huge thanks to Jay Hudak, Brandon Geist, and the entire Revolver Magazine staff!
WEB EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW—AN ALBATROSS’ JAY HUDAK QUESTIONS DAVE CLIFFORD AND JOSH HUGHES OF THE VSS
The VSS were a short-lived genre-bending punk group from Boulder, Colorado, which spawned a few singles and only one full-length LP, Nervous Circuits (Honey Bear, 1997), but their influential reverberations are felt in several current groups today, such as instru-metal Neurosis associates Red Sparowes.
Featuring members vocalist Sonny Kay (who went on to form Year Future and run the now-defunct label imprint GSL), guitarist Josh Hughes (now in Rabbits and formerly in Pleasure Forever), bassist-keyboardist Andrew Rothbard (ex-Pleasure Forever), and drummer Dave Clifford (Red Sparowes, ex-Pleasure Forever), Nervous Circuits had been long out of print until now.
On May 22nd, 2008 Hydra Head Records officially re-released and remastered the album in a beautifully packaged double gatefold CD/DVD set. The bonus DVD features a set of shows from the band’s brief history, all captured from lo-fi 10th generation VHS cassette. The deluxe edition features an additional CD, The Skin Of Tiny Teeth, with an entire albums worth of outtakes, covers, and unreleased material. Bassist of psyche-grind outfit An Albatross Jay Hudak, himself a big fan of the VSS, recently took the time to ask drummer Dave Clifford and guitarist Josh Hughes to shed light on the past and share their feelings on the present and the future.
JAY HUDAK Firstly, It's been over a decade since the initial release of Nervous Circuits. Why a reissue now, and how did the band decide on the re-release for Hydra Head?
DAVE CLIFFORD We obviously had never intended for the album to go out of print in the first place, but over the years I think we've all been reminded by some people that it was an influential record for them and it just seemed odd that it was so difficult to find. I kind of relished the obscurity of it for a while—thinking of it as a missing piece of a subcultural puzzle. But, in recent years whenever I'd be reminded of Nervous Circuits—whether it be noticing the album collecting dust in my collection, or in the process of writing songs in my subsequent bands—I would think of all the things I wish we could've improved on it had we had the time, the budget, etc. And, stumbling upon some lost songs—some of which are now included on the limited bonus CD, The Skin Of Tiny Teeth—as well as receiving videos from various people, it seemed apparent that the full story of the band hadn't been told. And, considering the number of misconceptions about the VSS, as we were edging toward the 10-year anniversary it seemed like the time was right to reissue it. The only problem being: Would anyone even care at this point?
When I approached Hydra Head about the reissue idea, I was utterly floored by their enthusiastic response. They were really instrumental in encouraging us to really take the whole project over the top with fancy packaging, bonus songs, etc. We had already blown the whole thing up into this insane sounding project with a DVD of documentary and live footage, plus photos, fliers, etc. On top of that, I had always wanted to try to get a better mix for the album, and thought that the reissue could involve both the original mixes and a newly revised one, where we could actually have more than the day and a half to mix a full album than we did back in ’96. However, the master tapes were nowhere to be found. The studio that we'd recorded in had long since shut down and the owner couldn't be located. Another possibility was that they were destroyed in the fire at Lance Hahn's—whose Honey Bear label originally released the album—apartment a few years back. Sadly, Lance died just before we started into this project in earnest. So, we opted to work with the original artifact as it was—perhaps a better idea, anyway. Certainly, we knew to avoid the ZZ Top 6-Pack syndrome, but no matter what, it did seem that no matter what we did to remix, it wouldn't ever match the frayed chaos of the original mix. So, instead, we went for the best possible remastering job we could do and dug up a bunch of bonus material for a separate disc. Hydra Head seemed like a natural choice for the reissue as the label really stands alone in the independent underground as sort of a lone bastion for music that combines intensity and creativity in a world of banal indie rock. Because, you know, GSL—Gold Standard Laboratories, Sonny Kay's label—was closing up shop.
HUDAK How did The VSS come to form in 1995? How did you all meet?
