A few years ago, I went to a Bruce Springsteen concert with my dad. It was in this vast, old, rickety concrete arena that was absolutely packed with a very middle-aged crowd.
To be honest, I didn’t grow up on Springsteen; I could’ve named probably three songs of his before that night (“Born in the USA”, “Dancing in the Dark”, “Born to Run”, and nothing else).
But everyone else in that building knew every word to every song.
I was mesmerized. I mean, I’ve been to concerts where people are pretty fanatical about the band and the music. But there was something about that sea of people singing songs written half a lifetime ago that struck me.
I think good music gets woven into your life so that, even when you’re 60, you can sing the words like when you were a kid. And so can 14,000 other people.
I think Vug Arakas is writing music like that.
Don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not saying Vug’s going to be filling arenas in fifty years (who knows), or even directly comparing him to The Boss, really. What I am saying, though, is that he’s making music that feels real, raw, and substantial, in a way that absolutely is built to fill the confines of stadiums – and in a way that’s built to be etched into the lives of the people who listen.
Stylistically, yeah, the 80s references are there. The songs are lush and brimming with booming drum tracks, humming synths, reverbed keys. The vocals are delivered with the kind of lilting, charismatic inflections that evoke spoken storytelling – the kind of approach that, to me, always feels earthy and true.
But, maybe more than all of that: these are songs that ache with desperation and hope.
Listening to that Springsteen concert, I could hear the same honest ache. And I think that’s what gets a song etched into memory.
So please, go listen to “Lines of Love”, one of the singles from the Restless EP. Then, come back, and dive into Vug’s process to learn how he writes music that’s built to be etched into hearts – and, maybe soon, to be echoing off the concrete walls of some big, rickety, vast arena with the voices of 14,000 other people.
How’d you start playing music? And songwriting, specifically?
I was writing lyrics – I remember I was in fourth grade. I had this cool uncle who gave me a bunch of Black Flag records. And I was just sort of writing lyrics, and eventually my uncle gave me a guitar – it had like two strings on it, and it was like duct taped, had stickers. But I was writing lyrics, and I wanted to write a song. I didn’t really know how to do it. So, it was kind of like, “How do I get these words out of me?”
So you were writing poetry before the music?
Yeah, I guess it was poetry. But I heard something, too. I wanted the stuff I wrote to be songs. I wanted to sing it, but I didn’t know how to do that.
Did your family have a musical background at all?
Not really, actually. My family’s Greek – I’m like the second generation over – so my grandparents would sing these Greek folk songs, but I didn’t know Greek as a language very well. And that’s really the extent of it. Nobody in my family really exposed me to music, outside of my uncle.
And he’s now like an estranged uncle – so it’s kind of weird. It’s almost like a complete accident.
What were some of the first songs you were writing?
I remember the first song I wrote, I was in the fourth grade. And I wrote this thing down that was called “Wasting Time”. I wanted it to sound like Black Flag, or the Circle Jerks or something. And it didn’t really take for a while. But when I first was like, “Oh, I’ll write a song,” that’s how it was – like I’d try to write a song like The Beatles, or a punk song from a band I’d be listening to – like, old school shit.
Were you in any bands growing up?
Yeah – I’d write all the songs myself, and then bring them in. But I’d also be doing solo stuff on the side. And eventually, bands would fizzle out, so I decided to go out under my own name.
And so for me, the move to LA kind of represented that. So I sold everything I had in Ohio, and just moved out here with a suitcase and a guitar. I’d never been here before. I was going to go to New York – I’d actually spent a lot of time there, and I was familiar with it. But I knew one person in LA, and I thought, “This might be better for me, for growth.”
And I’ve been working on solo stuff.
How did you come into the style of your new EP? It’s kind of eclectic pop. You were more into punk, some hardcore stuff growing up, right?
I guess I was super into The Replacements, and folky stuff, – I don’t know, it just happened. I was making these demos that were sounding more like that, and I kind of just wanted to expand the sound. I had this desire to have this huge, arena rock sound – but moody, too, or blown out, like Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Bruce Springsteen Tunnel of Love. That stuff just moves in a certain way.
