Romy Vager faces our modern hellscape on RVG’s ‘Brain Worms’

The Melbourne singer-songwriter explores new synth-y territory and searches for balance with her band RVG on their dark, excellent third album

One of the most striking songs on RVG’s third album almost didn’t make the cut. ‘Squid’, a strange and sprawling meditation on turning into a sea creature but remaining unable to escape human despair, is one of the band’s best – but frontwoman Romy Vager reveals she brought it to the band at the last minute.

“‘Squid’ was just made up on the spot,” she shares over Zoom. “I wrote some lyrics down and the band was like, ‘got any more songs?’ Out of desperation, I pulled out this song that I’d sort of been working on about a squid, with the lyrics half-done.”

The fact that a song as distinctive and evocative as ‘Squid’ started as a half-baked idea is testament to Vager’s songwriting and storytelling ability, and her knack for combining the bizarre and the real. The thundering, synth-soaked song, inspired equally by a Ray Bradbury short story and the Simpsons episode riffing on it, is the epic centrepiece of the Melbourne post-punk quartet’s new album, ‘Brain Worms’, a record that delves deeply into the personal and the universal through both angst and dark humour.

“A lot of the songs are about there being some sort of decline everywhere in the world – a decline from a point that’s already quite bad. The songs are me processing how to live in that”

‘Squid’ captures the existential crisis of modern living through an absurdist lens, and ‘Giant Snake’ ups the ante by evoking a weird, visceral image of serial killer Ivan Milat with a serpent wrapped around his neck. The latter was inspired by a lookalike of the murderer messaging abuse to Vager when the band first entered the mainstream Australian consciousness.


Elsewhere on ‘Brain Worms’, Vager is more direct. On ‘Tambourine’, she farewells a friend through the impersonal medium of an online funeral; the title track takes aim at conspiracy theorists; and ‘Midnight Sun’ is a howl of rage in the face of government inaction and media bias following the 2019 bushfires.

“One of the things that we kept talking about while making this record is the frog in boiling water thing,” Vager says. “A lot of the songs are about there being some sort of decline everywhere in the world – a decline from a point that’s already quite bad. The songs are me processing how to live in that.”

But it’s not about a descent into doom and gloom – it’s maintaining a balancing act. “You can’t be super miserable about things, but you also can’t be super saccharine,” she adds. “That’s what I’m constantly trying to hit with this album – you have to acknowledge the things, but you can’t ruin your whole life over it.”

RVG. Credit: Izzie Austin

Many of Vager’s songs circle the challenges of communication, and her naked lyricism spells it out explicitly – see ‘I Used To Love You’, from 2020’s ‘Feral’, which is brutal and blunt in its delivery: “I used to love you, but now I don’t.” On ‘Brain Worms’ lead single ‘Nothing Really Changes’, she sings, “I hate deep down that I still miss you” before the song swells and the kicker arrives: “I think I’m bursting into flames”.

“You’re always fighting the immediate oppression of people’s perceptions of you,” she says. “As a trans person, I’m always gonna get shit and be stereotyped in a way that I don’t want to me be, and I’ve always tried to fight and find ways out of that constantly.”

But on ‘Brain Worms’, Vager also steps out of herself and her immediate experiences, almost as a means of self-preservation: “I didn’t want to delve into myself in the way that I’d had previously on records. I definitely wanted to try and write different songs in my world.”


RVG’s tried and tested sound, which marries the moodiness of Joy Division with bright, jangly guitars reminiscent of The Go-Betweens, enters new territory on ‘Brain Worms’: it’s spiked with synths and elements of coldwave, from the gentle buzz on opener ‘Common Ground’ to the luscious climaxes of ‘Nothing Really Changes’ and ‘Squid’. The shift has been a long time coming.

“After the last couple of records, there was definitely a mentality that I didn’t want to exclusively be in a guitar band – maybe I got a bit self-conscious about it because we had done the two guitars, bass and drums thing for a long time,” Vager says.

“When we first started the band a long time ago, Reuben [Bloxham, guitarist] was meant to play keys… For the first time in this band, we have the resources to do that. We got a grant during the pandemic for music gear, and we ended up buying a lot… That definitely made us capable of doing this a bit differently.”

“You can’t be super miserable about things, but you also can’t be super saccharine… you have to acknowledge the things, but you can’t ruin your whole life over it”

Working with a new producer in a new place also helped give RVG, rounded out by drummer Marc Nolte and bassist Isabele Wallace, a fresh perspective. The band travelled to London to record the album at Snap Studios with English producer James Trevascus, spending an intense 13 days straight in the studio: “I never got over my jet lag, so I’d wake up at like 5am and go for a big walk and find the cemeteries and stuff, and then I’d go into the studio,” Vager remembers.

RVG were a long way from Melbourne, where they live-tracked their 2017 debut ‘A Quality of Mercy’ at the iconic Tote Hotel for all of $100, and recorded ‘Feral’ with the New York-based Australian producer Victor Van Vugt. Both Trevascus and Van Vugt have worked with Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, making them the perfect fit for the equally dark and atmospheric RVG.

“James really took the lead and got us out of our box,” Vager says. “After playing for years together you do get a bit comfortable – sometimes you need a fifth person in the room to be like, ‘what about this?’”

RVG. Credit: Nick McKinlay

Snap Studios has many notable alumni, including Kate Bush, who sold the studio a number of her guitars after recording there. Vager played one of Bush’s acoustic guitars on this record – rumour has it the instrument has also passed through the hands of new wave legends Tears for Fears and Icehouse. RVG jumped at the opportunity to harness its lineage.

“This is the reason I wanted to go to London: I wanted to be around this hub of culture,” Vager says. She recalls her involvement with ‘Truckload of Sky: The Lost Songs of David McComb’, a 2020 tribute album to the late Triffids frontman: “Rob [McComb] was like, ‘you can play Dave’s guitar if you want’ – he had this big Gretsch guitar and I was sitting there playing it. I like those moments where you get to feed off that music history.”

Next week, RVG will play their first major show for ‘Brain Worms’ – a headliner at Melbourne’s Forum for the city’s winter arts festival, RISING. Their biggest hometown gig yet, it’ll feature “cool lighting and visuals, which is something we’ve never really thought about”, Vager reveals. “I’m terrified but I’m excited.”

Before RVG take the lauded Forum stage, though, they warmed up with a free, intimate in-store performance at Sound Merch in Collingwood the same day ‘Brain Worms’ was released. Anyone who’s experienced RVG live knows exactly how intense their performances are, and how singular Vager is as she gives her all communicating the emotional weight of her words.

This was a typically blistering set, and the first time many of the new songs had been performed live. I was standing so close to Vager that I could see her sweat and spit as she built towards her trademark, spine-tingling roar. By the end of the performance, I was crying. I couldn’t help myself. There’s simply no other band quite like RVG.

RVG’s ‘Brain Worms’ is out now via Ivy League. The band play RISING at the Forum on June 14 supported by Iceage and Batrider – more info here


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