BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Far removed from being a freshman in the proverbial school of rock, The Verve Pipe singer and main songwriter Brian Vander Ark long since cemented his status as a perennial valedictorian candidate in musicology. The Michigan native, who first graduated summa cum laude as a songsmith after penning the band’s 1996 breakthrough hit “The Freshmen,” recently scribed 10 deliciously dark tracks for Overboard, the group’s first rock album since 2001’s Underneath. “When you look at the [song] titles on this album, it’s pretty funny; it is a really dark record,” Vander Ark said after I mentioned names of songs such as “Hit and Run,” “I Want to Bury You,” “Here in the Dark” and “Ain’t Too Hard to Live without Love.”
Throughout our recent nearly 40-minute conversation surrounding Overboard, Vander Ark and I touched on an overabundance of topics, from family to films, music to murder and isolation to idols. I began by reminding him of our first face-to-face meeting in the mid-90’s and we ended with hearty laughs about the hideousness of each of our hairstyles back in those days, followed by Vander Ark sharing some of the lessons that he’s learned since – lessons about hairstyles and otherwise.
Brian, thanks for calling, and it’s a pleasure to talk to you again. I emphasize that, and a little bit more on that in just a second. Your current album, Overboard, is your first rock record since 2001’s Underneath, so, first of all, welcome back!
Thanks for having me.
It’s good to have you guys back. Let me take you back just a little bit further in time with this cool anecdote to start our conversation. From ’92-’97 I produced the national radio show Rockline.
In 1996, I had you guys on to promote the release of Villains, and now zip forward nearly 20 years later, my daughter Angela is your publicist.
Oh that’s so funny. How that works out is really beneficial for us, for sure. Clearly!
Yeah, so it’s a family affair.
Nice! So you’ve got a publicist that sends people your way and she happens to be your daughter. That’s a pretty good deal you got going there.
It is a good deal. Obviously I’ve been doing this radio thing for a bit, Angie went to school down at San Diego State, came back to Los Angeles, wanted to get into the business, she grew up with the music and radio and one day said to me, “I want to help people be famous or something like that,” and I said, “Ah, you want to be a publicist.” And here we are, man.
And she’s done a fine job for us, so wonderful, good for her.
You are my very last interview before I head out [to Puerto Vallarta] for Angie’s wedding [April 11].
Give her our congratulations, for sure. And tell her to take at least 12 hours off (laughs)!
On that note, coming full circle, again, welcome back and it’s great to have you back with this great new record. It’s been a bit in-between rock albums. You recorded a couple of albums of children’s music, starting with 2009’s A Family Album. Why the sonic shift back [to rock]?
Well the reason we got back into the rock thing from the kids thing is because I was up to my ears in the colorfulness (laughs) of playing for kids and I needed to get dark again and the band felt the same way. We spent the last five years concentrating on making more sophisticated music for kids and that was a great experience, but it felt like we wanted to get back into something that was a little more adult and we did that with this album called Overboard – which is called Overboard, by the way, because we went a little overboard on the dark themes; that’s for sure.
Yeah, we’ll get into some of those [themes], for sure.
The original idea to get into kids music was to just have a release from all the angst-ridden lyrics that we had written in the 90’s and it seemed more appropriate for us to write [kids] music because we were all starting families. And we kind of got mired in that for a while because it was so successful for us. We decided to put a second kid’s record out and that was terrific and we got most of our airplay from that and most people were going to see the kid’s shows instead of the rock shows, and so we thought it might be time to shift back for a bit.
Really quickly for those who don’t know; mention the title of the second kid’s album because it’s great.
It’s Are We There yet? It’s a pretty common phrase that every parent has heard, for sure; me included.
Amen. Absolutely. So, sticking with the family and kids theme for a second here, I took you back to the mid-90’s but let me take you back even further. Can you tell us if you had a musical “big bang” moment growing up? When did you know that music was going to play as important a role in your life as it obviously has?
