Q&A With The Vulgar Boatmen’s Dale Lawrence


It’s a powerful thing, having a band that feels like your personal secret. As I’ve read other writers on the subject of the Vulgar Boatmen, I’m always struck by that very particular quality. Whether it’s Bill Wyman or Greil Marcus or little ol’ me, the Vulgar Boatmen inspire a kind of confessional tone. We’re telling you about them, about our precious secret, because deep down, we know that you would love their music as much as we do. Ultimately, we try to give away the secret even though it’s something we really treasure.

I first heard the Boatmen around 1990 or ’91, when their first album, You And Your Sister, was still their only album. It’s a beautiful record, full of songs that were as rhythmic as the Feelies (who were also influenced by the Velvet Underground) but as melodic and singable as an Everly Brothers or Simon & Garfunkel tune. The lyrics were a unique blend of the instantly relatable and the eternally mysterious and puzzling.

By the time I saw the Vulgar Boatmen live, their second album, Please Panic, was out. It may be even better, in the sense that the songs are really strong and the performances are really good. “You Don’t Love Me Yet” (which gave a Jonathan Lethem novel its title) belongs on every mix tape you ever made. But as good as that record is, You And Your Sister remains the first document from this one-of-a-kind band. It’s the first thing we heard, so it still has a hold on us.

The band was unique, led by a Florida college professor and an Indiana musician. They wrote songs together by mailing cassettes back and forth—no emailing audio files in the late ‘80s. There were two full bands, one in each state, and they all collaborated on the records.

It has been 25 years since You And Your Sister appeared. It didn’t reach a large enough audience. But for those of us who did hear it, and who embraced it like a precious secret, it is a classic. With the 25th anniversary re-release of You And Your Sister, Vulgar Boatmen co-leader Dale Lawrence (the Indiana half) is guest editing MAGNET’s website this week.

Expect some new secrets.

The 25th anniversary of You And Your Sister is kind of remarkable. First off, there’s the shock that so much time has passed. From that perspective, how do you view the whole Vulgar Boatmen portion of your life? Any regrets?
One always has regrets, decisions that could have gone another way. But honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine having had the foresight to rethink any of that at the time. At this point, I mostly just feel really lucky. The odds of any band getting their music heard and appreciated (let alone it leading to great success) are always slim. That there’s still enough interest in the Boatmen, 25 years on, that we get to play out and that that’s still as much fun as ever—these are major things to be grateful for.

Would a more standard band setup have allowed you to create more music? Or does the music that exists benefit from the unique circumstances it was created under?
I really don’t know the answers to those questions.

One of the qualities of You And Your Sister and the other records is the kind of out-of-time aspect to the sound. Was that intentional? Or was it more a product of your and Robert’s influences—from the Velvets to the Everly Brothers kind of being timeless themselves? That said, do you think that comes into play now? Some records made in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s sound terribly dated while YAYS and Please Panic sound like they could have been made last week or in 1975.
Thanks. Well, it wasn’t conscious, but I think you’re right: The production models we had in mind—Buddy Holly, Stax/Volt, Rod Stewart—do have that out-of-time sound you’re talking about. Certainly, we weren’t trying to emulate any contemporary records.

The composition method you and Robert used—mailing cassettes to each other—was pretty unique at the time. With technology changing, it’s pretty typical for people to email each other files and work on music from different locations. Would that have been good for the Boatmen, or do you think the low-tech approach helped the music remain so organic and warm sounding?
You know, until the press started talking about it, it never occurred to me that the way we wrote songs was at all odd. If we’d lived in the same city, I’m pretty sure Robert and I would have written basically the same way, putting ideas down on cassette tape and working on what the other had come up with. The fact that we lived so far apart was the unusual thing, I guess. But I still bet lots of songwriting teams have used that basic method, just maybe not so long-distance. As for our songs, I don’t imagine that using files instead of cassettes would have changed things up much.

Is it satisfying that the music is still there and still available, having survived the revolution in how music is made and consumed, the decline and fall of labels and so many other events?
Very much so. It’s still not like we’re especially well known—and that would, of course, be nice. But, as I said earlier, given circumstances and the passage of time, I have to feel good about things.

Are there plans for similar treatments of Please Panic and Opposite Sex?
We hope so, yes.

—Phil Sheridan