By Jillian Dawson
It’s difficult to describe the music of the ’90s without noting it’s a little schizophrenic. Coming out of the era of hair bands and new wave, music went to a darkly honest place with grunge. In contrast, we were introduced to a new world of bubble-gum pop, a smattering of boy bands, girl power, Gwen Stefani and ‘90s hip-hop. At a time when MTV reigned, pumping music videos straight into our homes for consumption, we were introduced to songs and bands that became time stamps – songs of a generation. One such heavy-hitter rose up out of Michigan, the 1997 ballad from the Verve Pipe titled, “The Freshmen,” peaking at number 5 on the Billboard charts. Though the follow-up albums didn’t catch the same fire as Villains, lead singer/songwriter Brian Vander Ark continues to write and perform his music across the country. In anticipation of Thursday’s performance at Rock Garden Studio, Marc Golde spoke with Vander Ark about the music industry in the ‘90s and all the nerdy tech questions a recording guy loves to know.
You are of the last generation of artists (The 1990s) that enjoyed the career arc that kids dream of: score a major label record deal, record in big studios with big-time producers, get a video on MTV, have hit singles, tour, shake David Letterman's hand, etc. Would you describe what it felt like while it was happening?
I was constantly worried about what comes next. As much as I enjoyed meeting Letterman and Leno, I wasn’t present in the moment. We needed to have another hit song and the worry about writing one created enormous pressure. I didn’t enjoy that time as much as I wish I would have.
Did you feel a shift in the industry at a certain point?
I certainly felt it in 1999 when the self-titled album (the frog album) was released. Genre-wise it was all rock/metal, Nu Metal, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, etcetera.
What do you think has changed the most with the record industry?
At that time, file sharing was becoming more and more common. Everyone was worried about music not being purchased. I had friends who swore one day music would essentially be free. I thought it would never happen and, of course, it’s now free if you want it.
Do you prefer the big, expensive studios or are you more comfortable with the guy down the street or home recording?
Home recording, always. It’s really not a matter of comfort or vibe, it’s all about the bottom line. As much as I would love to lounge about for 3 months recording when the mood strikes, it’s not practical anymore.
Do you have a home studio? If so do you release music from there or just demos?
I don’t - I don’t have the patience for it. I like to record a demo in garage band, or even into my iPhone, and let the others in the band record it properly. They are the ones with the real talent for engineering. I feel like I’m wasting time trying to choose the best mic pre or playing with the newest gadget. I’d rather work on the songs.
Are there any pieces of gear you rely on or prefer when you're recording?
I’m not a ‘gear guy’ at all. I’m not even a ‘guitar guy.’ Gear and guitars, what have you, are for one thing: getting the song recorded.
Do you enjoy recording or is it just a necessary process for your songs?
I enjoy recording other instruments or parts written by the other members of the band. They are all brilliant and come up with interesting ideas inspired by my songs. I’m often surprised by what they come up with, though I shouldn’t be; it’s always great. The process of recording my own parts is the least fun of all of it. I just want to get it done so I can listen to everyone else.
You've released so much material. Is it your process to write diligently or just when the inspiration hits?
Diligence. I’m constantly writing, or thinking about writing. Even when I swear I’m going to take a few days off, I can’t. I’m always working.
Is there anyone, living or not, that you’d love to collaborate with?
I would love to bring Sting back to that place he was in when he was writing for Ghost in the Machine or Synchronicity. I would love to collaborate with Elvis Costello more than anyone else I think. He was a huge influence on me, lyrically and musically. My dream had been to work with Andy Partridge, and I got my chance. I think it would be possible to do that again, and I may pursue it.
Come see Brian Vander Ark Thursday January 5th, 7pm at Rock Garden Studio.