Below the Surface: An Interview with Brian Vander Ark of
The Verve Pipe
More often than not, achieving mainstream success can act as a double-edged sword for a band; especially when a hit single takes a drastic detour from that band’s established artistic direction. To the ears of any more-than- casual fan of the eclectic rock band The Verve Pipe, their massive hit ballad, “The Freshman,” (released as a single in 1997) was hardly indicative of the brooding, prog-influenced, somewhat psychedelic tunes found on Villains, the 1996 album from which it was pulled and re-recorded. On the phone from his home in Michigan, Verve Pipe vocalist, Brian Vander Ark, sees both sides of a sticky situation.
“That song was definitely the catalyst for this band still making records today. So, as far as it being a disadvantage [to have had a hit with that song], I would say no.” He is, however, willing to admit that, “As far as it being not indicative of our sound, I would agree. That song was contrived in production to be a radio smash, which was achieved on every level. But once you’ve struck that chord with the masses, once you give them anything else, [you] become disposable, because everything has become derivative of everything else.” The band experienced this “rejection of originality” effect when the follow-up to Villains, 1999’s The Verve Pipe, fell on deaf ears at radio. Looking back, Brian isn’t surprised. “When the self-titled album came out, Limp Bizkit, and that genre, was exploding at Modern Rock. That album really had nothing to do with Modern Rock; it was far too esoteric for mainstream audiences. Without radio play, without a video that was extreme, it was apt to fail.”
Now a quartet, with the departure of bassist Brad Vander Ark, The Verve Pipe (including guitarist, AJ Dunning; drummer, Donny Brown; and keyboardist, Doug Corella) join the company of platinum-selling rock bands like Goo Goo Dolls and Live who find they must now steer their music towards the 30-something, adult-contemporary audience in order to remain viable. For the band’s third major label release, Underneath – which Brian calls “a sunny, summery-day record” – the band chose to work with producer Adam Schlesinger (himself a member of both The Fountains of Wayne and Ivy) to capture the pop spirit of these new songs. “The big reason we chose Adam [is] because of those brilliant Fountains of Wayne records.” As Brian tells it, Schlesinger brought “a tremendous pop sensibility, simplicity and expedience,” to Underneath. “He was exactly what we needed at the time: he comes in and knows exactly what he wants every day. Sometimes, while we’re getting a guitar part down, he might get a keyboard idea, run over to the piano and play something. Then we shift gears, and get that piano part down on tape within five or ten minutes. It’s just amazing how it came together. Songs were approached in a way where it was like, we put them all in a basket, give them to Adam and say, ‘Alright, what are you going to do with this?’ He nailed it most of the time.”
In this interview, Brian Vander Ark spoke with Ink 19 about The Verve Pipe’s musical progression from their early, independent releases to Underneath; revealed the most important lesson he’s learned from the music business; gave me a scoop on the story behind what happened when he tried to write a new version of the old standard, “Happy Birthday to You,” and discussed his appearance in the film, Rock Star.
Is this round of press you’re doing to promote Underneath very different from press runs you’ve done in the past?
Wow, what a good question already. I think this time, a lot of the press realized what happened with the last record, so there’s a lot of scratching beneath the surface. It’s a great metaphor for what the album is, the idea of “Underneath.” People are getting into the inner workings of the band more, with my brother, Brad, leaving the band and basically they’re doing a bit more muckraking, I guess – which I don’t mind at all. I just decided to approach the whole thing in a more honest fashion. I think the major difference would be that; I think that people want to more about the inner workings of the band, than anything else.
How has Brad’s departure changed the band dynamic?
It’s actually made it a little bit easier. Brad was a fairly quiet guy. He was never really happy, deep down, with the band. The only time he’d voice his opinion, it was in some sort of negative way, unfortunately, and that’s just because he wasn’t happy. Now that [this negative influence] is gone, I think the band’s taken a much more positive outlook. It’s my fault too, because I would second Brad’s emotions, for the most part, and that might be a brother thing. I don’t know. The fact is, when any vote came down, it would always be Brad and I versus the other three guys [laughs]. Now, in order for me to survive, I have to give a little bit more to that side, because otherwise it’d be three against one. So, the dynamic has changed and shifted to a more positive outlook. We realize we have to do all the press, [and we] have to be a part of the Internet to connect with the fan base. That’s something that Brad wasn’t into. Now we’ve got four guys who – pretty much with my dramatic shift in my ego – are the core members of the band. With Brad leaving and me not writing the singles for the record, I’ve become more of a member of the band instead of the tyrant that I was [laughs].
Plus, you guys have been together for so long.
I can’t imagine playing with anyone else right now, and I don’t think anyone in the band could either.
Will you hire a tour bassist for the future?
Oh, we already have; Joel from a band called Papa Vegas, here in Grand Rapids. He was their lead singer and guitarist, and we got him to take up the bass. He’s playing with us now, and he’s awesome, because he’s a great singer and a great bass player. Plus he’s a hometown guy, we’ve known him for twelve years or something. It worked out, but in all fairness, we flew in some big name people [to audition], studio cats, people who’ve been with other touring bands, and he was by far the best.
