One is hard pressed to think of any Michigan rock band to scale the walls of international success that The Verve Pipe managed to navigate back in the 1990s. From the release of their first album I’ve Suffered a Head Injury in 1992 (which contained an early version of their later #1 hit The Freshman) to the release of Underneath in 2001, which served as the group’s swan song to RCA, and contained the song Colorful which appeared on the soundtrack of the film Rock Star, The VP spent close to a decade in the radiant limelight of stadium rock stardom, opening for groups such as Kiss, collecting a scrapbook full of creative contacts and a cocktail shaker full of memories.
Throughout their amazing journey, the creative core of the band has remained constant, consisting of songwriters Donny Brown (hailing from Saginaw) and Brian Vander Ark (born & bred in Grand Rapids) who have managed to create a litany of memorable musical gems that link lyrical poetics with realism, while hanging their musical tapestries on memorable hooks and unexpected transitional refrains, which often lends a ‘momentous’ charge to the listening experience.
Their songs often sound like the next-generation offspring of other songwriting luminaries such as Andy Partridge & Colin Moulding of XTC, and even Lennon & McCartney for that matter - not to imply hyperbole with this statement, nor that they are derivative – but more a sense of aspiring towards a goal with one’s work that strikes a solid chord and sets a high standard.
Over the past decade The Verve Pipe have moved from the large arenas back to the smaller clubs, similar to the downsizing we’ve all experienced in a decade that witnessed the demise of Tower Records, the imploding of the record industry, and the necessity to rethink what it is that we do best. Front man Brian Vander Ark went about building a solo career while Donny Brown focused his talents on production, while also being invited to engage in a Songwriting retreat assembled by Mile Copeland of IRS Records at his chateau in France, collaborating with such luminaries as Carole King and Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies.
But even as they seemed to implode into their respective individual directions in the new millennium, The Verve Pipe continued to come together for smaller intermittent club tours, and in recent years have rekindled their creative footing, beginning with the release of a critically acclaimed album of original ‘Children’s’ material entitled A Family Album. Additionally, Brown & Vander Ark are working on songs for a new rock oriented release, and in 2009 the group performed in Hawaii, Italy, Spain, and Sicily.
On Saturday, March 12th, The Verve Pipe will be performing at The State Theatre in Bay City for both a Family Show at 3:00 PM and a Rock Show at 7:30 PM. Special guests will consist of The Avery Set and when the VP take to the stage they will also be featuring latest member Andy Reed on bass. No stranger to either the band or mid-Michigan fans, Reed hails from Bay City and has built a solid reputation with such seminal bands as The Haskels and Jedi Mind Trip, while forging a respected solo and production career in recent years.
Today, in addition to Vanderk Ark, Brown, & Reed, The Verve Pipe consists of Lou Musa on guitar, Randy Sly in keyboards, and Craig Griffith (of Essexville) on harmonica. In advance of their State Theatre show, I sat down with Donny and Andy to discuss the evolutionary focus and future goals that keep one of Michigan’s most gifted and successful bands relevant and focused.
With Donny strumming and humming a few strains to Paul McCartney’s My Love, the first obvious question that comes to mind is the personnel shift and addition of Andy Reed into the fold.
“I was filling in with the band since February of last year and my first official gig was in late June,” explains Andy. “As to why they selected me, I’ve seen the band enough over the years to know what they do and I know which moments songs veer off the recorded version when performing live. I’ve always been a fan of this band so It’s an amazing opportunity.”
“Basically, we had a date thrown at us in Brooklyn an then something in Virginia, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, which happened quickly,” relates Donny. “Our bass player couldn’t change plans and the first thing Andy did with us was a wedding for our old bass player, whose sister was getting married. Andy came in and knocked it out of the park without a formal rehearsal, just a run through where we showed him what the band does and what we like.”
“When our old bass player said he couldn’t continue, I never felt better about somebody calling me with bad news. It was logical to call Andy. We did a few tour dates in Michigan and Andy fit the bill. The test of a musician is not playing the music so much as being to stay on the road for several weeks, sitting next to everybody in a truck or van, and keeping the vibe cool and respectful on the road. Andy was great with that.”
