Brent Randall and Johnny Toomey have cornered a niché market of sixies baroque pop-inspired music that sounds less a throwback but rather lost articles from that era. This can be seen in their various projects Gentle Brent and The Turns, but accumulated when the two performed together in the L.A.-based Electric Looking Glass.
After the pandemic, with Johnny remaining in L.A. and Brent returning to his hometown of Toronto, the band began writing songs for Electric Looking Glass, only to decide to spin of these new tunes into a new project, which they dubbed Vanity Mirror.
In this interview, Brent and Johnny discuss Vanity Mirror, working from Toronto to L.A., their debut album PUFF, working with the We Are Busy Bodies label, their new sound, working as a duo for the first time, their sixties inspiration, and more.
So, the first thing I wanted to ask was, how did this band kind of come about? Because I know both of you guys were in Electric Looking Glass, so, how did this new project start, Vanity Mirror?
Brent: Well, I guess, em, that group kind of went on a bit of a break. I guess we were supposed to tour…we were supposed to tour Europe, actually, and then that – because of the pandemic – that didn’t happen and…So, yeah, that group was just on a break; we all were working on some other projects and so, in the meantime, I started demoing songs at home, and then I would send them to Johnny just as demos, basically, for him to put drums on, and then this group kinda just came outta that just cause we just started recording so much, like that. We were just recording a lot, just kinda lo-fi at home and passing tapes back and forth, and, um, slowly amassed a lot of material and, you know, we thought, “Oh, do we use this for Electric Looking Glass, do we use this for something else?”, but basically it came about that we didn’t want to…we just liked the material how it sounded, you know? We put all this time into recording it and we liked…it had a certain rawness, a certain personality, and we thought, “Oh, it’d be fun to release this as is,” rather than, you know, try and rerecord it or something like that. So, it was kind of just out of, um…yeah, we were just having fun recording, and it seemed to take on a life of its own, really.
The album seems like very much in vain of the kind of sixties baroque pop music that you guys have kind of been excelling at. How do you feel that this band differentiates from the other projects that you guys were associated with?
Johnny: Well, I feel like it’s just much freer, and we’re not really married to any particular genre, and that was kind of from the get-go of this. Some of the songs started out as demos for the other band, but then once we got going, we were like, “You know, this is kind of taking on a life of its own and this can be a lot more free, and we can do whatever we want with this.” And so, you know, there are elements of kind of like what we were doing in the past, but we’re also kinda like pushing it forward too, you know? And our plan is just to keep going, and just keep recording. It’s more like, you know, like…the whole is greater than the sum, you know? It’s just like, we want to just keep recording, and just keep releasing, and just moving on, you know? It’s not like one album is, like, this huge statement; the statement is just what we’re doing at that time, you know? And just amassing all these recordings and just not – like I said – just not being tied, really, to any, like, scene or genre. I mean, it’s like this sixties, kind of baroque thing, and, you know, it’s kind of…you know, we are part of that, but yet we’re not at the same time. It’s like…and that was kind of the whole purpose of this. And sixties stuff, Beatles and things like that, are of course like a bread and butter of ours, but there’s so many other things – maybe that they’re not so obvious – that, you know, that come through. And it may not even be through the music; it could be just, you know, how we’re going about things, really.
Brent: I think lyrically too, like it…I think in Electric Looking Glass even…In Electric Looking Glass, we were very much…somewhat striving for a certain, you know, aesthetic and sound and, I think…and that included lyrically, too. Whereas this album, I feel, is a bit more, uh…maybe a little bit less… Yeah, a little less, sort of, of that certain genre. But, yeah, that’s just all I have to add to that.
Johnny: Yeah, it’s just not really what people should expect, ‘cause like, you know, going…as we go along, you know, it’s not gonna be tied to anything, really, and that’s kind of the whole point of it, is just to be just loose and just…This is stuff that we love, and we’re presenting it. This is stuff that we love to play, and just going from there, really.
How did you guys actually meet? Because I know Toronto and L.A. aren’t exactly, you know, neighbouring cities.
