Dead on: Viva La Muerte
When you hear the name of Greensboro-based band Viva La Muerte, winners of YES! Weekly’s readers’ poll for the Triad’s Best Original Band, you might find yourself wondering what they’re all about. First of all, they’re not a death metal band, though the name loosely translates to “long live death.” They’re prepared for your curiosity. They have a paragraph on the homepage of their website wading into an explanation of sorts about the band name. There are allusions to obscure movie references, to poetic philosophies of beauty, and to the code of the samurai. It’s all a riff basically on memento mori — the maxim that states ‘Remember that you, too, will die one day,’ and so you should live life with the fire and passion derived from that understanding.
I spoke with Viva La Muerte’s frontman and main songwriter Matt “M.C.” Armstrong last week. We talked a little bit about the band’s music, their approach to staying energized, and their excitement about connecting with listeners, music-scene veterans and fellow musicians in the Triad area. Armstrong is a seize-the-day kind of guy: he’s certainly practicing what he preaches in the pursue-your-passions department. When he’s not writing, performing and recording music with Viva La Muerte, Armstrong teaches in the English departments at Guilford College and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. And when he’s not teaching or making music, he’s also busy working on his Ph.D. dissertation on the subject of post-9/11 soldier-writers, poets and novelists.
In its own way, all of the work relates to itself, to the state of America, to the confluence of poetry, pop culture, current events and a sense of a national spirit. The band’s last record, The Eyes of Men, came out in 2017. Some of the material on it was written before Donald Trump became president and before he even fully emerged as the likely Republican nominee. It was an album that mixed songs that conjured a feeling of alarm about the state of the country and others that captured that sense of yearning to dive into the mysteries and paradoxes of life, to find joy in music and love, despite the obstacles.
Viva La Muerte started in 2005. At the time, Armstrong was inspired by a conversation he and a friend had about the scope of American music. They discussed the ways that the best bands had links to literary and poetic traditions that extend back to the Beats, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. They also discussed how America’s surging sense of itself always has pulsed through popular music and the ways that American literature always had a humble, of-the-people aspect. American music retains street poetry and mystical vision of the possibilities for the country.
Armstrong is one of those guys who can persuasively make the case for viewing songwriting and poetry as manifestations of the same thing. Songcraft, melody, rhythm, phrasing and even a pop sensibility inform poetry. And poetry certainly energizes popular music. Songwriters like Leonard Cohen and David Berman (of the Silver Jews) are equally admired as poets. Likewise, poets like Paul Muldoon have taken a crack at writing pop songs. It’s not hard to find connections between grand poetic traditions and song: Homeric epics were most likely recited with musical accompaniment, and Dante took inspiration from the tradition of poet troubadours. When poets invoke the muse, they often ask her to sing.
“I see songwriting as literature,” Armstrong said.
Viva La Muerte’s debut record, All The Birds, opens with a song that’s built around the wonderfully self-reflexive line “I feel like I feel like feeling again,” which almost sounds like a gag, but it’s really about the ways we open ourselves up to feeling, to being receptive to other people’s emotions. It can be heard as a statement about the active role we have to play in being able to sense and feel and respond to what’s around us, both to be aware of what’s happening in the world and also to be fully alive and engaged with others. It’s a rallying cry against the easy comforts of numbness.
The song reflects Armstrong’s interest in balancing seriousness with the important business of pleasure and fun. One without the other is no good, in the long run.
Musically, Viva La Muerte mix a lot of elements: brooding singer-songwriter troubadour folk, some Americana, sturdy bar-band blues rock, and a hint of jam-band openness, with horns, pedal steel, keys, banjo, harmonica and other touches added as needed. Armstrong said the band was grappling with its identity about a year ago, trying to decide whether to stick with the well-traveled paths of guitar-rock or to push out elsewhere. They settled on elsewhere, into points less clearly mapped out, as a big band with lots of moving parts and a built-in place for musical exploration. The possibilities within the music are what give Armstrong the energy to keep working on so many different fronts.
“When you try to build improvisational spaces within your music, and you can really get into a trance with musicians you like — there’s something about playing where you realize, ‘Holy shit, I just stole some fire!’” Armstrong said. “The tradition we’re working, it’s magical.”
The band now includes, in addition to Armstrong, Ranford Almond on guitar, Jared Zehmer on bass, Wes Allen on drums, Alan Hedrick on trumpet, multi-instrumentalist John Crocker, Tayler Coldiron on fiddle, and Nikki Taylor on sax. It’s a large-scale project with a lot of musical perspectives, which fits the ambition and scope of the songs. Armstrong said that getting plugged into a supportive network in Greensboro has energized the band. In addition to his bandmates, he credits Greensboro event-organizers Charles “Bones” Frank and Amanda Loflin with fostering a scene that is warm, open and creatively fruitful.
Getting the nod from the community is a bonus for Armstrong and crew.
“We’ve been toiling in obscurity — and rather happily — for a long time,” he said. “To get noticed, as Jerry Garcia would say, is ‘gravy.’”
Viva La Muerte is working on material for a new record. Armstrong said some of the songs are already complete, a few of which, like one called “The Ballad of Reality Winner” (about the famous whistleblower) and another about climate change and storms, are being played out at the band’s shows now.
You can catch Viva La Muerte this summer at Center City Park in Greensboro, on Sat., July 13 at 7 p.m. and at Little Brother Brewing, in Greensboro, on Sat. July 20, at 9:30 p.m. Keep an eye on www.vivalamuerteband.com for further live show updates.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.