CLIFFORD I'd known Sonny for many years, both of us growing up around Boulder, Colorado, being involved in our own bands in a very small scene. By 1993, his band Angel Hair had really come into its own, and I was a huge fan. When Josh joined, the band really took off. Fortunately, my roommate, Paul was the drummer and he asked me to tour with them as a roadie. After a few really great, exciting tours, Angel Hair broke up suddenly in January 1995. I'd become good friends with everyone in the band and I really wanted it to continue. Talking to Sonny and Josh, literally the day after the band broke up, we talked about starting a new band. I offered to play drums, though being a guitarist, I really had no experience playing them. Regardless, I bought a drum set that week and we commenced with the new band, with Angel Hair bassist, Todd Corbett. However, Todd also felt the urge to leave town—not surprising, since Boulder is a dull, remote college town—and moved to Portland. Undaunted, the rest of us immediately agreed that the perfect replacement would be Andy Rothbard, who had shown tremendous talent in another local band. We coaxed Andy to join us, and the band solidified. We practiced at least five days per week, sometimes twice a day, for anywhere from three to six hours. I loved every minute of it. And, while my rudimentary skills were a setback, we started to feel a definitive aesthetic forming amongst us that was not tethered to anything happening locally, and also breaching the proto-screamo sound to which Angel Hair had been bound.
HUGHES I moved from the east coast to Boulder with my younger brother in 1993 to go to school. My brother became friends with Andy Arahood, who was playing guitar in Angel Hair and is now in Red Sparowes with Dave, and found out that their guitar player had quit. I called him up and said I'd play, and so I first met Sonny when they came to pick me up for my first practice, which involved us going to the drummer's house and sitting in the van and talking because he never showed up. So, when they dropped me off I said, “Maybe I can try out next time,” and they were like, “Oh, you can pretty much be in the band since you're like the 10th guitar player we had in a year.” That drummer was soon replaced by Paul, who had played with Angel Hair before, and he was best friends with Dave, and he insisted that Dave come on tour with us, and since Dave said he was a good driver we took him along. When Angel Hair broke up because Paul decided to move to California with his girlfriend, Dave and Sonny and I decided to start a band. The bass player from Angel Hair was playing bass for a little, but he decided our new band wasn't really going anywhere, so he decided to move back to Portland. Andy Rothbard, who we all knew from playing shows around Boulder and Denver, was living with Sonny, so Sonny asked him to come play bass for us. And then we found out he could play the keyboard...
HUDAK The expanded reissue of Nervous Circuits almost seems to be the proper release considering the accessibility of the music these days. Nowadays, new music is a point and a click away with the advent of the Internet, YouTube, blogging, and MySpace, as opposed to a more innocent time when people wrote letters to bands, interviewed them for fanzines, and VHS tape traded for information. My first introduction to the band was the self-titled Strike Records 7” Single in 1995, which included no liner notes, track listing, or any information, all of which added to the bands mystique. How interesting is it to you to see how the DIY punk/hardcore scene that you spawned from has changed to less underground, and in what context would you guess the band would exist in if it were still together?
CLIFFORD Hard to say. I don't think that much has really changed since then, aside from the immediacy of access. Just because a new band has songs on MySpace, videos on YouTube, and a blog, it doesn't necessarily mean that anyone is actually paying attention to them. So, really, there are perhaps many more bands in existence now, but it still all comes down to what makes each band unique. Really, the only way that the VSS did get some attention was that we were more like a mobile funhouse ride. But, still even though it was a very energetic and unusual live band, it pretty much only existed within the realm of underground basement shows. The, ahem, oblique mystique was certainly intentional, as everything was intended to seem like an artifact of a mysterious organization—hence the inclusion of "The" to the name.
If the band were still together, I would at least hope that at this point we'd all become millionaires for unintentionally paving the way for bands like My Chemical Romance and Avenged Sevenfold—perhaps we might've been Avenged Eightfold?—while still retaining our own aesthetic. But, more realistically, that's the way the cookie monster crumbles: The ideas that had pollinated what we did continued to scatter and take route, as they are wont to do. Ideas are far more infectious than bodies. All it takes is someone to tell someone else what seemingly innovative variant is involved in one band without them even having heard them, i.e. "I heard about this band that has a crazy light show and they wear black and have synthesizer...," for another to take that idea and develop it in entirely new directions. The exact same is what created The VSS in the first place...
