Ian Vanek and the art of motorcycle maintenance

HowardianIt’s been nearly a decade-and-a-half since Ian Vanek co-founded the art-punk project Japanther. Though he’s best known for taking it to the skins as one-half of the Brooklyn duo, on January 13th, 2015, he released the LP, Land of the Low Tides, under the name Howardian. The moniker may ring unfamiliar even to some diehard Japanther fans, but it has descended from the lo-fi garage trio he started when he was just 12-years-old with his brother Matt and their friend Adam Hoffman. Land of the Low Tides features a cast of collaborators beyond just Matt and Adam, but the album is, essentially, Vanek’s first solo record.

Land of the Low Tides reflects the Pacific Northwestern vibes of Yakima, WA, where Vanek grew up. Similar to many Japanther records, Low Tides is dense, however, in a more textural way – like a Puget Sound rainforest rather than the blunt, impenetrable concrete jungle that is New York City. He spins familiar elements including distorted guitar and bass, murky drum machines, turntable scratches, spoken word clips, and a wide range of other samples to create a far more insular experience than Japanther’s hook-heavy, bottle rocket punk. As Howardian, Vanek doesn’t shout his disaffections either. Instead, he calmly mumbles through his internal explorations.

Vancouver Weekly spoke with Vanek about the origin of the name Howardian, the differences between Howardian the band and Japanther the art project, and his early encounters with the Frogs and Mudhoney as a youth in Washington.

Vancouver Weekly: Land of the Low Tides features a rotating cast of musicians and performers. Does that include your brother or Adam?

Ian Vanek: My brother Matt Vanek provided a great deal of inspiration for the record and some of legal council. He is also mixing and recording some songs for me in Mexico City this spring. He will likely appear on those songs. He also appeared on a bunch of Japanther records. So he is still heavily involved in my life. The beauty of Adam fronting a live show was that he wasn’t from a music scene. He had no limit as a performer. We performed with the Frogs in Seattle in the 90s at the Crocodile, and Mudhoney was there. Impressed by our reckless abandon, Mark [Arm] and Matt [Lukin] bought the seven-inch and asked us to open for them in Olympia. Being 13 or 14 at the time, we had our shit way out of whack but still agreed. On the day of the show, Adam was in some kind of detention or lock-and-key-something, and we couldn’t play. Some band did send us a cease and desist threat after seeing that show publicized. Wonder what ever happened to that?

VW: You’ve always referred to Japanther as an art project rather than a band. Do you view Howardian the same way? If not, what sets them apart in that regard?

IV: Howardian is my first and last band. A combination of two sides of my personality. Kind of like that book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. An overly confident, intelligent side and more brash, less calculated side moving things along at a rapid pace in semi-unison. Japanther was formed at an art school by two visual artists with little to no musical experience. This was my reason for talking about Japanther in that manner. Making art with guitars didn’t seems too different than clay or paint. So we sculpted a universe and set boundaries and told stories. With Howardian, all of that feels more authentic to who I am. Therefore, there’s little need for me to hide behind smoke screens. The whole thing is about meshing the two and breaking down walls.

VW: How has the work that’s attached to the Howardian name evolved, from the very beginning to the sporadic tracks that have appeared on the Selector Dub Narcotic and WantCompDeux compilations to the solo LP?

IV: These are the same intentions as the Howardian of the 1990s but with a whole lot more experience behind the songs. Therefore, it’s just much further down road but very much the same cart. The evolution includes my understanding of dance and rhythm and the importance of simplicity in constructs. While these might have been my intentions from the jump, I am now much closer to accomplishing what I hear in my head with Howardian. I love the artist Popcaan right now, and I could easily hear my self being influenced by him in the future as I’ve been listing to his record [Where We Come From (Mixpak, 2014)] non-stop.

: Why did you decide to release solo music, and under the name Howardian, at this stage in your life? And not just scattered singles or even an EP but an LP?

IV: It must be stated that I worked with many incredible musicians on Land of the Low Tides and not in a “These are my songs” type of way but in a “no expectations” type of way. I’m beaming with pride with work with Al Larsen from Some Velvet Sidewalk and Justin MacKaughn, aka Mac Dog, along with many other friends. Without telling tales, the Year of the Horse was very fast-moving, and making this Howardian record was a means of survival for my musical breath. I hope people can feel the authenticity in the growth in the grooves.

VW: How did the name Howardian come about?

IV: My brothers called the mischievous side of my personality “Howie” when I was a little kid. So when I started recording with a 4-track in 1993, the natural combination of Ian and Howie became Howardian on all the tapes and later a split 7-inch with Leslie Q. This coincided with the creation of Wantage USA, a record label my brother Josh still does today in Missoula, MT. So Howardian was steeped in a tradition of naming things after small places in England that we had never been before. Maybe we thought that things in England were rock and roll because the Rolling Stones came from there. Whatever it was, this name stuck and has became a part of my musical identity.

VW: The new album seems to span Japanther’s various styles: it’s full of samples and scratches, “Chunking” breezily coasts along, and “Marble Meshes” plods with a ritualistic rhythm. The album also features some of your lowest-fi work in years. Was Tides a conscious attempt to put together all of your musical influences and all of the sounds you’ve experimented with over the years?

IV: No, I think that many of the things you’re calling Japanther’s style are simply my natural tendencies to mix hip hop mentalities with simple rock and roll constructs. The low-fi tendencies come from relocating to Washington State and making a record by any means. This has always been my way. Things will sounds better as things go, but often the first record is really fun to just throw things at whatever gear you have. Worry about perfecting later, and have a ball making things with zero expectations.

VW: Whereas Japanther can be punchy and high energy, you’ve turned all of the same elements inwards on the new LP, creating a far more introspective vibe. Was there a particular impulse that led to this key difference between Tides and much of your other musical work?

IV: The impulse was to survive and talk about all the wild shit fading in and out of my reality. Staying focused on the horizon while being rooted in the present was very difficult this year. Making an introspective, bluesy record was just what happened. Now, having played in front of some crowds as Howardian, the songs will likely get a bit more jumpy and dance-vibed. I suppose the motivation for making Land of the Low Tides was watching the Puget Sound day and night for many moons. The results were more or less out of my hands.

Land of the Low Tides is available on BUFU Records and iTunes. Look out for Howardian live in Vancouver in late May (date and venue TBA).

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu