A band is obviously doing something right when a gringo journalist who understands about four words in a song sung entirely in Spanish still manages to find the song irresistible.
That band would be Go Betty Go, and since everyone loves to put descriptors on bands, how about this: Go Betty Go is a Southern California-based, all-girl, kinda-sorta punk rock band. Their new EP Reboot hits with the raw impact and aggression of punk, but the lyrics are sung, not shouted or screamed. Comprised of lead vocalist Nicolette Vilar, guitarist Betty Cisneros, bassist Michelle Rangel and drummer Aixa Vilar, the group formed in 2000 when the girls were in high school. Reboot is their first release since 2005, when, as their bio puts it, “Nicolette, exhausted, unhappy and burned out, suddenly quit. She walked away and the group completely fell apart.”
Band bios are usually cheery documents with dependable statements such as “the group has never been more excited about a record and can’t wait to go on tour!” To read something this honest and dark in a media kit is unusual and eyebrow-raising, to say the least.
Nicolette addresses this without flinching: “Yeah, I mean our story is who we are. What happened in that period, it’s something that is asked of us often. People say ‘Why did you leave, what went on?’ So in a way, it’s like yeah, that actually happened. So why not just put it out there? And I feel okay that we’re telling the true story because of where we’re at now. The truth is that I’m so happy now with the girls and making music again that it’s just crazy to go from that extreme to this one, but that’s how life happens sometimes.”
Her sister Aixa continues: “It’s also because time heals a lot of these situations, no matter how bad sometimes things get in life. If you honestly want to make things happen, time really helps. It’s been so many years since it happened when Nicolette quit the band. And we learned a lot of lessons from how we handled things at the time that we know we would definitely not do again. It’s just the dynamics between four individuals who end up living together in really tight quarters. And yeah, you learn a lot lessons. Unfortunately, we probably let things go too far, and that’s why Nicolette got frustrated and ended up leaving the band at the time. I mean as far as like putting it in the bio, I just think it’s important to be honest. Why not?”
There is a song on the album, Where I Sleep, that is markedly different from the others. Instead of hard, distorted guitars the tone is clean and jangly. The lyrics speak of “I throw my passport in the fire as I’m leaving, break up in this heat. No one knows me in the town where I’ll be sleeping, I am finally free. Something snapped in me, gonna find where I long to be.” Asked if it is autobiographical, Nicolette replies “Well, I mean it’s funny–you would never really know what I’m talking about from the lyrics. After leaving Go Betty Go, I went to a really, really great art school that I loved and I don’t regret it at all. I also went into a lot of debt because of it, and so in a way . . . I’m doing better now, but especially straight out of school, I would fantasize a lot about sort of faking my own death and running away. And that’s what that song is about, it’s about imagining what it would be like to just say, ‘Fuck this’, and basically faking my own death and running away and starting from scratch. And it’s a story that I liked to play with in my head, and it became a song. It’s about going into a totally different place.”
Aixa explains why the track sounds different instrumentally from the others. “Before we went into the studio, we were actually just playing acoustically and singing along to it. I mean, we even went camping over the summer and we were singing it while we were camping. It totally became like a campfire song. And then when we went into the studio to record it, we were like, ‘Okay, well the obvious thing would be let’s play acoustic the way that we have been doing it.’ But then we thought, ‘let’s kind of meet in the middle. We’ll just take the distortion off, but we’ll still kind of rock it out a little bit.’ And yeah, and it has that jangly feel to it. But definitely, like Nicky said, we always felt like it had a Spaghetti Western vibe to it.”
The first single and video off the album is It Haunts You Now, which has a distinctive stutter-step guitar riff and a shuffle bass line. It’s dark and heavy.
“Well, that song was one of the, I think, the first song we ended up playing together again when we were united,” says Aixa. “And again, that was actually a song that was a little more developed and pretty much structured out with lyrics and music when I first brought to the table for the band. The song just kind of came to me with . . . again, I’m the drummer, but I play a little guitar, so I’ll just mess around on the guitar and come up with stuff that I like, and then I’ll just try to get it as ready as possible to be like, ‘hey, guys, we should try this out and if you like it we can play it.’”
“It just felt natural since we were digging that song a lot, just the different vibe of it and just kind of taking something a little different that we hadn’t done before, like some more of a shuffle feel, kind of a little darker and bluesier. And we liked the vibe of the song; we liked what it was saying because the song is about things that we’ve done in our past that haunt you today, regardless of when it happened. We all have a lot of things that have haunted us in the past and we live with today. And I also remember reading an article about people who are on their death beds and how they regret so much, and it’s too late.”
Continuing her thoughts on the songwriting process, she says “it definitely starts off with an idea from one of us, either a guitar riff or a melody or just a few chords. And then we always like working together to finalize songs. So either we’ll start like that, just with a simple idea, or something a little more developed. But usually what we do is when the four of us come together, we nail down the music. And then Nicolette will just take whatever we worked on musically and kind of take the idea of a melody that maybe we were singing.”
Nicolette carries the conversation from her sister: “Right, I work out the melody at the moment with everybody together because I want to be able to sort of hash out the melody at the moment with the guitars and see how it feels with my voice singing that range at that pace. And then what I do is I’ll record that melody roughly on my iPhone and then I take it away. And the next day, or whenever I’m feeling ready, I like to . . . for some reason, first thing in the morning, I’m at my sharpest when it comes to work. And so I’ll be in my room on a weekend, just as soon as I wake up, pull it out, get my notebook and just jot down the words because they come to me so easily.”
“Another reason why I don’t have words written ahead of time is because phonetically you want to be singing it at a certain range, especially when I’m trying to get across a certain sound or something. A word might be correct as far as what I’m trying to say, but it won’t sound good in the moment. And so for me the most important thing is to get the sound that I want, and then work out what word is going to work both with the sound and with what I’m trying to say. It’s important to get both, but I think that sound is first and foremost. So I really don’t write ahead of time because I feel like that’s kind of backwards, although some people do that.”
Nicolette is not only a talented lyricist and singer, she’s putting her artistic skills to good use to help the band. “Right. Well, I’ve always been an artist, even when I was a little girl I loved to draw. And in high school, I was always taking art classes. And I always imagined myself going to an art college to study to be an illustrator. And yeah, straight out of school, I got a job designing movie posters, and I’ve been at the same company ever since. I love it, it’s really fun. And it’s worked out great for me great for the band, too, because a band needs visuals. Everything from T-shirts to the CD cover, to the logo, and stickers, and flyers, and posters. I mean it’s just like you really need to be putting out visuals left and right. But I’m like, ‘I can’t believe that I never did this before.’ So I couldn’t think of a better career that would fit perfectly with being a singer in a band.”
Even the album cover was designed by her. “That was actually a little wax plastic doll from the ’60’s that I had, and I made it into a bronze piece. I did that while I was in school. And then I photographed it and played with colors and stuff. And for me, it basically kind of represents just the four of us as females standing strong and united. I mean it’s kind of funny, our age range, because we’re old enough that we know what the past is like. Like when we were 20 years old was drastically different than what 20-year-olds are going through now. So in a way I kind of do feel like a bit of a relic from the past, but I still feel strong and excited and new. That’s kind of what that represents, it’s just like women everywhere still hanging in there and doing what we do best.”