Interview with Vance Kotrla of Sci-Fi Romance
By Bob Gourley | Published on February 9, 2016
Having started off drumming in rock and metal bands, shifting to guitar sent singer-songwriter Vance Kotrla into a much different music direction with his current project, Sci-Fi Romance. While retaining some rock elements, the hauntingly dark sound of Sci-Fi Romance is very much rooted in folk music. Though he writes all the songs, Kotrla fleshes out Sci-Fi Romance’s sound by working with talented collaborators such as Jody Stark (cello), Mr. Mike (drums, art), Johnnie Kotrla (bass), and Kurt Bloom (drums). The debut Sci-Fi Romance album “ …and surrender my body to the flames” came out in 2010 and was followed by the concept album “The Ghost of John Henry” in 2012. In gearing up to record the newly released “Dust Among the Stars,” Sci-Fi Romance put out ‘October,” an EP of songs based on classic horror movies and recorded on an old 4-track cassette machine. In a phone interview, Kotrla discusses topics such as the long delay in making “Dust Among the Stars,” his forays into film music and making his own animated videos.
Cello seems to play a bigger role on Dust Among the Stars – could you discuss the reasons for that?
“Well, Jody [Stark] had a big part to play on the last album, which was the first Sci-Fi Romance album that she played on. I think that having gone through that album, it gave us a strong sense of some of the possibilities that we could reach for. We were really able to go for that with this record. From Jody’s perspective, a lot of times she’s brought in as not necessarily a lead player. People think of the cello as a supporting instrument, in a string section, that adds more texture to a sound or something. So this was an opportunity for her to really showcase the kinds of stuff she can do. I just wanted to cut her loose, because I think she’s amazing.”
When you are initially writing songs, do you have a strong sense as to how they will sound when ultimately performed and recorded, or do things tend to change when you work with the other musicians?
“It’s usually a pretty solid sense. I go through a demo process on my own, and when I feel like I’ve got a demo that is ready to show the rest of the band, that’s pretty much the way the song stays. There are obviously some exceptions. The guys really helped me out a lot on stitching ‘Temptation Blues’ together. There’s a bridge section there that wasn’t on the original demo. There are a couple of things like that, but on the whole, the songs are pretty in shape by the time I show them to anybody.”
Could you talk about the delay in getting Dust Among the Stars completed?
“There was a huge delay, and that was because our original drummer had a kid, and then suddenly my wife and I found out that we were expecting twins. So there was a big question mark at first. I had maybe 8 songs, and there was the question of whether we could race into the studio real fast and get them done. Everybody agreed that was not going give us the best outcome. So we just kind of hung back. It was a great opportunity for me to write more songs and really craft the album that it wanted to be. It also allowed us to spend more time on the arrangements, with Jody and things like that. For instance, ‘Autumn Waltz’ would not at all have been what it became if we were to have tried to rush it earlier.”
Are there other particular songs that you feel would have turned out differently had the break not happened?
“‘If I Fell,’ the first track on the record, hadn’t been written before the hiatus happened. That was a song that came to anchor the album in my mind and helped give the whole thing shape. So it definitely would have been a very different animal. There are also two songs that we recorded that didn’t make this album, and they absolutely would have been on there. They’re great songs, they’re going to come out, but they didn’t really fit in this set. They didn’t really have a place.”
What was your musical background before starting Sci-Fi Romance, and how does it relate to what you are doing now?
“It was an evolution, and a big departure for me, because I started out as a drummer playing in metal bands and in rock bands. It was really just a process of circumstance that led me to start playing guitar and things. Because as my apartments got smaller and I didn’t really have room for drum kits anymore, I still felt that I needed to be doing music. And so I picked up guitar and I really sort of stumbled into this. One day I found myself thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve written 10 or 12 songs; maybe I should record them so I don’t forget them.’ And that’s what turned into the first record. It was definitely kind of nerve-wracking to make a transition and have to do some soul searching. I had been seeing myself as musically a metal drummer and then suddenly I’m playing guitar and singing in a folk band. But it was something that felt right, and I was happy to pursue it. It was just kind of putting the ego aside and going for what I felt the project wanted to be.”