HUGHES Well, these days the technology for the actual day-to-day operations of a band is much more advanced and cheap. We used to pay a few hundred bucks just to book a tour because we had to pay long-distance charges—until we got a tone dialer. And then when we'd get to a town, we'd have to call the promoter from a pay phone to get directions to his house. And he, hopefully, had put flyers up all over town so people would come. Not much internet or cellphone use, let alone YouTube and MySpace bulletins. Sending and approving artwork, finding a DAT machine to make your master tape for your record, and all that kind of stuff was pretty time-consuming. But at the same, because it was more of a struggle, bands had to work hard and they had to do a good job the first time since it was so costly to repeat things. And you had to make real permanent connections with other bands and people all over the country to even be able to exist. So I always felt that the VSS was a result of that struggle: We took whatever limited means we had and we stretched them and pushed them as far out as we could and tried to connect people with what we were doing in our unique way. I don't know that the VSS would be the same band now, but I think that same spirit of pushing the limits has existed for all four of us in all that we've done since then.
HUDAK Do you feel that the band’s location made for more purity in your music, as opposed to if you lived on a coast where the influences and volume of bands are much more saturated? Also, was living in Colorado a negative thing for getting the music out to people in a pre worldwide information age? Was this a factor in relocating to San Francisco?
CLIFFORD Definitely, the relative isolation of Colorado helped us forge our own sound without the influence of peers. Having been only semi-welcomed outsiders to the Gravity Records scene with Angel Hair, the VSS was not met with much enthusiasm from that scene in the beginning. The VSS very deliberately eschewed the fast-screaming hardcore style in favor of the more forceful primordial power of the Sex Pistols and early Public Image, Ltd. In 1995, underground music was mired in this swamp of technical math-rock and the shaggy dirges of grunge. In a sort of strange and much smaller parallel to the beginnings of punk music's reaction to stadium and prog rock, we set out to create a sound that was simple, monolithic, and actually somewhat frightening. Strangely enough, Colorado has always been home to a lot of weirdos, and unusual sounding bands tend to thrive in that environment. So, while perhaps most people there didn't really "get it," the scene at the time was really starting to thrive and people were generally supportive. However, fortunately, we were all very driven with ideas and wanted to tour as much as possible. Certainly, getting music heard back then was a less immediate process, though I think the information networks and propagation of a meme remains the same today as it was back then, only the medium has changed, i.e. from trading tapes, word of mouth, etc. Bands are still touring today, and it remains one of the best ways for a band to gather fans. Our decision to move to San Francisco wasn't a "career move," we were all just tired of living in Boulder and SF was a city in which we all agreed that we'd like to live.
HUGHES I came from the east coast where there seemed to be a lot more bands and shows. But when I got to Boulder, and Denver, I just thought it was a great scene. Sonny and Paul Drake, our friend and later tour manager, put on some of the first shows I went to, and I was struck with how nice everyone was and how supportive. Even though our bands stuck out like sore thumbs, people still came. I'm sure Andy, Dave, and Sonny have different feelings about it since they all grew up there and were involved for so much longer, but it was really a brand new thing for me. Then again, I hated Boulder and wanted to get out of there as soon as I graduated. When we started the VSS, we had only planned to try to do a 7-inch and a short tour before the end of the summer because everyone wanted to move somewhere else since we were all finishing up school. Sonny and Dave both had girlfriends that wanted to move to California, and my girlfriend and I wanted to get out of Boulder and thought California sounded cool. Andy, who was a little younger than us and had never left Colorado, was ready to go, too. So it really wasn't a planned decision for the whole band to move together, but we all trickled out there over a several month period. It was just a new home base... We never really thought we were going to make it big in San Francisco—and we didn't—because we spent a lot of time on tour. In most ways, San Francisco made being in a band much more difficult.
HUDAK The VSS existed when it was still uncommon for synthesizers to be used in the punk/hardcore scene. Although, it was more common to see shows with diverse bills, and music was not so splintered as it is today. What were the general reactions from the audiences at the time compared to what you were projecting?
