BY ADAM DAY
In a recent interview with Pitchforkmedia.com, TV On the Radio’s Dave Sitek hit on the primal draw of dance music: “Through the trauma of birth, we’re thrown into these repetitions, everything from our heartbeat to our routines, and I think it’s identifiable … a lot of music … particularly Afrobeat and highlife, and a lot of music from Mali, for example, it’s based on repetition.”
We tend to want our artists serious and complex, or at least irreverent. Dance rock, with its loops, simplicity and strong emphasis on beat, is typically as far away from those characteristics as you can go in most people’s minds. Yet the music of early Beatles and Elvis is relatively simple and meant for dancing.
The members of VHS or Beta — Mark Guidry, Mark Palgy, Craig Pfunder, Chea Beckley and Mike McGill — grew up on rock, on R.E.M., Zeppelin and Sonic Youth. They gravitated toward disco and dance instinctively, both for the outlet it offered and as a reaction to the kind of Captain Beefheart snobbery that often pervades indie rock.
When you hear only the beat behind dance music, you tend to think, “I could do that.” But after a long day in your cubicle, as Pfunder puts it, “There’s nothing like an 808 or a 909 in a big fuckin’ club, and a big bass line, and everyone jumping out of their pants to this simple beat … I love Sigur Rós — seeing them, it’s gorgeous, and that’s a part of me, but there’s also a part of me that loves to dance, and I don’t care how dumb it looks, because it just feels good. I don’t think I would ever trade that in.”
Neither would their fans, who might be a different brand than, say, the kind Will Oldham attracts. “They’re all dudes, and they all like Palgy,” says Pfunder. One night, in Tampa’s Ybor City, Palgy, following Pfunder’s lead, jumped into the crowd. “I landed right in front of this guy, and he was wearing these pull-away pants,” Palgy says. “He ripped them off, and all he had on was a banana hammock, and I just stood there playing, frozen.” Pfunder chimes in, laughing: “I was back on stage, and Mark was standing there alone, and this guy was just dancing with Mark, and the whole crowd sort of dispersed to form a circle around them.”
“It was like a Right Said Fred video,” Palgy says, and laughs. “It was really terrifying.”
When you hear VHS or Beta’s third album, Bring on the Comets, you realize the major criticisms of its previous record, Night on Fire — that the music was too derivative, too simplistic, a bit kitschy — lose viability. There is real continuity to the record, a concealing of influences, a depth and eclecticism of concerns and sounds, all of which speak to musical maturation. “We think this is our Def Leppard Hysteria,” Palgy says, and laughs again.
The maturity is also present lyrically in the subject matter Pfunder chooses on Comets. If previous work by VHS or Beta was emotionally or socially thin, things have thickened up. There is an urgency and engagement with the personal and the political.
You can hear it in “Burn It All Down,” a song that would make Christopher Hitchens proud as it wrestles with the culture of convenience and war, and with the taint of religion, which points to the members’ respective backgrounds. Palgy’s father has lived on a kibbutz in Israel for many years, and Pfunder spent time in a Baptist boarding school as a teen.
“I try not to be too political; we just wanted a song that was defiant and urgent,” Pfunder says. “There are just some times when a statement needs to be made. There are so many sides to every story, and sometimes how nice would it be if it were all just gone? It isn’t sacrilegious — it’s not that literal. There’s such a sense of escapism in the States, like, ‘Let’s go to the football game. You get the popcorn; I’ll get the Cokes,’ while there’s so much of the world where every day is absolutely grinding.” It’s both ironic and fitting that the music addressing these concerns is physical and visceral.
Bring On the Comets was recorded more than a year after the band stepped out of their van, with one less member, from 17 months of touring. “We were left with the question, ‘Who are we now, and where are we going next?’” says Pfunder. “So, we spent a good portion of that year chiseling away at those questions. We had to restructure the way we worked and thought.”
Part of the restructuring was the addition of Mike McGill, from Los Angeles, whose formative musical experience came at the age of 5, when he purchased an Elvis Costello cassette from a yard sale in rural Oregon. McGill sings harmonies and trades duties with Palgy on guitar and bass. Initially, when looking for the new addition, the band’s manager wanted to post something on MySpace. They were not enthused. “We said, ‘No,’ but he just didn’t get it, he was like, ‘What? What? You’ll get 10,000 responses,’” Pfunder says. “So, instead, we did some auditions in Nashville, and it was seriously like ‘American Idol’ — this one guy came in and just soloed the entire time.”
Finally the band got a text message from Bo Koster of My Morning Jacket, saying he had found the guy for them.
“We definitely didn’t want to rush and just put out Night on Fire II,” Palgy explains. “With this record, we just wanted to write songs we like and we’re proud of.”
Pfunder uses different parts of his vocal range to tell different stories; the drums are a hybrid of live and electronic sounds, and the second guitarist/bassist has been added to the mix — it’s still VHS or Beta, but it’s more rock than dance.
“There’s pedal steel, acoustic guitar and piano on this record, and I think some people may be like, ‘Holy shit, you guys just discovered piano and pedal steel,’” Pfunder says. “But, no — in the past, we used limitations to define us. On this record, we’re free of that.”
With pedal steel, piano and acoustic guitar came collaboration with friends Koster, MMJ guitarist Carl Broemel and singer-guitarist Jim James. “We’ve been goods friend with them for years — you know, we come home from tour and have barbecues,” Pfunder says. When he was writing some of the songs for Comets, he says he wondered how he wanted to arrange things sonically. “Jim has this way of using his voice, not just for words, but to texturize things. You can hear that all over My Morning Jacket albums.”
James appears on two tracks, including closer “The Stars Where We Came From,” which also features Broemel’s pedal steel, while Koster is featured on several tracks.
Two songs from the new album, including the first single, “Can’t Believe a Single Word,” can be heard on the band’s MySpace page, and Bring On the Comets will be released in late August on CD and vinyl, which the band writes its songs for.
“If I could invent a virus to kill the mp3, I would,” Pfunder says. “People need to get back to buying music, feeling it in their hands, being excited about a release date because they’re gonna be in the record store that day reading the liner notes, looking at the album art. The way people listen to music now, through a crappy bit-rate and busted-ass ear-buds, it’s not personal anymore.”
Comets will challenge some fans and seduce others, but whichever way the pendulum of public opinion swings, VHS or Beta says they are the happiest they’ve ever been, and after 12 years, more than 500 shows, loans, LLCs, the absence of health insurance and months on the road away from loved ones, that is saying something.
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