Exclusive Interview: The Gold Medalists Singer/Guitarist Peter Van Nguyen
With me being a guy who write about video games, and he being a guy who publicizes them, most of my conversations with Peter Van Nguyen have been about games. But Peter’s first love has always been music, hence his new role as the singer and guitar player for The Gold Medalists. With their new album, Versus The Sea, hitting iTunes, Spotify, and other online outlets, I spoke to Peter about the band, their music, and how he plans to coordinate his band duties with that other job of his.
Let’s start with the obvious questions: What kind of music do you guys play? How would you describe it to people?
I’ve always had a hard time answering this question. We have a lot of different influences that come through in our music. If I had to categorize our sound, I would say we’re an indie-rock band, but even that moniker covers a broad range of sounds. A lot of our friends have mentioned that our new songs sound like they’re from an indie band from the ’90s. Yeah, I don’t mind that.
What other bands do you think you guys could be compared to fairly?
Let me tell you a few of the bands that influenced me and hopefully some of it comes through in our music: Explosions In She Sky, Cloud Nothings, Elliot Smith, Sunny Day Real Estate, Broken Social Scene and Kevin Drew, Pinback, Smashing Pumpkins pre-1995, and the earlier Foo Fighters albums. I admire Dave Grohl because I am a drummer but I also love writing songs. Also, Nirvana was a big part of my childhood, so I can’t deny Grohl’s influence on me.
Versus The Sea is your second album. When you started writing and then recording it, what were some of the things you wanted to do better than you had done on your first album, Versus Tigers?
Technically, this would be the third full-length album under the name The Gold Medalists. I started the band as a side project, but it has grown into its own beast. It took me a few years to find my sound as I was still learning how to play the guitar. I can’t really read music. Yeah, yeah, drummers are not musicians, right? So it took me a while to find the right band mates. They’re all great musicians and they help cover up my flaws. They make my ideas sound 1000% better. But as I’m learning more about songwriting, our music is getting better. Overall, I just wanted to write solid songs that really captured what I was feeling at that time. Versus Tigers was a bit more depressing, as I was going through some life challenges. Versus The Sea is more rocking, heavy driven grooves and melodies.
To produce the album, you hired Jacob Winik, who’s worked with The Magnetic Fields. Why did you decide to work with him?
Our past albums didn’t really capture the intensity or emotion of our live shows, so we wanted to record to tape; analog all the way. A few band friends recommended Tiny Telephone studio. It didn’t hurt that I also liked [T.T. owner and producer] John Vanderslice’s music. Originally, we were hoping to work with John but he was booked up for months, so he recommended a few producers. Jacob’s band references stuck out to us. It all worked out because Jacob was amazing and really had great advice for us. He knew what sound we were going for and fully captured it in the recording. I’d definitely work with Jacob again.
Now I was a little surprised to see that you’re the frontman of The Gold Medalists because in your previous group, Total Shutdown, you were the drummer. Why did you decide to pull a Dave Grohl?
Yeah, I am a drummer. It’s in my blood. Nothing beats bashing the hell out of my kit. That’s why I got into noise music and played with Total Shutdown; it’s not something I listen to on a daily basis, but playing this music is the most visceral and intense form of expression. So I got into the noise scene for a while. My bandmates from Total Shutdown are life-long friends as well. This musical period was an amazing journey for me. Maybe it’s all the anger I got inside that drew me to playing this type of music. I needed an outlet. [laughs].
But I also love slow songs, love songs. The beautiful melodies draw me in. I just starting thinking of different ways to combine all the genres that I like — soul, hip-hop, electronic, punk, noise, folk — so I started picking up the guitar and teaching myself how to play. The first album for The Gold Medalists was really a collection of different types of sounds/songs I was experimenting with at that time. Also, I was just starting to pick up on the guitar, so the playing and structures of the songs were somewhat minimal.
Do you see any noise influence on The Gold Medalists?
