January 11, 2018 Interview – Brian Vander Ark of The Verve Pipe
The early 1990s was a transition period in the world of music. Fading out was big and glamorous sounds of Rock and in was coming a grittier and raw sub-genre in the form of Grunge. A trend that would dominate Rock, there were those who marched to the beat of their own drum, offering a brand of Rock that still resonates today. One of those bands were West Michigan’s The Verve Pipe who came onto the scene offering a blend of introspective lyrics as well as acoustic and electric guitar blends.
Attaining major success with their 1996 album, Villains, their major label debut which included well-known hit “The Freshman,” The Verve Pipe would become a household name among Alternative Rock fans. Still going strong all these years later, the band are coming off the release of their sixth Rock album in 2017 with Parachute as they continue to tour in early 2018. Showing no sign of slowing down, The Verve Pipe founding Guitarist, Vocalist, and Lyricist Brian Vander Ark took the time to talk the early years of the band, what music means to him, reaching a new level of understanding, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – The Verve Pipe has been established for over 25 years now. In that time, the band attained success with several albums/singles and toured the world. First, tell us, what has this journey been like for you and the band?
Brian Vander Ark – It has been terrific. The dream when I was a kid was to be able to get on a tour bus, travel the world, and play music everyday. I have still been able to do that this many years later at 53 years old. Of course I am ecstatic that I can continue and perpetuate a life in music for sure.
CrypticRock.com – It is great to be able to live out your dreams. Not many people get the opportunity to do that.
Brian Vander Ark – It is true. Now, my dreams have shifted as I’ve gotten older – I want everything for my kids and family. Those early goals were basically to be in front of thousands of people. That dream was lived back in the ’90s and now it is about trying to continue to that path to be able to afford to play music and still have a good life for my family.
CrypticRock.com – Priorities change as we get older, so that makes perfect sense. The band’s first taste of major success came back in 1996 with Villains, which would go platinum. Anchored by three successful singles, including “The Freshman,” the album remains a fan favorite. What are your memories of that period and time of the band?
Brian Vander Ark – That is a good question. I feel like Villians was the album that put us on the map. It was the album where there was a definite shift in our sound. RCA had us follow the trend of Grunge guitars, it was a much heavier record than the 2 previous albums we had done. It really was that Post-Grunge sound that was really popular in the late ’90s along with bands like Live, Collective Soul, etc. It was a bit of a separation, but that is the one that happened to sell… I think it is up to 3 million copies now.
Now we’ve been going more toward what the band used to be in the early ’90s, which was a little more on the mellow side. We are not quite as heavy as we used to be, I have embraced the acoustic guitar again. What I remember from that time was trying to chase those trends. It was very frustrating, but in the end, it worked out great. Everybody else was right, and I was wrong. (Laughs) Essentially, it was a very successful album when I doubted that it would be.
CrypticRock.com – That is quite interesting. The band has grown musically from Villains and morphs in style and experiments, as heard on 2001’s Underneath. You even did a child orientated album with 2009’s A Family Album. Is diversity important to you as a musician?
Brian Vander Ark – Of course! It keeps things interesting. We made 2 kid’s records so far. We made A Family Album to try and get back in the studio after what happened with Underneath, which was released on 9/11. That failed record was kind of an omen for us. We felt, “What’s the point?” We did everything right, we worked with Adam Schlesinger, the song “Colorful,” that was in Rockstar which was a big hit, and it all went south because of the timing of the records release by no fault of our own. Believe me, there are much worse things that happened on 9/11, including the Twin Towers coming down. For us, we decided maybe it’s time to give this up. So we did for 5 or 6 years and then we wanted to go back into the studio, that is why we made the first kid’s record.
What we didn’t realize is that kid’s records sell a lot more than adult records. You can make more money on merchandise, if you buy one t-shirt for one of your kids, you are going to buy all 4 of your kids t-shirts. What happened, which was so beneficial for us, we ended up doing very well in the kid’s market. We still sell more merch on the kids side than the adult Rock side. In fact, I would venture to say we lose money playing the Rock-n-Roll stuff and we make enough money on the kid’s side to actually keep us afloat.
