Days of Future Passed • Brian Vander Ark & the Return of THE VERVE PIPE • An Exclusive Interview

With a New Album, a Fresh Tour, and a Reconstituted Line-up, One of the Definitive Alternative Rock Bands of the 1990s Moves Towards New Horizons

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music, Artist Feature,   By: Robert E Martin

02nd February, 2020     0

Nearly three-decades down the road, Brian Vander Ark and the multi-platinum Alternative Rock Band known as The Verve Pipe are launching a headlining tour, performing at St. Andrews Hall in Detroit on Saturday, February 8th.  Showcasing a selection of material spanning their career, the group will also be previewing fresh material that will be featured on their upcoming new album, which is slated to be released in June. 

This new, yet-to-be-titled album, will be their first new music since the 2017 album Parachute. The band will also be returning to Michigan later this month for a one-off headlining show at the Michigan Theatre of Jackson on February 22nd, before embarking on an East Coast tour from April through May.

The VERVE PIPE  have occupied a special place in my heart ever since they broke regionally back in 1992 with the Indie release of their first album I’ve Suffered a Head Injury - which to this day,  is still a great title, contains strong material that holds up over three decades, and came at a time when the Mid-Michigan Music Scene was alive with music bouncing off the walls of at least a dozen clubs from bands that were bursting at the seams with talent.

The result of a musical marriage between brothers Brian & Brad Vander Ark and Saginaw’s Donny Brown, Brian Stout, and A.J. Dunning, who played regularly at The Hamilton St. Pub, it didn’t take long before The Verve Pipe quickly wrote musical history in the 1990s by becoming the first band from this region to break on such a large national & international scale since Question Mark & the Mysterians did back in the 1960s.

Before the days of YouTube and Facebook, when you couldn’t click a button and let an international audience watch you fart, bands had to reach their audience the hard way - through the act of physical & personal performance, financing & recording your own CD’s, selling them at shows, and getting your sound distributed.  When their follow-up Indie-released CD Pop Smear  was released, The Verve Pipe managed to sell enough units on their own to grab the attention of RCA, where they signed a 3-record deal that made musical history when The Freshman went straight to #1.

By the time of their third major-label release of Underneath in 2001, which served as the group’s swan song to RCA, but also contained the song Colorful which appeared on the soundtrack of the film Rock Star, The VP had 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.  

Back around 2014, the two remaining original founding members, Donny Brown and Brian Vander Ark decided to part ways, with Brian releasing several highly acclaimed solo albums & support tours, in addition to launching various touring incarnations of The Verve Pipe.

Recently, I had an opportunity to conduct my fifth interview with Brian, which as stated at the outset of this piece, I’ve had the good fortune to follow since those early days when the band was performing at The Hamilton St. Pub.  The last time we spoke was nearly 10-years ago back in 2011, when the group recorded a Children’s Album as part of an outreach campaign to impact children about the powerful cognitive impact of music on many levels of their lives.

Review: It’s been almost 10-years since we last spoke and a lot has happened, but I’ve also got to say that The REVIEW is celebrating its 40th Anniversary, your career is still flourishing, and The Hamilton St. Pub was recently remodeled and is still doing live music, so let’s lift a glass to the fact we’re all still  here!

Brian Vander Ark:  (Laughter) That is amazing, wow!

Review: When you look back over that arc of time that spans almost 30-years now since you started playing with The Verve Pipe to the point you’re at now in your career and with the band, what are some of the biggest changes and evolutions that you’ve noticed in terms of your music?

Brian:  Mostly, I think I’m a better writer now because I”ve simplified things.  Villains and Pop Smear were written very ambiguously and more like poetry in that sense; but I think once I figured out that the clever thing to do is find the simplest way to get your point across when writing lyrics, my work improved.  That’s why guys like Neil Young and other descriptive songwriters focus upon simplicity with their lyrics. 

But I also think over time I’ve gotten to the point now where I don’t have to ask permission to do things. or ask why I have to do something in a song.  With the initial band - the first incarnation of The Verve Pipe - it was very difficult to get anything done. I found over the years after the core members left it became much easier to get my songs across and what I wanted to do across to the audience without fighting over the smallest detail.

Review: For a few years you were producing solo albums, which I also enjoyed quite a bit, while you also toured with the band; but which do you prefer - working the solo realm or working in a more collaborative band context?

