There was a period when No Vacation almost vanished. After parting ways with one of the band’s founders and taking an indefinite hiatus last year, it was uncertain that the band would ever return, even as their dream-pop tracks like “Lovefool” and “Beach Bummer” steadily rose in popularity on Spotify and SoundCloud. But this year, the band is back in full force, wrapping up their tour across the West Coast and preparing to release their next mixtape in November. Evoking the feeling of being adrift but not lost, post-hiatus singles “Mind Fields” and “Yam Yam” anchor their fluttery, dream-like melodies in sonorous instrumentals.
Lead singer Sabrina Mai, synth instrumentalist Nat Lee and drummer James Shi shared some thoughts with SF Weekly on being friends before bandmates, balancing music with school and full-time jobs, and how songwriting allows them to be heard by their audience, but also by each other.
SF Weekly: You guys all didn’t join the band at the same time. How did you all each get involved in No Vacation?
Sabrina: It started off as a dorm room project at USF with another collaborator who is no longer with us – he’s alive – but no longer part of the band. We started it together, and after we recorded the first mixtape Amo XO, we decided that we wanted to have a live band, and that’s when Marissa and Nat came in. And then eventually Harrison came in before the recording of the Summer Break mixtape. Then we had a hiatus, and after we came back James became our drummer and Harrison switched to lead guitar.
James: I’ve been in a couple different bands around SF, so we were already all friends prior to this. And I was already a fan of No Vacation before that. Then one day they told me, “We’re getting back together, and we want to play a couple live shows, but we need a drummer.” And I said, “Sure! I know how to play drums!” It just clicked well, and we wanted to write new music together. And we decided to make this a full-time thing and get the band back together. I feel like a lot of the new material is born of us collaborating together. It sounds new, and different, and a lot of that comes from everybody having their own input on their respective instruments. Actually, not even just on their respective instruments, on just what sounds cool, and what are we feeling now, and how do we want to write it.
SFW: Could you guys talk more about the collaboration process for your upcoming mixtape?
Sabrina: The first part of the songs that are on this next mixtape were written by me during the break-up. That’s what inspired the entire mixtape, the break-up of the band. I played and demoed the songs for a bit and after that I wanted to play live shows. And this was when No Vacation was broken up, and I asked the other members if they wanted to play some live shows with me as a different project. After we played the shows we realized, “Dang this is really similar to No Vacation, why don’t we just continue playing as a band?” And that’s what made us decide to continue the band again. But yeah, the songs for this mixtape apart from “Yam Yam” are break-up songs.
James: Yeah the cool thing about the writing process in general is that Sab will come to us with a demo and have pre-existing lead parts and drum parts, and we can take that and individually – or collectively – workshop it. I know that the demos compared to the songs that are going to be on the mixtape sound completely different, and it’s because of us working on it together and finding what we think fits the song best. To sum up, it’s just super fun to take an idea and add a fun twist to it, and all creatively make a baby together. That sounded weird.
Sabrina: A big song orgy.
SFW: Since your writing is coming from this very personal place, what is the reaction of other band members when someone comes with a song that is about something super private?
Nat: My reaction when I’m hear Sab or anyone show a new song is that I relate and I understand where it’s coming from. I think also from being Sabrina’s best friend, I see her on one side, the music side, and then I see just her regular thoughts or things she wants to express. It’s really cool to see her express herself in talking to me, and then to see her bring it to a song. I see the message, and I hear the message. That was lame I know, but it’s cute.
James: I think the biggest thing too, is that outside the band, we’re all friends.
Sabrina: We are? What?
James: Yeah actually I don’t know. I’m not ready to commit to that yet. We’re acquaintances, but we’re acquaintances that all hang out together and do fun stuff. I think songs are better when they’re personable and relatable. Because we’re all friends, we can see the inspiration for these personal songs, versus a fan or someone who hears a song and thinks, “Oh this song is sad, and it’s about X, but I don’t really know the backstory behind it.” We know the backstory most of the time.
SFW: Since you guys are all friends – or acquaintances – as the band grows up, do you ever worry about the band growing apart or individuals changing?
James: We just got back from our first tour over the summer. It was over two weeks, up and down the West Coast. And being in a cramped car with five people, sleeping on floors and couches, just kind of bumming it, you get a lot closer. In many ways it’s like family. This is your band family, for better or for worse. And Nat might make make dinosaur noises in the morning, or I might be cranky in the car, but it’s all for better or for worse, and I’ve learned to love everybody in the band. As we grow as a band and as people, we’re not gonna be the same band and we’re not gonna be the same people we were five years ago, but we’ll all hopefully still love each other.
SFW: In addition to touring and working on your mixtape, you’re also still college students?
Nat: Well I just graduated, so now the students are Sabrina, Marissa and Harrison. It’s definitely hard to juggle it all. But a lot of people always ask how we juggle school and doing music. But for me, I don’t really see music as a hobby. I see my work divided into music work and school work, and it’s all work. We always allot time to music, no matter what.
Sabrina: Sometimes you just have to make sacrifices. Sometimes I have to put one over the other. Last year when we did Noise Pop festival, I did all my work a week in advance for class, told my teachers I’d be gone, got on a plane for the show, and then came back for school.
SFW: Do you guys see being a student and musician as completely different things?
Sabrina: I think for me, yes, because I study design. Sometimes my work overlaps with my musical work, in terms of creating things for the band like merchandise. For me, I feel like it’s very, very similar. I can’t say the same for Harrison, because he’s an accountant. He could account for the band, I guess.
James: So, I’ve been out of college for three years now, so it’s definitely something I’ve thought about, dividing me the working man and me the musician. Whatever you spend 8 hours a day doing is going to affect you creatively, both consciously and subconsciously. I’m not singing about the drudgery of working, but maybe subconsciously some of my drum parts are inspired by commuting to work everyday, I don’t know.
Nat: It blends in some parts for me. I just graduated from nursing school, and the way it mixes for me is in the collaboration and in the long hours. I’ll work like 12 hour shifts, and I didn’t realize until we were doing tour that I would plan out our days and I’d say something like, “All right guys, we can do a 10 hour rehearsal day with an interview and then we can go do this other thing and it’ll be 12 hours, it’ll be perfect!” And everyone is all, “We’re so tired!” And I’ll be confused because I think it’s a normal working day, and I’m just used to very long hours. Also, working with people and practicing time management at school has helped me a lot in my music career. But content wise, nursing school doesn’t really relate to music. Except I do bring my first aid kit and all that on tour just in case something happens on the road.
SFW: Who inspires you musically?
James: I guess I’ll just be cliche and say St. Vincent. I think the path of most drummers is you start out wanting to play the fastest, and just be hella extra all the time. Listening to St. Vincent’s records, you realize that you do more with less. As I’ve grown as a drummer, I’ve done more with less. I got rid of my two bass pedals, I only have a couple cymbals now, and I feel like a lot of that traces back to St. Vincent. And I also really like her music, so there’s that.
Nat: I think for me, Justin Vernon from Bon Iver is one of my big inspirations. He uses a variety of instruments, like in For Emma he has these horn instruments and strings. And even when Bon Iver collaborates with other people, he does so much with very little supporting instruments. He adds these little touches that aren’t the first thing you hear but bring a lot to a melody. Other artists include Tchaikovsky, and lots of classical music in general, especially for supportive instrumental parts. For synth-sounds, this band called The Paper Kites. They’re pretty indie-rock originally, and seeing their transition to this more synthy sound after their States album was really cool. They use more ambient noises and little instrumental things that have helped shape my sound.
Sabrina: When I first started out listening to different genres aside from what I heard on the radio, I started listening to The xx. Some of my influence comes from listening to them and realizing that having less is more, and that’s what I try to follow. Stripping down complexities and having just the bare bones – I like writing like that.
SFW: Anything else you guys want to shout out?
James: Shouts out to Fiji Water, shouts out to Taco Bell.
Nat: We did Feed the Beat program, which is where [Taco Bell] chooses a bunch of artists to sponsor each season by giving us $500 worth of Taco Bell.
James: It was like, day two of tour, and we were already so sick of Taco Bell just because of the sheer amount of Taco Bell that we already had.
Nat: Also shout out to the new album coming out in November!
Sabrina: And hi Mom!
Nat: She’s in the other room.
Sabrina: Yeah. I can say hi to her later.