This interview appeared in the Winter/Spring 2020 print edition of RAIN magazine. Support print. Purchase your copy here.
Madison Velding-VanDam is an interdisciplinary artist, musician, and songwriter living in New York City. I first met him in 2015 when he was creating a multidisciplinary project called ONWE, a play on the French word ennui, which translates as “boredom.” The result was something quite the opposite. The video art and music from ONWE was an intense lamentation of real-world social issues, disparities, and the resulting confusion.
The execution was as graphic and dystopian as the uncomfortable and sobering topics ONWE explored, where Velding-VanDam performed as the persona David Welles, a villain fashioned in the same vein as Bowie’s Thin White Duke but with a modern spin—part clown Mac DeMarco (the pseudonym of Vernor Winfield MacBriare Smith IV) and part archetypal Peter Pan that could have been dreamt up by Lena Dunham.
Velding- VanDam drew from the characters he met in gentrifying Brooklyn and a sobering reflection of himself, as flailing twentysomethings pursuing artists’ dreams in an urban center. The music was, for the most part, an inoffensive take on dream pop, the genre popularized by DIIV and Beach Fossils, from the prior wave of suburbanites who had taken over Brooklyn.
One song, “21st Century Rebel,” is an introspective look at the inertia of being stuck in a system that doesn’t allow you to rebel and the resulting anxiety from such realizations. Meanwhile, “jk bb” cheekily delves into the dangers of apathy. Velding-VanDam chants on the track, “Testosterone blinded young white men love their entitlements / Life watch them fall hard.”
This insurgency was not welcomed for long. ONWE’s only album, titled David Welles, although mixed by Kevin McMahon—the critically acclaimed producer who worked on Swans’ The Seer and Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor—was released to little-to-no fanfare. Then David Welles died and so did ONWE’s support.
After wrapping the ONWE project in 2016, Velding-VanDam joined Bodega, the Brooklyn band fronted by longtime friend and co-conspirator Ben Hozie, as guitarist and producer. Hozie and Velding-VanDam had come together on the Brooklyn music scene, acknowledging their mutually sardonic worldviews. Bodega is an “art rock unit,” and songwriter and lyricist Hozie pokes fun at many of the post fill-in-the-blank cultural formations that have made punk nearly redundant or blasé against the backdrop of unfettered capitalism.
Velding-VanDam also formed the band he fronts, The Wants. The two singles they’ve released so far, “Fear My Society” and “Clearly a Crisis,” are refined and upbeat tracks that seem to come to an acceptance, or at least an understanding, of societal and personal anxieties, in a sincere and clear departure from the ONWE project.
I caught up with Velding-VanDam in New York to discuss everything from discontents with capitalism to technology paranoia, politics, and The Wants’ forthcoming album. The photographs here were taken by his partner, Madison Carroll (yes, she’s also named Madison). The Madisons have a continuing collaboration on The Wants’ visual media.
Mark Benjamin: I haven’t seen you since the ONWE days. The internet was a frequent topic and tool you were using to release music and videos from that project. It’s changed quite a bit since then with the evolution of social media. Is it still an interesting space to you?
Madison Velding-VanDam: That’s been a major lesson and pivot in my approach as a musician. Since we met, when I was working on ONWE, I’ve had an interest in a performance-art element of acknowledging that social media is not really a great way of doing things. This phenomenon of social-media stardom is to be determined. We’ll see how it shakes out because, when these platforms go away, so do those followers, right?
MB: And their careers.
MVV: Yeah, these once “new” platforms are now enmeshed in the traditional medium/message relationship. For example, if you were Tumblr famous, it didn’t necessarily translate into being a working photographer once Tumblr was no longer the primary medium. I think very young people, through social media, are learning—and being further indoctrinated in—marketing and capitalist strategies. I see it as an indoctrination tool to the US style of economy. Refine your personal brand. It’s like being class president at high school or something, and then you develop into something reasonable as you get older. Or you were the football star at high school, and maybe you peaked then.