That was a kind of happy circumstance that no one expected, we kind of fell half-ass backwards into that ending up being beneficial. The bonus side to that is yea, I can stretch out creatively. You can’t put an oboe on a Rock record, it sounds pretentious. If you put an oboe on a kids record, there is that one kid in band who will go, “Oh, my gosh! There is an oboe solo on this song!” You can stretch out and do those kind of things.
CrypticRock.com – It has to be a lot of fun. Also, you get to inspire young musicians perhaps.
Brian Vander Ark – Yes, and that time we put it out, all the kids were playing Guitar Hero. I was very concerned about that because I felt these kids are going to be playing these video games that has nothing to do with playing live music. They think that is good enough for them, so we are going to lose a lot of guitarists. Thank god the Guitar Hero thing came and kind of went. You are right though, the nice thing is to be able to go on and inspire kids. When you don’t do albums like The Wiggles do, and you try and do Rock-n-Roll albums, like They Might Be Giants put out great kids records, and so did Dan Zanes, who is the godfather of kid’s music, you can turn kids on to it.
Think about The Beatles and Yellow Submarine (1968) and the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) album, which sounds like it might be a kid’s album. It is very interesting and easy to sing along to and that is what we strive for in the kid’s music.
CrypticRock.com – Well, it has been successful and sounds like a great time. In 2017, the band returned with the adult Rock album Parachute. What was the writing and recording process like for this album?
Brian Vander Ark – We approached this one differently. This time I wanted everyone to submit songs when the other kids hadn’t really been submitting. We decided we were going to do one song a month instead of going in recording 3-4 months at a time. We decided we are going in on a Monday, hear everyone’s songs, decide which ones we wanted to record, and then by Friday or Saturday we would have a completed song. That gave us time to work on things in the studio without being away from our families. The greatest thing about that was we released them once a month too, each so individually on our social media. That kept us connected with the fans and then at the end of 12 months we released Parachute to a lot of fanfare still, which surprised me. I thought, well no one is going to be interested now that they got all the songs for free. But we sold a lot of these records, people really love this album, which I am thrilled about!
CrypticRock.com – That is great to hear. It shows real fans remain true.
Brian Vander Ark – That is for sure. We went through a lot of the fly by night fans too. When you are talking about 3 million people who bought Villains, I would say that 10-20% of those are the diehard/hardcore fans that have continued on with us. But you are talking about 100,000 to 200,000 people who still go out to purchase our albums, a t-shirt, and to go see the band. That is a pretty good position to be in.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely! Speaking of which, you are starting 2018 off with a bang as you hit the road from headlining shows across the USA. Will this tour concentrate on Parachute, or be a mix of material from your extensive discography?
Brian Vander Ark – Because we haven’t been to a lot of these places in a long time, I would never put a crowd through listening to just the new stuff. (Laughs) We are doing most of the stuff of the big album, Villains, but we are definitely going to pepper the set with a handful of the new songs because we feel strongly about them. We are still an entertaining band, we are not a Shoegaze band, we want people to enjoy themselves – we like to tell stories, we like to have a laugh. I think what people can expect from this tour is 60-70% of this is going to be songs they are very familiar with, along with a handful of the new ones on there. I can tell you this, there is mostly not going to be any of the kid’s stuff being played. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – Oh, no oboes? come on! (Laughs)
Brian Vander Ark – (Laughs) No, if anyone is concerned about hearing an oboe at this show, they don’t have to worry.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like it is going to be some great live shows. The Verve Pipe has always been known for putting on a great live show. As a performer, what are you feeling while on stage?
Brian Vander Ark – I feel tremendous joy. I love to perform, I love the band, I just love these guys I’ve been with. We have an absolute blast on the road. We are not a huge party band, but we have a group of individuals who are very smart, very fun, sometimes sardonic and sarcastic. We all enjoy each other’s company immensely, people can check out our blogs and see why it works.
