Vacationeer: Indie with electronic leanings

by Keenan Ketzner

The sun hangs over the mountainside, and birds chirp in the air. The twang of a surf-rock guitar wails off in the distance, the sound of watery cymbals crash over layers of misty reverb, and a clement voice all echo the return of Bellingham’s own Vacationeer.

Such are the images and sounds from 2014 when Vacationeer performed on one of the initial Bellingham Soundcheck videos, filmed at the Zen Living Cooperative outside of Bow/Edison. There we saw the duo play a cool set of expansive tunes amongst the bamboo stalk, seeming to channel the spirit of nature’s vastness in their own music. Now they are back, riding high off the success of their latest tour and recording ventures.

The two halves that make up Vacationeer, part Jase Ishler and part Nikko Van Wyck, are no strangers to the PNW music scene. Both previously played in the band Cat from Hue – who had been around since 2010 – but found renewed partnership in the time together since disbanding. This is when the two started to write new material of a different breed than before.

The energy of the original band is still there, but stylistically, Vacationeer shifted gears from the more musically dense Cat from Hue to a sparser, more spacious brand of indie-rock. Not entirely surf, not entirely electronic, but most definitely a creative blend of various atmospheric ideas. Jase describes it as “star guitars and beats.”

During a single song, Nikko might change his focus from lead vocals and rhythm guitar soaked in chorus, to backing vocals and a soaring lead guitar part, just as Jase might go from keyboard to drums, to even rapping in some instances. However, Jase states they are careful to not stray too distant from the core theme of chillness and minimalism. “While there might be several overlapping genres of sounds, the end result has to sound sonically cohesive.”

Their roles in the band aren’t strict, but generally Nikko plays guitar and sings lead vocals, while Jase plays percussion and keyboards, each of them taking turns shifting to harmonies. When songwriting, Jase contributes most of the production and recording aspects of the group, while Nikko largely writes the lyrics and guitar parts.

Both say they develop their sound on the fly, tracking what they are coming up with and trying to monitor the song’s progress. Jase states that “the songwriting process has almost become inextricable from the production process.” This leads to the early development of atmosphere in the song, which is a crucial element of their work. It also works in their advantage being able to both play off the initial energy of the song.

You can hear the minutia of this kind of environment inside a track like “Memories,” where every element of the song from the rhythm section to the leads, is a careful amount of roominess and space surrounding every instrument. The fragments of sound morph together to create a wash that glazes over the listener’s ears in a way that feels like you’re somewhere familiar, yet otherworldly.

So far Vacationeer has released two EPs, with the mos recent, Chances, printed on vinyl. On this release in particular, the group explores the art of negative space, building upon the walls of echo with stark guitar licks and percussive concision. Nikko talks about how this type of sound helps them interact with the audience: “We try to play a song called OMG in the middle of our sets, and depending on how the song goes we can kind of feel the energy of the audience.”

Extensive touring has been another aspect of the band they’ve been exploring in recent months. Two months ago they started off from Bellingham and went down to California. They played over a dozen shows and started to get a better feel for traveling to new places and matching the vibes of each distinct crowd.

“We like to play with dynamics,” Jase said. “You can sometimes hear people talk during the quiet parts of the songs, so when we hear that happen we just start going even crazier… When you’re touring in new places, you kind of get more adventurous.”

When asked where they would go if they had an all-paid-expense vacation anywhere in the world, Jase replied, “It’d probably be São Paulo, Brazil… I’d play bossa nova music, soak in the sun.”

Nikko said he’d like them to travel to Antarctica for not just a vacation, but a “work experience,” with the prospects of recording there benefiting their sound, which reflects the desolate and the delicate nature of the icy region.

Things have been very exciting for the new band, and, while Nikko hints at the possibility of yet another side-project branching off, it won’t be any time soon. Test-running these songs over the latest tour, the group feels refocused and ready to go in and record an EP. When the vinyl finally drops, expect us to be listening.

LIVE SHOW: For more about Vacationeer follow the band’s Facebook page or listen in at vacationeer.bandcamp.com. The band plays a house show on Aug. 21 with VVomen and Brave Season.

Published in the August 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine