Photo by Cameron Jordan Artistry
Aja Volkman and Dan Epand spent more than ten years playing anthemic alt rock together as two-thirds of Nico Vega, and over that decade of tours, recording sessions, and label deals gone awry, they forged an artistic partnership that endures to this strange day. After announcing Nico Vega’s hiatus in 2016 and briefly returning with an EP in 2018, they’ve put that band to bed for good, but they’re back as a duo, simply named TWO.
Their debut record Pull The Knife Out heralds the confident start of their new era. Sparked by Volkman’s since-revoked separation from her husband (Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons) the writing process dredged up seven tracks worth of meditations on pain, reconciliation, and maybe most centrally, womanhood. It’s something Volkman has grappled with all the more as a mother of four in the midst of the #MeToo movement, and it sits front and center in the folk spiritual spoken-word of the opening track, “Live Forever More.”
It carries forward through the album’s undercurrent of empowerment. The project follows in Nico Vega’s ferocious footsteps on highlights like “Cage Fighter,” with its chorus like a cannon blast. It also features some of Volkman’s most vulnerable performances yet, as on the cathartic lead single “In This Rough.” Her voice is as commanding as ever, and as the project’s producer, Epand frames it with the care and support of an old friend.
Shortly before the release of Pull The Knife Out, the pair joined The All Scene Eye for a phone interview about reclaiming creative control, pushing past the self-doubt, and navigating the ever-changing limits and opportunities of life as an artist in 2020.
The two of you, whether with Nico Vega or this album, have always been part of projects that have a strong bent toward talking about issues in society. I know a lot of artists are trying to figure out how to navigate the state of the world with the protest movements and all kinds of other things. What kinds of conversations have the two of you had?
Volkman: For me, I’m a really heart-centered person. Dan as well. He has more of a background in–you have a degree from Columbia in, what is it? Political science.
Volkman: So Dan has a little more knowledge in terms of the history of things than I do, but I try to navigate things from my heart. I feel like some things, like knowing how to empathize and give support and take ownership of things–I don’t know, our ancestors or culturally–you have to be heart-centered to really understand, because there’s no manual, you know? On how to recover from history, if you will. I’m always asking other people, “How can I be more supportive and how can I listen better? How can I not be ignorant in the future? How can I raise my children properly?” And for me, with four kids, that’s really where my responsibility lies.
As much as it’s like–you know, as a singer and someone who could have a certain amount of influence on people, my responsibility really lies inside the walls of my home. Those are the people who are directly affected by me and who could make the most impact and change in the world, so I’m very aware of that now. There was a time when I first started having kids where I wasn’t really sure who I was–coming from being this singer and having this loud, war-call voice, writing social music, and then having a child, coming to my home setting, and figuring out who I am here. Now that my kids are getting older, it’s like, this is where the impact lies for me. I really see how my children are affected by–just everything.
This whole album is very female-centered, in a sense. Not necessarily musically, but lyrically, it’s written from a place of finding your power as a female and coming back into your own, and I think that’s in alignment with what’s happening in the world. That’s not a mistake, you know?
Epand: I’ve always been impressed with Aja’s ability to communicate on behalf of a larger population. Whatever’s going on in the world, she has an ability to condense that into a really cohesive and very understandable idea, and I think she always has done that, kind of innately. She’s just a good communicator in that way, and I think a lot of this music came out of the period when the #MeToo movement was happening. A lot of the songs were written about a year ago, so I think there’s a lot of that in there.
The last Nico Vega release was the Wars EP in 2018. When did you start working on this new project, and how did it take shape?
Volkman: So, I went through a separation with my husband in–I guess it was the very beginning of 2018, and basically, I was just wanting to get back into writing music. That’s kind of how I work through emotional issues, is just artistically, creatively, you know? Not that I have to be in pain, but it tends to be such an empowering place for me to write music from, so I was working through a lot of those hurdles. That took kind of that whole year, and my husband and I ended up working it out and not being separated anymore. Everything’s better than ever now, but I feel like that’s when we wrote this stuff, and Dan–Dan on the phone, not my husband–has always been such a cheerleader for me. When I was in the bottom of this whole thing, he was very encouraging and inspiring to help me use that fire and that sadness and that heartbreak to create something.
I think any time you go through serious emotional pain, you tend to pull from many different things that have happened in your life. It started to bring up my femininity, how I related to the world, and stuff from my childhood. The songs started to take shape with poetry, and it was in alignment with what was happening in the world. I never think that’s a mistake. I think we’re all a product of what’s happening in the world all the time, so it just kind of beautifully came together.
It’s awesome, though, to have a partner that is so encouraging and understanding. He always wants me to say what I really feel, and he’s always encouraging me to go all the way. With Nico Vega, we had such a chemistry, the three of us, but with just the two of us now in this project, it’s been so smooth rolling and so easy. It feels very effortless. Maybe because we’re also on such a similar chapter of our lives with our kids and so many different hurdles to jump over, you know? My husband being a musician, he’s got his own thing all the time, so carving out this space for myself has been awesome, to have one partner who’s encouraging and helping me to constantly do that.
Epand: Going back to Nico Vega, there were many different dynamics that led to us breaking up, essentially, and some of it was personal, but a lot of it was circumstantial with the label deal that we were in and not necessarily the right team at the right time. People putting pressure on us to become something that we weren’t, necessarily, and I watched Aja’s enthusiasm and fire die down a little bit. When she was going through what she was at the time with her husband, I could just tell that she was back, in a way–that she was ready to be the fullest version of herself. Knowing how good she is capable of being, I was ready to drop everything to go for it.
Dan, you were acting as producer for this record, and that’s something you’ve talked about as being a personal journey for yourself. How did that come about, and how did you find your way through it?
Epand: Well, being a musician is a life-long journey. You never really perfect it. There’s so much to learn, and I think with Nico Vega, as a three-headed monster, when it came time to make decisions, we were very confident in what we were doing. Then starting this new thing, there was a little bit of a journey, like, “What are we going to be? How is this going to be a departure or a step forward from what we were?” Just a process of finding our own voices.
Aja was really supportive of me. At every step where I was like, “Well, at this point, we’re going to bring someone else in,” she would be like, “No, why? This is great.” [laughs] It started out like, “Alright, we’re going to make some demos and then we’ll bring a producer–you know, a real producer–in.” And piece by piece, we were like, “Oh, this is actually working. This is sounding pretty good.” I’m just incredibly stubborn, and in a lot of ways, I’ve always been a producer. Even in our rehearsal space back in the day, by the time we would bring other people in, the songs were essentially fully formed and we knew exactly what we wanted. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of writing and a lot of producing of other artists and just getting more confident. I think I’ve also always had a pretty good sense of what I wanted, and it’s much better to just do it yourself than to try and communicate that to somebody else.
You released this album on your own label–TWENTYTWO Records. Was that a similar kind of decision?
Epand: I think we just didn’t really know what we wanted this to be–like, whether this was going to be more of a producer project, and we would do stuff for sync, or whether we would go on tour with it. We didn’t know, and we also didn’t want to put any pressure on it. I think we were a little bit intimidated by the idea of being told what to do and being put in a position where we are forced to do things that we don’t necessarily want to do. So for now, just doing it ourselves, we’re able to pull off a lot of things, but we’ll see what the future holds.
Volkman: I feel like we’ve also been beaten up in the past by the record industry. I think we just want to maintain creative control and create a new version of what a music career looks like for ourselves. We were road warriors for a long time, and it was pretty brutal, I would say. [laughs] The process of being in a band 15 years ago, 10 years ago–it was a lot of leg work. Not that we’re not willing to do the work, but sometimes you feel like a salmon swimming upstream, especially when you don’t have your own creative control, or you don’t feel free and liberated in it. It’s taken us this long to find a way to fully enjoy it and do it where it feels like we own it–like it’s our thing, and that makes it really fun, in my opinion.
Epand: It’s pretty funny because we come from a kind of indie rock background where it’s very DIY. We used to make our own merch, and we’d be out back spray-painting designs, stencils that Aja would carve out of cardboard. We would go to vintage shops and find a bunch of clothes, spray-paint those, and we would have this [laughs] full store at our merch booth. During long tour van rides, I remember thinking, “Man, in the amount of downtime I’ve had here, I could have gotten my doctor’s degree,” and that’s when I started learning how to edit and then started directing our videos. That’s when I learned to start producing music. So as Aja and I have gotten into this album mode, I’m struck by all the skills that we’ve put together over the years. We really can operate like a record label because we can do it all.
Volkman: We’re doing the album art and the songs and the videos–really, there’s nothing we feel like we can’t do at this point, so that is so helpful. That does give you 100% creative control. You’re not waiting on anyone, and I think that’s what’s so beautiful for us. In one afternoon, we can get something done, and it’s just like, “Oh, yeah. It’s handled.” [laughs] It used to be two weeks, like, “Is that thing done yet? Is that done yet?”
Aja, part of your style as a singer on the record is this kind of spoken-word delivery. “Live Forever More” has that vibe to it, and “Whoa Man,” obviously, is poetry. Where does that mode come from for you, and how did that develop on this record?
Volkman: Weirdly, it’s just the most natural thing for me in a performance setting. I don’t even know why, because it’s not who I am personality-wise at home. I think I’m a lot more soft in my actual life. Not that it’s hard, but it’s different–it’s very focused, and I think that just came from the stage. Nico Vega is where it started, and clearly it’s just a part of me, you know? Both of those things kind of wrote themselves. It’s not like I sat down and was like, “I’m going to put a poem on the record.” I just wrote it one day and I was like, “This has to be on the record.”
If you know me personally, then you know I hate confrontation, so it’s uncomfortable for me to put things out there that are so finger-pointy, but it’s important at a certain point to acknowledge what I’ve been through as a woman. It originally developed in Nico Vega. I felt like there was this power that grew out of my belly that just naturally blossomed, so it’s just resurfacing in this record. It does feel front and center, but I don’t think that was the intention, originally. Originally, this was just a breakup record, but I can’t help but go through a whole evolution when I’m in pain. It’s like [laughs] I start in this victim place, and then I end, like, “How can I make lemonade out of this?” And that is what this is. You sink or you swim, and that’s my version of swimming, I guess. I think, with the record, it has been the five stages of grief–they’re all in there.
The lyric that really jumps out at me as encapsulating that is, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that women are good / too good to fight back, but maybe they should.” Can you tell me what that means to you?
Volkman: That, to me, is one of the most important lines on the record. I feel like, in the world, we are out of balance when we don’t honor both sexes–and everything in between. I feel that most of the world’s problems come from that imbalance, and so, to me, women need to be acknowledged and need to be lifted up because so many things would level out. It feels like women are such an antidote because we have in our nature–and I don’t mean to be sexist, because it’s a sliding scale for everyone, right? But like, a feminine quality is to be very nurturing from the inside out, and to be very problem-solver-y, and to figure out what everyone needs all the time. Like, I just have this constant, “What do you need? What do you need? How can I make everybody feel good in this environment?” That nurturing femininity is something I feel that I was born with, and I feel like that peace-making quality is something the world needs more of. If we’re not honoring that, then there’s just a big imbalance of–a different way of handling problems. [laughs]
It’s hard to talk about these things because it can feel like I’m generalizing. Everyone is different, right? We have a sliding scale, but I feel that the world is out of balance by not putting more women in positions of power and lifting femininity up. Because I feel that it is a balancer, and that’s the whole point of the yin and the yang, you know? So to me, yeah, women don’t fight back, half the time because we feel peace-maker-y. I don’t know how else to say it; That’s just a quality inside of me. I don’t care to make someone else’s life miserable because they made my life miserable. More often than not, I have a very objective viewpoint on what that person’s existence probably is, and I don’t care to retaliate. I would rather create a better society through nurturing and loving and raising my children right, and teaching them to have boundaries. I hope that makes sense, and I hope I didn’t say anything that would be perceived as sexist.
No, and I notice you’re careful to say men, women, and everyone in between. That’s the thing that strikes me, is the way that it’s sometimes not a lack of balance between A and B, but just elevating one side over a whole other spectrum of people–do you know what I’m saying?
I’m not articulating that very well.
Volkman: It’s a hard thing to articulate because what we’re trying to learn as a society is how to make room for everybody and how to let everyone feel valuable. We are all born as we are for a reason, and if we can trust that balance and that understanding of how to incorporate each other in the growth of humanity and evolution, I can only imagine the potential of what our society could be, you know? You do have to be so careful right now, but I don’t think that carefulness is about not stepping on toes. I think carefulness is more about inclusion. We all need to be careful not to exclude each other.
To me, that’s why a lot of these things are so heart-centered because no one has the right language. It’s constantly changing. It’s going to constantly change for a very long time, so the only way to navigate truly is in your heart. Am I making room for everyone? Does something feel out of balance? It’s like when you walk into a room, and one person is talking so loud, and everyone else is timidly–you know, [laughs] but you can feel it, and that is the world that we live in. Right now, we’re trying to find room for more voices, right? I think that’s really important, and I hope that this record can vocalize that. I hope we can continue to do that, even beyond this record. I hope that’s something we incorporate into who we are as artists and carry with us.
Epand: It’s a hard thing to talk about because the ultimate goal is not to offend anybody, but at the same time trying to communicate an idea. The waters feel incredibly treacherous right now in terms of making sure that you say the right thing, but you still have to try.
Volkman: I think one of the most important things for where we’re at is just not being afraid of responsibility. For some reason, from this young age, we learn, “It’s not my fault. I didn’t do it. She did it,” and one of the most important things we can teach our kids is that it doesn’t hurt to take responsibility. Battling your ego is something that you have to learn from a really young age. Otherwise, it grows into a monstrosity. So once you can learn, you know, it’s not going to hurt you to have it be your fault–it doesn’t hurt. It’s not like falling down and scraping your knee. When something is your fault, it means you have control. It means you’re more powerful than the thing.
When you teach your child to be a victim, it means you’re teaching them to be powerless over what’s happening. They can’t do anything about it, and so we grow into adults that keep shifting the blame. “Oh, I’m not racist. Oh, I don’t do these things. Someone else does these things.” But really, when you take the ownership, you’re in control. Sometimes I view gathering responsibility as, like, the more I take of it, the more powerful I can feel as a person to grow, to help, to learn, to be the change the world really needs to see–and so I do try to teach my kids that.
Even when my friends are mad at me, it’s like, “What’s it going to do to you when someone’s mad at you? Why do we feel the need to defend ourselves?” [laughs] As long as someone’s not violently throwing a stick or a stone at your head, there’s nothing happening to you, so when someone blames you for something, say, “Okay, I hear that. I own that. I see that pain that I’ve caused you. Help me better understand how I can never do this to you again because the person I want to be is someone who gives you love. I want to be someone who makes you feel safe. Help me learn how to do that for you.” I think if we can have that mentality, we can change.
I read somewhere Dan had said that your mantra leading up to this release was to let go of preconceptions of outcome. Now that you’ve had this time–Aja, for you to write these songs and grapple with those ideas, and Dan, to think more about production–have you started to see the outcome, or is that something you’re still not thinking of?
Epand: For me, personally, it’s such a battle to let go of expectations. It’s why I think I referred to it as a mantra, because it’s an incredible challenge. I find myself really emotionally involved in this music, and yeah, there’s a level of, you want to make sure that mistakes you’ve made in the past aren’t relived. you want to make sure that the people that are helping you on your team want it as much as you do and want it to succeed on the same level, but the other thing that goes along with that is, you redraw the lines of success every day.
When we first started releasing music, I didn’t know if anybody would care. I think for me and Aja, Nico Vega was–we’ve kind of put that to bed, emotionally. It’s of a different era, and we haven’t played a show in five years or so. Do we still have fans? Do people still care about the kind of music we’re making? I didn’t really know the answer to that, but it’s been a rewarding journey for me, personally. When you’re trying new things and you’re doing things yourself, you’re more responsible for the outcome, good or bad, so there are some fears inherent in there that I would blow it. Aja had this incredible communication of these things she was going through emotionally, and I didn’t want to drop the ball on that. [laughs] There were many times during the process where I did want to pass the torch, in a way, but if you’re going to do something like that, you want to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and not just because you’re scared. So yes, it’s been really rewarding to put this music out and to see how much people have connected with it. I can’t think of something that I’m more proud of, and after so many years of working together, just to feel like we can still do it is quite rewarding.
I know the future is uncertain in a lot of ways right now, but I know you’ve done a music video for “In This Rough,” and I’m curious, what’s next for the band going forward toward the release and beyond?
Epand: Well, I do think this time in history is especially–you know, normally, what would a band do right now? They would go on tour and go do interviews in cities across the country and the world. It seems like we’re really in a content-driven world right now, which I think plays to Aja and my strengths. We have families. We weren’t necessarily in a position to do extensive touring around a release, but what we can do really well is make videos and make music and make art, and I see this as a really exciting time to focus on that. I have video ideas in mind for a couple songs, so personally, those are my next goals for this project. We’ve also written almost an entire second EP, which I’d say is about 60% done, so I think there’ll be a lot more music in the near future as well.
Volkman: I’m excited about the idea of releasing a bunch of little collections of songs and poetry. It’s an exciting time with no boundaries, yet boundaries, obviously, like the ones that he was talking about with touring. But there’s no expectation on us, and I love that. It feels very freeing, so we’re just having fun, you know?
You have this opportunity to look at what being an artist means, and not have the industry constraints, or–in other words, everybody’s looking for how to do things differently now, so there’s an opportunity there.
Volkman: Yes, exactly.
Epand: The downside is that attention spans are incredibly short, and culturally, the world is changing so quick. For art to feel relevant, you have to be prolific and move fast, I feel like. Aja, would you agree with that statement?
Volkman: Absolutely. It’s kind of crazy, like, you see something really amazing, and the next day, you’ve forgotten about it, whereas in the 90s or something, you would have something on repeat for a year or watch the same music video 100 times [laughs] and remember every single detail. I think we live in a different time because there is so much content. There’s so many people, and everyone’s got a voice, so all you can do is express fully who you are and just keep doing that, right?
Epand: Yeah, and I think that’s where it goes back to the mantra of “no expectations,” because if you don’t feed that idea any energy and you just focus on the joy of the creation, then the process is the reward. I try to live in that space.