Lycia’s influence on all forms of dark and introspective music is undisputed, but few avant-garde bands with roots in post-punk have had such an impact on metal. Led by the limelight-shunning Mike VanPortfleet and illuminated by the enchanting vocal harmonies of his wife, Tara Vanflower, Lycia might just be America’s best kept secret.
Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Lycia are a British or European outfit from the same era as Cocteau Twins and Clan of Xymox when you hear their music. With eleven albums to their name since their debut in 1989, the Arizona natives are the peers of Europe’s finest alternative bands, but the 1990s were much kinder to them than their contemporaries from across the pond. 1995’s The Burning Circle and Then Dust won critical acclaim for its mastery of what was to become the band’s trademark ‘dark ethereal’ aesthetic, and its 1996 follow-up, Cold, is a major influence on doom and avant-garde metal. This year alone, the staff at Scream Blast Repeat identified Lycia as a big inspiration on albums we reviewed for Aythis, Tetramorphe Impure, Sundrowned and An Autumn For Crippled Children. The more extreme side of metal is not immune either. My Dying Bride, Ulcerate and Katharos XIII are keen to explore the transcendent majesty of Lycia’s music when incorporating outside influences.
Now back with a new EP and ready to consider some reissues from their illustrious back catalogue, Lycia fans have every reason to be excited. Those new to the Arizonians might want to start with the latest Casa Luna EP as a gateway to the group’s music, not least because it features the multi-instrumental talents of David Galas, a man as indispensable to Lycia as the husband and wife team of VanPortfleet and VanFlower. As we said in our recent review: ‘This is a magnificent rumination on solitude and sorrow wrapped in the illuminous melodies of ethereal dream pop and the dark contemplations of a gothic soul.’
Band leader, Mike VanPortfleet, granted us an exclusive interview to discuss the last three decades of a career that has seen many ups and downs for his band.
You’ve been writing music under the Lycia name since 1988. Which album would you recommend to those that are waiting to discover Lycia and why?
There’s been two periods of time where Lycia has been pretty active, the 1990s and 2010s, so I’ll give one from each. For the 90s it’d be Cold. For me, everything we did previously was a build up to that album. We toured pretty much throughout 1995 and the year before David and I were constantly recording, so we were all really in top form when we started the Cold sessions. Add to that an uncomfortable tension that had developed between Tara and I on one side and David on the other. I know this sounds strange, but that tension actually added extra elements of moodiness and maybe even experimentation to the music. Cold is Lycia at its 90s peak, and everything clicked. We seemed to have wandered into this new territory that was in complete balance with our surroundings, but out of sync in ways too. Unfortunately, that line-up imploded shortly after, and I always wondered what would have been. Just a few hours ago I was listening to Cold as I was preparing files for a potential remastering, and I heard it a bit different. For years, decades actually, I couldn’t remove myself from all my insecurities, so I don’t think I ever heard it beyond that. It’s a lush release, but it’s also very personally dark, pretty much everything I was striving for in the 90s with Lycia.
For the 2010s it would be In Flickers. There’s a song on In Flickers called ‘Rewrite’ that probably explains it better than anything else. In the 90s I often felt not in control of my own destiny. When a release would come out, they’d sometimes be quite a bit different than what I wanted and envisioned them to be. Outside influences would flavour them in ways that were not in line with my vision. So, it was common for me to not be sure how I felt about albums that I should be excited about. The premise of ‘Rewrite’ is firmly taking creative control and seeing what I, and we, did back in the 80s and 90s from the vantage point of what should have been instead of what was. It’s given me comfort. and everything we’ve done since 2010 has come from this angle. In regards to the material on In Flickers, I love the variety. John returned, and we were able to explore again the type of music we collaborated on in the mid-1980s. David brought in some great material including a song that he prepped for the Cold sessions but never actually played for me back then. With new guitar and new vocals, it became ‘Autumn Into Winter’, and it’s one of my personal favourite Lycia songs.
Lycia are now synonymous with ‘darkwave’ and ‘dark ethereal’ music and probably the most famous artist from these sub-genres. How comfortable are you with these categories created by critics and social commentators to describe your art?
I do not like labels or being associated with any particular genre. At least in regards to Lycia it’s led to unrealistic expectations, and I personally find it creatively restraining. There are a few bands that were labelled the same that I genuinely like. But most of those bands I didn’t like at all. I always felt we were a bit gruffer and there was a pristine element to those genres I didn’t quite get. My roots were in post-punk bands like Joy Division, so I found it hard to relate to the aesthetics of some of the bands. Tara and I always felt like we were on the outside. I think it led to us pulling away and keeping ourselves isolated.