The music of Sci-Fi Romance blends many styles but seems often to be labeled as folk. Are you comfortable with that, and what are your general thoughts on putting music into genres?
“I have two main thoughts, really. One is that I’m very happy to be labeled as a folk musician because of the tradition of folk music. Generally, that tradition has been one of…I don’t know if ‘discontent’ is the right word, but of action, of getting people inspired to do things, of pointing out things that you don’t think are right with the world and trying to inspire change. I’m very happy to be put into that camp if people want to put me there. The other thing is that in another sense, the genre labels really are just for the marketing departments, and if you like the music then great, you like the music. I don’t think that this record could have existed if it weren’t for this strange musical journey that I’ve had. If it weren’t for the metal influences and the goth influences and the progressive influences and things like that, this record would sound very different. You can trace the fact that there’s a cello in this band to a couple of other projects that I did in college that had cello. I never really stopped to think too much about the genre or if it sounded right. I just trust it if it’s coming out of me and if it’s coming out of an honest place.”
What made you chose “If I Fell” as the first video from the album?
“I wasn’t entirely sure what song was going to be the lead-off release from the record. And I was just playing around with some video ideas. I spend time occasionally falling down the well of archive.org looking at public domain videos. It’s one of the things I really enjoy. I’d found the source material that went into the “If I Fell” video and wondered if it would overlap with the song. I was literally just playing around with it and the video sort of just happened. I really liked it, so I thought, ‘Well, this is what’s going to be the first thing out there.’ It was a happy accident. I really liked the synchronicity of it. It just felt right.”
You did music for the upcoming film “Spaghettiman.” Could you talk about that? How does it compare to the Sci-Fi Romance albums?
“It’s a little bit of a different animal, but you could say that there are strands of Sci-Fi Romance that are just sort of amplified in that. When the director came to me, he had what I thought was a really cool idea. He wanted to do a score for the film that was all like blues and rock and roll. And not songs, not like rock songs, but an actual score but done in a very heavy kind of rock style. So if you look at things like “Steam Drill Blues” off the last record or “More to Rust” and a couple of other tracks off the new record, it’s definitely more in that kind of vein. It was fun to flex those muscles and go really bluesy on a couple of things and go really heavy on others. It was really a great experience, and I think it came out really well.”
Would you like to do more film scoring work in the future?
“Sure. It didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. I’ve been doing film music. I actually started off doing keyboard-based and electronic film music for short films made maybe a dozen years ago. But it had never been something that I really pursued; it was something I did for friends or for my own projects, just because I happened to have the time and found it really intriguing. But yeah, now that I’ve scored a feature film from start to finish, I’d certainly be interested in doing more.”
You put out a release called “October” consisting of songs inspired by horror movies. How did that come about?
“That was something that literally popped into my head and I just went and did it. Every October, my wife and I watch a bunch of old horror movies. Sometimes if we’re not crazy busy, we get to watch 3 or 4 a week; sometimes not nearly that many. We had booked the studio time for the new album, but I hadn’t put anything out since late 2012 something like that. I was just really dying to let people know that Sci-Fi Romance still existed. And so we were watching the Vincent Price House of Usher and I said, “You know, what if I just write a song for each of these movies that we watch and just record them as fast as possible?” And it turned out that the fastest way to do that was on a 4-track cassette recorder that I’ve had for 20 something years. So I just kind of cranked those songs out and recorded them as quick and dirty as possible without really any artifice. It was a great palette cleanser creatively. It’s not the best sounding thing in the world, but that was sort of the point, just to put it out there very raw. And also those songs wonderfully textured and that kind of analog approach, I thought, really fit.”
So selections were based solely on what you happened to be watching?
