to do something different.

 

O — Do you think bands feel trapped by the persona they created when they started?

 

DC — Oh, absolutely.

 

O — So there’s a fear to breaking up?

 

DC — Yeah, of course. It’s like you’re walking away from your livelihood in a sense. I mean, any band that’s had any success knows that as long as they keep the package the same, they can keep working that. It gets into this whole nostalgia thing, where it’s like kids come back to the show, they’re all, “Oh, you were my favorite band in high school. Now I’m in college and I just want to hear that song again.” Or “Oh, we met at your show like five years ago. We just had to come back when you came to town.” And, you know, that’s a way to do it, and obviously the bigger you get and the more money you make, the harder it is, probably, to walk away from it—I’m assuming. But as a music fan, I find that so boring. Why would you want to do the same thing over and over and over again?
 

O — Yeah, because cut to ten years from now and can you imagine playing the same single with the same band for a crowd?

 

DC — Right!


O — It’s like you’re so indebted to that.

 

DC — Yeah, and that just seems like what the model is for music now and I just think it’s really boring.

 

O — Then again, maybe ten years from now it’s these songs from Out Calls Only that people will want to hear again and again.

 

DC — Who knows? I mean the funny thing is with the second Virgins lineup, I didn’t play any songs from the first record [while touring]. I didn’t feel like it. Now if I play at an acoustic show or something, I like to play songs from the first record because it’s different, it’s new to me again. I’ve obviously changed and grown as a musician, as a person, and so interacting with those songs is interesting for me again. So I play them. For me, I really just have to be interested in what I’m doing, and believe in it. 

For me, I feel like New York is just this devastated place that I don’t even want to get into, but for someone else who doesn’t have that history I’m sure that it can be just as inspiring

O — Listening to your albums, they each feel definitively like a certain time in New York. Like, the first Virgins album definitely feels like—I don’t know if you went to the Beatrice—but it feels like the Beatrice. Then you move on to 2012-2013 and it feels another way...

 

DC — Yeah, yeah. That’s the thing. When we made that first record, I was part of New York in a different way. My friends, my peers, we were all around the same age. We were all going out to the same places, having the same experience, getting a little bit of attention for what we were doing in different mediums, all these exciting, interesting, different kinds of creative people doing things, and I was a younger guy. Now I have pretty much no connection to whatever the young people are doing. You know, obviously there’s cool stuff going on and I am aware of it, but I’m not part of that scene, and so the music that I make I think reflects my life, and what’s honest and happening for me now. That’s the thing about music. The way that music is marketed now, everything revolves around what could be the most cutting-edge trend in relevant youth culture. And it’s so transparent. It’s just this shameless, suspended adolescence, and I don’t know, I’m just so not interested. You would think that people would want to grow up and move on. Well, at least I did.

 

O — What were your influences on Out Calls Only?

 

DC — This album, more than anything I’ve made, really came out of the kind of things I was going through at the time. Like my marriage ending, moving out of our apartment, the band splitting up—a lot of emotional upheaval and change. Because I had these recording dates and I was working on this record, that just kind of ended up being exactly what the record was about. Which, I’ve never had that experience before.

 

O — Having grown up in New York and seen it change, do you still think it’s a good place for young creatives?

 

DC — I don’t know. I mean, there’s definitely young creative people here doing interesting things. There’s wonderful young artists, all these emerging designers, emerging musicians doing cool things, so I would be really reluctant to say that it’s not. It’s obviously not the place that I grew up in or the place that, you know, I was inspired by, but that’s only true for me. Do you know what I mean? For me, I feel like New York is just this devastated place that I don’t even want to get into, but for someone else who doesn’t have that history I’m sure that it can be just as inspiring. Finding ways to get around this crazy fucking mall culture and super-utopia that New York has become must be interesting and exciting for young people, because you know, there’s plenty of young people who know that’s bullshit and don’t want to have anything to do with it. And you have to be creative to figure out how to survive here, because it’s so fucking expensive.

 

O — It’s funny though, because New York’s become more suburban in that way—where it’s like you’re fighting against this kind of banal element.

 

DC — Yeah. 

 

O — Where it’s like you’re finding your voice in amongst, like, shopping malls. New York wasn’t like that as much even ten years ago.

 

DC — No, but I mean, there’s still a resistance. There’s definitely an artistic community in there. I think, maybe, the contrast grows more pronounced the more that it just becomes the same crazy, big, mundane piece of real estate.

 

O — Can you ever imagine living anywhere else?


DC — Yeah. I mean, I try to live other places all the time.

 

O — Have you actively tried?

 

DC — Yeah. [laughs]


O — Really? [laughs] Where’d you try to go?

 

DC — I tried living on a farm in British Columbia. Hay farm. No animals. Made it through, like, a month and a half in California. I’m all for moving out of here, I just gotta figure it out. For whatever reason, I always end up back here. END 

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