“I called Brian and Doug, our Manager, and we had a conference call and talked about it,” continues Donny. “It’s been working out great. We did a lot of shows last year, especially with kids shows by day and rock shows at night, and wound up doing four tours last year, along with Brian still pursuing his solo thing.”
So how is the new songwriting going? Given Andy’s talents as a songwriter in his own right, are Brian and Donny collaborating with Andy on new material?
“Right now, I’m writing and Brian is writing,” answers Donny. “We write up to a point and then give what we’ve done to each other, but it’s different with every song. Sometimes I’ll finish the song and sometimes Brian will, but it’s not a face-to-face thing where we’re sitting across one another in chairs. Sometimes there are moments like that, though.”
“I don’t write with the VP,” responds Andy, “because the thing is Donny & Brian are tremendous writers and have their own approach and what they’re striving for. They’re very good at listening for moments.”
“Andy’s an infant in the sense of age difference,” reflects Donny. “And the chemistry of working the sound to the band that Brian and I have made and know how it works, and I mean that with all due respect. Andy does his thing really well and I have a lot of friends that have bought his solo work.”
Change in the Making
Having traveled to such stellar heights and now pursuing fresh original material together again as The Verve Pipe, what are some of the biggest changes and re-shaping in terms of contours within the band that strikes Don as being formative?
“First off, we don’t try to be an arena rock band. We don’t try to do too large of theatre shows anymore. The music still sells okay and the Kids’ record that we did got people back into the Rock ‘n Roll, which is cool; but the music biz has changed and to me the climate is too thick – it’s inundated. Everybody has a song for sale for a dollar and it’s a lot more expensive to move people around now when touring. It once was a lot easier for people to get from point A to point B and play, only because everybody wants to do it nowadays. Unfortunately, not everybody is really worthy.”
“We recently played the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Andy did that show and we had a great time,” continues Donny. “We ended up with Muse and got to hang with Norah Jones band and we’ve been fortunate. At the heart of it, it’s great for me to have somebody in the band that loves music the same way that I do.”
“Even if Donny and I were not playing together, we’d be going to certain concerts together,” interjects Andy, “so it’s such a bonus that we get to work professionally together as well. What’s best for me is that I have such a great friend I get to play with every night.”
“When we were in New York City we had two flights, a long set, a long set-up, and one helluva teardown,” recalls Donny. “We were talking to labels and by the end of the night it was freezing ass cold. Andy and I started walking forever and it was 2 AM and Andy said that he was done and couldn’t walk anymore because of the blisters, but I told him that we had one more place to go. The next thing, we were standing outside the Dakota Hotel where John Lennon lived right around Christmastime. It was eerie.”
“I’d never been to Manhattan before,” adds Andy, and I said to Donny, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day in the Life, and I Am the Walrus’. That’s 3 great songs that Lennon wrote in one year, and here we are.”
“These are interesting times we live in,” reflects Donny. “I feel fortunate that I am the age that I am, because music isn’t as personable anymore. People say we’re more connected now with the Internet, but you see all these people texting and realize that people only put out there what they want other people to see. When you’re performing instead of lip syncing or playing with a studio-backing band, you really see it. I’m glad that we came from the Age of Realism.”
“What’s great about doing these Kid shows is the connection – that connection that Donny is talking about,” interjects Andy. “When you walk into the audience and see a child’s eyes widen while he’s standing right next to a bass being actually played live, it’s totally different than watching it on a screen.”
“I had that same feeling today that I did when I was a kid hearing an interesting chord change,” responds Donny. “It makes you shiver for a second. Andy and I are looking for that kind of thing and that kind of exploration. We want to create that kind of thing for Kids – that kind of moment when you play live where you just lose and find yourself at the same time.”
So how does Don feel about the new material that he is working on developing with Brian for The Verve Pipe? Does he see growth with it?