“Part of the creative challenge was just writing a song based on the movie. And I don’t know that we really go into those Octobers with a list. Maybe the first movie we pick out then inspires us to watch the next one. And so we wound up with a lot Corman and a lot of Karloff, which is not necessarily always the case. We watched The House of Usher and the very gothic feel of that made us want to watch Dracula so that was the next one. They’re on the EP in the order that we watched them, the order that I wrote them, and the order that we recorded them.”
Was there any crossover with what would become the new album? For example, did any musical ideas originate with “October” but end up on “Dust Among the Stars”?
“There was definitely a crossover. I mentioned the song ‘Autumn Waltz’ earlier. When I originally wrote it, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know what it needed to sound like when it was done. So with the ‘October’ project, I only had 4 tracks. I knew one of them was going to be a vocal, I knew one was going to be either acoustic guitar or piano and the other two were sort of up for grabs. So on the last track, “The Mask of the Red Death,” I wound up just grabbing a banjo and putting something in to fill in the space. Looking at that sort of limited canvas, asking what does this song absolutely need to become what it wants to become, really helped on something like ‘Autumn Waltz,’ because then I was able to look at that with fresh eyes and say, ”Ok, I get it now. I get how to approach this some now.’ It was definitely a learning process that went into sort the orchestrations on the next record and really getting down to what is essential to a song.”
Do you plan on touring to promote the album or focusing on regional shows?
“It’s going to be more regional stuff, because I’ve got the two young twins at home. But we had a CD release show in LA and will do some more in LA as well, and then we’ve got the next video coming out, probably in the next couple of weeks.”
Could you describe the next video?
“It’s for ‘Goodbye at the End of the World.’ I animated it, which was another new challenge. I’d done some hand-drawn animation before, in a very informal kind of way. But with that particular song, it’s very serious and melodramatic. I wanted to do something that embraces the theme of the song but I also wanted to have a little bit more fun with it. I thought that I didn’t really know how to do that with people, but had an idea for an animated take on it. So it was a lot of late nights figuring out how to do that. I just finished it, and it will be out pretty soon.”
What would you say influenced the animations style?
“All kinds of animation. I’m a huge animation fan and I’d originally been thinking, in a totally different context, of doing something that sort of emulated the 1950s and 60s UPA animation style. I sort of realized that I wasn’t a good enough draftsman to figure out how to do that.”
What made you chose the name Sci-Fi Romance?
“I think the last song that I wrote for the first record was ‘Gulliver Foyle,’ which actually leads off that record. And I’d just been writing songs, not with an eye towards putting them out. And then when I recorded them, I sent them to a friend of mine who is a kind of ‘no bullshit’ kind of friend. I was expecting him to say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s nice,’ and instead he said, ‘Wow, you should really put that out.’ So I thought, ‘Well, ok, I’ve got to think of a band name.’ So it was really the song ‘Gulliver Foyle’ that pulled it together for me because it was inspired directly by a sci-fi novel called ‘The Stars My Destination.’
“Right about that time, I was reading a list of the best movies of the 2000s or something and somebody referred to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a sci-fi romance and I’d never heard that term before. I’ve still got a list somewhere that is a page and a half of possible band names and the last one was Sci-Fi Romance. As soon as I wrote it down, I knew it was the one.”
Did you give any thought to people doing internet searches for the genre “sci-fi romance” finding the band?
“No, it’s actually the opposite. It was 2010 when the band got its moniker, and the term ‘sci-fi romance’ didn’t really exist on the internet. I’d Googled it and nothing really came back. There were certainly no bands called Sci-Fi Romance, which was my chief concern. But then when the first record came out, I set up a Google alert and for the first year, everything that came across was just stuff about the band. And then it started to be stuff about Twilight and then about Divergent and everything else. At a certain point, the bare minimum of stuff was about the band. I’m not a Twilight fan, but if anyone stumbles upon the band by Googling sci-fi romance, I’ll take it.”
For more info on Sci-Fi Romance, visit scifiromance.net.