A Conversation with Verve Pipe Frontman Brian Vander Ark

Some bands have a few big hits and fall apart, others, even though they may not reach those lofty peaks again, sustain a long career and keep getting better. The Verve Pipe is clearly in the latter category. On November 5, the band will release its seventh studio record, Threads, and frontman Brian Vander Ark stopped by to talk about it.

Please press the PLAY button below for the MisplacedStraws.com Conversation with Brian Vander Ark:

On whether the version of Threads about to be released is the same as the one about to be released in 2020 – No. We had time to tinker. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad. I think in this particular case, we out-wrote the songs that were on the record, so some of the songs that were on there before got bumped because the writing had gotten so much better during the pandemic, believe it or not. That’s the one good thing I think the pandemic brought me was the muse came around and was poking me the whole time and said, “You can do better, you can do better”, and we took advantage of that and took two years, (an) extra two years to really make this record special. 1:00

On writing the record with Verve Pipe vocalist Channing Lee –I was running out of things to say. I’m 57, I’ve been doing this for 30-some years as a songwriter, and we put on so many Verve Pipe records, and I put out four or five solo records that I really needed some sort of boost. I didn’t wanna cover the same themes I’ve covered before you, and I certainly didn’t wanna go back and try to write Villains 2. Canning comes from the same place I come from, storytelling songs, a little bit of a sense of humor, a little sardonic sense of humor, self-deprecation. But she also adds an element of a woman’s perspective that I didn’t have that was really helpful in songs like “The Freeze”. I think the first song we wrote together was “The Freeze” about a sexually abused woman. I’m not gonna sing that song, that would be Man-splaining. I thought, “Well, maybe you can sing this Channing”, and she said, “Oh, I don’t know how Verve Pipe fans would like that”, she was pretty new to the band then, and they loved it. I sing harmony throughout. It was a nice moment. Then I realized, “Look, she had a lot to do with the lyrics and those songs, we could really explore this”, and we did. It just kept getting better and better. She really challenged me at times, and I definitely challenged her, I can be really challenging in the studio. But in the end, it was like we had worked together on so many songs that it was hard to remember who came up with this original idea. Like “The Witching Hour”, I know I would never write a song called “The Witching Hour” because she’s definitely in that whole witchy kind of thing. But there are other songs where I go, “I think I started that one”, and we have to go back to the tapes to figure it out. So there was enough of that going on that it was like, “Well, let’s just split the credit, this is ridiculous. Why are we even question it? We both work really hard on the album and every song”. 2:24

On the track “The Freeze” – When I first gave it to my manager and then they gave it to Sony, they were really like, “Ooh yeah, no”, and there was a chance that this wasn’t even gonna make the record because they’re feeling and Channing and I were talking about it, was, “Alright, is this too dark and too deep?” It’s nice to know that a fan would really like it. I put that up on my Patreon page before any of the other songs and they all flipped out. So I’m happy that I listened to my own instincts and went ahead and continued the process of putting that on the record and producing it the way we did. Chris Carmichael is a fantastic string arranger, I’ve used him for years now, from my solar records to this record. He did that and “Set Me on Fire”, and he also did the strings on the new single, “No One’s Gonna Break This Heart Again”. He just brings it to a whole new level, and that’s why I continue to use him, and that’s why you probably wouldn’t have heard those kinds of string arrangements with the old Verve Pipe records because I hadn’t discovered him until I started doing the solo work. 5:20

On adding strings and orchestration to the Verve Pipe sound – I’ll tell you, I’m always trying to be very careful of hitting someone over the head. It’s like in a movie if it’s a movie and it’s a very sad scene, and then all of a sudden a very sad violin comes in, I go, “Okay, you just hit me over the head. I’m already sad, I don’t need your violin on top of it”, and so I’m very aware of that. “The Freeze” is right there. It’s just so close to the point where I was like, “Oh man, I am I hitting people over the head?”, but because we bring them in right away, and I think it sets the mood before you even hear a word come out of our mouth, I think that that’s helpful. I don’t think I’ve ever been questioned about using Chris Carmichael by the label or by my management, they loved everything he’s done since the beginning, he’s just brilliant. He plays all the parts himself and he writes the parts, and then he plays every string part, and it’s very inexpensive for us to use them because he’s friends with us, so he just does it because he loves to do it. Why not take advantage of that? I think we’ve had moments, we’ve had him do some things on a couple of songs, I think that we ended up not using, or maybe I won’t use the cello part that he put on or whatever is just because it becomes a little too convoluted with all the guitars, but you have to really kind of make that work in the mix. But for the most part, I think we’ve used everything. We had a song called “Latch Key Kid” two albums ago on Overboard, and that song was just dead until he put that string part in the beginning, and I just got chills just now, just thinking about it. My reaction to hearing that and going, “Oh my God, this is like a whole new song”, and really, we really leaned into it. Unfortunately, we don’t play it live because we don’t have those strings, but that was a sacrifice we had to make. 7:15