Johnny: That’s true, right? [They laugh]
Brent: Uhm, well I was in L.A. for…pretty full time there, for several years. So, I’d gone down with another group. I was playing bass for this artist named Calvin Love, he’s Canadian, and we were doing a residency in L.A. and I ended up staying down there, because I had the visa, and then ended up meeting Johnny, and then that’s when we started playing in Electric Looking Glass. So, I was down there, pretty full time, and that’s kind of how Electric Looking Glass started. And we kind of met each other and started playing, and that kind of took off. And then, because of the…and then I kind of came back to Canada, a year or two ago. And I still go back to L.A. when I can, but I’ve been kind of there less, full time. So, that’s also part of why this project probably, you know, started, is because it turned into a new way of working, kind of remotely, and it worked really well for me and Johnny to work this way, type of thing.
Johnny: Yeah, it just became really easy, in the workflow of this. It’s like I don’t even know how I could go back to the regular band situation, and sit in a rehearsal room, [Laughs] you know? ‘Cause I really enjoy the process of…you know, the songs are pretty much close to being done, at least in its basic idea, and so then I lay down the drums and, you know, I’m able to really, like, focus on my parts, rather than like in a rehearsal room with everybody…‘cause everybody’s trying to figure out what they’re doing, and then one person kind of gets, you know, their part, and everybody kind of builds around it, and then if you want to change something, it can kind of, like, make everything fall apart, and it just takes longer. Whereas this is much more accelerated, and I really enjoy the process, and I think it’s working really well and, you know, I just think these days technology really allows you to do that, and it just comes together really nicely. Like, sonically, you wouldn’t even really be able to tell that Brent and I never played these songs in the same room together, you know? But we’re so…I guess one of the things is that we did rehearse so much in the other band, and we did connect so well musically, that I can pretty much anticipate his every move before I even hear it, and I’m most of the time correct, and so I know what to do, I know where he’s going, you know? But that comes from, actually, we did play together a lot, you know? So, it’s been a really rewarding experience and it’s really easy to do, so, you know, we just plan to keep going and, you know, whether live, we do it as a two-piece [if] we can, like, if it’s some kind of, you know, kind of cabaret-type lounge act [Laughs] or if we go on tour and, like, add people, like, that’s cool too, we could have people from anywhere in the world, really, join us, and that’s part of the whole concept of just being free with everything, and anybody can be a part of this.
You mentioned The Beatles, and, I mean, I feel like a lot of the music, not just, you know…not just PUFF, but I think a lot of the music that you guys have kind of done over the years have kind of really felt like not necessarily throwback bands, but actually feels like lost albums from that era, and I think this album is no exception. I was wondering how far do you go in that kind of pursuit? Like, do you have a cut-off point? For example, it’s like, “Well, we’re not going to make any of the lyrics references to things post-’66,” let’s say, or have you considered maybe recording mono or anything like that?
Brent: I remember we used to talk about doing mono. In Electric Looking Glass, we discussed doing a mono record; we thought that would be fun, and it would be actually, you know? I would like to do that. But it’s really more just…it’s really not that intentional, funnily enough. You know it, eh…and it’s funny, because people…you know, Electric Looking Glass, people respond to it that way, but it really is, it really is, I think, just so second nature to all of us, it’s so sort of ingrained in us that it’s kind of just what happens. And even with this project, you know, it’s like…to us it’s like…’cause I guess at least with Electric Looking Glass, like, the four of us had to come together and be like, “OK, yeah, we’re looking to do something like this,” and like, “OK, yeah.” And whereas this, there wasn’t that sort…you know, there was really no preconceived notion of what it was. It just kind of comes through because it’s so natural to us, ‘cause that stuff is so, you know…it was so informative for all of us. But that being said, like, it’s really…I personally want to get away from that, because I’m really…I think that was part of the reason for this project, as well. It’s like that is a huge part of…speaking for myself, like, my influence, but it’s not all I like, and there are other things I want to try and do, and sometimes I think with the Electric Looking Glass thing, it felt like, oh, maybe there wasn’t room for it. So, you know, even with this project, the next…we’re almost done the next record, and I feel like the next record’s a lot…there’s a little bit more exploration, in terms of sounds and approach, so. But, yeah, I mean, to answer your question, up until now it…it’s funny, there are no real clear rules; I think it’s just…that sensibility, that sort of Beatle-esque pop stuff was so, uh…came so