Bells’ Toll: Let Independents Ring – Our Q&A with David Vivian

So, we seem to be discovering a lot of artists through the Instagram vinyl community, which we love. David Vivian, a singer/songwriter from Santa Barbara, first liked one of our vinyl collection posts, and we returned the favor (and kindness) by checking out his various covers, ranging from songs by Tame Impala and the Beatles to Outkast and Pink Floyd, before deciding to give his debut EP, Underwater, a listen, because, why not? While we’ve never been big fans of psych-pop, Vivian has changed our minds.

The seven-song EP that’s available on most major streaming services gives us Garden State soundtrack vibes, which pretty much sums up much of our collective undergrad experience. He’s a multi-instrumentalist like his idol, Kevin Parker, playing guitar, bass, and piano (we heart his piano skills the most) and what’s called a “bedroom producer,” doing all of his own production. He’s also drawn a lot of inspiration from the SoCal coast, so much so that his resulting EP is a mix of soothing ambient noise and “chill vibes,” in his own words.

His lyrics are simple by design, but the overall concepts behind each song are more complex, perhaps stemming from the fact that he’s a full-time student studying French literature at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). In some respects, his studies spill into his music, such as in “Homage,” which contains a short Albert Camus dialogue. The opening track, “Welcome” also serves as a mood setter, with plenty of that white noise, including what sounds like a spaceship, giving us major David Bowie “Space Oddity” feels.

“Always,” an earnestly apologetic love song, features his brother, John Vivian, on drums and some of the EP’s best lyricism, especially the verse, “Dear love, I don’t deserve you, until all this pain has left you, I want you to have it all.” We also dig the idea behind his EP’s final (and our favorite) song, “Undertow,” which equates the tug and pull of the ocean to the seduction of some difficult relationships. If he’s putting as much effort into his studies (his day job) as he is into his music (his night job), we know he’ll be graduating in no time, and, then, teaching by day.

While he’s just starting out, he’s already building a following on social media with his EP, vinyl collection posts, and covers. Be advised, though, that you will need headphones to more fully enjoy his guitar, bass, piano-playing, and production skills via mobile devices, as he often reminds his Instagram followers. His next single, “Leave It All,” will be released on October 17th.

Our Q&A with David follows, below:

Bell’s Toll (BT): Your bio says that you’re a grad student by day and a singer/songwriter by night. Where and what are you studying?

David Vivian (DV): I'm a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at UC Santa Barbara. I'm focusing primarily on French/francophone texts.

BT: What led you to studying French literature – is this your major or just a subject of expertise? Do you hope to teach one day? When is your projected graduation date?

DV: I'm working toward becoming a literature professor. I have three to four more years to go, including a year in Paris next year, teaching English.

BT: What’s your story? Are you hoping to become a full-time musician or is it more of a side-gig while you complete your degree?

DV: Music is my ultimate passion, along with literature. At the moment, it's really just something I'm doing on the side when I can.

BT: Did you grow up in a musical environment, or what inspired both you and your brother to learn to play instruments?

DV: Yes, luckily, I am blessed to have a musical family on one side (grandparents met at music college). My parents were always supportive, and we had piano lessons growing up, played in orchestra in school, etc.

BT: Are you self-taught, as far as production goes, or where did you learn?

DV: Apart from piano lessons, I'm completely self-taught. I've spent the past year and a half or so learning how to record, mix, and master. 

BT: You seem to be a multi-instrumentalist like one of your idols, Kevin Parker from Tame Impala. Are there any instruments you’d still like to learn to play? Which instrument do you prefer to play?

DV: Maybe someday I'll try to learn the basics of drums, because they seem so fun to play. My brother is a phenomenal drummer, though, so, hopefully, I'll be able to keep working with him in the future. My favorite instrument will probably always be the piano. I'm working at becoming a better guitarist, though, and I really enjoy coming up with cool basslines, or just providing the groove for another musician.

BT: Where’s home? You’ve mentioned going home to see your parents, or them coming to visit you, a few times on Instagram, during your recording process. Do you plan on moving back, once school is over, or do you feel at home in Santa Barbara now?