Lycia are a big influence on heavy music, such as doom metal, avant-garde metal, gothic metal and even progressive death metal. The likes of My Dying Bride, Constellatia, Ulcerate, Katharos XIII and most European doom metal artists take inspiration from albums such as Cold and A Day in the Stark Corner. How much does this surprise you, considering you’re not a metal band and presumably pay little attention to these forms of music?
It’s flattering. I love the idea of bands that come from a completely different angle connecting to what we do. Over the last decade some aspects of these types of music have in turn influenced us. It might not be obvious, but to us, not being too familiar with metal and how it evolved, it all seemed, and seems, so fresh and new. We are all music fans and good music is good music, and it seems to me that these various styles of metal have assumed the mantle of being some of the most creative genres. I’m a bit out of touch, so I’m always surprised when I hear bands have been influenced by Lycia. I live a somewhat insular life, and at times I find it hard to process that our music means anything to anyone but ourselves. I have to mention this. Back in 1995 we were opening for Type O Negative in New York City on Halloween. Peter Steele wanted us to hear their soundcheck. They went through a number of new songs, songs that would later appear on October Rust. I was blown away, it sounded like super heavy shoegaze music. Tara and I have often discussed what a shame it is that Peter isn’t around to see how atmospheric metal has become. For me at least, it seemed to be invented that night in New York.
Let’s turn our attention to your latest EP, Casa Luna. The track ‘Do You Bleed?’ explores a harsher industrial sound that we wouldn’t normally hear on a Lycia record. How did this song come into being, and how did it turn out compared to the original vision you had for it?
We have in the past explored similar territory. ‘Rewrite’ from In Flickers, ‘Illuminate’ from A Line That Connects, quite a bit of Bleak Vane, and an early song ‘Excade Decade Decada’ come to mind. I never want to be too far removed from harsher elements because that’s part of our musical DNA too. Even though Lycia has an identifiable sound and feel, my short attention span has us stylistically wandering quite often. Regarding ‘Do You Bleed?’ I’ll need to give you the back story on how Casa Luna evolved. It started out as one song, ‘A Quiet Way to Go’, that we planned for a split 7”. When we couldn’t get our schedule lined up with the other band, I decided to record another song, ‘On the Mezzanine’, and do our own single. It was pretty low key at that point, with me doing the music and vocals, Tara some vocalizations and John programming the drums. John and I then decided to re-record a couple older electronic songs that we initially demoed back in 1989, so the idea expanded to an EP. I had two other acoustic styled songs that we decided to add. While recording one, ‘Salt & Blood’, Tara mentioned she’d like to do a heavy song. She’s always been a fan of heavier bands like Godflesh and Swans. The songs up to that point were following In Flickers’ lead with a lot of variety, so I was into her idea of doing a heavier song and shelving the other acoustic song. David wasn’t involved up to that point, and he’s always been a fan of heavier styles, so I approached him about initiating some music. The heart and soul of that song is Tara and David. I added some old-style Lycia guitar and edited the arrangement, but the credit for that song is both of them. I just followed their leads.
Of course, you’re married to Tara VanFlower, who is such an essential component of the Lycia sound with her ethereal harmonies. Bands like Sonic Youth and The Sundays were also famous for their husband and wife personnel. What’s the most difficult thing about composing music with your spouse in the band?
In most regards in my life I’m an aloof and low-key person. But when It comes to music and Lycia, I’m very focused. There has been quite a bit of tension over the years between me and the various collaborators. I know what I want, and I’m usually not shy about pushing back over and over until I get what I want and what I envisioned. It’s different with Tara because she is my wife, so I definitely have to temper that kind of thing with her. Back in 2008 and 2009 we had been musically dormant since the early 2000s, and I was very out of sync with pretty much everything. I felt as though my playing had diminished. My studio was in disrepair. I struggled to come up with song ideas. I really missed doing music, so I decided to do something quietly, and to go back to my roots. I spent close to a year programming drums, and then recording bass and two to four tracks of guitar. It was an amazing experience and the catalyst for our return in the 2010s. Everything finally clicked, and after all the music was done, I decided to make it a Lycia release and asked Tara to do all the vocals. She was still lacking confidence because of the long layoff, so she really struggled. I could hear melodies and I wanted to help her with that, but she was frustrated, so it was hard to approach her. If it was another band member, I would have been more forceful, but I laid back and let her work through it. It was frustrating for both of us, and she basically quit the band over it. Luckily, that was only brief, but it was hard navigating a conflict like that with your wife. The lines between a creative issue and a personal issue are pretty blurry when you’re that close.
You had high profile endorsements in the 1990s from the likes of Trent Reznor and Pete Steele of Type O Negative. This must have brought wider attention in the music industry to what you were doing at the time. How close were you to signing with a major label in the mid-to-late 1990s?
