Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
There's a bullhorn that The Velvet Teen lead singer Judah Nagler employs while he's performing (as a matter of fact, it looks exactly like the one depicted at your left) that's merely an extension of his own voice, the one the skies and his parents gave him. It's become hard to tell where he ends and that gauzy, washout of silty discourse begins. The skiddish irascibility of his pipes is endearing in the way that it doesn't necessarily get itself into any trouble, forcing it to have to scramble or cover its tracks. A distortion pedal can make an okay guitarist significantly better, you see. It's been done a jillion times before. Nagler doesn't use this chain store model of bullhorn as a cover-up to a voice that cracks and leaks in all the wrong places, but he uses it to contort his adventurous melodies and tangents even more, coaxing them into a different body in what is just one of the many incantations of the Northern California band. When it began six years ago, the band -- then consisting of Nagler, bassist Josh Staples and drummer Logan Whitehurst -- was mostly pretty pop and gloss, out to canoodle with soft, good-smelling girls through their songs, not send those songs colliding headlong into one another like kids on a roller skating rink for the first time, busting out the apeshit all over the place.
They were working with Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla and no working relationship was more appropriate at the time that the band was recording its full-length debut, Out of the Fierce Parade. That isn't to say that the Velvet and the Teen does not strive for likeability among the fairer sex these days, but objectives are quite a bit larger in scope. They think about how to be significant, gentle and sensitive while loading a cannon and slapping a tiny nip of fire on the end of a fuse, watching it swim slowly down the line until blows everything to the moon. And while they may envision the ending flare, they seem to snuff out the grand bang, just letting turmoil and the havoc fester, mixing around and around until, just in the nick of time, one of them spits on the fuse and countdown stops at one -- destruction is averted. It doesn't stop one from feeling a shortness of air, getting all white-knuckled and clammy at the dramatic swings from the super-sized choruses and the tender-as-they're-gonna-be verses that bottom out and reverse on themselves with the different degrees of difficulty Nagler applies to them. There are twisted pieces of U2 and The Cure mingling in many of the things that this band makes up in its free time, but then they're liquefied and tossed at the wall. They're picked up, rolled into new balls and given mini horns, and that's the only way you know the danger in them.
More than most typical American bands of a certain age (their certain age of late 20s and early 30s), The Velvet Teen has been enigmatical or at least gotten to that position through a strength in personal skills and an ambitious nature that wouldn't allow them to settle into a trademark sound. You can read reviews of that debut record and in just skimming over a few, it pops out numerous times, the idea that it sure was a terrific record, but it was nothing you hadn't ever heard before. They were trucking down familiar paths, the lush lo-fidelity-sounding paths of the ultra-emotive and the deadly sweet. These same things cannot be said about this past year's Cum Laude -- an album that some spinster blurb writer would call a tour de force as if he or she were putting together the jacket copy for the newest Norman Mailer book. It is probably the record that this band was always meant to make, but it wasn't until now that they really could make it happen. It bends rules and breaks laws and is weirdly innovative with choice melodies that act as if their blindfolded, but every once in a while find a peaking hole at the corner of the tied kerchief in order to get some bearings. There's nothing timid about the music and the chaotic way it kisses on itself. This is a band that doesn't know who it is and bless them for it. May they stay hopelessly lost for as long as they all shall live.
The Daytrotter Interview:
*Where did you get your megaphone? If it was used, do you ever think of what it was used for in its previous life?*
Josh Staples: The Velvet Teen's megaphone is the Radio Shack special. It breaks and requires replacement often.
*What percentage of chaos lurks in your songs?*
JS: I would say that when playing to backing tracks -- which we have done since our second album -- the chaos is hindered by a metronome and certain predictability of pre-recorded sounds. We made up for this very much through Casey's unique and frenetic drumming which, for the most part is improvisational. Judah's vocals are also different from each performance to the next, even though the lyrics don't change.
*Is songwriting all experimentation for you guys?*
JS: For most of our songs, Judah will come in with an initial idea, whether it's some programming, piano part or guitar part. We'll all play the song together at band practice, often times recording it. Then, Judah will write lyrics to the songs and we'll all finish up the arrangement last. That's very general, however, as it's different from song to song.
*Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it fair to say that when you guys started The Velvet Teen, you were a lot softer, prettier version of the Velvet that we now see before us?*
JS: Yes, it's safe to say that TVT was originally much softer -- actually about half soft songs and half loud, rock songs. For our second album, it was nearly all soft piano songs. For Cum Laude, it's nearly all abrasive, crazy electronic rock songs. Who knows what is next? Not us.
*Whose musical ideas and then whose non-musical ideas do you admire?*
JS: Judah is a big fan of Talk Talk, Squarepusher, Bjork, Prince, Xiu Xiu, and many other varied musical innovators.
*Personally, it's been a very tough winter, hasn't it, with Logan's (former Velvet Teen drummer Logan Wainhurst, who died this past December of brain cancer at the age of 29) passing? How are you all dealing with that? What's your fondest memory of him?*
JS: Logan's passing has been heartbreaking, and all of his friends are dealing with it the best we can. We have a bounty of his music to listen to - five plus solo albums worth and three with The Velvet Teen - which is a comfort. He was a great friend, musician and artist.
*What can you tell me about your stay in Singapore? I heard it was a good one.*
JS: Well, we played a festival in Singapore called Baybeats, which was great. We had an awesome time and met a bunch of cool bands from Australia and Southeast Asia. The day we were to fly home, however, I found out that my passport was missing. So, the other three guys flew home while I stayed behind to file a police report and sort out my getting back to California in time for our CD release shows. It took me a couple weeks to get a replacement passport, but I played my first solo show, ate a fish's head, and drank gallons of Tiger beer. I really had a great time despite all the stress.