To flip a career conundrum on myself, I’m wearing Celine clothes in some of the photos accompanying this interview, and that makes this interview part Celine advertisement. A lot of musicians are doing this. I can’t afford these clothes. By wearing them, I’m commodifying my authenticity as a musician and enabling the people who can afford them to feel that they are signifying my authenticity—and the “authenticity” of the musicians in these advertisements—by buying and wearing the clothes, which may or may not be an authentic representation of their own experience.
Ten or twenty years ago, this would plainly have been called “selling out.” But, subsumed in this economy, I don’t see the prospect of making enough money to survive from traditional revenue streams—excuse the pun—in music, so I’ve opened my mind to such opportunities. It’s a cyclical, multilayered conflict, but it’s also reality, for lack of a better word.
MB: Do you see your band The Wants as an extension of ONWE?
MVV: No, I think that the ONWE project is over. In the end, ONWE was more exciting for its performance aspect than its music. I think ONWE and the David Welles projects are only interesting because they were in anticipation of the impending sea change
in social media, when Facebook would become a tool for mass manipulation—
and start monetizing their disinformation platform. We’re far beyond that point now. We are living in that world. But there was a period where I thought, “Look at how easily this tool can be used to spread a false mythology.”
It was so funny to me at the time, but it also turned out that it was very believable. If you monetize that and get even more strategic with it, you could manipulate things like politics.
That’s where we’re at now, but you know Facebook was this platform that bands were using to push events early on. We thought it was an exciting community. Now it’s being used for political warfare, essentially. It seems our generation understands it because we use this technology all the time, but older people didn’t grow up with this stuff. They’re dumbfounded.
MB: I think that’s part of the problem. The boomers in Congress didn’t regulate tech early enough because they had no concept of its power until it started affecting their own reelections.
MVV: Right, so it caught them and bit them in the ass. The younger generation totally knew that these tools were around for a long time and that they were starting to get honed and honed.
What I was going to mention about a career in music is that realization, as a grown-up, that social media is not a sustainable strategy for doing what I love or for selling records. People just want to see you, you know, jazz hands on the internet or being weird.
“We’re all being raised within and churned out of these nuanced systems of oppression, and no one is better for it. And these systems have all these defense mechanisms that prevent people from finding opportunities to get out of them”
MB: Also, the role of the musician is changing. I think it’s gone beyond the music now. Musicians, especially pop musicians, have become something like a relatable community manager.
MVV: What do you mean?
MB: I think a lot of fans may not necessarily like the music or think too much about lyrics, or maybe they like the music because they like the musician. They fall in love with the relatability of the message, the vibe, and the persona. It’s about the persona nowadays more than it’s about the music.
MVV: I agree. That’s well said. I’m trying to make a personal transition away from all that. It was acknowledging this and being like, wait, people are interested in this character I’ve developed, not the music. I had to stop myself and acknowledge that I like making music and I like making records.
I saw David Byrne’s Broadway show the other day, American Utopia. It was the pinnacle of his work. It’s music, it’s theater. It’s very old school in that way. That’s what I want to do. There are still people who follow that stuff. It’s kind of sad that we’re conflating these media personalities or “influencers,” these personas or “personal brands,” as musicians, when they’re more like entertainers—kind of in a Las Vegas way. They’re public characters. You don’t even need to sing or play an instrument to be a musician anymore.
MB: That’s true. From ONWE to David Welles to The Wants. What is The Wants, why that name?
MVV: I’m trying to figure out the core drivers of my own curiosities and the thread of the work that I’ve made my entire life.
Talking about someone like David Byrne, he has infused “banal surrealism” into his life’s work, poignantly critiquing the world and the day-to-day obsessions of work—having clean shoes, being presentable and polite—and making sense of how that’s a little absurd. As a Midwesterner, I relate.
I’m still trying to articulate my own message as coherently, but it is this searching for “What I want” that is what I want. Thus, The Wants! I was also challenging myself to not be parodic and instead be earnest. That’s really scary. Some of the music I’m making is a bit scary. I feel vulnerable.