That’s a great question. I think that for me the moment was the validation I got from Willie Nelson. I was fortunate to meet him before one of his shows back when I was just a little aspiring singer-songwriter in 1990 or ’89 and I got onto his bus and I gave him a demo tape of a song I’d written for the farmer called “This Promised Land” and he actually listened to the demo after I had left the bus and called me a few days later and asked me if I wanted to come play Farm Aid 4 down in Indianapolis, and I did. For me it was like, wow I’d always wanted to be a songwriter and I was working at crappy jobs in the mall my whole life up to that point and it felt like it gave me the confidence to really go for it as a songwriter and honestly I’ve never looked back since then.
That’s a great story, man. I’ve been blessed to hear so many of these great stories from so many artists. And seeing clarity on Willie Nelson’s bus – that might top them all!
(Laughs) You know, I remember leaving the bus with this feeling of elation, like, this is what I’m meant to do and then I realized that could very well have been a contact buzz (laughs)!
(Laughs) You might have been in a haze, but it all worked out, for sure.
Back then, being a songwriter in a band from Michigan, it just seemed like it was gonna be impossible to get anywhere. Everybody said you gotta go to Nashville or New York or Los Angeles to make it big. You really need that kind of validation somewhere; some kind of national iconic figure to come in to say you have what it takes; you should do this. And he said those words to me and that was the reason, so I have Willie Nelson to thank for my career, for sure.
That’s a pretty nice compliment and way to get going. Well let’s get going on talking about Overboard more in depth. For the writing of the hauntingly beautiful mini-movie-like title track you – what else – cast an accomplished actor to help you solidify the story.
I sure did.
Tell us how Mr. [Jeff] Daniels (The Newsroom) got involved.
Well Jeff and I had been friendly for quite a few years. He was really into a  documentary that I’d made with a buddy called Lawn Chairs and Living Rooms. That was about my home concert series that I started eight years ago. He called me up and said, “I really love this thing. Should we write together?” And I said sure. We wrote a couple of songs together for my solo album and then this one came up. I was stuck on this song “Overboard” and I knew what I liked about it and what I didn’t like about it and I sent it to him and said, “What do you think about this?” He wrote me a short story about all the characters involved and everything and it just blew me away and I was like, this is really great. And so I took some of those ideas and themes and a lot of Jeff Daniels is in that song. He wrote the first verse and from there I didn’t look back; the story just took off. And I knew that going to somebody like Jeff was great because he’s a great storyteller, he’s also a musician, but as an actor he knows how to get into the minds of these characters and how they would speak and what they would do and I knew he was the guy that could make this song happen. If there was anybody out there I would want to collaborate with, he was the guy.
Great story, great lyric and of course an incredible video. I don’t know how much you want to talk about the video, how much you wanna give away for those who have yet to see it?
I wanna talk about it a lot. I’m really proud of that video.
It’s kind of like talking about a movie. You don’t wanna give too much away, but…
Well the fortunate thing is that this video like many of [artist- art director] Lawrence Carroll’s (Nirvana, Jewel, Counting Crows, Collective Soul) videos are so ambiguous, there’s so much going on that’s a little bit off that there’s really no giving away anything. Everybody walks away from it scratching their head a little bit, but the nice thing is that people want to watch it over and over again to try and figure out what’s going on, which is terrific. It really reminded me of Twin Peaks meet upper Michigan (laughs). And I love that about it.
You mentioned at the top of our conversation about the darkness of this album, and I alluded to the title track as hauntingly beautiful and a mini-movie. Several of the songs on the album fit that bill, but for me, maybe none more so than “Hit and Run.” Let me quote a lyric: “Look what you did boy/look what you’ve done/did you get away with murder on a hit and run.” To me, that is tailor-made for a Tim Burton film. What do you think?
Oh, I love that, sure. The music is very Danny Elfman-esque, I must admit. I’m a big fan of Danny Elfman who scored most of Tim Burton’s stuff. And now we’re working on an animated video for that particular song as well, so I think that you’re spot-on with that; it is, that’s exactly what it is, it’s very Tim Burton-esque and I’m hopeful that the video will come out that way as well.
Another candidate for a future Burton feature is “I Want to Bury You.” What was the inspiration for that one?