Brian:  The new line-up consists of Lou Musa, Randy Sly, Joel Ferguson, Sam Briggs and Channing Lee, and I love the collaboration with this group. Channing is a Godsend when it comes to lyrics and story. When I run out of things to say, she’s right there; and Sam played with Papa Vegas and is a fantastic musician, so this is a great group to collaborate with, which is why I begged off doing any solo albums the last four years, other than a project I did with Jeff Daniels.

Review: The last Verve Pipe album released was ‘Parachute’ a few years ago, so tell me how the current incarnation of the band works in both a studio and live context?

Brian:  We work together well in both contexts, but I would say we work really good when we play live  together in the sense that the original players were great players, so I had to get great players to do this material, and everybody is matched up really well.  When you’re on the road the issue is whether you get along or not, because 90% of being on the road together is when you’re not playing. The Verve Pipe in 1996 was a fantastic voyage onstage, but terrible offstage. I’m now in a band that’s learning we want to play more shows and spend more time together.

Review: Have you noticed much of a change in the crowds coming to your new shows? Is it a mix of your old fanbase populated with younger people?

Brian:  A certain younger segment are the kids that heard the Children’s Album when they were younger, whose parents took them to see us and then they discovered the adult music; but for the most part it’s a 35 - 45 - 60 year-old demographic - people who wanna escape and go back to the ‘90s come see us, which is great because we mix songs from the early material with the newer stuff, but we know where our place is and most people come to see us for nostalgic reasons.

Review: I remember interviewing Donny Brown back in 2014 right around the time he released his first solo album and decided to make a departure from The Verve Pipe.  When I asked him about the break-up he said, ‘The more success you have with a sound that you ‘shape’ as a band, the more you’re defined by that sound. And that’s the paradox. Do you continue to reinforce that sound or do you have the latitude to break away?’  What are your thoughts about that, seeing as you do have a definite sound that you helped define in a major way, and are now approaching newer material with different musicians driving in new directions?

Brian:  Donny makes a good point, but it also sounds  very ‘Donny’. To be able to develop and have a distinctive sound is something we always talked about and never quite had a grasp upon in the early days until we redid The Freshman.  Then our sound evolved, just by putting out the amount of music and material that we did; but now our sound is based more around my voice and the lyric.  We can do pretty much anything we want musically and I think our fans will go with us as long as it’s of a high quality.

I think now we have a solid heaviness with the bass & drums on the up-tempo songs, but hopefully now I’m finding or telling a better linear story. As long as I give a soulful performance vocally, I think we can go anywhere and people will come with us.  I learned a hard lesson with the album after Villains, but I think now we can explore what we want to.  This new album coming out is the most different thing we’ve done and so far the live reaction to performances of these songs has been phenomenal.

Review: You also worked on a project with actor Jeff Daniels in 2016 called ‘Simple Truths’. What was that experience like?

Brian: That was terrific. A lot of people don’t know he’s a great guitar player, plus he knows a good story. When I’m writing there are many times I don’t have a grasp of what the story is and need the meat of the story to respond immediately with something in a different way.  Collaborating with Jeff was one of the best experiences I’ve had because Jeff’s a story teller.  I learned to be more patient working with him and learned this by flushing things out - work on a song and then come back to it and examine what we like or don’t like.  Typically, whenever I do a demo I’ll have all the parts written the way I like and then the band comes in. With Jeff this wasn’t the case. There would be a time we wouldn’t work together for a few weeks, so we could ruminate on what we’d done previously for a little bit, and then revisit it. It was nice to be able to be patient with a project.

Review:  One final question, Brian.  I would be totally remiss if I didn’t ask what you thought about Greta Van Fleet. They came like a rocket ship out of Frankenmuth and have acclaimed worldwide attention, Grammy Awards, and a success very similar to your own with The Verve Pipe. What is your take on them?

Brian:  I think it’s great!  Being young guys with that level of success and traveling the world and making music for a living is not an easy task. No doubt they’re tremendously talent - they may be a little derivative for me - but listen, The Verve Pipe were derivative for some people as well. I don’t know the guys, but I think they’re good songwriters and appreciate how they choose to record and define their sound.  I wish them all the luck in the world.









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