MB: “Fear My Society” and “Clearly a Crisis” are the first tracks from a forthcoming album?
MVV: Those are the first singles, yeah, but we have a full-length album called Container coming out in March 2020. The themes, rather than being about New York City, are more rooted in the Midwest, where I come from. I’m from Michigan, originally. Born in Grand Rapids, a post-industrial town, I grew up in Ann Arbor, a utopian college town. And now my mother lives in Detroit, which had the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in history.
I’m understanding and revisiting the earlier parts of my life and seeing it through fresh eyes. My biological father’s upbringing and current economic reality help me have more empathy for the political climate we’re living in. He worked hard his whole life, eventually owning a business that later succumbed to gentrifying competition.
He is white, he grew up with a single mother who moved from husband to husband—lower middle class by most considerations— he’s not racist, sexist, nor classist, but deeply angry with the world and very wounded. He’s not a Trumper, but his life and culminating outlook bear a striking resemblance to the fears and anxieties of those who are.
I want to have empathy for these people who are easily dismissed and said to just be ignorant, because we’re all being raised within and churned out of these nuanced systems of oppression, and no one is better for it. And those systems have all these defense mechanisms that prevent people from finding opportunities to get out of them or see outside themselves. I think you should be empathetic to everyone. I think that’s key. I think that’s what The Wants is about for me. I want to be true to myself by remaining empathetic to the experiences of others.
MB: I really love “Clearly a Crisis.” It reminds me how, when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, there was this unbelievable “Holy shit” moment of uncertainty. There were massive protests in New York City that weren’t covered by the media. That experience inspired the second issue of RAIN, “Summer of Unrest,” where we looked at protest, rebellion, and censorship. The future was scary and we’ve since been living in a state of perpetual crisis. What do you channel as the crisis?
MVV: “Clearly a Crisis” is foremost a very personal song about the dissolution of a relationship. But I’ve been able to make connections to what you’re describing. To identify what felt authentic, I chose to look inward first when writing a lot of Container and then the real world filled in the gaps.
I’m writing about existential crisis, too. It’s fear, but it’s not because I’m pessimistic. I think there is a growing class, the economically irrelevant, which I think more and more of us are going to become. And this reality is simply that the economy is not addressed. Our economy is increasingly one where only highly and specifically skilled laborers can participate on a meaningful level. The first to go are the older generations that can’t adapt to new technologies. They can’t get new jobs! They’re holding on to coal and stuff because it’s like, well, what are they going to learn— some crazy new computer skills?
The rate at which so much industry is becoming mechanized is so fast, meaning that even if it does stay, you have four people replacing 50. To say that factory jobs can come back is absurd and to think that this is not going to happen to more people is beyond naive. I fear that we’re not going to address that we need a new economic structure to handle our future and that future is going to arrive sooner than we think.
“We’re given access to what feels like these performers’ personal lives on social media and that can make them seem so approachable. That intimacy doesn’t translate easily to a massive stage. It’s interesting seeing Billie Eilish whisper-sing, almost like a cooing baby, in front of 20,000 people”
MB: I think it especially hits America hard because we have this persistent ideology of bringing yourself up by your own bootstraps. The incessant individualism, and the small social safety net that this country has. Anyone can make it here. You’ll do better than your parents. Hard work will bring social mobility. But then the reality isn’t living up to that American daydream.
MVV: It’s been established by social scientists that the American dream, the
idea that you can do better than your parents economically, is more achievable
in Western Europe and Scandinavia than it is in the United States. Americans can’t just keep saying that the American dream is achievable, unless we’re really out to support its possibility—just saying it doesn’t make it true!
MB: Does the political environment inform your music?
MVV: Absolutely. I have long been interested in politics. I graduated with a political science degree and I genuinely wanted to be a lawyer and activist for a time. I think music and performance are addictions I can’t shake. So here I am.
