Cheering for the Anti-Hero: An Interview with Vaud & The Villains

Leggy dancin’ dames. Wayward, womanizin’, drunkard preacher men. The fugitive daughter of a famed European circus knife thrower. Just a brief snapshot into some of the colourful characters that join self-proclaimed charlatan Andy Comeau aka Vaud Overstreet on stage. Comeau initially moved to Hollywood, chasing dreams of stardom like so many. He appeared alongside the likes of Robin Williams and Hugh Laurie on screen, but visions of his second skin Vaud Overstreet became a reality when his acting career went through a period of stagnation.

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Vaud & The Villains have continued to grow into a fierce collective since its inception in 2012, billed now as a ’19 Piece 1930s New Orleans Orchestra & Cabaret Show’ on their website. As names like Vaud Overstreet and Blackburn James infer, when the Villains strut on stage, the monotony of the everyday is discarded, forgotten and left behind for excitement and debauchery. It’s more than just an engaging live show, it’s an opportunity for every Villain to embody another personality and fully realise this alternative vision in their music.

As one can imagine, the transportation of 19 band members, complete with outfits, instruments and a stage can be a difficulty. As much as the act conveys a precise concoction of sounds, textures and cultural movements, the journey from one show to another is odd, kooky and circus-like. However, Vaud and his Villains are by no means a conventional cooperative, more a garish, but equally enticing patchwork quilt. Diversity and imperfection are key to Vaud & The Villains’ entire identity.

So what inspired you to start the band and how did you go about recruiting such a large number of musicians?
My wife (Dawn Lewis aka Peaches Mahoney in the show) and I were getting married and wanted to have a band like the Seeger Sessions band play on the farm where I grew up which was to be our wedding venue. Nobody knew much about the Seeger Session, it had come and gone and not made much impact in mainstream America. I had finished HUFF and I really wanted to put something beautiful out into the world but waiting for another great acting job was just not going to work for me.  So…the idea of starting this show came about and we just did it. We knew a couple musicians. I was in a blues band and some of those guys wanted to do it and I took out a Craigslist ad and found a whole ton of people who knew about the Seeger Sessions and wanted to be a part of whatever it was we were creating. Dawn’s first dancer was her friend and co-worker at her bartending gig.

If you had to describe Vaud & The Villains to a complete stranger, how would you describe it in terms of its musicality and theatricality?
Musically, there are elements of old soul, Americana, New Orleans traditional jazz, certainly country music, folk, parlour music, gospel, field songs…the dancing is old Weimar era Berlin cabarets, Michael Jackson, Bob Fosse, Moulin Rouge. It was conceived as a rock concert set in 1930 with a traveling medicine show motif.  Everyone has a “villain name” and we use those monikers when we are on stage and when we are talking about the show.

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What do you thinks sets your live performances apart from other live musical acts?  

Well, first I would say the size it unusual. The old timey thing has become really popular and it does have that shade to it at times but I think where we deviate from that is in our initial concept.  What would rock and roll sound like in 1920-30? When we throw in a cover of a modern rock song to the set, we are doing it with acoustic instruments, horns, guitars, fiddles…and trying to conceive the tune as if it were written in another era. That coupled with our original tunes, and the variety and the calibre of singers, and showpiece moments in the show make it really special.

‘Andy fixes the a/c and cooks dinner but Vaud gets to go walk around town like a rock star with his hot wife’

What is it like to rehearse with such a massive collective? What difficulties does it present and what are the benefits of working with so many people simultaneously?
Nowadays, we have marathon rehearsals only if we are breaking in new people or a new song. That takes a little time. Often, we will set up sectional rehearsals that focus on just singers or horns or rhythm. Dancers always have a separate rehearsal unless it’s a big dress rehearsal. Having a large group rehearsal is tough when the ideas are not yet formed.  If we begin working on ideas and have experimentation going on, which is great, it can take a long time….but that is how we do it. Very rarely do we begin a new piece with a fully realized idea with exact parts for everyone.  So inevitably as some point some people are sitting around not working, and that can be challenging.

Are there any specific musicians, movements or genres that have particularly inspired the band’s sound and style? I found the subject matter of your track ‘Marie Laveau’ quite interesting considering her resurgence in culture, television especially, in recent years.
Yeah for sure…since we’ve started the band there have been these little waves of New Orleans nostalgia, you’re right. The city of New Orleans, the music, the food, the people, absolutely inspired us. The great old folk artists Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger…The Band, The Boss, James Booker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman…etc..there are too many. It started as this Seeger Session homage and then it took on a life of its own and sort of lead us towards what it’s become. It’s not a political band or a religious band or a civil action band. We really just wanted to make people feel good and bring people together.

The use of on-stage personas adds this interesting facet to the act. I saw that this notion is extended in the ‘Who Dat Villain?’ section of your website. Does this almost add a sense of method acting to the performance, where your leaving Andy Comeau behind and fully embodying Vaud Overstreet?
Honestly, I don’t know. I have been “Vaud” for so long and people have called me that for so long that it almost feels like this other guy.  Andy fixes the a/c and cooks dinner but Vaud gets to go walk around town like a rock star with his hot wife. It’s an interesting thing because it’s an age of young people wanting no photo filters and real life moments on Snapchat and yet we have a very theatrical and presentational show that manages to engage folks because there is real emotion and genuineness in the night. It’s heartfelt..and it’s honest.