First off, I really want to clarify something. I have no idea where the whole Trent Reznor is a fan of Lycia thing came from. I know it’s on our Wikipedia page, but we have zero control over that page. And I have never heard this from anywhere else. I have serious doubts that it’s real, and I don’t know if he even knows who we are. We talked about this before in other interviews and we definitely don’t want to be seen as story fabricators to get attention for our band. But Peter Steele and Type O Negative were wonderful to us and opened so many doors. The Halloween tour we did with them back in 1995 was a rough experience with so many hecklers, but it really expanded our support base. In the years that followed we saw more and more metal people at our shows, and we started getting reviews and articles in mainstream metal magazines. A well-known metal label hooked up with the label we were on at the time so they could work with us. Also, the label we were on mentioned on a number of occasions that major labels were asking about us, but always shortly after claimed that never happened and we must have misunderstood. I’ve always been confused by that and wondered if my naivety and lack of a serious follow up lost us a larger deal. We talked to A&R people at shows too, but likewise I was so clueless. So, yes, in retrospect, we probably were close. But who knows?
What was the last album that blew you away and why?
I’ll go back a few years, and I’ll name two. The Demonstration by Drab Majesty and Blackstar by David Bowie. I started seeing random mentions of Drab Majesty online and a mutual DJ friend inquired about the possibility of us doing a live show together. So, I went to Bandcamp, and The Demonstration had just come out, and on first listen I was completely blown away. There’s something about the mood of that release that really resonates with me. A mood that reminds me of Clan of Xymox’s Medusa, which is an album that is still one of my favourites. Regarding Blackstar, I’ve been a massive Bowie fan going back to when I was a kid back in the early 70s. I can honestly say that Blackstar is my favourite Bowie release. I think it’s a masterpiece and leave it to him to make his own death a brilliant album. I love that album, but I find it hard to listen to considering his situation while writing and recording.
Let’s talk more about you as a person. The public know little about you growing up. What was your favourite sport in your youth, and what is your favourite sport to watch as a spectator these days?
Well, as a kid it was baseball. I loved playing it, but I was never really good. As a spectator I’d say basketball. In fact, in a few short hours I plan to watch the Phoenix Suns in a big NBA playoff game.
What’s the fondest memory from your teenage years?
Well, I don’t know if I have very many good or bad memories. We moved a lot, so I kept to myself mostly. I was a massive fan of punk and then post-punk, so I spent a lot of time at record stores and listening to music in my room. I walked a lot too. There was a canal with a walking path close to where I lived at the time. I used to walk the canal in the middle of the night in summers. The heat here in Arizona is hard to take in the summer, so during my teenage years I became a bit nocturnal, and walking the canal was my great escape. In fact, it was during one of those walks back in 1981 where I came up with the idea of Lycia.
There’s so much sorrow in the music of Lycia yet so much beauty and introspection. What is the biggest regret in your life?
I have a lot of regrets. Since music has always been central to who I am, and I’ve been obsessed with music in one way or another my entire life, I’ll stick to that. A big regret for me has been lack of action or my inability to grasp opportunities when I was able to. I always tell people that I have lived a life always out of sync, either too far ahead or too far behind. Being in the moment was always evasive, and so when real opportunities were standing right there in front of me, I was oblivious. Tara and I were just discussing this the other day, in the 90s we were content with living in places that for the most part had no appreciation for what we were doing. In all reality we were pretty invisible. Meanwhile, whether in California or Chicago or New York or numerous places in Europe, there was a place for us. Why we never connected the dots and relocated is beyond me. For me though probably the biggest regret is not firmly taking control of my destiny from the beginning. Ionia and A Day in the Stark Corner could have been so much more. They are definitely muted versions of what my visions for them were. I was a wreck, and I was completely unable to present them as I wanted them to be. During the recording of Quiet Moments a regular thought that crossed my mind was, what could have been with A Day in the Stark Corner if I would have been as focussed and determined to stick to my vision like I was doing with Quiet Moments. I know what A Day in the Stark Corner could have sounded like. But at this point it is only in my head. Opportunities need to be taken when the actual opportunity is there.
Final question: How much has the radical transformation of the music industry in the last fifteen years forced you to reappraise the way you make a living from your art?
We haven’t made a living off music since the late 90s, and we struggled then. There was always a bizarre irony that when we would get back from a tour, we’d often have to get jobs, while the label had full time employees. I know people complain about streaming revenue, but for us right now, it seems good. I like where we are now. We worked with a couple of boutique labels in the last decade, Handmade Birds and Cercle Social, that were completely artist friendly, and both really connected us to the more current and relevant scenes. We’ve done Casa Luna and the Ionia vinyl reissue on Avantgarde and couldn’t be more happy. We have plans for at least one more reissue, maybe more, with them.
*** Lycia released their Casa Luna EP via Avantgarde Music on 11 June 2021. You can read the original SBR review here.