Mark McDermott

The passions of Nico Vega

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aja volkman

Nico Vega plays Saint Rocke Saturday night.

Aja Volkman arrived in Los Angeles seven years ago searching for something more than a rock n’ roll dream. She came in search of her self.

Volkman had almost no choice in the matter: she had to sing. She possessed one of those rare voices almost elemental in its power – she sings like the wind blows – but was also weighed down by a lingering worry. Volkman thought it quite possible that she was insane.

She had come from Eugene, Oregon with the idea of starting a rock n’ roll band and during her first nine months in town her prodigious musical gifts attracted attention. She sat in with numerous bands but nothing felt quite right. And then she crossed paths a drummer and a guitar player and straightaway knew she’d found her place.

“I had direction with them,” she said. “I knew immediately I was just in the right situation.”

Thus was born Nico Vega. The band’s very first gig was at Spaceland and had the impact of an asteroid landing in Silver Lake. Volkman, barefoot and yowling, made a strong first impression that created a buzz about the new band.

“We just packed out our shows immediately,” she said. “I think just because that first show was so crazy people were like, we want to see about this band. We just kind of went nuts on stage – I don’t even think we were particularly that good at first. I just think we were so crazy people were like ‘We gotta see this.’”

Nico Vega quite literally saved Volkman. She had arrived in LA still reeling from a confused adolescence in which she’d become mired in anti-depression medication and self-doubt. The band’s original drummer, Mike Pena, and guitarist Rich Koehler helped liberate her from this past.

“When I was younger I felt a little bit like I was crazy,” Volkman said. “So I was always self-medicating and taking so many different depression pills and all this crazy stuff. I really thought something was wrong with me. And I think I was so creative and such a person that needed to be on a different path that hadn’t quite discovered that I could built a world and a life around that, and I didn’t need to worry or be hard on myself.”

Nico Vega saved her in another sense, as well. The band’s namesake was actually Pena’s mother, an aspiring singer and actress who’d lost her way in spiral of anti-depression medication and died prematurely when her heart failed her.

“She had kind of high hopes for herself as a young woman,” Volkman said. “She had always dreamt of seeing her name in the lights…and just ended up kind of going nowhere, just slowly falling apart. Once you are on medication, it’s just a downward spiral – you don’t realize it’s just like any other drug, and you take such small amounts that you take just more and more and pretty soon you are like a drug addict, but it’s been prescribed.”

And so Nico Vega, the woman, helped Volkman find the determination to quit her medication. And as part of Nico Vega, the band, Volkman suddenly felt more like herself than she’d ever felt before.

“I just kind of replaced medication with music,” Volkman said. “And I did it. And that was kind of how the name came about, because I just felt like, gosh, it’s such a beautiful name and she inspired me and saved my life in a way…It’s kind of a personal thing and not something I usually advertise but I definitely believe that medication is overprescribed in this country, generally, and it’s not a problem solver…a lot of times you just have to let the person that is inside of you out and let that person move around to feel better.”

The band seems on the cusp of big things. They are an eclectic, hard-rocking outfit that is impossible to pigeonhole, genre-wise – their most recent record, an EP titled Nico Vega Covers Nico Vega and Rod Stewart, ranges from folk version of their song “Beast” (originally a hard rocker used in the horror movie The Collector) to an infectiously poppy version of Stewart’s “Young Turks” to an outlaw country version of the band’s “So So Fresh.” They share notable characteristics with another bass-less band, The White Stripes – an ability to both smash and croon, a genre-defying adventurousness, and a from-the-gut honesty that is a hallmark of great rock.

Rock n’ Roll, after all, is the province of outsiders. Its history is filled with artists who didn’t fit in – from Elvis Presley’s secret sojourns to the black bars of Tupelo, Mississippi to punk misfit Sid Vicious climbing onstage bloodied and unbowed. Rockers have long sought redemption, connection, and liberation through music.

“It’s a place for us all to identify with each other, in a certain sense,” Volkman said. “There is a definite rebellion about it all. For me I guess I went the opposite route – drugs and alcohol didn’t did solve anything for me….I feel like I am actually sane now.”

Nico Vega have signed with Tenth Street Entertainment – along with with Blondie, Jet, Aerosmith, and Motley Crue – and will release a much anticipated album early next year. Their lives shows have become the stuff of legend, as attested by a devoted and growing fan base.

“I think it’s definitely an army of love we are trying to create, an army of passionate people who are on board,” Volkman said. “The message of the shows tends to be about expressing just who you are, and not suppressing it at all.”

Nico Vega plays Saint Rocke Saturday night. See saintrocke.com for tickets and nicovega.com for more information on the band. ER

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