Interview by Katherine Small
“I learned to play guitar just so I could play my favorite songs,” California native Danielle Vu said when asked about her musical past. Vu has been living and rocking in D.C. for the past six and a half years, and for the majority of that time she’s been the bassist for one of the area’s biggest rock bands, Shark Week. Along with her bandmates, lead vocalist and guitarist Ryan Hunter Mitchell, drummer Daniel Newhauser and guitarist Alberto Pacheco, she’s performed at high-profile events like SXSW, CMJ and Sweetlife Festival, in addition to being recently signed to a new record label.
Before Shark Week and bass, though, Vu grew up playing piano, which helped her gain insight into music fundamentals. From there, she picked up guitar during middle school: “When I was [around 13], I discovered alternative rock (the first time it came around–not this revival)…and I just absolutely fell in love with it. It was the first rock music I really loved, so it inspired me a lot.”
Vu started playing in Shark Week after bonding with Mitchell over a mutual love of ‘70s New York Lower East Side punk rock. “We had never talked about playing in a band together, but Ryan texted me one day and was like, ‘I’m starting a band called Shark Week; you’re playing bass.’ And that was it. I [said] okay.”
Shark Week first emerged in 2012 with a self-titled EP, which quickly catapulted their status as one of D.C.’s most buzzed-about bands. By the beginning of 2013, every major media outlet in the area was writing about them, from The Washington Post to NPR. The extensive coverage at home got the attention of festival organizers from SXSW in Austin and CMJ in New York, who invited Shark Week to perform alongside some of the biggest names in indie music. Recently, the quartet signed with Brooklyn label PaperCup Music, marking the next big chapter in Shark Week’s rise to fame.
The band’s forthcoming album, Beach Fuzz, is their first release in nearly two years. Vu is excited to share it and start playing new songs during their upcoming tour. “We had a great time recording it; we recorded in Arlington with our friend Thomas [Orgren, of Persona Non Grata Studio]….then our friend Justin, who lives in L.A. now, mixed it. He did such a great job…he added all these little flourishes; I certainly never would have thought of adding all these little elements to the songs, but Justin did, and they sound great.” After Shark Week’s upcoming album release party at Dance Loft on May 16, the group will embark on an extensive summer tour, which includes dates at Northside Festival in Brooklyn, NXNE in Toronto and the MidPoint Indie Summer Series.
Despite their success, Vu’s role as a bassist rather than a frontwoman in Shark Week has been questioned on several occasions. “Whenever [I speak with] anyone who hasn’t heard of Shark Week, they automatically assume that I’m the singer…and I assume that’s because I’m female,” she said. “I’m really tired of fielding that question and trying to justify why I don’t sing in the band.” Vu noted that she’s played many shows where she was the only female performer for the night, and at a recent gig in Philadelphia, a man actually came up to her after the set and asked which band member she was dating.
Fortunately, Vu said these kinds of sexist encounters aren’t the norm: “Overall, I think I’ve experienced minimal overt sexism…[but] if you look at the music industry at large, a majority of people in positions of power are all men,” she said. “The majority of CEOs of companies like record labels or streaming services are men, so in terms of more subtle forms of sexism, it’s constantly around you.” As for favorite female musicians and role models, Vu looks up to PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Karen O. More broadly though, she said “I love women who work really hard to pursue their dreams, whether it’s starting their own business or kicking ass in their careers.”
When she’s not writing songs for Shark Week or working at her day job at SoundExchange, Vu also plays guitar in a “more minimal, lo-fi music” side project she started with ex-Shark Week guitarist Eric Myers. The two guitarists are calling their duo Grey Gardens. “It’s still very early though…we’re not quite ready to play shows or record, but it’s going somewhere,” she said.
Vu’s advice to aspiring female musicians (and all aspiring musicians, regardless of gender) is simple and direct: “Strive to be a good musician, never strive to just be ‘good for a girl.’ The hardest part is just [deciding], ‘I am going to play the bass in a band.’ Just to be able to say that out loud–and then do it–is generally your first big victory.”
Beach Fuzz will be released on May 19 via PaperCup Music, and you can pre-order the record here.