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Nico Vega: Energy commission 

Pigeon-holing musicians or making comparisons to something well-known is often the easiest way to describe a band. Simply take parts of what's familiar and combine them to form an opinion of what's new or different. It's not that easy with Los Angeles' Nico Vega.

Singer Aja Volkman is often compared to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Patti Smith and even Janis Joplin. Of course, when you have an energetic female fronting a rock trio, there's only a handful of options open to you. "Out of all 20 women that have fronted bands and become successful, it's hard not to draw a comparison because there are only 20 of them," Volkman says by phone from a stop in Houston, Texas. "The only thing I can really say is that it's always a compliment. When you're getting compared to people who are that great, you must be doing something right."

It's almost odd for a band that's just about to release its self-titled debut disc on Feb. 3 to be receiving so many accolades, but the band is anything but new. Formed in 2004, they've released a handful of EPs, played South By Southwest a number of times and have busted their collective asses at live shows on both coasts.

Volkman, whose first name is pronounced like the word Asia, looks at the new disc as a retrospective of the band's last four years. Thanks to the Internet, they have fans around the country, though they're still focusing on playing small venues. "We love playing the small, dark places," she says. "It's so intimate, sweaty and dirty and we're playing with awesome bands. The whole show is worth catching."

When compared to those earlier recorded efforts, Volkman says the band has only now been able to capture the live energy they exude thanks to producers Linda Perry and Tchad Blake. She says both helped bring great performances out of the band. Instead of them trying to mold Nico Vega into something else, they were able to let the band do what it does best.

"It sucks when you're putting out music that you think doesn't really show what you do -- the level of energy or the dynamics of one of your shows -- and you have to say, 'You have to come see us live!'" Volkman says. "I'm grateful we don't have to say that. If you like this record, you're going to like what you're going to see."

Volkman is known to do a good bit of free-form dancing, and she sings, screams and howls. Guitar duties are handled by band co-founder Rich Koehler who runs his rig through an octave channel to help accomplish the bass sounds. Drummer Dan Epand is the group's newest member. Original drummer Mike Pena left the group to pursue acting and enjoy fatherhood. It should be noted that the band's name comes from Pena's mother.

While the band is happy with the current lineup, Volkman says they wouldn't be opposed to a bass player should the right musician come along. "If the magic man falls out of the sky into our lap, we'd love for him to play keyboards and sing backup as well," she says. "I think it is what it is now because it works."

As for their "discovery," Volkman can't talk about it without laughing. "It was Tom," she says with a giggle. "You know, Tom? He actually came to our show. I swear to God! He's a person! He came to our show, fell in love with the band and wanted to sign us."

The album is being released on MySpace Records, though Volkman isn't worried about any negative labels or stereotypes that may come about because of the association with the networking site.

"Their team is so passionate and wonderful and loving and supportive that we fell in love with them," she says. "We had hesitations about signing, like any band would in this day and age. They just showed us something that was one of a kind. We made our whole record once, it wasn't right, and they supported us in making the entire thing again. For an indie label to do that, it's just ... that's a really hard thing for them to do. It costs a lot of money, and it's taking a big risk on somebody. They've really believed in us, so it feels right."

She also relates any negative connotations put on the label to being in a clique in school. Volkman says she was always one to do what she wanted without worrying if she was part of the cool kids, etc. Now, she's confident that the music will speak for itself.

And while the debut hasn't even hit shelves yet, Volkman says she's already thinking about the next album. She knows the band is tighter now than they were when they first started. She also enjoys the challenge of writing.

"I love to write around other people's melodies," she says. "For Rich and I, that was the perfect match. The stuff he writes is so unique and beautiful. I'll try to change as little as possible. It's like a game for me."

Whether that music is loud and in-your-face or more reserved is part of the dichotomy of the band. A quick glance at YouTube can find a handful of acoustic songs, and a few also appear on the CD. "We have this whole other dynamic to us that's only expressed in a couple of songs on the record," Volkman says. "Music is about a lot of different things for me. Some of it is like a war call and energized and exciting. Some of it is about feeling deep and connecting to people and sharing emotions."

Nico Vega will be at The Milestone as part of the Hell on Heels Tour with Semi Precious Weapons and Von Iva. DJ George Brazil will also be performing. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 the day of for the ages 18 and up show.

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