natural that it wasn’t something we had to say, “Oh, no,” you know, “No references past this!” We didn’t really go too far to, you know, to…it kind of just happened naturally, for whatever reason. And I think it was amplified because the four of us met, and we were all kind of on that same page, so we kind of knew that we could, like, really move in that direction without, you know…and everyone would know exactly…you know, we all understood it. So, I think because of that, it was amplified to some degree. But that being said, it really…even, like, with the fashion, like, we all just dressed like that anyway, you know? We weren’t dressing up, we weren’t…you know, we were just kind of all being ourselves, you know? Which is funny, ‘cause it’s the thing that people always say to us, “Oh it’s so this, and blablabla,” and it’s like, yeah! you know? But it really was a very, you know…it’s not as contrived as it probably appears to some people. [Laughs]
Johnny: No, not at all! We just happened to just kind of find each other really, for that project. And it did have its limitations, you know, and we kind of hit a point where we were like, “Well, you know, we could keep doing this and, you know, be like the Ramones of baroque psych-pop but, you know, there’s so much more that we have to offer,” and I always feel that no matter what, it’ll still be us; it’s not like we’re trying to be something else entirely, but we’re showing all of our influences, you know? And I think, no matter what, it would always kind of have this pop aspect to it, ‘cause that’s just in us, that’s just who we are. But even if we get harder, or we get, you know, something a little more glammy or we get, you know, kind of like more looser with everything, then it still will have our thumbprint on it, but it’s not going to be like just one thing, and I think that’s the beauty of it. Um, and actually, a while back, even before Electric Looking Glass, those were the kind of bands I was more a part of. They weren’t so straight forward, it was more eclectic, and just being like, “Well, let’s try this, let’s try that,” and so, I mean that’s where I’ve come from. I mean, even way back, I was more like in punk bands, but those bands also kind of went into like kind of new wave territory and postpunk and kind of like synthwave-type stuff, and so this is kind of more like a continuation of where I was in the beginning, of just everything I like is what I want to do, and we’re just not going to get held back by any expectations, you know, by either ourselves or anybody else, so, in that way, I just…it’s a lot more enjoyable. You know, as much as I enjoyed that other band, it was fun and I love all those people, but, you know, I really want to expand, and this just has that outlet and it’s really been rewarding.
Perfect. The other thing I would like to ask is, the album is out on We Are Busy Bodies, the label, and I know you guys worked with them previously. I was wondering what is it about that label that, you know, keeps you coming back for more?
Brent: Yeah, well I mean Eric [Warner, the label’s owner]…where was it? I met him a long t…he booked my first band, I think, like, in 2004, 2005, he booked our first tour and uh…so I’ve kinda known him a long time. But he’s just…he’s very supportive and enthusiastic about, you know, whatever it is we’re up to, and he’s always just down and…so, just it seemed to work well. He’s just…yeah, he’s on the same wavelength as us, I feel, and I like how he um…I find his label refreshing, in that it’s not overly…you know, it’s not really specific to a certain genre; he kind of releases all kinds of different music: he puts out like, you know, like world music and reissues and all kinds of different stuff, so it’s an interesting label. But, yeah, I mean it’s really just the fact that, yeah, he’s just really supportive and, you know, there’s not a pressure to like…Some labels might, you know, want you to be on…make sure you’re posting your TikToks or you’re doing this and that, but where he really supports, you know, whatever it is that we want to do, um, he’s down, you know? So, it’s…I think it works well for us.
Yeah, and I guess just the final thing I’ll ask is what you guys have planned for the future and so on?
Brent: Well, we’re um…we’re looking at doing some shows in Europe in the fall, it looks like. We are going to do a festival in Germany, called the Reeperbahn, I think it’s called, in Hamburg, and some shows in Spain, and possibly some stuff in the UK. We’re still trying to see…so we’re looking at that, so that’d be fun; we haven’t made it over there to play. Of course, we’re just a two-piece, so we’re looking at ways to, like, [expand] the band, so that could be interesting. And we’re getting close to finishing a second record, so we kinda want to put out a second record this year, ‘cause we just love, like, back in the day, even early Beatles and stuff, when bands would just be like putting out stuff. Especially these days, I feel like people devour music so quickly, you can kind of consume music so quickly these days, that we want to just have that spirit to this project. So, yeah, we’re finishing up another record. So, that’s kind of the main things on our plate, is like getting, yeah, another record out and, uh, trying to do some shows, and explore the live aspect of the band and see how that works.