On the Simon & Garfunkel feel to a lot of the record – We started doing the writing sessions, we started with “The Freeze”. We were out on the road in a hotel room, we had a day off and I said, “I have this idea”, and we played around with it and then we wrote that. Then when we came back and we went to her music room, which is in her house, I had had that idea for “Found” for a long time, and I had hardly any lyrics to it, and I said, “I don’t know what this is, it sounds like Simon & Garfunkel kind of “Homeward Bound” type of thing”. She said something like, “We should write our own “Homeward Bound””, and I was like, “Okay”. Then we started writing about the road and going home and the whole thing and it was like, “Oh my God”, this totally just came together one night. I remember singing the parts with her and just looking at each other like, “Oh my God, this is what this is, this is exactly what this song is, it really is kind of the perfect Simon and Garfunkel-esque song”. There’s no denying it. We wear that influence on our sleeve for sure, but still, we get to go play that live and we’ll come out for an encore, just the two of us, then we’ll play that, and it’s really nice. It’s a really nice live moment too. 9:45

On his brother Brad rejoining the band on bass – I don’t know if he’s that familiar, he doesn’t look at anything like he used to. He’s like a mountain man now. Back then, he was the poster boy for the Verve Pipe. It’s so funny because we were laughing about that the other day, they used to put him right up front with me all the time because he had those chiseled cheeks and he was the good-looking brother. It’s really good to have Brad back in the band. Joel (Ferguson) was our bass player for years. Joel kinda took over for Brad. There were another couple of bass players in between, but for the most part, Joel came back in. I told Joel, because Brad started sniffing around again, Joel had to cancel a couple of shows because he had to go somewhere, and I said, “Well, I might ask Brad to do it”. I asked the band and they said, “Okay”, and I asked Joel and he said, “Yeah, of course, Brad’s great. Of course, he wrote all those parts” Then when Brad expressed interest in the band, I told the band, I said, “Look, this is Joel’s gig, Joel’s earned this spot in the band”, and then I called Joel and he was in Hawaii with his wife, and I said, “Look, I know that you’ve been thinking about doing more of your studio stuff and that kind of thing, I just want you to know that this is your gig. But if you want to leave, Brad would love to step in, but again, this is your gig”. He said, “Well, let me think about it”, and he thought about it, and it was very amicable. He said, “Yeah, the studio’s going gangbusters”. He’s got another band, so it was perfect. Actually having Brad back in there, they’re very different bass players. Brad is very experimental on stage and he’ll try new things, but he’ll make a mistake. Joel never made a mistake, if Joel made one mistake for every four shows, he would be down on himself, but Brad is like “I made a mistake, I was trying something”. Whether I prefer one or the other, I don’t know, I just know that after playing five or six shows with Brad, now I start to remember what it was like back in the day that he wouldn’t do that and I would be either thrilled during the show, or I go, “Oh man, Brad, dammit”, keeps me on my emotional toes all night. 11:10

On being able to play the new songs live – Here’s the thing about the reason it doesn’t work for “Latch Key Kid” is because it’s so dependent upon the strings, I do like the lyric and I like the melody, but it’s a different song, it’s a different song without the stings. These songs are the same with or without the strings we’ve done “Set Me on Fire” as kind of a hippie-esque, organic thing with the bongo, and it’s really great. It’s kind of its own thing, it doesn’t sound like the record. “No One’s Gonna Break This Heart Again”, the new single, that doesn’t need the strings, it’s already emotionally impactful, the way we sing it live, it really is a heart-wrenching song to sing, and when I give it all and when Channing gives it all, we hold those notes for the length of time we do, and the guitar comes in, it really is its own tanker of emotion and the strings aren’t needed as much. 14:10

On the theme behind the record – That was Channing’s idea. I forget what song we were working on, but it was ad nauseam. I don’t think that song we worked on that night had made the record, but we worked on it, it just was not working, and it was the end of the night, it’s probably midnight, her husband was in the other room, practically banging on the wall to get us to shut up. She goes, “Oh wait, I had this other thing”, I’m like, “All right”, at this point, we had had a couple of bourbons. So she plays this thing, (sings) “And this is how it begins a moment found, try to keep it from ending, who are we?” And I’m like, “Wait a minute, wait, what is this?” She started playing “Forever Reaching”. I was like, “Oh my God, where has this been?” We worked on that, and that opens with, “It’s just a thread of Crimson that binds us”, and she told me the story, but the Japanese proverb that we’re all bound together, this by this thread, this red Crimson thread. I thought, “My God. That is this record. That’s the entire record”. We all go through different things, we all have different personalities. Each song has its different personality, but we’re all connected in some way. Usually, it’s through a vocal, I feel like now it’s connected in the songwriting and the quality of a story in the lyric, and that has a lot to do with her. So that’s why we thought Threads would be a great name for the record. 15:27

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