No matter how many times I approach your music, I can’t get away from hearing a lot of Peter Gabriel, as in early Genesis, in your voice. Is Gabriel an influence?
I think he’s by far my biggest influence vocally. I remember, I went through a very nasal period before this band, actually before Johnny With an Eye, which was before this band. I don’t know what shifted, I think it was the amount of playing and singing. I was playing every night, in bars, and doing the acoustic thing. That and copious cups of coffee [laughs], and many cigarettes and a lot of whiskey and the next thing you know, I’ve got a little bit of a rasp going on. Then the rasp just sort of took over, but [that resulted in] a more unique quality about that singing style. Trying to develop that into something, and knowing how to get to that sound, every time, in the studio, took years. Ten years ago I could not walk up to the microphone, get to that place and sing like I sing now. I got comfortable with my voice during the recording of Villains, and tried to hone that in. Before that, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Pop Smear (previous indie album), but it might as well have been a different singer. I’ve got a completely different sounding voice now.
As far as Peter Gabriel is concerned, he’s a huge influence and a huge inspiration, melodically and sonically, as a vocalist. If in some way I’m doing an impression of him, then so be it. I’m proud of that. I can do a better Peter Gabriel impression than I do on my own records, that’s for sure.
Other than the Gabriel comparisons, The Verve Pipe is rather elusive when it comes to drawing comparisons to other bands. How do you feel about originality being such a disadvantage in popular music right now, as far as commercial exposure is concerned?
I think right now, yeah, of course [it’s a disadvantage], because I think the masses want things to sound the same. What I’m getting – from what I’m seeing on MTV and hearing at radio – is that anything original is not embraced. But, I think that’s good, [because] that creates the alternative, word-of-mouth records, which I still think are very important. All you can do is try to walk that line: be original and yet have enough hooks in your songs to turn-on radio.
With that in mind, when you go to record, is artistic compromise for the sake of some commercial success, meaning radio airplay, ever an option?
I think about that all the time. I’m not the one in the band that really writes the hits anymore; Donny is, and Donny’s comfortable with that. Basically, I write for myself. It’s always been that way, and if people are turned on by something I write, especially the band, then that will be the catalyst for an album. For the most part, I haven’t been able to write for radio. I don’t know what radio’s about anymore. I don’t know how to achieve that and I don’t even know if I want to know how to achieve that at this point because, because I do have Donny to fall back on. It’s sad because, listening to the radio now, I don’t hear songs. I’m rarely turned on by what I hear on the radio, and that’s unfortunate. It’s just that it’s not my style of writing. The people I enjoy listening to are the songwriters. This last Rufus Wainwright record is just an amazing record, and it’s so unfortunate that, here’s a guy that’s writing brilliant songs and will never achieve that mass success. I don’t think anybody at radio would be interested in that record.
I guess all you can do is keep writing the songs you love and hope that eventually everyone will get so sick of Limp Bizkit and boy bands that songs will come back.
Yeah, songs are going to come back. I think that it’s all cyclical and that it’s bound to go back to singer/songwriters. Until that time, you just have to try to keep the boat steady, you know, for the most part… and survive. I know that technology has now brought us satellite radio, so [that’s] something, too, that might break radio open. Who knows? That might blow the whole thing wide open again, but we’ll see. My expectations have always been optimistic that radio is going to come back to singer songwriters, and I’ve been waiting for that for quite some time.
Your music certainly has evolved from the time of Villains, which is rather dark, to this new record, Underneath, which is very pop. How much of that has to do with whoever is producing the album?
There’s quite a dichotomy between this album and the last album, I think; more so than Villains and the self-titled record. That’s not anything that we think of, you know, “Now we have to do this kind of record.” It really comes down to the songs; writing the songs and what songs sound good and if the songs turn on the other band members. Then you choose a producer to embrace that tone.
Basically, when we chose Jerry Harrison to produce Villains, [it was because] a couple guys in the band were big fans of the Live record that he did [Throwing Copper]. You find out Jerry Harrison’s available, because you have songs similar to that. Then, we were huge Soundgarden fans, fans of Superunknown and the songs I was writing for the self-titled record were a little bit heavier, so we went with Michael Bienhorn. For this record, it seemed like it was such a sunny, summery-day record that somebody like Adam Schlesinger would be the guy. I think in the end, we’ve made all the right choices. Unfortunately, some of them didn’t touch anybody, but the fact is, you can look back and go “Oh, we’ve got a catalog of albums.” This band has made five records and it’s a nice thing to know you have enough for a box set [laughs]. But isn’t that the goal? I mean, if you have enough albums for a box set, then you’ve done pretty good.
Adam has such distinctive ’60s pop sensibilities, and I think he brought some of that Beatle-esqueness to a few songs, like “Wonderful Waste,” which has a bit of both “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Ticket to Ride” floating around in it.
I’m pretty proud if you actually heard that in there. That’s great. Those two songs are huge for me, you know. But I don’t think that he embraced The Beatles himself so much, that’s funny that you say that. I think he just embraced ’60s pop music.