Johnny: Yeah, it’ll be really interesting, and I’m really looking forward to doing this live. And it may just possibly be a totally different experience than the album; it’s like we’re not out to try to replicate the album and actually I…you know, I always kind of get disappointed when bands attempt that, because you want it to be a different experience. It’s like if I want to hear an album, I’ll go listen to the album; it’s like, but if I want to see a band, I want it to be live, I want it to be in that moment, and that’s kind of part of what we’re attempting as well, with this. And so, when Brent was over here in December, we jammed a little bit and, like, again it was the first time we’d played in…together with a lot of these songs, and it sounded different, but it still was those songs, but it was really cool. It was almost like it was much more, you know, immediate and much more intimate, as well. And so, I’m really looking forward to doing that and, of course, looking forward to getting the second album out. It’s been like a dream of mine always just to do, like, you know, two albums a year type of thing, [Laughs] you know? Like, early Beatles stuff. Like, how people used to just churn that stuff out, you know, back in the day and that’s what I love about that, and then it just becomes part of this collection, and every…you know, the whole thing just speaks for itself, not just an individual album, you know, so…
Brent: And we are talking about maybe trying to do an Electric Looking Glass single, uh, maybe in the summer, as well. So, we might have some more from that project as well, so…
I just want to ask one thing based on what you were saying, which was that you don’t want the live show to be too much like the album. When recording music, I guess, do you guys kind of make that distinction and go “OK…” – when it comes to say, like, doing overdubs or doing any production flairs – do you kind of go, “OK, but we have to be able to play this…translate this somewhat live,” or do you kind of just go, “No, whatever works”?
Brent: Yeah, I think whatever works. Both in Electric Looking Glass and this, it’s always just been…just, I think, making the record sound like the vision, you know? You kind of have the idea for the song, and you kind of just want to get that out, and then the live thing, for me, has always been sort of an afterthought; it’s like, “OK, now how can we, uh, perform this?” So, it’s never been…yeah. Though I do remember thinking before, like, “Oh, maybe…maybe we should record an album that we can…you know, more geared to how you play it live,” so that way it’s, um…’Cause I was even saying, “Oh, maybe for our third album, we should do an album where it’s just the duo,” and we just record it as a duo, and that way it’s, like, more cohesive. But up until now it’s, yeah, usually not too much of a problem. We’re kind of so focused on getting that record down. Because I like records, I think, you know? That’s been my…if I had to choose one or the other, it would be, like, records. Both as a music fan and a…someone who tries to make music too, it’s like, that’s been my preferred medium, even though live is cool, too.
Would you ever make a live album, do you think? Would that be something that would be of interest?
Brent: I mean, yeah, that would be fun!
Johnny: Yeah, I think that would be really interesting, actually.
Brent: We’d have to get some shows under our belt first though, ‘cause, uh.. [All laugh]
Johnny: Yeah [Laughs], we gotta get that happening.
Actually, if there was a consideration for potentially doing a live album, would youse want to have more kind of, em…I guess would you want to have like a kind of larger discography beforehand, just so…you know, I think sometimes bands can kind of put out live albums a little too early and it’s just like, “Oh, well, I have all this!” you know?
Johnny: Yeah, no, I guess you’d probably have to have something under your belt prior, so people would kind of have something to latch onto. And also, it just kind of puts, like, a juxtaposition on it. Like when…I know when that White Fence live album came out…like, I mean, their live act is so different from their recordings, so you hear this and it’s like…it’s really interesting to listen to, and that’s something that I would want to do. It’d be like, “Oh, this is this song, but it’s played live! That’s cool! This is different!” you know? So, you’re not just getting a recreation of something; you’re getting an actual other experience.
Brent: Yeah, a fresh take. Fresh energy, yeah.
Johnny: Yeah. But, yeah, that…no, that’d be great.
Perfect. Is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Brent: Um. No, I think that’s it. I just hope people…yeah, I think we’re both really excited, we kind of really like how the record turned out. I’m curious if people are gonna like it, but so far people seem to like it so uh…Yeah, I hope people like it. I guess that’s all I have to add. [Laughs]
Yeah, I’ve no doubt they will!
Johnny: Yeah, we’ll keep going, you know? ‘Cause, uh, we have a lot to get off, you know, as far as, you know, creativity and the talent that we have, just to keep going, you know? No matter what it is, just keep releasing stuff, keep moving, you know? That’s kind of our motto.
Yep. Like a shark. Thanks very much!
Brent: That’s right! [Laughs]
Brent: Thank you! Thanks for having us!
Johnny: Absolutely, yeah. Thank you.
Aaron Kavanagh is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Post-Burnout. His writing can also be found in the Irish Daily Star, Buzz.ie, New Noise Magazine, XS Noize, DSCVRD and more.