DV: I'm from the Central Valley, originally. I then went to UC Santa Cruz for undergrad, and now UCSB for grad. I'm definitely happier on the coast. Where I end up is essentially wholly contingent on where I land a teaching position.

BT: We love the concept behind your debut, Underwater, and the ambient noise in the intro, which just sounds like we’re being immersed in water (fitting for your EP title). Were you trying to create a certain listening atmosphere? Is all of your music inspired by Santa Barbara and the coast?

DV: I'm glad you appreciated that! I was definitely hoping to submerge (haha) the listener into a unique headspace and also set up the opening riff of "Weekend," to add a little bit of tension. I wouldn't say my music is entirely inspired by where I live, but it has definitely played a significant role. I've always appreciated nature. 

BT: We’ve seen you mention that you chose between several songs for your EP. Were the ones left off not compatible with the overall concept, and, if so, are you saving those for another EP?

DV: I've been stockpiling songs for the past year or so, and it was definitely a hard choice at times, in terms of what to complete for the EP. I'm not sure if I'll release or return to them, but we'll see. I'm still trying to sort out the direction I want to go, in moving forward.

BT: On Instagram, you’ve mentioned recording with several different musicians, including your brother. Can you tell us a little about who contributed to your EP and what went into its production?

DV: I recorded my brother on drums for “Always” back around Christmas time. My friend Noah contributed lead guitar for the latter half of “Undertow.” We were hanging out, and I showed him the track and basically just asked if he would want to try playing lead over it. He agreed, and I'm really pleased with how it came out. Recording the drums was much more difficult, as I'm completely new to doing so. Recording them properly and mixing them is really an art. I'm pleased to say that I was able to record him again for my upcoming single, “Leave It All,” and while we still did not have an ideal recording set up by any means, I'm more comfortable with how I was able to edit and mix them after the fact. I think they sound really solid, all things considered, and I'm really stoked on what my brother was able to bring to the track.

BT: We also love the artwork and animations you’ve created to go along with your EP and song clips that you post on Instagram. Did you collaborate with friends, or find artists through social media to put everything for these together?

DV: I've been fortunate to stumble across various graphic designers and artists who have been willing to help me out. Jamie Kerlin (@rkjamie.design on IG) did the artwork for “Always” and the EP. I couldn't be happier with it. My upcoming single, co-written with my friend Noah, has artwork done by Theo Morrow (@morrowland_ on IG). He did an amazing job with a photograph I sent him. The animations I've done myself with the Pixaloop app.

BT: You’ve also said on Instagram that you’re heavily influenced by the Beatles, Tame Impala, Pink Floyd, and psych-pop, among other genres and bands, and we love the covers you’ve been doing as you’ve worked on your EP and on new songs. Was there any one group or album you were listening to a lot while working? Do you still get a lot of requests for covers?

DV: I get a fair number of requests and have a pretty substantial list of songs I'd like to get to. I basically think of the covers as (a) a break from my own music, (b) a chance to connect with people on IG, and (c) a way to maybe feed off of other brilliant musicians. I will never listen to music in the same way, now that I've been learning to write, produce, mix, and master on my own.

BT: We love the French dialogue from Albert Camus in your song, “Homage,” and we noticed that you’ve also mentioned having a thing for Shakespeare. Would you say that your academic studies regularly spill into your music and vice versa?

DV: I'm glad you like it! I would say it's more of a one-way road (literature –> music and not as much the other way around). I love words; the power that a short turn of phrase can have. I'm a sucker for alliteration and internal rhyme. I don't claim to be a great lyricist, and, in some ways, I'm perpetually mortified by them – yet there are some lines and ideas that I'm proud of.

BT: How do you balance music and school (and everything else)?

DV: Not well! (This is where there would be “laughs,” if this was an in-person interview, lol). But yeah, it's a struggle sometimes, to be honest. I really worked super diligently this year to complete the EP and have it out this summer. I have a challenging few academic years ahead of me, so I'm not sure how well I'll be able to sustain the music side of things. 