Yeah, definitely. It’s probably not as apparent to the listener, but I feel most of my rhythm guitar parts could be parts of a noise song. That said, my vocals are usually more on the melodic, pretty side. I really like a heavy rhythm section, driving guitars with mellow vocals over it. I like that contrast in the songs. But there are also sections of screaming. Total Shutdown was such a big part of my life and it has expanded my musical tastes/preferences. For The Gold Medalists, I want us to rock out, like a ’90s indie rock band.
I do want to get back into experimental/noise. I’ve been contemplating starting a new solo project where I drum, play keyboards, and sing simultaneously. I want a back-up female vocalists, so if anyone in the Bay Area interested, let me know.
Even more than the music, I know you better as a publicist for video games. How serious are you about The Gold Medalists? Like is it just a fun thing you do, are you hoping to become the next Foo Fighters, what?
Out of college, I wanted to tour the world and play music. Colorado was not a bustling music scene at that point. One of my college buddies moved back to the Bay Area and worked for a PR agency for Sega; Dreamcast was launching around that time. He told me they were looking for a publicist and that they would relocate me on their dime. I majored in Business Administration/Marketing and didn’t have a clue what PR people did, but I saw it as free trip to California to play music so hell yeah I went for the opportunity. Fifteen years later, I’m still doing PR. I’m not sure what happened.
All my bandmates work in tech. We have jobs that take up a lot of our time. We love what we do. That said, I refuse to fully give in and let go of my first love. I’m holding onto my passion and I’ll continue making music until I die. I always need music around me. It keeps me sane. If any of my projects ever blow up, fingers crossed, I’ll figure it out then. But we all know how tough it is to make it big in music. In this day and age, acts come and go as fast as cats playing keyboards.
Is this attitude towards your band’s future ever an issue for the other guys in the band?
It is. I want to play out more, but it’s hard to manage all our schedules. I want to tour, but I don’t know how feasible that is. So we’re realistic about what we’re doing here. It’s just really fun to play in a band. If it goes anywhere, that’s great. But I’m just focused on getting our ideas out there and sharing it with anyone that wants to take the time to listen.
I struggle with this all the time. That’s why sometimes I think maybe I need a solo project, so I would just have to worry about my schedule, my future. But it’s so hard to create something unique and full-sounding with just one person. That’s the next challenge I need to overcome.
Have you guys had any interest from any labels? And is that even a thing you really need anymore?
With services like CD Baby and Bandcamp, it’s super easy to get your music out there on iTunes, Spotify, etc. There are so many acts that get recognized on YouTube as well, so I don’t think labels really add value to the bands. They do help connect you with other acts to tour with, but since we’re not really do much of either, we can release our music on our own. We’re trying to play every few months in San Francisco, and for now, that’ll have to do.
Also, listen, these music services like iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora take such a big cut already, really ripping off bands; we don’t need another hand in our pockets. Bandcamp is actually pretty decent, but you know it’s not that sexy to tell your friends they can purchase your songs on Band Camp vs iTunes. Damn consumers, damn brand affinity….
When you were first naming the band, did you ever consider The Silver Medalists or The Bronze Medalists or The Medals Just For Trying?
[laughs] We did joke about naming it The Silver Medalists. Set the expectations low.
How long after your decided on the name did you decide that all of your album titles would start with the word “Versus”?
To be honest, I have no idea where Versus Tigers came from. We had a long list of names for our album. We were just throwing words out there. Versus Tigers sounded badass. For Versus The Sea, we almost called it Coctupus, but I couldn’t hang with that.
So how long is the list of possible albums titles you’ve got written down. Because I’m sure you’ve been sitting around, bored, and came up with a couple. Heck, I’ve come up with a couple: Versus King Kong, Versus Poetry, Versus Yo Mama, Who’s So Fat That When She Sit Around The House, She Sit “Around” The House….
Oh it was a long list that kept expanding for months. Versus Poetry: sounds very hi-brow. Maybe you’re on to something…. The album cover could be us neck-punching Shakespeare.
Finally, if you guys were given the chance to open for any big band you could, which do you think would make the best double bill with The Gold Medalists?
Taylor Swift. Just because I want to meet her. Right? Come on.