So social scientists have this idea called the “Overton window,” which is the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse. This is a talked-about concept by Republicans, who seem to genuinely view politics like a football match. Right now, the Right is obsessed with this idea that they can push the Overton window further to their side by espousing more radical opinions, à la Fox News, and turning them into acceptable public discourse.
This makes me think of one of Margaret Thatcher’s final statements when leaving office when she was asked what her greatest achievement was—“Tony Blair and New Labour.” Her opponent had basically accepted her neoliberal principles and I think the US is way further down that road.
MB: Yeah, we’re stuck in this endless gaslighting continuum between truth and fiction.
MVV: Absolutely. I guess we’re returning to what journalism was a hundred years ago—hyper-partisan emotional manipulation.
MB: I was reading an article the other day about Iggy Pop and how he used to do a lot of drugs and vomited on his audience. They were kind of shaming him retroactively by comparing it to today’s ultra-safe culture in music.
MVV: Fun fact, Iggy Pop and I went to the same high school. I see him drinking from a coconut, talking about the antioxidants, and kissing his pet parrot, and I think, “That’s great, man. I’m glad this is how you’ve ended up.”
Personally, I’m very thankful that I’ve avoided drug abuse. I find that being generally drug free is one of the main reasons that I’m able to do this job. It’s the only way to be really focused, and now the expectation of musician life is to not do drugs.
MB: I respect that era of musicians. I don’t know if you saw the VMAs in 2018, where Post Malone did a set and then he brought out Aerosmith. Then you hear Steven Tyler take over and do a mini concert, but you can just see and hear the sheer differences between their performances. Aerosmith killed it, just like they probably did 30 years ago. It was very interesting to see them side by side—today’s popular music and then you have Aerosmith, which just blew me away.
MVV: Have you seen many big pop acts? I saw Billie Eilish this summer in the Netherlands. She had a live band—hidden in the corner. The stage setting was super-minimal and entirely black, not unlike David Byrne’s entirely gray sets. Now I want to see more big pop acts!
MB: Like a Taylor Swift concert? We’ll have to go.
MVV: Yeah, that could be alright… There is something interesting happening here when internet stardom is translated to the big stage. We’re given access to what feels like these performers’ personal lives on social media and that can make them seem so approachable. That intimacy doesn’t translate easily to a massive stage. It’s interesting seeing Billie Eilish whisper-sing, almost like a cooing baby, in front of 20,000 people.
MB: Very ASMR.
MVV: Yeah, exactly!
MB: So, Container is coming out in March and you’re doing a UK and France tour in February. Do you have a livelier audience in the UK?
MVV: For sure—UK and European audiences are very engaged.
MB: How do you feel about the music scene in New York?
MVV: I think that New York is struggling to support exciting up-and-coming artists, period. I think the economic reality of being an artist in New York is too challenging, there is not enough time to create unless you have the money. Why would anyone who is up-and-coming want to live here now? I don’t know. I’m surprised I’m still here.
I came as the final wave was sort of fading away. I thought maybe there was going to be a next wave, but I don’t think there has been. So many great DIY venues have closed, too. Since I’ve arrived, Glasslands, Death by Audio, Palisades, 285 Kent, The Glove, and Secret Project Robot have closed, to name a few. More legally sustainable venue projects have sprung up in their place.
MB: They’re all luxury condos now.
MVV: Yeah, and Vice headquarters. I think New York will always be an important hub culturally, but it’s struggling to add to the conversation.
It’s important to be constructively critical of your peers and it’s really hard to find that today. Period. “Rockism” turned into “poptimism,” and both of these sentiments are flawed. We need a new way to formulate opinions about art. The music scene that we’re somewhat a part of in Bushwick has an inner competitiveness, but that competitiveness is mainly social. We’re not offering each other constructive criticism or challenging one another to do something different musically. That’s a key element of people challenging themselves and making better work. The reality is a bit more of a pseudo-polite, toxic-positivity thing.
I don’t really feel a part of the New York scene these days, though.
I look forward to performing outside the city. The greatest thing about getting any success in the music industry is that you get to tour and go to other parts of the world and get paid.