On a bone-cold day I rushed up Varick Street in lower Manhattan in an effort to be on time to interview a certain producer with stellar credentials, a man whom I had volunteered to interview with great enthusiasm, a man with possibly the coolest name in the business: Australian- born Victor Van Vugt. In my mind I had conjured an image of a grey-haired, bearded, perhaps bespectacled or wild- looking gentleman in his 50s. I guess these curious notions sprung from the fact that the man has been professionally involved in music since the early '80s as live sound engineer for The Fall, the Go- Betweens, the Pogues, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. At this time, in London, he began producing and engineering in earnest. Whatever the reasons, I had pictured a somewhat grizzled, party- hardened veteran. Buzzed up to his fifth- floor sublet, I realized immediately that the only accurate preconception I had was of a "gentleman". Victor turned out to be a warm, youthful soul with an almost sprightly countenance and a face that shone with humor and wisdom. He immediately offered me some tea, and we proceeded to have a discussion on how one makes a proper cup.
Victor struck me as a methodical, incredibly positive, balanced and confident force, a man not adverse to any form of technical experimentation, with enough savvy to pull it off, yet a producer who always puts the band's interests first. No doubt stemming from his self-taught beginnings as a teenager working live sound in Melbourne's underground rock clubs, Victor is and remains a true fan of the artists with whom he works. His discography includes PJ Harvey's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, Luna's Penthouse, The Walkabouts, Nick Cave and The Bad Seed's The Good Son and Murder Ballads, and Beth Orton. His enthusiasm was evident in the story he told of his first experiences working with bands. It turns out that he had confidence in his skills even before he had any skills at all! I asked him the obligatory question.
How did you get involved in this whole business?
I lied my way. [laughter] I was 15 or 16, just playing in bands. I went and saw this band play, and I just thought that they were the most ridiculous band I'd ever seen. They were amazing, but I'd never seen anything like it in my entire life. I really thought they'd just got out of a mental asylum. They were just generally weird people. So after the show it was almost a dare from my friends to introduce myself to them. I spoke to the lead singer and we got on really well, he was really nice. Somehow he asked me if I could mix. And they were just playing in a tiny bar with 30 people and vocal PA. So I said, "Yeah, I can mix." He said, "Do you want to be our mixer?" I said, "Yeah, I'd love to be your mixer." I was living with my parents in the suburbs [and] later in the week I got a phone call from the singer. "We're gonna be playing this Friday night, do you want to mix us?" I said, "Yeah!" So I missed out on school, hitchhiked into town and turned up. They were supporting a really successful band at the time, and they were playing to like 1,500 people and there's this huge mixing desk. I was like, "Oh my God! This is going to be like hell." I was really full of myself, [a] cocky 16-year old, and I went to the guy who owned the PA. "I'm their mixer. I don't really know how to use this particular brand of board. Could you run through it?" And he obviously caught on to what was going on. So he pretty much mixed the show. And he must have done an amazing job. It was probably the first time they'd played through a big PA, and probably the first time they'd had a professional mixer. He just did a great job. There were a lot of people there — their friends, some of their influentials, members of the Birthday Party were there.
Who was this band?
They were called the Moodists. Their lead singer was a guy called Dave Graney. They're from Melbourne. I went backstage after the show to get some beer, and all their friends just told them it sounded amazing, they never sounded so good. So I went in and they [said], "Victor, you're a genius!" "Yeah, thanks. Where's the beer?" [laughter] So I got the job. A couple weeks later, the Moodists won a free day in a 24-track recording studio. And they asked me to come in to the studio. In those days (this is like early '80s in Melbourne) it was a real changeover period. The new music didn't exist. And it was always a battle for bands to do the new music. I just came in and [said to the engineer], "Can't you just make the whole thing louder?" And he'd just take the master fader and say, "It's louder." I was just giving him a really hard time. I'd never been in a studio before in my life, you know. Anyway, it was released on an independent label or something, and they actually gave me production credit on it, which was really nice of them. They liked the fact that I was on their side. The bass player from the Birthday Party brought this single over with him when they first went to England. He's playing it in his apartment one night, and there's an NME journalist with him just partying with him — he gave it as the single of the week in NME. In those days it had never happened before. A young, independent, Australian band just hadn't had oversees recognition, so it was kind of a big thing. All of a sudden I start getting phone calls from all these other Australian bands. I can sort of remember flying up to Sydney, [after I was asked] to make a record. And I told my parents I was going to a school camp. And I told my school that I was going away with my...