CLIFFORD Honestly, I wasn't even paying much attention to the audiences at our shows. I was most interested in the expenditure of energy. It was, set up, play as hard as I could for 15-25 minutes and run off "stage" the second we're done. During that time, I'd imagine that everyone there was inside my mind, feeling the same intensity and catharsis as I. Of course, I'd hoped that people enjoyed it, and I think that eventually, by the summer 1997 tour it seemed that people were really starting to realize that it wasn't a gimmick. That seemed to be the biggest struggle for us: getting people to pay attention to the ideas within the music. We weren't aping the ’80s. It wasn't kitsch. And, perhaps in that it was a bit too challenging for people. HUGHES Some people were really into it, but our general feeling was that we weren't really getting through to most people. We were friends with Antioch Arrow and Clikitat Ikatowi, and they were both using keyboards, so we didn't feel as though we were completely coming out of left field. It's difficult to analyze it now, because I think that my attitude now would be, People are just into different things, and our thing only appeals to some of them. That's fine. But back then, when you're putting everything you have into what you're doing—and I'm including the financial aspects, the sacrifices to having any kind of stability in your personal life, spending most of your days driving a hot, smelly van through nowhere—and you have all that stuff piled up inside you and then you play a really physical show with all these sounds and lights going full blast, you're in this altered state, feeling as though you're projecting your entire life out there, all your choices and decisions have been made so you can do this thing in some room with a bunch of other people you don't know, and when those people don't respond the way you had hoped—and you probably don't even know what you want them to do—you can really feel like shit. Then again, there was that handful of people that thought we were just the best thing they ever saw, and that often made it all worth it.
HUDAK According to the liner notes in Nervous Circuits, the VSS's goal was "to create an environment of total saturation of sound, light, and motion." The VSS was ahead of its time in the sense that it had a strong sense of aesthetic—from style of dress to light shows which predated bands like the Faint and the synth-punk genre, and set a mold to follow for many others. Was it conscious choice that you wanted to separate from what was happening at the time in the era of mid 1990's punk?
CLIFFORD Yes, it definitely was a conscious choice. I have always appreciated bands with a focused aesthetic. Devo, for example, has been a lifelong inspiration. I wanted the VSS to be a total environment for both the audience and ourselves. And, at the time, I was obsessed with Antonin Artaud, the French author/playwright, and I wanted seeing and/or hearing the VSS to be akin to the chills and excitement I felt when I'd first heard the Sex Pistols as a kid. Or, to be as unnerving as when I first heard Bauhaus. Those bands literally scared me when I first heard them. And, they made me realize the visceral power of music. Sonny had the brilliant idea of us having only a few small lights, shining out at the audience and all else completely dark when we'd play. It seemed the perfect way to create that imposing energy, drawing the audience in to by closing out as much of the outside world as we could with volume, intensity and control over what people were able to see. Over time, we developed the overall aesthetic more and more. Of course, we weren't doing anything completely original, but I think that we did it well.
HUGHES I think all four of us had the ability to look at really disparate types of music, performance, and art, and take little bits from all these different things and put them into a coherent framework. For instance, we could see how a light show—something that big rock shows used—could work for us on a very DIY level. I think us dressing alike just developed naturally because we were together so much, but all kinds of performance groups have been doing that for ages, even long before rock and roll existed. So we understood that presentation had always been an important part of performance, especially when you're trying to get a difficult point across. As far as the music goes, we were lucky enough to find each other and smart enough to let everyone do their own thing.
HUDAK You are credited with ushering in a new sound within the boundaries of punk incorporating elements of goth, psych, new wave, rock, and post punk, which later can be heard mutated in what is known in a broader field as modern "noise punk" with bands such as HEALTH, Aids Wolf, etc. Personally, The "noise" tag to me, in regards to classifying a band, is an inherent, somewhat negative terminology in which it alludes to a perception of the music being talentless and unorganized. The VSS, on the other hand, were quite melodic and orchestrated, quite the opposite. How do you feel about being attached to this connotation and do you take any credit for the bands influence in current times?
CLIFFORD I think that you bring up a key point for me: The VSS was really a very melodic band. Andy and Josh are both incredibly creative and talented musicians. People tend to call anything that is densely saturated with layers and volume "noise"—HEALTH is another perfect example; they're a very melodic band that likes to twist and bend the edges of melody and add seemingly incongruous elements. But, perhaps what made the VSS sound like "noise" to some people is that it’s sound was derived from a wide array of influences. When we were all discussing the reissue and how it could be presented, Andy brought up a very significant, although seemingly prosaic point that something that stood out to him was our odd mix of tapes that we'd play in the van: The Birthday Party, Swans, Funkadelic, Public Image Ltd, the Doors, MC5, the Stooges, Gary Numan, Bow Wow Wow, Autoclave, Mission of Burma, Olatunji, et al. And, literally, the music on Nervous Circuits is a rather unusual pastiche of elements from every one of those artists.
