Winter Break find better things to do

Mac Pogue

In late June 2014, beloved Southern California pop-punk band Summer Vacation posted an unexpected farewell to its Facebook page. The post began, in their internet presence’s concise-to-a-fault vernacular, “Summer Vacation is not a band anymore.” The post revealed little motivation behind the change, but did reveal the members’ future steps: Mark Chen, Aaron Kovacs and Matt Gomez of Summer Vacation were playing the rest of their old band’s shows and recording an album under the name Winter Break.

Summer Vacation made music for the late-night drive home after a show; they played aggressive songs made to sing along to, post-hardcore jams with the melodic sensibility of folk-punk. The band reveled in turning the more embarrassing elements of Vagrant Records and Plan-It X style punk into infectious, guitar-pop anthems. Their frantic sound, full of whiplash-inducing meter changes and post-Pixies black-and-white dynamics, inspired the likes of Joyce Manor’s Barry Johnson, who named the band’s influence as an integral part of his band’s formation as a loud pop-punk band.

Mark and Aaron met in the years immediately following high school. Mark had played a few shows before, just himself and a guitar, but wanted some accompaniment for his folk-punk flurries of rage. “I knew that [Aaron] played drums, so I asked him to play drums for me one time … and that’s how our three-piece band formed, Baby’s Breath.” Mark recalls. The two found a third member and played a spate of shows over the course of a year.

Baby’s Breath was the testing ground for what would become Summer Vacation. “We didn’t really know from the get-go what we were going to do,” Mark confesses. Baby’s Breath threw together a scrappy CD-R, still available to stream online, showcasing the roots that later informed Summer Vacation and Winter Break’s sense of hurried pop-punk melody and earnest folk-punk introspection. In those earlier days, though, the band opted for quainter, more plaintive strumming over breathless, noisy guitar riffing. Summer Vacation and Winter Break sound like music for young people; Baby’s Breath sound young.

Summer Vacation came into view when Aaron and Mark started playing music with Sean Arenas. The three put together a more hyper, over-driven taken on Baby’s Breath’s sound, and ditched most of the folk-punk leanings of the former band. After about a year of playing, Arenas ran into Matthew Gomez, an old high school acquaintance, and asked him to come to a Summer Vacation show. This chance meeting proved fortuitous; Sean soon messaged Matt asking to join the band as a second guitarist. Like that, Summer Vacation came into its own.

Over the four-to-five years of their existence (depends on who you ask), Summer Vacation helped foster a network of similarly DIY-focused bands in the greater Los Angeles urban sprawl. Summer Vacation would regularly drive far enough outside the LA area to play that with other bands in their tight-knit scene, far enough that some might charitably call it a mini-tour, but for them it was just part of the work to be done.

Bigger venues don’t really interest me. All of these bands pretty much have the mentality of not playing bar shows, of all playing DIY shows.

Aaron, Mark and Matt started playing shows before they could drink, and never found much interest in moving outside of the warehouse-and-storefront scene of Southern California DIY. “Bigger venues don’t really interest me,” Aaron thinks aloud, from Mark’s parents’ house in San Gabriel where Winter Break practices. “All of these bands pretty much have the mentality of not playing bar shows, of all playing DIY shows,” Mark adds. “Shows at VLHS, you get a vibe…everyone’s there to have a good time and not start any drama.”

The VLHS Mark mentions refers to the Vince Lombardi High School, located smack dab in the middle of the Los Angeles area in Pomona. The venue (spoiler alert: it’s not an actual high school, it’s named for the school in the Ramones-starring film, Rock ’n’ Roll High School) was started about four years ago by proprietors of another warehouse space. Over that span of time, the VLHS has turned into a hub for Winter Break and a host of associated DIY bands, many of whom have released music with Aaron’s label, Lauren Records.

Lauren Records came about when Aaron decided to release a compilation of friends’ bands in 2011. The compilation (dubbed I Think We Should Stay Away From Each Other) featured tracks from Japanther, Andrew Jackson Jihad, Pangea, Forming, Joyce Manor, and more. Aaron describes the label as a way of keeping in touch with friends. Since the compilation, Lauren Records has put out records by a wide range of California’s finest pop-punk-indebted bands, including Joyride!, Dad Punchers, Upset and Benny the Jet Rodriguez. Aaron describes the label as a way to maintain his relationships with friends around the area—and the country—and ideally as a lifeline to support himself, like fellow LA DIY label owner, Todd Congelliere of Recess Records.

The lines of demarcation between Summer Vacation and Winter Break grow a bit hazy when talking over the phone. Most of the songs on Winter Break were penned while the trio were still playing with Sean Arenas, but they emphasize the transition as part of an overall trajectory. “It was bound to end sooner or later,” Mark details. “The change happened gradually just as it did suddenly. It was one of those things we could see happening … and didn’t realize until later.” Winter Break only came along when, as Mark describes, “we realized we had the same vision, and that we could do something about it.”

Mark describes the transformation from Summer Vacation to Winter Break in stark terms: “minus one member from Summer Vacation, and we’re Winter Break. It just wasn’t vibing anymore.”

Over the phone, the three men of Winter Break are about as awkward and nervy as you’d hope them to be. Like their music, they trio carry conversation in a shambolic fashion: bursts of talking are punctuated with “so, uh, yeah,” and answers to esoteric questions begin with a round of hurried whispers between the three. Kovacs acknowledges their discomfort with interviews in a follow-up email, describing their previous interview experience as “kind of a joke.”

On record, however, Winter Break open up, direct and undeterred. “Kirk Camoron” starts the record off, funnily enough, with a fakeout: the song launches headfirst into bubbly, poppy abandon, a short glimpse into some imagined life without anxiety or tension. Eight bars in, the song jerks back to reality; the beat snaps into a resigned groove, and Mark’s voice enters in, sighing about an operation, about his nervous hands.

Winter Break mines the ebullience of uncertainty and worry. “4:49” arrives about 8 minutes into the half-hour long album, but feels like an undeniable centerpiece. Mark circles the listener around late-night drives, around friends who “fold like a deck of cards,” around finding something to “live against.” The song’s quiet, pulsing groove pushes against the rest of the album’s dramatic forward movement. I’m reminded of “Adam’s Song” on Enema of the State or “After Hours” on Velvet Underground, two fish-out-of-water songs that leave their respective albums feeling lopsided and incomplete when taken out.

When asked where the songs of Winter Break spring from, Mark pauses and inquisitively responds “my life?” with a tone that asks ‘where else could they come from?’ The response makes sense, but there is something that feels more clear and fully-formed than any of his previous songwriting. Summer Vacation’s sole LP, Condition, sounded like a band thrashing at itself trying to cast out its anxiety; Winter Break sounds assured in its nervous energy. “It’s an accomplishment for me,” Mark says, when we talk about the new record. “But Aaron has to sell of these records,” he adds. “So I don’t know how accomplished he feels.”

After the breakup, Summer Vacation posted a picture of a tombstone on their Facebook. Summer Vacation announced their breakup on June 21, the first day of summer, and changed their profile to a drawing of a gravestone. It reads “R.I.P. 2009-2014, H.A.G.S.,” (that’s short of “have a good summer,” for anyone else years removed from the days of signing yearbooks). In Aaron’s own words, growing up is dumb, but the wheel-spinning stasis of endless summer days always masked the glacial growth incurred by time. Winter Break is here, and they’ve grown, whether they wanted to or not.

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