ABOVE: NICO VEGA. PHOTO COURTESY OF CATIE LAFFOON
Nico Vega, founded in 2005, released its debut record back in 2009 and, after five years, is finally back with more anthemic rock music. Comprised of Aja Volkman, Rich Koehler, and Dan Epand, the band still carries its raw, gritty edge into Lead To Light (out today), but has added more indie-pop melodies to the music. This record lyrically reads more like Volkman’s diary, crossing melody genres with hip-hop, soul, dance-pop, and alt-rock. With production help from Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, Tony Hoffer (Beck, Fitz and the Tantrums, M83), and Tim Edgar, Nico Vega’s sound stands out with more complex layers.
Between Nico Vega’s first record and now, the band released a few EPs and was asked by A&E Networks to do the theme song for the Bonnie & Clyde miniseriesâ??a very memorable Nancy Sinatra cover. We spoke with Aja Volkman about making touring a family affair, covering Nancy, Sinatra, and finding acceptance in her music.
ILANA KAPLAN: How did you come up with the name Nico Vega?
AJA VOLKMAN: Our original drummer’s mother’s name was Nico Vega. She had passed away years before the band formed. We just thought it was a cool tribute name. He was cool with that. He left the band, actually, but we have a really close relationship with him. He was totally cool with us keeping the name.
KAPLAN: Can you tell me a little bit about Lead To Light and the theme behind it?
VOLKMAN: It’s a lot more personal record. It has songs on it that are definitely more personal as opposed to social. We used to do stuff that’s for the people, with an empowering vibe, and that’s kind of what our first record was. This particular record is more self-empowerment per individual. There are a lot of lyrics on it that are straight out of my own story or life. I’ve done it in a poetic way so it’s not super obvious, but some of them are pretty obvious, too. [laughs]
KAPLAN: What are some of the more obvious themes that listeners can find in your music?
VOLKMAN: There are a lot of songs about my childhood. It’s just sort of about being an underdog. I struggled a lot as a kid being part of a group. I was left out a lot and stuff. A lot of it is self-empowerment for people who have similar feelings about not feeling that accepted and in the long run allowing that to be the thing that drives you and makes you more powerfulâ??or is the most unique thing about you.
KAPLAN: Who are some of your music influences?
VOLKMAN: Probably my strongest musical influence, vocally, is early Tina Turner when she was pushing herself to her limits. I really identified with that. When I started this band, lyrically it was all over the map. I love Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and [other] singer-songwriters a lot. In terms of vocals, I just really identify with Tina Turner.
KAPLAN: Can you tell me a little bit about the “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” Cher cover you did for the Bonnie & Clyde miniseries? It was so great.
VOLKMAN: A&E wanted us to cover the song. They picked the song and everything. They asked our label and management, “Would Nico Vega be interested in covering this song?” It’s perfectly in my register, so I was really excited. Nancy Sinatra’s version of the song is so haunting and beautiful, so I was a little intimidated to cover something I already thought was a masterpiece. We really just brought our own edge to it. I think it’s a tribute to what it already was, but then it has this added, rock, Nico Vega element to it.
KAPLAN: Awesome. What was your favorite touring experience?
VOLKMAN: There are just so manyâ??it’s all a blur. [laughs] I think my favorite touring experiences would be the ones where my band, my family, and my daughter are together. Sometimes my husband’s band (Imagine Dragons) and my band tours together. We have a longstanding relationship with them because when they first started out, we met them in Las Vegas when we were touring. Then we started taking them on the road, and they returned the favor. When we’re all on the bus together, it’s a family affair. That’s the most fun it could possibly be. I have everything I need in one place.
KAPLAN: So, I would assume it was the most fun when touring with Imagine Dragons?
VOLKMAN: It’s always the most fun to be with everybody, but it’s also fun to have your own venues, too. It’s a different show experience when we do. I can’t undermine those, because there’s an aliveness that’s in the venue when it’s all your own fans. The Imagine Dragons experience is the best show, but their fans are so welcoming and loving that every show has been so wonderful with them.
KAPLAN: So, you and your husband had this side project Egyptian, do you guys still work on that?
VOLKMAN: Actually, no, not really. We also were just launching this record and between that and being parents, there’s just no time for Egyptian right now. We’ll probably continue it forever, when we can and when there are lulls. We’ll be like 80 on our porch doing Egyptian.
KAPLAN: How did you choose Lead To Light as the title of the record?
VOLKMAN: It’s a song off the record already, but it’s a phrase that stands alone. I feel like it’s a positive, self-explanatory sentence, so we always want to pick something for our albums or EPs that have meanings. You just get it when you hear it. Lead To Light is just about leading your life in a positive direction, leading other people or being a good example.