As far as taking credit for being an influence, I know that probably 99% of the bands that might be considered aesthetic descendants have never heard of the VSS. I know the guys in HEALTH, and they'd never heard of the VSS until just recently. I think the VSS, like all the bands before us that we'd echoed, is just another abandoned part of the process of the propagation of ideas spread by endlessly expendable components that drive the ever-evolving super-organism of culture.
HUGHES I don't really agree that noise has negative connotation. Even from a scientific perspective, there's a lot of study on the importance of noise in transmitting signals. But if you're saying that noise is a kind of music without music, I'd have to say it's all on a continuum and it's just where you put yourself down on it. My own taste is that I like noise, but just like anything else, there are people that do it well and people that make complete garbage. As a performer in a band, I prefer to have a more defined song, but we always experimented with feedback and noise and loops when we played live and at practice. We certainly can't take credit for inventing that, with Swans, Scratch Acid, Sonic Youth, and Boyd Rice doing that kind of shit when we were still in junior high. We were feeding some New Wave ideas back through the punk and hardcore that had come after it, but we also had contemporaries that were doing the same. I just don't feel directly responsible for the good or that bad—mostly the bad—that came after us.
HUDAK Being that music is a timeless medium, and now with this reissue being available to a crop of new listeners, would it reopen doors to making music again with each other? Eleven years later, what is in the present and future for the members?
CLIFFORD Honestly, I would absolutely love to play with all those guys again. I'd do it in a heartbeat. I think the idea of doing a "reunion" would be misguided, however. That band most certainly was a byproduct of where each of us were in our lives, and while any of us could easily re-enact past events from our life, it just wouldn't have the same feeling or authenticity. And, the VSS just doesn't seem to be a band befitting nostalgia. It would be really interesting to put the four of us together again now, writing music that reflected where we're coming from collectively now. But, considering how spread apart we live and each of us having our own current music endeavors, it doesn't sound very likely. Besides, who doesn't have a light show these days?
HUGHES I wouldn't definitely rule out playing music together again—although I have ruled it out in the past—but I think it's complicated for a number of reasons. We're all busy with our own things, bands and otherwise, and we were doing the VSS at a time when the band and our lives were completely intertwined. We won't ever be able to get to that place or time again, but everything we have done since then has been influenced by those few years the four of us spent together. In a way, all those bits that splintered off the VSS or "rose from its ashes"—Subpoena the Past, Slaves, Pleasure Forever, Year Future, Red Sparowes, Andy's solo stuff, and my band Rabbits—fit together in a way that extend and evolve the idea of the VSS to explain a lot more about the four of us. That might be the best way for the VSS to exist.
HUDAK How would you like the VSS to be remembered, and, in closing, are there any specific memories from the past that you would like to share?
CLIFFORD I suppose I'd like the VSS to be remembered, period. Its footprint was minor, for sure. But for the musical historians and librarians like myself and many of the people that I know, it's not how many records a band sold or anything like that—it's simply if it had anything to contribute that later progenitors could pass on. Like the Monks, the Music Machine, the Screamers, Antioch Arrow, Lost Sounds, and probably myriad others to come, I hope that the VSS is a relic worthy of clearing away the dust and inspecting. If I dare remove myself as participant, I do believe that Sonny's lyrics are incredibly evocative and the magnificent interplay of guitar, synth, and bass are truly transcendent. I think that above all, rather than capturing a zeitgeist, for a fleeting moment, we suggested the next one. And, that's how I'd like the VSS to be remembered: an open book of possibilities.
HUGHES I'd like people to remember that we were not assholes, but we might have been assholes to some people. So, if you were one of those people, either we were having a bad day, or you were—or are—an asshole. One time when we played in Concord, California, with a band called Girl's Soccer—they had orange slices in their mouths—at the end of the set I let my guitar feedback and walked off. Some guy turned my amp off because he said it was pretentious and annoying and I told him not to touch my fucking stuff. I was definitely an asshole to that guy, and he may not have been one.
Nervous Circuits out now on Hydra Head (hydrahead.com). An Albatross’ new album will be released in Fall 2008 on Eyeball (myspace.com/analbatross23).