Velella Velella literally brings the party: Last night they came over to my underground basement apartment with a burn-off of the new album, plus two large Pagliacci's pies (veggie and Canadian Bacon and pineapple), two six packs of Dos Equis and Fat Tire, and their gentle and engaging personalities, so we could relax and hang out — and talk about all 59:55 recorded minutes of The Bay of Biscay's deep and squiggly goodness.
I got this idea of going over every song with a musician or a band on a new release from my favorite British music magazines, which actually got it from the American jazz fanzine Downbeat, which conducted such an interview every issue — and makes sense as VV has more than a little dalliance with jazz idioms.
Made up of three people entangled in the music and arts scene in Spokane, who ended up in Seattle separately and then reuniting (literally, living in the same house), VV has also added Sylvia Chen of the Long Ranger. People familiar with Chen's band (disco-wave dazzle pop she makes with her brother Ted) might have caught the bands playing in the same line up at Chop Suey a few months back. VV leader Andrew Means (bass, drums, keys, vocals, et al) dug the Long Ranger's shared aesthetic about music as transcendent pleasure, and the two hooked up in more ways than one.
The new album was recorded by Means and his longtime musical savant friend Michael Burton — one of those guys who apparently can pick up an instrument and learn to play it fairly quickly. Jeremy Hadley is the band's manager and now will be helping Means, Chen, and Burton perform the material live — trading off on various instruments, mostly of the pre-recorded variety.
VV is an interesting band in that eighty per cent of the material is actually played out in the studio, but then electronically delivered in public performance. They are also potentially a difficult band for rock writers to scribe about — they're not controversial people, being very positive and the opposite of the surly snobs who incessantly make the Pitchfork news section. Plus, their music is primarily instrumental, and reviewers usually dwell on the lyrics of records for the substance of their coverage.
Before we got into the album track by track, I showed them copies of the new Ramones and Rolling Stones editions of the Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, in which someone picks an album that was very important to them, and writes an entire little book on it. Some of the volumes are very personal — Colin Meloy of the Decembrists' picked the Replacements' Let It Be, and the Seattle Weekly's Michaelangelo Matos handled Prince's Sign O' The Times, whilst Franklin Bruno got all academic with Armed Forces.
I figured asking Andrew, Sylvia, Jeremy, and Michael what albums they would write a book about was a little better than asking for their musical inspirations — but I wanted you, the reader, to know what albums compelled and drives them to create music themselves. Here are their responses:
Michael Burton (24):
Jason Anderson, New England
Mad Libs, Shades of Blue
Stereolab, Dots and Loops
Jeremy Hadley (32):
Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain ("Released when grunge was saturating everything")
Allman Brothers, Eat A Peach
Silver Jews, The Natural Bridge ("Really influences me as a writer, even though Velella Velella isn't much about words")
Sylvia Chen (23):
Best of Glenn Miller
Erik Satie, Gymnopedes
("All of them work in specific genres, but add so much more to them.")
Andrew Means (26):
Mulatu of Ethiopia ("unbelievable Ethiopian funk-jazz")
Yesterday's New Quintet, Angles Without Edges ("Mad Lib taking on jazz personae")
Miles Davis, Get Up With It ("little known dirty funk double album masterpiece")
Come see Velella Velella on August 25th.
Be prepared to dance.
Buy the record.
Then come back and read the following: The Bay of Biscay song by song, described and discussed by the band itself.
1.) "Do Not Fold / Do Not Bend"
Andrew: The recording started out with this little piano thing. Usually I start songs out by recording with drum patterns.
Sylvia: This track builds and builds and then stops on this groove.
TIG: The lyric chants: "A kiss for everyone moving / a kiss for everyone inside."
Michael: The amount of vocals on this song would be more than the entire (debut). Our first album had no vocals whatsoever. Which is cool, because the complaints of our first album is stuff without vocals loses people.
Jeremy: Which IS cool because you don't have to add that many vocals. It seemed so different when Andrew had written it with vocals. It seemed really weird.
Andrew: The first song we ever wrote vocals for was "Nothing But A Bunch of Empty Sunglass Cases" on our first album.
Michael: I remember during that song people just went nuts for it.
Jeremy: We had the wiggly sound in that song. It was like when I bought the first NWA album. I love it, "This is so tough, like NWA!"
Andrew: It's called the wiggly worm. This opens the record because we had the most fun with it.
Michael: It's accessible.
Andrew: There's all this jazzy beat stuff, but it's got this Roots-style bedroom hip-hop jazz stuff as well. I have been drawing inspiration from Parliament/Funkadelic, trying to get people into a space where they're not trying to manage people's perceptions of them.
TIG: Wow, that's a perfect manifesto for your band.
Jeremy: This is a party track hands down. You got drunk people singing at the end of the track.
TIG: They were a little freaked out they'd been recorded for it, right?
Andrew: This record is a culmination of a year and a half of our last record affecting people. Just how wonderful it is to have people together in a space. This is why Michael and I are so inspired by Jason Anderson (Wolf Colonel) — we saw him in Spokane, and he was singing, "Spokane — you CAN!" It's got jazz and hip hop and beats, but also community and space.