“For sure I see growth, but its in different directions,” states Donny. “Brian has said the same thing in that it is kind of freeing not to be an arena band anymore, because then you sound a certain way and you’ve got to play to those dynamics. Maybe one song will speak like that, but at the same time, it was in reaction to that which caused the Kids record to kind of happen.”
“How do you know what song is going to speak out to people?” asks Donny. “Our first cassette had a rough version of The Freshman on it and while I didn’t know that it would break as huge as it did, I always knew it was a great song.”
“I remember the first week of the band and how hungry we were,” continues Donny. “We were playing a gig in Chicago and the next night were booked at Mackinaw Island. The first gig we booked was at this place that actually had a jukebox on the stage, which people would have to climb upon to play. I remember Brian playing The Freshman solo, which we would often just let him do, and going outside and looking through a window and seeing this guy and his girlfriend holding each other and crying a little bit. I said to myself, ‘Wow – this song really speaks to people. And I’m glad we had that song.”
“As Donny and Brian evolve as writers, I hear so much cleverness in their material, especially with the Family Album, that I’m always finding myself learning as a musician,” concludes Andy, from a fitting perspective.
Deeper into the Marrow
In addition to their respective side projects, with Donny recently producing a singer songwriter out of Lansing that he says sounds a lot like the songwriter from Semisonic and Andy working with Brent Nuffer (formerly of Studiotone) the two have collaborated on a project of Donny’s with a working title of Macaw.
The idea behind this is to record an entire collection of original songs that have the aural tone, sparkle, and timbre of Paul McCartney’s best work. The result is captivating, simply listening to a run through of rough mixes.
Donny also rolls out a treat of some rough mixes of new originals that he is working upon, colored by a simple acoustic guitar, replete with chord changes that catch you right in the throat.
“This one is called The Night I Fell For You,” he explains, “and it’s not quite there yet, but is a song about unrequited love and a very innocent ideal. You can hear my influences immediately, hopefully, especially with the harmonies. People ask why I like harmonies, but when I was a kid my whole family sang and we weren’t afraid to sing.”
Another compelling new number that Donny rolls out is called Lucky Number, which has a distinct XTC feel to it. “This song is really about me growing up on the East Side of Saginaw,” relates Don. “The lyric goes: ‘I grew up with people unable to bring home enough to put food on their table….And I know I should count every blessing….but hunger to me is a trait worth possessing.’
“So it’s a song about food and nourishment, but being hungry. That’s what Saginaw taught me. When I wrote that line I knew it was right. I’m not Bob Dylan or anything, and Brian is a fine lyricist, and lyrics come much easier to him; but when I get it right, it’s something I enjoy unlike anything.”
Recently the group also recorded a TV Show for PBS down in Ann Arbor. “It’s for a syndicated Kids Show that will be aired nationally and basically consisted of us performing and kids asking us questions,” explains Donny.
This one little kid was wearing glasses and said to Brian, “I hear girls really like guys that play guitars in bands. Is that true?’ And Brian said, ‘It’s true, but only if they wear glasses.’ Of course he and Brian both were wearing glasses.
“And then this other kid asked me how much I would practice my drums as a child. I said that I constantly played my drums, but didn’t know about practicing. My Mom had a sign at the far end of the basement and when my parents’ couldn’t take it anymore, they’d flash the light on and off really fast, which was my sign that it was time to stop.”
“So this kid asked if I still practiced and I said, ‘My parents kicked me out of the house a long time ago.”
“I’m really looking forward to this upcoming series of show at The State Theatre,” concludes Andy, “and want to thank everybody at the State for having us back and having us back with a performance of both the Kids Show and The Rock Show. I have so many friends here that have kids, so I hope they bring them out.”
“And this is my first show in Bay City, my hometown, so I’m really looking forward to it,” sums up Andy. “I can wake up at 11:30 Am and load in at noon – that will be nice!”
Tickets for The Verve Pipe Family Show are $10.00 for adults, $5.00 for students 18 and under. Tickets for The Rock Show are $20.00 and $15.00 for adults, $10.00 for 18 and under. Both shows take place Saturday, March 12th. For ticket purchase call 989-892-2660 or go to www.statehteathrebaycity.com