The hula dancers had just cleared the stage at the Hong Kong Inn in downtown Ventura when the announcer let everyone know that Ventura’s VNLVX (pronounced “Un-lucks”) was about to begin. This is both the opposite of whom one might expect to play the landmark Chinese-Thai restaurant-bar, and the perfectly quintessential Ventura underground thing to do.
A small crowd gathered up front for VNLVX’s energetic set of post-punk rock ’n’ roll, fronted by vocalist Sasha Green. In a shredded sequined dress, she hollered a powerful melodic wail in the same spiritual vein as Poly Styrene or Alice Bag, alongside drummer Justin Dempsey, guitarist Derek Jennings and her longtime partner, Seth Pettersen, on bass and vocals.
While Pettersen was born in Camarillo and has been playing in bands throughout Ventura County since he was 13, this was his first show ever at Hong Kong Inn.
A week later on the patio of Paddy’s, Pettersen explained the dilemma for do-it-yourself bands trying to play in Ventura. Issues he mentioned included noise problems, venues shuttering or being too far away for people to travel to safely, or just not enough spaces for bands such as VNLVX, given rising rents.
“We haven’t given up on Ventura. We love it here, we love the people, there’s something very special about this town,” Pettersen said. “We just have to just get a little more creative, like we’ll play Grady’s Record Refuge or we’ll play the Hong Kong Inn or somewhere in Ojai where we’ve never been, or maybe someone’s having a house show.”
Pettersen is perhaps best known for fronting folky indie band Franklin for Short, which toured with the likes of Kings of Convenience, or the punk band Massenger, his and Green’s previous band. Locals also know his solo output as well as Sweet Reaper, another current project for him and Green.
Petterson and Green met in the late-2000s. At the time Green, originally from Panama, was exploring filmmaking and photography. Before long they were making music together and dating. Petterson said that Green is a natural at both vocal melodies and drumming — a position she now plays for Sweet Reaper.
Massenger began in 2011 when Green was driving home from work with a melody in her head and Pettersen was ready with a guitar in his hand.
“She started singing and I started playing along to it and that became the song ‘Power to the People’ and that was the first song for Massenger.”
Over the next five years, Massenger gained more members and a devoted following, playing dozens of hometown Ventura shows as well as touring. The band’s last show was in Texas; Green and Pettersen returned from that tour burnt out. Green wasn’t sure if she wanted to sing in bands anymore, she says. It was a rough time.
“We were just trying to enjoy ourselves, but then the anger started pouring out through the pen, so to speak,” Green said. “The angst and the energy — the anger from the break up, from everything, and then Trump happened.”
Their mutual friend, drummer Justin Dempsey, suggested they jam one night, forming the core of what would become VNLVX, and the first of their unlucky moments together happened: “We go to jam, we hit the first note and the power goes out for the whole block,” Pettersen said. (Turns out, Edison was working on the area.)
The soon-to-be VNLVX decided to try again, this time on election night 2016. Assuming Hillary Clinton would be elected, they decided to wait out the results while working on music together. They kept checking the news between songs, and things became increasingly distressing.
“I remember driving to work and it felt like the day after the world had ended. It felt like the air was heavier,” recalled Pettersen. “That’s how we [eventually] decided on the name ‘un-lux’ — between what happened with the last band, the power going out and Trump.”
The spelling of VNLVX was a style choice for the group. “The cool thing about this name is that VNLVX comes right up [on Google]. So we did good on that front,” Green said with a laugh.
Despite that joking marketing reference, VNLVX is not making music for fame and fortune, the band members say. Their goals are simple: to make good music, to play quality venues and to tour again with bigger bands that bring them out.
They put out a blistering debut album for free on Bandcamp a year ago — you won’t be able to get the main riff of “Hello” out of your head — and partnered with Burger Records to release the tape, because they didn’t want to wait for the vinyl. They wanted their music out there.
“I just want people letting go of all the bullshit and enjoying it,” said Pettersen. “And us playing and feeling it, too. It’s the back and forth, that’s why we do it.”