School of fish

After several nights on the road, the tour bus has finally come to a daylong rest in North Carolina, and the sun is shining for the first time in weeks for the five young Michigan boys who call themselves the Verve Pipe. Drummer Donny Brown has just gotten off the phone with his mom. "She's getting up there in age," he says. "We mostly talked about who all is either sick or dying in the neighborhood, what funerals she's been to lately, and things like that."

Brown's mother is apparently not too old to watch MTV, however. She told him all about how she's been watching their videos, and how proud she is of their success.

In fact, it'd be hard not to see a Verve Pipe video these days, even if you've just tuned in for a few minutes. MTV has clasped the band to its video bosom, and perhaps that's part of the reason a lot of people hold them in disdain.

I caught onto the Verve Pipe a bit late, actually. It wasn't until their video for "The Freshmen" went into mind-numbing rotation that I noticed them, and when I did, my reaction was pretty negative. "Just another alt-rock post-Nirvana/Pearl Jam wannabe, milkin' a lame ballad for all it's worth" was the basic response.

No doubt about it, "The Freshmen" really is a bad song, bringing to mind the worst of Toad the Wet Sprocket, or even Dio's "Winds of Change." It's an overly dramatic tear-jerker that jerks more than anything, with the possible exception of selling. Which is a shame, really, because the rest of the album is fairly good. And as the Verve Pipe proved beyond a doubt at their sold-out Irving Plaza show in New York recently, they are a very talented band that's more than capable of pumping out great music.

Clearly, this was no neophyte wussy act up there with only one good song to carry the concert. On the contrary--the show actually evoked images of Kula Shaker, who have gained an excellent reputation as a live band for much the same reason the Verve Pipe should receive praise--they're super-tight, put every last bit of themselves into performing, and manage to take psychedelia (in this case, a rocked-up version of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds") and convert it to something that almost makes you want to slam dance.

Of course, the concert had its share of guys in button-down shirts, singing along to "Drive You Mild" and "The Freshmen," but the Verve Pipe wouldn't be offended by that. In the early days, frats were the band's bread and butter. Hailing from Lansing, Michigan, they were formed at the epicenter of collegeville, but used it as a springboard to bigger success. Admirably enough, they have never turned their backs on their original fans--even if they are a bunch of beer-guzzling Alpha Phi Lambda Gamma whatnots.

"We don't have anything to hide," Brown says. "None of us actually graduated from college, if that makes it any better. But Michigan is a university mega-plex, and it's because of college crowds that we had the support we had. We were already doing very well just regionally. We could have stayed in Michigan and made money."

Indeed, the Verve Pipe's early independent releases, including Pop Smear, had already racked up impressive sales, making them all the more attractive to record companies. It also didn't hurt matters that lead singer Brian Vander Ark and bassist Brad Vander Ark--his brother--had very marketable looks.

What's behind the pretty faces, however, are five guys who had worked long and hard at becoming good musicians, and who are--despite being heavily derivative and somewhat easily beguiled by video producers--very cool and down-to-earth people.

I knew when I read the Rolling Stone article in which Brian Vander Ark admitted to farting in front of actress Lauren Holly that these guys have something in common with the average Joes in their audience--at least in terms of attitude, if not gastroenterological disorders. Likewise, in a display of sheer unpretentiousness that is rare these days, the Verve Pipe often invite their opening acts on stage for encore performances.

"We never plan those things at all," says Brown of the free-for-all jam climaxes. "I just have a lot of respect for anyone that's done the same thing we have. I see that they're music lovers like us, so why not? Besides, Tonic [their supporting band] are such easy-going guys."

Speaking with Donny about the success of "The Freshmen" single and the possibility that they're milking a bad video to sell records, he remains unwaveringly defensive of his band's honor. Brown talks about the day the Verve Pipe sat down with producer Mark Neale in London to lay out ideas for the video, and actually manages to make it sound redeeming.

"I remember that day perfectly," Brown says. "It was very sunny, and we were all sitting outside. Mark had the idea about having Brian up front, which I thought was good, because the song tells a story and needed to have one person up front. Then Mark had this idea about a red screen coming up periodically. He said, 'Put your hand over your eyes for a minute, like you're in thought, then take it away--and tell me what you see.' I don't know if anyone understood that's what it's supposed to be, but I think it's a great idea."

Maybe Brown feels indebted to the song, because it has, in fact, opened the door for people to hear other (and better) Verve Pipe material, like the Pearl Jam-inspired "Penny is Poison," or "Cup of Tea," which was actually their first single, but didn't fare so well on the charts.

"In the end, the buying public speaks," Brown says. "And a million people can't all be wrong."

Yeah? Tell that to the Spice Girls, amigo.
Yet two notable names should be mentioned when discussing the Verve Pipe. One is former Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison, who produced "Villains" for the band. The other is Kiss, for whom the Verve Pipe courageously acted as opening support throughout their U.S. and European tours.

"I'm a big Kiss fan," Brown says. "I have so much respect for those guys, you wouldn't believe it. I went out to the front after our first set, and people were like 'Hey, nice show, man.' But then all of a sudden, you just hear this big explosion: 'You wanted the best, you got the best. The hottest band in the world, Kiss!' And there's like fire everywhere, and you're so blown away. There's never a dull moment with those guys on stage."

Perhaps the Verve Pipe picked up a cue from their mentors in Kiss, and it's starting to show in their live shows. Unfortunately, some of the more skeptical out there may never see these good-intentioned Midwestern boys because of distaste for "The Freshmen." And they've got a good point. But the more forgiving among you might want to consider it a youthful indiscretion from a band with more to say than what's on the surface.

After all, they were only freshmen.

The Verve Pipe will be at the Dallas Music Complex on Saturday, July 5, with Tonic and K's Choice.

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