In 1997, The Verve Pipe—then a relatively new rock band from Michigan—scored a major hit with “The Freshmen” off an album that ultimately went platinum. Though the band failed to maintain that level of success on subsequent albums (moving through several lineup changes, producers and an eight-year break) it continued to produce thoughtful work, including several studio projects, two family albums and 2017’s Parachute.
Lead singer Brian Vander Ark, also a solo artist and actor, spoke with us prior to the band’s show at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday, Jan. 19.
Your sound on last year’s Parachute doesn’t diverge much from your sound on Villains (1996). It seems like you guys have really stayed true to your aesthetic and eschewed modern-day studio magic, like autotune and the synth-heavy production used by Coldplay and some other fellow ’90s bands. Why did you make that decision and how has your music evolved while still exhibiting that signature sound?
I’ve never liked to chase the trends and that could very well be what the problem is as far as the popularity of our band and how it’s waned quite a bit over the years. But I just don’t believe in it. You have to be true to yourself. At the end of the day, I have to be able to sleep. And the perfect example is Maroon 5, where they completely change over. Hey, wonderful for them. That’s just not who I am and that’s not who we are.
The sound has evolved somewhat I think because of our own tastes. As I get older, I’m appreciating the acoustic guitar much more than I used to. We’re doing things to keep it interesting for ourselves, because I don’t want to get on a ’90s tour and go out and play with a bunch of other bands that are trying to rehash the same thing.
Do you remember your first gig?
August of 1992. We played at a place called the Hidden Shamrock, a Michigan State alum bar. And there were giant holes in the stage. During our set, there was a jukebox up on the side of the stage. A woman actually came up and put money in the jukebox while we were playing. It was Kenny Loggins’ “Your Mama Don’t Dance.” My brother Brad, on bass, [was] right next to the jukebox. He tried to Fonzie it by kicking it. And then he finally had to stop playing the bass and get down under and unplug the jukebox.
Your albums released in the years just after Villains did not sell well, and that was clearly a big disappointment for the band. You later did a short film called Lawn Chairs and Living Rooms (2009) about performing solo at house shows. Tell us a little bit more about that time.
My finances were in a terrible place. This was 2005/2006. I’d just gotten married, we’d just had a baby. And I didn’t know where the next paycheck was coming from. And I just put an email out to my fans. Somebody had booked me at a birthday party. I’m like, “I’m kind of a rock star; I don’t want to play a birthday party.” But then she’s like, “Hey, I’ll pay you $2,500.” I realized that this was a way to get in front of people in an intimate setting. And that first initial house concert was amazing: 50 people in a living room where there’s pictures of family members on the wall, and I’m sitting in front of a fireplace. I certainly would never take credit for house concerts, but nobody was really doing it. Just going in with an acoustic guitar, sitting down and playing your songs and talking to people was a communal experience.
“The Freshmen” actually came out when I was a freshman in high school. I didn’t listen to the lyrics at the time, but have since learned it’s about abortion and suicide. You’ve said in past interviews that you would go back and change the lyrics, so what was going on when you first wrote it and how would you revise it today?
Writing the song really was a made-up story. In fact, I had everything written except “we were freshmen.” And the reason that that actually came about was because I was sitting there before work, and toying with the song, and I kept going [sings melody excerpt]. I looked at the VHS tape of the movie that I’d rented the night before, and it was The Freshman with Marlon Brando. I was like, “Oh my God—that’s it. That’s it.” We shaped a few things, and I said, “This is perfect because it really is about you make these mistakes, you excuse them because you were young.” And so it was the universe telling me this is what it needs to be.
I would make it a little less ambiguous. I think being overly poetic is the sign of neophyte writing, and that’s where I was at that point. But the theme, I wouldn’t change. It resonates with a lot of people. I’m thankful that that was the song that I got, not “I’m Too Sexy” or something that I’d have to play every night. [Laughs.] There’s nothing like it to hear a thousand people sing that song to you. It really just sends shivers—to this day—up my spine.
Where’s the band headed?
We released Parachute one track at a time on social media just to keep connected with people, and it worked so well that we’re going to do that again starting in March. So we’ll be back on another rock record one song a month. And I’ve been working on a kids’ conceptual album, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall but for kids.
Everybody kind of does their own thing, but we’re all full-time musicians. And now touring like crazy again. We all love to play, and we bring our families along on occasion. And it’s a good life. It’s a good life.
Interview has been edited and condensed.