Favorite song of all time, and why?
I really don’t know right now.
There’s this song on this Van Morrison album called Common One that I’ve been obsessed with for the past few years. It’s called “Summertime in England” – it’s like 15 minutes long and crazy. I don’t know if it’s that one, but it’d probably be a Van Morrison song. It might be “Sweet Thing” – I don’t know.
What do you think makes a song good?
There’s a desperation to it. But there’s a beauty to it, too. So I think it’s finding beauty in desperation.
That’s kind of my thing. I feel like, for a while there, I was really into being abstract with the way I was telling stories lyrically. A friend of mine said, “Try to be a little more direct.” And I think it’s a balance. But you need to show a state of desperation and a state of hope with it. I think there’s a way to do that, and I feel like my favorite songs have it.
There’s a vibe with it. Like, in “Sweet Thing”, with the lyrics and the music – the way he’s kind of projecting those feelings, almost vomiting them out in his inflections – I feel like that conveys that hope, that desperation and beauty.
And it has to resonate. It can be direct, or abstract – abstract can be cool. But I feel like talking about what happened to you can put a person in the moment. I always thought that being too specific with details in songs would mean that somebody wouldn’t be able to relate. But I think, whether or not they’ve been on 1st Street in downtown LA, they’ve been at a place with that feeling before.
So I guess that’s what does it for me.
How much of songwriting do you think is about speaking to other people, and how much of it is about speaking to yourself?
A lot of times for me, especially when I start writing, it’ll be focused inward. I think that’s mostly what happens. Other times it’ll end up being directed out – maybe in a situation that I’m dealing with, I’ll be speaking to someone or something – I don’t know.
But I think, a lot of times, the questions that we ask other people we’re really asking ourselves.
Yeah, I think that’s true. Let’s get into the practical side of writing. How do you sit down to write – what kind of things do you do to get started?
I’ll pick up a guitar, sit down at a piano – I’ll do both, or go back and forth. I’ll bring melodies to both. But I try and write lyrics at the same time. A lot of times, it’s the best when lyrics and melodies happen at the same time – I’ve always done it like that.
So the music, the chord progressions, the lyrics – if a thing happens when I’m singing some words with a chord progression, then it’ll stick with me. And that’ll kind of develop as I’m going throughout my day. It won’t leave my head, you know? I feel like when the music ideas and the ideas for the song come – the mission statement, even – when that happens, that’s usually from sitting at a guitar or a piano.
Do you usually have that mission statement early on? Or does it develop more as you write?
It depends. I feel like, when I go in with no mission or method, and just let whatever happen – when you just kind of use what you have to work with that’s around you, including ideas, what you’re dealing with psychologically, and instrumentation – you can kind of just make it happen.
So you’re not usually looking for things outside of your experience – you’re more letting your experiences speak.
Yeah, when I’ve had the most success with songwriting, as far as creating something I’m happy with, it’s usually from experience. I’m not just letting things come to me – I’m definitely casting a net. But there are a lot of things. So it can be pretty broad.
There’s a lot to cover.
Do you identify more with music on personal experiences than music that’s on general themes?
I’m absolutely more of a personal experiences guy than into general themes. But I feel like, even with the general themes, there’s a perspective that an individual artist brings to the table. And that’s what makes them great – or unique, at least.
Like, Bruce Springsteen – he’s telling stories that aren’t even necessarily his. Any storyteller, though, is telling a story through their lens. Even if an experience isn’t personal, or doesn’t define a storyteller – songs are always told from a perspective. And you can only speak by projecting personal experience, I think.
Do you ever co-write with anyone?
I haven’t. I’d like to – I’ve thought about it. But it hasn’t really come up.
I feel like, the more personal your music is, the harder it is to co-write.
Yeah, I think so. I’ve arranged people’s songs before – the instrumentation, the music, whatever. But I’ve never touched lyrics. I’m always like, “I don’t want to touch that.” It feels so personal to somebody else. But I would – I just haven’t found myself there.