Then when we get on stage, I think that transcends everything. Even what we have accomplished as a group of individuals who hang out with each other, we take it to the next level, we play music together. We all come from different places musically and we all come together in a way that I think is really energetic and positive. People leave the shows feeling entertained and that brings a tremendous amount of joy to me!
CrypticRock.com – That sounds really great. Sometimes as a spectator at a concert you can tell if a band is not enjoying themselves on stage. You wonder, why are they even doing this? (Laughs)
Brian Vander Ark – I would never be in that position because I think once it starts to get to feel like that, that’s the time to hang it up. I can say that from experience too, after Underneath, and the failure of that album, we did some touring and it just didn’t feel anymore, so we hung it up for a few years. I don’t know… my heart is on the stage that is for sure.
There is a band, Elbow, which is phenomenal. My wife and I are going to fly to Scotland to see them. Just because it is her favorite band and we never go to see bands. We saw them in Chicago and it was so joyous, it was such a great concert because they were enjoying themselves and the lead singer is so into it. I thought, well, we are going to fly across the country to see them. I want fans like that! I’m not a concert goer, because I play so much. I never go to concerts, but man, when someone inspires me that much to fly across the world to see them play, I’m there! Those are the kind of fans that I want.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, those are the best concert experiences that really inspire you. You mentioned you love being on stage, much of the lyrics of The Verve Pipe are very introspective. They are very heartfelt and much more than skin deep. Do you find songwriting to be a therapeutic release?
Brian Vander Ark – Absolutely. Every song is cathartic in some way. If I am writing for someone else’s story, not so much. Most of my stuff is written in the first person. I feel a good connection with myself at this age, so much so I am comfortable with whatever comes out. Honestly, I rather do that than rehash the same songs over and over because it is therapy for me. Honestly, if I didn’t have that therapy, then I would definitely be in therapy for sure. (Laughs) You can ask my wife, she’ll confirm that. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) Well it is a great form of health release. You said how your priorities have changed, that is quite natural as you get older when you have a family. Your priorities change as well as perspective on life. Do you ever look back on songs you wrote 20 years ago and ask, “What was I thinking?” Do you understand where you were coming from at that point in time?
Brian Vander Ark – I think it was different writing back then. I was trying to figure out the sonics of the music and the phonetics of the lyrics, more than I was concerned about what the songs meant. That was because we had to chase hit songs all the time, because we were on a label. There was a great quote from XTC’s Andy Partridge where he was asked what is this song going to mean to a girl who is getting ready to go out to the clubs? Andy said, “What do I care about that.” (Laughs) That’s the way I feel about it. Back then, I was looking for hit songs and now I am looking for songs that do something for me personally as well as songs that can resonate with our fans.
CrypticRock.com – That makes perfect sense. That is all part of maturing. Most of us do not really grow up until we are in our mid-30s.
Brian Vander Ark – I was nearing mid-30s when “The Freshman” was a hit. That’s the bad thing, I was so immature. (Laughs) It really took me being married and having 3 kids when I was 45 to 50 years old to really understand more about the world and continue on in a life of music.
CrypticRock.com – That comes at a different time for everyone, for some of us, it never happens. Last question for you. We also cover Horror and Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of either genre, do you have any favorites?
Brian Vander Ark – I love Horror movies! One of the last really great Horror films I saw was The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – it was very different, very cool. There have been a handful that have scared me, which is a lot to say, because I don’t get frightened very easily. I do enjoy that feeling at the edge of my seat and then being jolted; that doesn’t happen very often. I am a huge fan of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), these movies that are films first, not just Horror movies. Recently, I loved It (2017)! That really took me and made me feel unease. I think it harkened back on those ’70s movies that I loved so much. What I loved about it is it didn’t have the typical, you turn a corner, and someone is standing there. It had nice subtle moments that lead you along suspensefully until it got you. That is what the greatest classic Horror movies do, they don’t always rely on the bang and the gore.