(Laughs) Well I’ve always been very sensitive to the protagonist who’s maybe a little bit on the frumpy side, the nerdy side as a kid and perhaps maybe he’d fumbled with a beautiful girl in the backseat at some point in high school and she left him to go on and do great things and he was left behind and he felt like he should have buried her at that time as his treasure. He wishes he would have held onto her and kept her and buried her and put her away for himself. But then I also try to introduce some creepy element to it – if that isn’t creepy enough – and that is the fact that he is now stalking her 20 years later, and it’s probably not gonna end up good (laughs). Again, these are stories in my head; I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a storyteller, from “The Freshmen” in the beginning to now. Those are the most interesting songs to me and this one took that dark turn while I was writing it. From there they just take their own shape; they go where my mind goes, you know. I might have a sip or two of some good bourbon and it might go a little farther than I would want, but I try to reel it back in the next day and this one just seemed to fit right.
Listening to the album over and over again, a lot of these tracks are just short films in your head.
I’ve always written cinematically. When I write I try to put myself in the position of the actors or the characters in the song and I have to see the movie in my head and I have to see a beginning, a middle and an end before the song takes any kind of musical shape. Then I’ll start working on the melody and the words and ask myself if it’s compelling enough to work on it and write it because I’ll spend months on lyrics until they’re just right.
The album kicks off with what I describe as a bouncy yet biting track, “Carry On.”
Again, I’ll toss out a lyric here and then I’ll ask you to comment about writing it: “I spent all my money on rock and roll/that crap top 40 ain’t got no soul, it’s like a big black hole.” It may be self-explanatory but give me a little more on “Carry On.”
Yeah, well there you go. The next line is “C’mon people you’re making them millionaires.” The idea is that people complain about how crappy radio is and it really is the fault of the public and the listener. The masses listen to this dumbed down music. I mean the kids music that we’ve been making over the past five years – and most kids music – is more sophisticated than the music that’s on pop radio today. Kids music you can go anywhere. You can do tempo changes, you can do key changes, they don’t care. They wanna hear the funny lyric, they wanna hear this or that or whatever. Musically it’s more sophisticated than the stuff that’s being churned out today in the pop market and that’s what I’m saying in that particular song. Am I just supposed to be mired here in the meanwhile, for the rest of my life writing tunes that pander to radio and the lowest common denominator or listener? Nobody has a right to complain about the reality shows on television and everything that’s so lowbrow because you’re the one that’s creating this by creating demand. And that’s what that song is; I just gotta carry on, I gotta find a way to continue on and try to perpetuate a life in music by doing my own thing.
There are so many great songs here [on Overboard] but honestly “Latchkey Kids” is one I keep going back to more and more. Talk about the character in this song, and what is the point you’re trying to make?
Well the fact is we have to rely on this generation. I just turned 50 and I have to rely on the generation that really doesn’t know how to organize things (laughs). I’m not saying that my generation was great at the organization either, but the generation before me was great on organizing protests and this kind of thing. This upcoming generation – the Xbox generation – I don’t want to have to rely on them as an old person and we’re relying on the latchkey kids. So the idea was that these latchkey kids are these superheroes and their superpowers are that they shrug their shoulders at something you say and that’s their superpower…or they hide behind their bangs and you can’t see their eyes – that’s their disguise. I just thought it was a really funny concept that these kids might have superpowers that were ridiculously ineffective and the reality is that we’re all screwed if we have to rely on these kids. Somebody’s gotta step up. Plus it’s a real nod – as you can hear in the music – to The Who and my favorite classic rock anthem-type bands as well.
Amen. It’s very clever, very clever lyrically. And I’m looking down on my sheet of questions here and I have written down here: The Who! The Who! The Who! Hopefully that’s a big compliment…
A huge compliment!
…because I think this song could easily fit on Tommy or Quadrophenia, both great albums that obviously have a theme.
Well whether or not it fits on those records, and I appreciate that, that’s a huge compliment, I’ll take it. I don’t fancy myself to be as prolific as Mr. Townshend and Daltrey but the fact is it is definitely inspired by them. [Townshend] was very inspiring to me growing up. Pete Townshend; there was nobody else really in the rock side that had that kind of influence on me, that’s for sure.
Well I can’t resist asking you this questions, just as a quick aside here since we’re talking about The Who: Tommy or Quadrophenia? Which is your favorite?
Man, that’s tough! Quadrophenia is so great and I think I gotta pick Quadrophenia, but the great thing about that question is that people start saying, but what about this song or this one and it’s awesome!