Do you tend to value lyrics or music more in writing?
For me, it’s the connection between the words and the music. When the music and lyrics come together when I write, I feel like it feels the best. And I think you can almost hear that in a song – that they fit.
The way that the words are said, the way that they fit to the music – it matters. You just kind of set a vibe when you say something, and when you sing something. So I think there’s a tone just based on the words, and then the music can take it further or somewhere else, but I think, in the best songs, those elements work together.
What do you think makes a song bad?
I don’t know. I find myself, lately, having a hard time hating things. You know what I mean? I’ll be like, “Well, I guess I like this about it.” Or there’ll be things I don’t like about songs that I hear, but I’m always hesitant to say, “Well, that’s just bad.”
I guess if there’s a lack of passion, you can kind of tell. I don’t want to – and, honestly, I can’t really – cite any examples right now. But if a person isn’t feeling it, if they aren’t all in, then I can’t get into it either.
But even that doesn’t mean there aren’t parts of the song I like.
If you listen to a record, there are always songs that you skip over. But I wouldn’t say that the songs that I skip over are bad – they just don’t create that state, the one where you listen to a good song and you’re just like, “Oh man, this is amazing.” Like, you’ve reached nirvana.
What emotions or feeling do you want your music to inspire?
That desperation and hope, at this point. I feel like it kind of teeters between the two. I want it to be about coming out of pain or loss. Or maybe you don’t come out of it. But there’s a story in there somewhere.
What kind of role does production play in your writing? Do you do any discovering inside of the production process?
Yeah, I do. But it depends. Sometimes, I’ll play around with a synthesizer or something, and kind of write with that, as opposed to just an acoustic guitar.
Actually, for “Lines of Love” – that was one of the first songs that I wrote within a demo situation. I wrote that from a drum machine. I feel like that kind of turned into what it is through production. Like the music, like the words, the production has to stick to itself. I think that’s what makes something timeless.
When you just put sounds in there that everyone else has – like, in the 80’s, everyone puts this sound on top of their songs – it might not be as conducive to your song. There’s a particular sound that a song will call for, I think, and you have to work within that.
Let’s dive into “Lines of Love”. So, the first thing you had for that was a drum track?
Well, I basically was playing guitar and had a metronome going. I got the chords that way, and then I put in a drum pattern in Logic, and just kind of rolled with it and used that to create the music.
Did you have the lyrical ideas going in?
The lyrical ideas kind of came with the music, and then I went back and revised. I think the song leans a little bit more towards writing to a general theme. It’s definitely a little more abstract, I think, but there’s personal details to it, too.
How would you describe the general theme?
It’s kind of just about being in the middle – when you don’t really know what the hell’s going on in a relationship. Maybe you’re about to start a relationship, maybe you’re not.
In my case – and it is a case – I was seeing this girl. And it was a thing where I wasn’t sure if it was going to develop into a relationship or go any further. There are so many complications with how people date today, or even love each other today.
I was wanting the relationship to be an exclusive thing, but we weren’t on the same page. And I started wondering, “Do people even do that anymore?” Like, I don’t even know.
Do people fall in love and just go, “Oh, yeah, we’re not going to see other people”?
It’s almost like purgatory in a relationship. You haven’t made the commitment all the way, but you’re too far in to get out without getting hurt. And so I was hoping to spell out that kind of hazy, middle ground in the song.
Were you writing to help yourself process? Or speaking to an audience?
Both, I’d say. It kind of came down to asking what we really wanted. A relationship? Or to own the other person? Like, having someone be your girlfriend – is that what that is?
I don’t know. I was asking myself those questions and looking inward, but speaking outward, too.
And writing definitely helped me to process those things. Through all of that conversation about that particular relationship, I was like, “Oh, am I just too conservative in my definition of relationships? Am I crazy?”
And what’s the way you want to love somebody and want to be loved? Is that possible with where we’re at?