“Gotta Move On” seems influenced by him as well. It sounds like something he’d do with Ivy.
Yeah, definitely. By far, that’s the Ivy track on this album. Donny came up with that song, and, up until [we were] finished recording it, I don’t think it was really turning anybody on until Adam got a hold of it. Then we all sat back and said, “Ok, that sounds pretty good.”
What’s the first single?
“Never Let You Down.” We’re at number 19 or something like that right now, on the Adult-something chart… Modern Adult, I don’t know.
Remember when you were a kid, and Adult Contemporary was like the lamest Mom and Dad music? Now it’s the place to be.
That’s so funny. It was bound to happen that adult radio became a little more raucous than when we were kids, don’t you think? The fact is, I think the class of mid-‘90s bands needed a new home when all the heavy-duty stuff came out in 1999. Once Modern Rock shifted to that, then it was only appropriate, I think, that stations picked up that there was an interest in this other music.
It would be a good thing for this album to chart on Adult Contemporary. I mean, The Goo Goo Dolls went platinum that way. We’re all grown-ups here, but we still like to rock.
It’s definitely an adult record and I think we’re an adult band, you know?
“Miles Away” sounds like a classic song, and has such a familiar feel and sound, it’s like one of those songs that sounds like you just dug it out of the ground intact. Is there a good story behind that song and how it came together?
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s a good story but there’s a story. Originally, I wanted to write a new birthday song. I can’t believe I’m telling you this, because I’ve never even discussed this with anybody. It was three years ago, and I thought, “Wow, if I could just really challenge myself and write a brand new birthday song that everyone would sing, instead of ‘Happy Birthday’Ã–” it’s almost like singing “God Bless America” as opposed to the National Anthem. And so the chorus used to go [sings] “Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday… to you,” or whatever. And that’s how the first demos were recorded, and I probably recorded the song three or four times using those lyrics. But the verse always escaped me, and what do you do? “Happy Birthday” is basically Happy Birthday, you know [laughs]? And it was like, “OK, this sucks, so let’s come up with something else.”
So, I rewrote it. It used to be called “Either Way,” for awhile. Then I sent it to my friend, Juliana Hatfield; she’s a great songwriter and I’m a huge fan. So I sent it to her and I said, “What would you do with the lyric here, maybe you can do something with this,” and I just sent her the music and the melody. She came back with it, she did a demo for it where she sang “Miles Away” and I thought, “oh, that’s awesome!” I took it back and I was like, “Would you mind if I took the ‘Miles Away’ idea and rewrote the lyrics?” And she was like “Have at it.” It ended up being great.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since you’ve been in the major label world?
Any lesson? It’s got to be honesty. I got so tired of doing interviews and dealing with the band on a dishonest level. I think, in the end, if you’re just incredibly honest with everyone, it doesn’t come back and bite you on the ass, you know? I think that the band lived a few lies and we got out of that. I think the honesty comes across with Underneath. That would be the biggest lesson that I’ve learned, definitely. I mean, I went through many different stories of what “The Freshman” was about, trying to concoct more press in some ways, and it’s just a ridiculous thing, because it always comes back to you.
Given the opportunity, what advice would you give to a new band just getting signed and maybe having a degree of success with a radio hit?
My advice would be “Save your money” [laughs]. I think that would be it, save your money, watch all the _Behind The Music_s because everybody goes through the same thing, quite frankly. No, the most important thing for a young band is to remember their fan base, that’s it. That’s the only way to make this happen is to ensure that you don’t alienate the fans.
You have a part in the movie Rock Star; would you like to speak about that at all?
Well, I wrote the song “Colorful” for Rock Star. They approached me, actually, on the strength of “The Freshman.” I think they wanted a Seattle-esque grunge ballad. I read the script and I wrote the song. Then they asked me to audition, because I’d done some independent film work. I carried the demo to the audition and read for the casting agent and the director. I gave the director the demo, and he called me at the hotel that night and told me how much he liked it. Then I didn’t hear anything for, like, two months, and I thought, “well, that’s done, whatever.” But then they sent me this script, and in the script they had printed the lyrics from the song, “Colorful.” I thought, that’s a pretty good sign that something might be happening with this [laughs]. He called and I got the part, and the song is in the movie.
I play the bass player, Ricky Bell, in Mark [Wahlberg]’s band, which is a tribute band to [this heavy metal band called] Steel Dragon. It was a pretty decent role at one point but, you know, the movie shifted directions. There’s more emphasis put on after he becomes the rock star rather than his rise to it, which is fine. It was still fun and still really fun to go see it.
And you get to play live in the film?
Oh yeah. That’s me playing bass and the band is playing those songs. Even though it’s a tale that you’ve heard a million times, I thoroughly enjoyed it. For people that love 1985 and mullets and hair metal, by all means, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. The songs are really indicative of 1985 and that whole genre, it’s great. It’s definitely a Hollywood movie, a popcorn movie, and it’s a bit of a cautious tale, but it is what it is. It’s a lot funnier than I thought it was going to be.
Underneath was released September 25th. ◼