Q&A with Vansire Cofounder Josh Augustin ’20
Best friends Josh Augustin ’20 and Sam Winemiller founded the pop band Vansire while they were in high school in Rochester, Minnesota. They have received more than 10 million plays on Spotify and hundreds of thousands of plays on YouTube.
Vansire is a dream pop band from Rochester, Minnesota, that has developed a significant following in recent years. Primary members are Josh Augustin ’20 (vocals, synths, guitar, and drums) and his best friend from high school, Sam Winemiller (bass, guitar, and synths). We recently interviewed Josh about the band’s origins and success.
Please tell us about the origins of Vansire -- you and Sam started playing together in high school after meeting on drumline, right? How did you make the leap to forming a dream pop band named after an obscure animal?
Yes, my friend Sam and I were band geeks to the fullest extent in high school. After meeting on drumline we found ourselves constantly playing together in concert band, pit orchestra, jazz band, pep band - the list goes on. I think playing together that frequently during such a formative time in our lives helped us develop a creative synergy that’s lasted well into our college years. He’s my best friend, and making music with him has always been a joy.
One summer, after a drumline practice, Sam nonchalantly asked, “Yo, wanna make a band that sounds like Mac [DeMarco]?” All we had was an iPad with the Garageband app on it, so we held the iPad mic up to some instruments and recorded a song. Unsure what to call the project, we turned to an online random word generator and landed on the word vansire, which is an obscure type of mongoose. From what we could tell, it had never been used before and we thought it sounded at least semi-convincing as a name. Unfortunately there’s no compelling story behind the name’s origin, and at this point it’s a running joke about how it’s always mispronounced and hard to understand.
What (if any) is the relationship between your academic work in the TIMARA program and your creative process with Vansire? Other sources of inspiration?
TIMARA has played an active role in the creative process with Vansire at every turn. I’m fascinated by the philosophical and aesthetic discrepancies between “new music” and popular music. Sometimes people carry the assumption that electroacoustic music is somewhat esoteric, but I really don’t think that music created in the academe (electroacoustic or otherwise) has to be difficult or inaccessible. Conversely, I think pop music is at its best when executed in a thoughtful manner that assumes a strong degree of active engagement on the part of the listener. These two worlds aren’t mutually exclusive. Most of my biggest musical inspirations (Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, Luc Ferrari, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane) are artists I’ve come to appreciate more deeply since arriving at Oberlin. When you put careful compositional deliberacy into a pop song, I think audiences respond with equal care when engaging with the material. My studies in TIMARA have directly shaped Vansire; you’ll find ambient pieces, field recordings, and songs in movements when you listen.
I’m lucky to work with incredible faculty in the TIMARA department, and they’ve often played an immediate role in the development of Vansire material. Not only are my teachers brilliant at what they do, they’re some of the most compassionate and supportive people I know. They’ve offered me invaluable guidance, and pushed me in new creative directions that have ultimately made me a better artist and a better human being.
[Listen: Vansire – Nice To See You]
Tell us a bit about Vansire's lyrics. Any particular themes? Do you guys co-write everything or switch off from song to song?
With a couple exceptions, we usually build the tracks together instrumentally, bit by bit, and vocals are the last step. Like, Sam might whip out a groovy bass lick, and it starts from there. I always write and record the vocals myself. I have a tendency to stick a lot of literary, filmic, and musical references in my lyrics. To tie this back to your last question, a lot of that content relates directly to my various academic pursuits at Oberlin. I’m a double degree student studying cinema studies in the college. For our last album, Angel Youth, the general thesis I had in my head dealt with the philosophical ramifications of thinking about life in cinematic terms. More specifically, what are the existential implications of describing something in your life as being “like a movie?” When we describe our own lives as cinematic, what does that say about our engagement with a lived experience itself and the way we disseminate those narratives? I can point to various classes I took along the way at Oberlin which led me down that path of thinking. Lately I’ve been thinking about postpostmodernism, or “metamodernism,” in relation to large scale musical and sociopolitical developments in America over the last year. It's kind of an attempted philosophical reconciliation between the grand romantic narratives of modernism and the self-deprecation and irony of the postmodern era. I think that’ll be a big focus of whatever our next release is.