Well I’m with you on Quadrophenia. I just related to the story much more. So, just a couple more for you Brian, and I hope we’re doing okay on time.
We’re fine. This is the kind of conversation I enjoy.
Cool, thank you. So in terms of rock records, your sonic bookends are OVERboard and UNDERneath. So, what’s next? Sideways? Down? (laughs)
(Laughs) It’s funny you picked up on that. My manager didn’t even pick up on that. I mean, clearly when you put the two next to each other you go, “Okay, well that was obvious,” but if you don’t put them next to each other then you don’t get it, but no, you’re exactly right, Overboard and Underneath, you know, that was the idea (laughs). This just happened to work out perfectly.
So, Overboard ends with “Ain’t Too Hard to Live without Love,” one of the most sonically upbeat songs about a seemingly downbeat subject I’ve ever heard.
(Laughs) Well again that’s the idea. Well first of all my longtime Verve Pipe keyboardist Randy Sly wrote that song and it was near-perfect when he brought it in. I might have changed a couple of words but instead of taking it down and being a blues song about worrying about it [not finding love], it’s supposed to be a celebration of, hey, you know, I do fine without love and so can you. And I thought, well let’s keep it really upbeat and snappy and it ended up being one of the more upbeat songs on the record. But I love to be ironic whenever possible and it really is the most ironic of all the songs, you know. It really is just one of those things where, look, love is not the end all. You don’t have to be in love. Some people are in love because they want to be in love, but look, a lot of people get by without it and do their own thing and they’re perfectly happy. And the fact that we left the album that way makes it even darker to me, which I love.
Yeah, I picked up on that too. The irony.
The truth is I love my life. I’ve got a beautiful family and I’m able to make music, but for me, when I’m feeling dark or when I feel the dark themes are coming forth I just embrace them and I go with it. That’s what art is all about, as far as I’m concerned. Nothing’s contrived – or at least I hope not – nothing’s contrived in my book, I just let it flow and let it happen and that’s the way that art should be.
I recently had a similar conversation with the great singer-songwriter named Michael McDermott of The Westies.
I know Michael, sure.
In my conversation with him he told me that someone had once told him to “write what you know” which is a phrase in the opening line of “Ain’t Too Hard to Live without Love.” Who was it that gave you that same piece of advice?
I’ve heard that said before. Nobody specifically gave me that kind of advice as a songwriter. What I learned from songwriting I learned from listening to music, much like Quentin Tarantino learned how to make films by watching film. For me songwriting was all about a little bit of Elton John for the melody and Bernie Taupin for the lyric, and it was a lot of James Taylor for song structure and lyric rhymes, and Paul McCartney and John Lennon. But then the biggest thing for me was the Harry Chapin albums I grew up on when I was a kid. These taught me that songs could have a story, a beginning, a middle and an end and they could take you to places that you didn’t know you were gonna go. I knew from a young age I wanted to tell stories with the songs and that someday it would pay off. And I feel like it’s finally – at 50- come to fruition with this Overboard album and it really is indicative of what I want to be as an artist, that’s for sure.
You’re definitely a storyteller and this album has quite a few very good ones. Final question for you, Brian: What’s the biggest professional and personal lesson you’ve learned since the release of “The Freshmen” in 1996 and you’re of course career-defining appearance on Rockline? And I kid, of course.
(Laughs) Can I tell you something; that Rockline performance will forever be etched in my memory as one of the best ever! You know, putting the headphones on and playing together in the studio. I thought it rocked, I loved it! Well the greatest thing over the years and what I’ve learned back then was just to relax and enjoy that moment. When “The Freshmen” came out and we had just knocked U2 off the number 1 spot, I wasn’t enjoying the moment. I was more worried about what was next. What’s next, what’s next, what’s next, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go instead of just enjoying it. Now, I take my time and it’s really paid off to just relax and really enjoy life because this is all there is; this is my one chance to spend 30, 40 years in the music industry. I’m just gonna take my time with it and enjoy myself. Live in the moment, brother.
Brian, it’s been a pleasure, man.
Yeah, great conversation. I love this. This is one of the best interviews I’ve done in a long time.
Well, thank you. That’s awfully nice to hear.
Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you.
To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Brian Vander Ark of The Verve Pipe, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.