Interview: Brian Vander Ark & Donny Brown (The Verve Pipe)

VervePipe2010PressPhoto.jpgThe Verve Pipe made their name the first time riding the wave of alternative rock in the early-to-mid 1990s. Now they are making their name as enthusiastic performers of music for families. At the 2010 Austin City Limits Music Festival I chatted with guitarist Brian Vander Ark and drummer Donny Brown (that's them at top middle and top left), the two guys that have been in the band since the very beginning, talking station wagon music, upcoming plans, and differences between name-brand and generic cereal.

What are your earliest musical memories growing up?
Brian: Back seat of a station wagon with five kids, two parents, and Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue." When that song came on, it was the first time I paid attention to melody and singing along. It was... 1971?

It's a great song...
It is a great song.

And you?
Donny: I remember being in the car... I come from a family with seven kids. So we'd be in the station wagon where the last seat faced out toward the window. They wouldn't allow that now. And my ear was right next to the speaker on the right-hand side. And I remember "See You in September" from the Happenings... do you know that tune?

I don't, actually.
[Sings a bit of the song.]. It's a very much a Four Seasons ripoff.

I can hear that.
It's exactly like the Four Seasons without Frankie Valli, but from a band called the Happenings.

So you had a big career in the '90s and into the 21st century... You wrote a kids song for a compilation - was that the first attempt you made at writing songs for families, or had you written songs even if they were for your own...
Brian: No, that was it...

What was it about that song that made you think you'd want to do more of this?
Brian: Well, the first song we wrote was "Complimentary Love" and after that, well, I'd written a song called "Worrisome One" that wasn't really a kids song, but I changed some lyrics and made it more about a kid. And that was where I was really conscious of what I was doing at that point, writing kids' music. Then "Suppertime" came out, which is just silly lyrics and fun. "When One Became Two" was a little more serious.

Was doing the kids' album something where you'd seen the success of other bands that had done work for adults then work for kids, or was it more wanting to stretch songwriting skills in a slightly different area just to see how it went.
We didn't even really think about making a kids' record, it was more, "Can we do this?" and it'd be fun to get the band back together to make an album. Make it a kids' album and have fun with it.

The album is a lot of fun - was it more fun to make this album than it might have been to make your previous ones?
Donny: Yeah, it was more fun making this album than any album.

Was that just because the mood was more light-hearted or because people were just in a different place?
I think the songs dictated it in a lot of ways, but it also to do with us being older and being in a different place.

BrianVanderArk.jpgBrian: Also, with every other album we've made, we have a budget and we go somewhere for a couple months, and you're stuck there in unfamiliar surroundings. This wasn't like that. We made it in Michigan, near our homes, and Donny spent a lot of time in the studio basement with different musicians, in and out, playing different parts. It was really a much more open atmosphere.

As I was thinking of questions and watching your live show, I realized there was something I needed to know, and I talked a little bit with Gwyneth [Butera] after your set... where did you come up with the idea of actually putting the cereal in your guitar?
[Laughs.]. I honestly don't remember. We were just talking about that the other day.

Donny: I think we were talking about when we finished that song, played it for people, people were just sort astounded that we'd written this song about breakfast cereal as...

It's so over the top.
Donny: Exactly. It has this big ending. I can't remember where we were, but we were backstage at a gig and we were talking about it, and Brian said, "It makes me feel like I'm on-stage, singing for the Tony Awards and the end I'm going to spread my arms really wide and this cereal is going to rain down on me." And I said something about how we need to make a video where at the end a dumptruck just pours it all out on you, and Brian got a big smile on his face. Then he said, "What if at the end I just had this guitar full of cereal.

So what is your cereal of choice?
Brian: Fruity Pebbls. It's hard to find at gas stations -- you have to go to the more high-end places. It's very easy to find the generic fruit loops, not the real ones, the generic ones, but they're heavier, sharper. They'll poke you in the eye.

I'm impressed that you have a professional opinion on the merits of different cereals.
Donny: We've tried different brands and there were a couple of gigs where Brian was just shaking the guitar and you were thinkin', "come on out!" It doesn't work well with oatmeal.

[Laughs] Any venues get mad at you after the fact?
Donny: Oh yeah. We played a beautiful venue in the northeast -- it was really gorgeous -- and at the end of the set, the front of house manager, the sound guy, was a nice guy, we spent the whole day talking about music. And at the end of the kids' set, he came up to me and said, "You got cereal all over my stage." And I thought he was kinda joking because of this friendship I thought we had struck up, and, no, he wasn't joking at all. Very upset.

So it's definitely more of an asking for forgiveness than an asking for permission sort of thing.
Both: Yes.
Donny: Haven't kids figured that one out yet?

Shhhhh!... You've been able to fit in the family shows between the shows for adults, that's worked well for guys?
Brian: The kids songs go over well with the adults at the adult shows.
Donny: We just played a rock show in Battle Creek, Michigan. Battle Creek is the home of Kellogg's -- we had a guitar stuffed with Fruit Loops, but we got a rousing reaction from them.
Brian: We got chastised for stopping 6 minutes early, 'cuz we stopped to sweep.

You obviously had a lot of success with this album, so what's next?
Donny: Well, we just played Lollapalooza, and Brian and I sat down, found out what he's been working on, what I've been working on. I throw ideas at him for lyrics and he throws ideas at me for chord changes. And we've got maybe four or five of what we'd consider to be strong kids' songs.

We're light-hearted, but we're very serious about what we do musically. We don't want to make a kids' record that's just [scats in a very poor and dorky way]. We don't want to do that. We want to do something that has legs for us, that we can play and we can always enjoy. I personally feel we've set our own bar at a nice height and because of that, we want to see if the ideas blossom. We have five ideas for that.

We also have a bunch of demos for a rock and roll record. One idea was to book a place in Michigan where we've played before and do a few nights there, a few shows there, and record a live record. We've got a lot kids listening to our kids stuff -- we want to turn people on to our other stuff. I think it all really works well together when we play live.