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If this notion of performance is true, does it extend to the rest of the band on stage too?
Yeah, I mean, some people are just born to do this, right?  This iteration is just a bunch of hambones so it doesn’t take much to get them to put it out there.

‘Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future…’ Tell me about the significance of this quotation in the band and how it relates to the band’s approach and vision?
We stole that from Oscar Wilde.  From the beginning, Dawn and I have been fascinated by duality in people. How a man who beats his wife or children might possess kindness or compassion in another moment of his life. It’s also about imagery and how we attach so much to a book cover…a billboard…a noted opinion. It’s about looking deeper into yourself so you can see deeper into those around you. We wanted the show to be sexy, uplifting and fun so that’s a question we always ask when we are thinking about the path for the show. Vaud & The Villains really came to life more as a show than a band with a “sound”. It exists because of the unhinged live shows. As an artist, I am always looking for a “sound” but honestly, this little creation is more interested in entertaining big groups of people. It really has a life of its own and tells us what to do.

As the ’30s is billed as the band’s decade of inspiration, would the ’30s be your decade of choice to live in or is there another decade that appeals to you?
I would not want to live in the 1930s for love or money. I am perfectly content right now.

So tell me about the show at the Ford Amphitheatre. What is so enticing about the venue that has brought you back for a third time?
It’s really beautiful. It’s one of the few outdoor shows that we get to play where the sound doesn’t just go immediately up to the sky. It’s set in a mountain and has a kind of bowl like feeling. The history of the venue is fantastic, the staff are terrific, it’s a summer night in Hollywood playing music outside for a thousand people…it doesn’t take much to get us back there.

Do you plan to try out any new material or choreography for the show?
YES!  There will be a couple of new tunes that we will debut that night.  It’s got my heart pumpin’ just thinking about it. And Dawn has been working her little butt off teaching the gals (6 dancers on this show) two new dances and making a slew of new costumes. There will also be a couple of new Villains debuting at this show. It’s pretty exciting. Oh and the actual stage is brand new…the whole joint got a make over but the thing that most audience members will notice is the stage is no longer oddly raked and off axis. It’s beautiful wood and has these crazy little winding walkways down to it from the mountain side.

‘Tom Hanks is just a dick…that’s a joke. Maybe we should strike that’

Despite the expenses of transporting instruments and musicians as well  as travel costs, the band have toured quite extensively across America. Do you plan to possibly tour outside the US in the future?
It is pretty expensive. We are trying to go out with 13 instead of 19. We’ve done it a few times and it has gone well so that may be a reality for this to live as a roadshow at our level. Still 13 is no small figure.We would love to get to Europe. I think that is the one thing that my wife goes to bed chanting every night. She really wants to perform in Paris and Berlin and I am dying to play in Ireland and Holland. We’d need a sponsor to come on board to make it happen. Anyone…anyone??

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You’ve worked with some hugely successful actors/musicians: Robin Williams, Hugh Laurie, Weird Al Yankovic, Hank Azaria. Have you learned anything from working with these actors/musicians or do you have any interesting anecdotes or stories from working on set with them? I can imagine working with Williams was quite interesting as well as the nature of the work you did with Weird Al Yankovic. Did Tom Hanks ever contact you after ‘Gump’?  Haha…well one thing that I’m sure is cliché, but worth mentioning, is that all of those guys work REALLY hard. Not a lazy bum in the bunch. I only had a brief conversation with Robin on the movie when we were in wardrobe together. He was very warm to me but I sadly didn’t have the opportunity to know him. Tom Hanks is just a dick…that’s a joke. Maybe we should strike that. Hugh is super gracious and scary smart and talented. And Al, I got to work with again when we played the Hollywood Bowl for the Simpsons TV show weekend event (wonderful Hank too!!)  Al was great when I worked with him and the warmest kindest guy you’d ever want to meet. Funny story, Jim Hanks was supposed to do the Weird Al video but dropped out. He was also supposed to be Tom’s photo double in Apollo 13, but didn’t want to be in an anti-gravity flight apparatus all night pretending to walk on the moon (I don’t blame him)…so I got my first two jobs from him in six months when I first moved to Hollywood!

Have you got any more acting jobs lined up for the future or are you solely focussing on Vaud & The Villains right now?
I shot a movie called Frozen Peas last summer that I am waiting for to come out. And I am always looking to act again but Vaud takes up a ton of time. When I started it with Dawn, for me, I really needed to be able to control my destiny and so it has been great for that…to be creative and not need anyone to say, “you can work”. But I miss the art of acting very much and I’m sure I will come back to it again.

If you came over to the United Kingdom do you think you could make me an honorary Villain? And if you would be so kind as to do so, what would be my stage persona and back-story?   Honorary Villain status usually involves going above and beyond some call of duty. This could all be arranged, but probably involves a late raucous night with us. As far as your villain name, I am afraid that, like all of them, must come to Peaches Mahoney, in a dream. She can actually redirect her dreams….weird right?

Vaud & the Villains play the Ford Amphitheatre on August 19th.

Their latest album, Original Salvation, is out now.

Images courtesy of vaudandthevillains.com, supportlocalmusic.co, thekatiejohnson .com and vcstar.com

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