So the song is more of a question than an answer. Because I think it’s a case by case situation. There’s not a one-liner – like, “Love is all you need,” or something.
What do you want people to take away from hearing it?
I think the biggest thing to take away is just the importance of being open – not necessarily in an open relationship, but just being open to learning about yourself and about the relationship, and about how you communicate to the other person.
And learn from other people.
When did you know the song was finished?
As soon as the lyrics were done, then I was set. Because I felt like I had crossed the finished line with that. And then everything else fell into place after that, which I feel like is how it usually happens for me. With some songs, it’s like the melody and the musicality need to support and project the lyrics a little bit more – and I think that definitely happens in “Lines of Love” with the production. But as soon as the structure and lyrics were done, I was like, “Okay, this is all pretty much there.”
How was the recording process?
I went into a studio – I had a guy helping with that. But I arranged and produced the whole thing.
And, actually, I moved to LA five or six years ago, and the studio that I did it in I’d actually lived in when I first moved. It’s a weird spot – there’s this loft downtown that was kind of scuzzy, and they turned it into this rad studio. I moved out shortly after I moved here, but I remained friends with them, and when it came time to do these songs, I went there and did it.
It’s pretty crazy, because you just have to make the call on everything. And it took a lot. I really took my time with it, with the arrangements and everything, with the goal being to get that big sound.
That song was done when I went in to record it – I knew how everything was going to be. But I was doing the recording at a discounted rate – I didn’t have it reserved for long periods, but I’d go in and just record whenever I could, so it took a few months. But that gave me a lot of time to think about the arrangements, and listen back, and really make decisions that I’d thought through.
Which can be a detrimental thing, sometimes – but in this case, I think I really figured out exactly what I wanted.
So it took a while, but I feel like that was a good thing. It made me really think about what I wanted out of a recording.
I hope the next thing I do doesn’t take as long. But this time was cool.
What’s your favorite part of the song?
I like the lyrics the best, I think. I was really happy with some of those. I feel like I tapped into this weird – I don’t even know. Not that it’s that profound or something, but it just felt like the love song I wanted to write. There’s a line in there:
Will you come to me desparately
With the storm of your mind
And the weight of your dreams
It felt heavy. What we were talking about earlier – when you’re in that purgatory, it’s what keeps you up at night: “What are we doing?” And I think some of those lyrics document the feelings I was having pretty honestly.
So I think that’s what I’d say is a success in the song. When I look back and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s exactly how I was feeling then,” I like it. Maybe in ten years I’ll think I was being really dramatic. But at this point in time, I’m like, “Yeah. That’s exactly how I was feeling when I wrote this.”
Yeah, that’s a super rewarding feeling. So, second to last question: what’s your best advice for other songwriters?
Keep writing. Writers write, always. Aside from that, there’s an interview I read – I think with Neil Young – where they were talking about how a songwriter is a satellite. Just be waiting to intercept or pick up the signal. You’re a vessel for information. So be prepared, and if you’re ready for shit to go down, you’ll be ready to write.
Because those feelings happen, you know? The things that you want to write about are there, it’s just a question of whether you’re around for them. That’s what I’ve found personally, at least. I’ve written better stuff when I look into what I’m doing more.
And you’ve got to take time to live, too.
What do you mean by that?
Take Jackson Browne, Late for the Sky versus Running on Empty.
Running on Empty is great, but I feel like Late for the Sky is heavy, personal – relatable. It transcends just a rocker guy. As a musician, I lean more toward that kind of stuff. Like, I don’t want to hear just about the gigs, or the road, or stuff that only a musician would know.
So live your life. Be ready to capture things, but live your life.
Last question: what’s next for your music?
I’m doing some shows in LA, for now. I really want to get on the road. I’ve done some tours before, but I’d like to get back out there as soon as it comes together a little more. There might be something on the West Coast soon.
And I’m talking with people about doing a full-length, too. I don’t know if it’d be self-produced again, or if I’d work with another person. But, yeah – that’s what’s in the works.
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