Jeremy: There's nothing ironic about this band.
2.) "The Bread Is Hard As Crackers"
M: This is one of the few ones that didn't start off with the drums, it started off with the Farfisa. Two days after we bought that organ.
TIG: How long had you been playing flute before recording this?
M: Four or five months. I play drums on it too.
J: A lot of the vocals are Michael and Andrew, but it's hard to guess the vocal lines.
M: This is one of the few ones we added harmonies to.
S: When I first heard this I thought, 'This is 'The Price is Right' but so much better."
3.) "Man, What A Stupid Slogan"
J: This is very different.
S: Yes, this is very stark, before that you get the idea of the band, it's got a groove, dance hip-hop party, but this is very driven — it keeps you on your toes.
TIG: What's the percentage of instrumentals on this album?
M: There's also a lot of really short tracks.
A: We started with two hours and forty-five minutes with of unreleased songs, and then of those, ideas and so like — "This idea's too good not to use on the album, so on a lot of these tracks we have this little beat, this little groove."
M: Kind of like that Mad Lib album, he has this songs, then 30 seconds between the songs of a completely different groove.
4.) "If You Can't Figure Out How To Work It Maybe You Don't Need Another Drink"
A: This song was influenced by 60s and 70s jazz like Cal Tjader, maybe some Chick Corea.
TIG: I have lived long enough that Chick Corea is cool now.
That sample about Superman sounds really good — very rhythmic with the music.
J: I hate samples. I have a major issue with DJ culture in general. Songs don't usually seem built around samples. This one, for example, they work together.
5.) "Telephone Poles For Sale"
M: This is actually my favorite one to play live. This has been our show ender for three months now. The crowd really gets into this one, too.
J: When I came into playing with the band, I got into the subtle composition — some lines six year old children could play. It's really simple, no overplaying. That one part Sylvia and I play is day one of piano practice.
S: When I saw the band live first, it was so intense: There was this constant escalation — "When is this going to stop?" Now I'm playing it with you guys.
A: This would probably would be a single. The first song would be a single, too. And "Hunter" coming up. "But they're all hits! Every record's a gem!" A club in Santa Cruz and said they were playing this. one of the only gay club in Santa Cruz.
S: THE gay bar.
A: It's like the Re-Bar of Santa Cruz.
6.) "Hard Egg Timer"
TIG: Stupid rock critics are going to ask you about your song titles for the next twenty years. Might as well start with this one.
M: I'm pretty sure that it came from Andrew and my ex-girlfriend were cooking eggs, and they had nothing to time it.
A: You actually remember that happening?
J: This is one of those tracks that's like. It's not fair to parallel it to DJ Shadow, and you're like the least stoner ever, Andrew. But it's got that total opium vibe.
A: There's a lot of money in drugs. This is one of my favorite songs on the records.
S: They're all my favorite songs.
7.) "A Bit Of The Whirlwind, Buddy"
M: This is the Home Movie sample.
A: Hasn't been approved yet, officially.
M: (Home Movie creator/animator) Brendan Small loved it though.
J: We'd watch Home Movies when Andrew and I worked at a newspaper together in Spokane, delirious and exhausted at midnight. And it'd be like watching a movie you're not supposed to. I remember crying.
A: I started this off with the beat, then the bass-line, then solo with the vibes over the top for a while. layer on these kids of things, and kind of react to whatever I laid down the last time. It's kind of what Mad Lib does. He's such a huge inspiration. It's like live jazz, but he did each one of the tracks himself.
J: That's one of the things about it too — not only is there the 'electronic band thing' that it's all machines, that it's robots instead of humans. You say you're a jazz band, you're these improvisational musicians. We're a jam band in the recording phase, and then live we stick right to the record.
M: There's been times when we change up a song. Like when we played '3 to the 6 to the Oh' last night. Or there won't be any more parts to the record, so we'll write a vibes part.
J: We're going, 'What's my part?" Which is not jazz at all.
8.) "3 to the 6 to the Oh"
M: This is the first track Andrew did in Seattle. And I came over for a weekend, and he played it for me, and I thought this was awesome. And he had grown tired of it. So I brought it back to Spokane with James Singleton (our drummer in the band we had over there) to listen to, and so when I moved back to Seattle. I didn't know Andrew had gotten tired of it. I was like, "We need to work on this one."
A: We totally changed this ending.
J: The keyboard line has roller rink Michael Jackson — disco-y sound. "I just want to hold someone's hand!" We need to play a roller rink. That is totally what we're about.
A: We ran this whole track into an MS-20 at the end, and used the filters on it to completely mess it up.
TIG: This is the hit. It's like "Once In A Lifetime" on Remain in Light by the Talking Heads.
J: This is the opening track for a lot of our sets. It's different, because it's so focused. This shows you how retarded you can become when you sing and use a shaker at the same time.
S: I told Andrew we needed to have something go all the way through and not changing.