BT: You said in an Instagram post that you’ve lived by the ocean for seven years, and that the pull of the ocean is used as a metaphor for the seductive power of some relationships in your song “Undertow,” which is quite poetic. We’ve always feared the ocean, even having lived in California our whole lives, but we get a more welcoming vibe from your songs. Was this the tone you meant to convey? What’s inspired this love affair with the ocean? Have you not seen Jaws (lol)?

DV: Funnily enough, I'm not a huge beach goer. I'm not crazy about sand, lying out and tanning, or anything like that. Mainly, I just appreciate the grandeur of the ocean, the sense of limitlessness, the call of the horizon, and its perpetual challenge to human perception. One of my favorite things to do in my spare time is go out and bike along the ocean, and just stop and kind of zone out into it. It's a lovely space for reflection. 

BT: Are you looking to pair up with a band in the future, or do you think you’ll remain a solo artist?

DV: I'm definitely not opposed to putting together or joining a band in the future. There are pros and cons with both playing with others and with being a solo artist. I enjoy the creative control that I have, which, along with being unsigned, means I'm totally independent. As someone who has gigged a little bit in the past, however, I know how much fun it is to play with others and feed off of each other creatively. Lately, I've been playing a lot with Noah, which is what led to my next single. We've got a few demos that we might try to flesh out going forward. 

BT: Have you played any open mics or shows in your area? Would you like to do that, if not?

DV: Yeah, I've been telling Noah that we should do at least one or two this year. Open mics, I mean. They happen fairly regularly here in Isla Vista (the area adjacent to campus where the majority of undergrads live). 

BT: What’s the music scene like in Santa Barbara? Have you tried producing for other artists?

DV: I haven't really engaged with it much, to be honest. Most concerts that I might have some interest in attending are at the Santa Barbara Bowl, which is usually expensive (and the shows are early due to a city noise ordinance). It is a cool venue, though. Most of the music downtown seems to skew toward EDM-type music. I haven't produced for anyone else yet, but I've considered offering my humble “studio” to people as a way to bring in a little extra cash.

BT: Do you have any plans to release physical copies of your EP in the future? We like vinyl over here, lol, but we know records are expensive to produce!

DV: I really hope that one day there will be some physical form(s) of Underwater, but, for the moment, it isn't a pressing concern. I've imagined it on a lovely blue vinyl with white splatter and maybe somewhat translucent (like the beautiful recent reissue of Explosions in the Sky's first album). Maybe someday that dream can be realized.

BT: What’s next for you? When will your new single be out?

DV: The next single will be out October 17th. My main goal is to just keep honing my songwriting, becoming a better guitarist and vocalist, and to hopefully release a song every two to three months going forward. I'm not sure when I might have another EP or LP. It could be years. My goal with my debut LP is for it to be recorded really properly: a real piano, maybe recording it all in a proper studio, professional mixing/mastering. But, we'll see. That could be 5+ years down the road. Due to my studies, I'm taking a long-term perspective on music. Luckily, it's something that I should be able to do for pretty much my whole life.

BT: Thanks so much for your time, and for participating in our independent artist series, David. We look forward to hearing much more from you soon!

DV: Thank you! I really appreciated these thoughtful and well-articulated questions! It's so wonderful to have people take interest and help support and promote indie artists.

(Please note: this interview was proofread for grammar and clarity).

 

About the “Let Independents Ring” series:

When we first started writing for IE Weekly back in 2007, we wrote a few columns on mainstream artists before we began covering the local IE music scene, mainly discovering bands via MySpace. Around the same time, we started collecting records more obsessively. We met and fell for so many bands and have continued to support both independent artists and record stores. Through this series, we plan on highlighting bands and musicians that want to be “heard” amid the vast and competitive musical landscape, hopefully contributing to their growth. In her master’s project, Kady compared local bands to non-profits, as they typically put most of what they have into creating art, thereby providing a service to their communities. By sharing independent bands' stories through short Q&As, our goal is to inspire more listens, follows, likes, and, perhaps, success, to let them loudly ring. We hope you’ll also lend them your ears (and, us, your eyes).

 

If you're an independent artist or band and would like to be featured in this series, please contact us for consideration. We can be reached at jkbellstoll@gmail.com or via Instagram (@thebellstoll).