In general, I’m interested in the juxtaposition of academic material with direct reflections on life and midwestern imagery, usually relating to the Driftless Region of Minnesota (where Sam and I are from) or the Rust Belt here in Ohio. Something cool happens when the nuanced becomes the anthemic—that’s what I’m hoping to capture lyrically.
[Watch: Vansire – Halcyon Age]
Vansire has 10M+ plays on Spotify and hundreds of thousands of plays on YouTube. Was that a gradual development or was there a moment when things just blew up?
That’s gradually developed over the last three to four years. It’s been astounding to watch; with each release, things keep getting bigger than we ever could have imagined. When we dropped our first track, there was literally no one listening. We were thrilled just to break 1,000 streams after half a year. It’s been a slow-motion “blow up.” We’ve never had anything go viral, per say, but things just keep growing.
It’s been strange for Sam and I watching this play out from our respective dorm rooms. When I came to Oberlin, Vansire was a fun pastime. Now random students recognize me and tell me how much the music means to them. It’s incredibly humbling.
Vansire is doing some impressive blurring of genre lines. How did your collaborations with artists like Chester Watson and Jeremiah Jae come about?
That all started with the Chester Watson collaboration, actually. He’s an emcee from Miami that dropped his first single six years ago when I was in middle school; I’ve been a big fan since that first track.
In 2017, I took a chance and sent him an email asking if he wanted to feature on a beat tape I was working on, and at the bottom of the email I stuck a few links to some Vansire tunes alongside the beats, in an attempt to look more legitimate. He responded, and actually loved the Vansire tunes, saying he wanted to do something with us. I was thrilled, and we whipped up a tune specifically for him.
As of now, Chester Watson is the only collaborator I’ve ever met in person, we crossed paths at a show of his when I was in New York for my last Winter Term. It’s insane how it all played out; he’s a huge musical inspiration for me that I’d always dreamt of working with. Now he texts me happy birthday and is a Vansire fan. He’s a really lovely person. Life is wild.
What's next for Vansire? Any chance of a show at Oberlin in the near future? Or a Tiny Desk concert?
I think there’s a standing offer for us to play at The ’Sco—we’ll see! I’m actually studying away in New York next semester, interning at Columbia Records through the NY Arts program. It’ll be weird to be away for so long, but it’ll be great to return next year and maybe a show will happen then. And if anyone has a Tiny Desk concert connection, hit me up.
Any tips for your fellow Oberlin recording artists on distribution strategies that can help develop a following online?
This is a thrilling time to be a young artist. I’m not sure if there’s ever been a time like this in music history where a wider audience is so accessible through independent channels. It’s still tricky, though. Streaming services are the key to a larger audience, but the rates they pay artists are atrocious, and it’s hard to get noticed when so many people are making and releasing music independently. The issue isn’t so much getting your music onto streaming platforms—DistroKid and CD Baby make that extremely easy, and I’d highly recommend both.
As contrived as it may sound, the best advice I can give is to be really objective about the quality of your music. Ask yourself, if you stumbled upon this song randomly, would you want to listen to it? Would you play your music to a room of people at a party, when you’re driving around, or if you were just hanging out? It’s hard to be brutally honest about the quality of your own music, but having an objective ear and an exacting work ethic is what will set you apart from everyone else in terms of getting heard. Beyond that, just put tons of hours into your music, even when no one is listening, and follow your creative impulses. Vansire is essentially just Sam and I making music we want to listen to. When we get tired of something, we make something new, and we try to stay honest with all the material we put out. People will find and appreciate music that’s honest and enjoyable. So just keep at it.