M: This was a breakthrough for us, to work on songs at the same time too, because our schedules were really different. It was fun (working separately) — Andrew would be working on them, then I'd come home and I'd mess around with it all a little bit. But either of us weren't able to communicate directly about it. So we had stopped being creative. This broke that dry spell again.
("All the kids play on the Interstate / Two bed times / Interstate")
TIG: Are those lyrics about your schedules?
J: Yes! (laughter)
A: The voice for me is just another instrument. At least on this song, it's like the way you play a guitar. The rhythm, the intonation, the semblance. Any set of syllables or sound would work just as well.
M: The vocals have theme, but we wanted them to sound like. A certain rhythm.
A: The song is always about the rhythm of the music, not the lyrics.
J: You can't deduct what a song is going to be about with "Hard Egg Timer." Listeners are going to deduce what a song is about for themselves. I've really warmed up to that.
S: This is the movie soundtrack.
(A soundtrack for what kind of movie?)
S: Something Bond-like about computers in the 80s.
J: There's definitely a crime being committed there.
M: This is Pink Panther.
11.) "We Should Outsource This To Those Kids Over There"
A: This is the only appearance of that Juno 60. People get so excited about my having a Juno 60, but I got bored with it after a couple months.
J: You didn't say you were bored with it when you sold it to me!
S: This song is like, I don't know — (nervously) it's a make-out song. There's no shaker, the bass-line is really taking its time.
A: The vocals whisper in your ear.
TIG: What the hell: What are the vocals saying anyways?
A: What's more important is the guitar line. When I recorded it. Then later on at a show it took us an hour to figure out the guitar line again. When we're recording, it's like whatever works. But a lot times we have been recording what comes to mind. We've forgotten how we've recorded a certain thing. Give me a second to figure it out again.
M: This is not the one that made it into the album. The first we did with flute. This is the same line, but we re-recorded it for this, as it originally sounded like a shit sandwich.
12.) "So Much For What's His Face"
M: We played that opening on a pipe organ.
S: It totally doesn't sound like it.
M: We hadn't written for a long time. Everything we were writing we weren't feeling, so then we just jammed for five minutes straight, and then in the last two minutes we came up with the loop that we used. Andrew's just blasting the shit out of his guitar in frustration.
S: The vocals are a sample. This is the song that really hooked me into it when I saw you guys play live. The tambourine right on the snare beats.
M: The drums on this song. Andrew started getting into mixing up the drums a little. Drums that are played, versus a twenty second loop — the hits are different.
13.) "That's A Terrible Name For A Song"
J: Inspired by many songs.
A: I asked my friend what to name this song, and he came up with a terrible name, so this became "That's A Terrible Name For A Song."
M: This is one of those much looser songs.
TIG: When would this come into a set?
A: Hasn't made it into a set yet.
J: It would be more of a segue. The songs are really built on anticipation of changes, but this one doesn't do that. It's not as if you're building. You're sitting in the moment of the song. It actually builds up to the next song.
14.) "Let's Launch Over It"
S: I could see M.I.A. doing this.
J: Oh God, I'd love that. If M.I.A. reads this, I'd like her to know I'm single.
S: It's another case of me loving everything on here . This was such a long period you recorded this album in, you have such a sense of purpose throughout, but it's like a snapshot.
J: I remember when Andrew was writing these, and I can easier say I love them because I'm not on them yet.
M: It's so interesting the way this turned out too, because the way the vocals were put on it. They were originally terrible.
A: It takes sifting. What feels good stays, what doesn't goes.
M: A lot of fighting (in the meantime).
15.) "Charlie And The Great Friday Sailing Adventure"
J: This reminds me of when we were all indie kids listening to indie rock. It was that Flaming Lips show or record, those beats and acoustic guitars; it was before this band even started at the lake cabin my family has. It's got all those indie rock undertones that keep me really engaged.
M: I get that feeling of that year, it's become this huge anthem. It feels like when we would play at that lake cabin.
J: We'd bring the vibes and just jam.
TIG: That ends beautifully. This was magnificent.
M: We started off with the second half of the song, and then it morphed. Andrew and I got this feeling that we wanted to convey. It's like an orphan who escapes from an orphanage, and is running towards a bay that his adopted parents, to sail away with his new family. And people are like cheering him on, everyone is so happy for him. A complete anthem. And we started it off with something really like minor, a minor key, sad, to build up to this great feeling. We came up with ten versions of the beginning that didn't do that. They weren't good. And then I ripped off "Pure Imagination" from "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory." 'Come with me, and you'll see.' Completely blatant.
(We re-listen. He's right.)
TIG: Why doesn't this end the record?
A: It does. The next track is, basically, 'Thanks for listening.'
A: This is pretty much the credits, two minutes of a Casio keyboard, the preprogrammed beats ran into a filter. It would only be played live for a sound check.
TIG: Anything else you want to say about the record?
J: It's $10.99.
A: I would like to say that the album wouldn't have happened, if it wasn't for my Aunt Margaret, who asked how much it would cost to put this out, and wrote me a check for it. Props to my Aunt Margaret. She's a very benevolent aunt.