By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Velvet Teen practices in a shack. The shack, which sits in the shade of a large, leafy tree, is made of long white planks covered in fuzzy, sea-green moss. Located a couple of dozen feet off the highway, next to the home of bassist Joshua Staples' parents in Petaluma, California, the shack is a small room with low ceilings; if it were underground, you'd call it a bomb shelter. Smelling of sweat socks and beer, the cramped inside is littered with battered drums, well-worn amps, roughed-up guitars and keyboards covered in stickers that say things like "Jealousy Is to Love as Asthma Is to Breathing." To observe these details is to imagine the work that occurs here, the band members spending countless hours inside this den, laboring over their songs, arguing with one another, laughing, drinking canned Tecate. One assumes that when practice is over, when the musicians are covered in sweat and a little drunk, they walk outside, breathe the moist, cool air of Sonoma County and take in the golden, windswept grass that rolls in waves over the nearby hills.
It's no wonder they named their new record Elysium.
A few miles from that shack, at an industrial warehouse where they recorded parts of the album, is where the band members--Staples, vocalist/pianist/guitarist Judah Nagler and newly minted drummer Casey Deitz (original drummer Logan Whitehurst, who plays on Elysium, left the group in March to attend to a medical condition)--meet me on a sunny summer afternoon. After showing me the cavernous room in which they tracked bass and drums, we retire to a nearby taqueria to discuss the story behind what promises to be the most stunning rock record you'll hear all year.
That story is about a young band that, two years ago, found itself in the throes of the clichéd major-label bidding war. Though it had no following to speak of, the Velvet Teen had two polished EPs that proved it could write cerebral yet accessible rock, full of hooks and harmonies that sounded as pained as they did poppy. The music had as much in common with the sweet experimentalism of Radiohead as it did with the driving gut-punch of Fugazi; Nagler, with his tortured, Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto, was the perfect front man. With a few strokes of the pen, the guys' days of cheap beer, cheap equipment and a steady diet of tortillas could have been over. All they had to do was sign on the dotted line.
They didn't. Instead, they released their debut full-length, Out of the Fierce Parade, on Portland-based microlabel Slowdance Records. Recorded in just eight days by lauded indie producer (and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist) Chris Walla, the album grew into an underground sensation over the course of two years of DIY national and international touring. For those of us who couldn't stop humming Parade's crunchy, mostly guitar-driven songs, expectations for a follow-up--which would surely be released by Warner Music or RCA, we assumed--grew and grew.
Elysium is that follow-up, and it jukes every expectation. Instead of reuniting with Walla, Nagler and his brother Ephriam, both novice producers, recorded the work themselves. Rather than another collection of three- and four-minute rock songs, Elysium is six songs that stretch over three-quarters of an hour. Both lyrically and musically, it is an awesome, shimmering achievement, divergent from the group's earlier sound yet consistent with its overall vision. It's also the last thing the Velvet Teen would have been allowed to release on a major. There are a number of reasons for that, including the fact that there is no discernible single, the lyrics are provocative and often cryptic, and seven-plus-minute songs do not get played on alternative radio. But perhaps the biggest reason a major label would have shelved this album is this: Though the Velvet Teen is technically a rock band, there's not one note of guitar on the entire record.
"We're thankful that we didn't go to that shitty Ima Robot show, but went to the Death Cab show," Staples explains. This was in February 2002, two months before the release of Out of the Fierce Parade, during the week in which the band was in Los Angeles playing the showcase circuit--essentially a series of shows for suits and lawyers.
"On our way down [to L.A.] we were thinking, 'This may not work out,'" Staples recounts. "'We're gonna go down there and see what it's like.' Then, four days deep, there's so much going on. We're meeting everybody: Tony Ferguson, the guy who runs Interscope, the guy who signed No Doubt. We met Rick Rubin."
"I didn't know who Rick Rubin was when I first met him," says Nagler of his encounter with the studio wizard whose beard is as long as the list of bands he's made famous. "I was like, 'Oh, that guy's got a beard. All right.'"