Very few touring bands are playing shows right now.
At least, they’re not playing live shows with actual audiences. Due to COVID-19, the thought of sitting inside a packed venue is vile to even those of us who normally practically live at concert venues, and with health directives limiting at what capacity venues can operate or if they can be open at all, it has wrecked the economics of touring and kept bands at home.
Normally a group of road warriors, The Verve Pipe have spent most of this year grounded. Like most artists, they’ve played a streaming show and spent time writing and recording new music. But they had to push their 2020 tour to 2021.
But this weekend, the Michigan-based band known for The Freshmen will play one show in Omaha, its first live show since February and one of the only live concerts by a nationally touring band happening anywhere. It’ll be socially distant (seats in the 2,600-capacity Orpheum Theater will be spread out and masks are required) and a little different from what you’d expect.
We caught up with frontman Brian Vander Ark on what this pandemic has done to a band that spends most of its time playing rock clubs as well as his thoughts on streaming performances, what it’s like playing a socially distant show and how he was involved in That Thing You Do.
Kevin Coffey: You guys usually just tour a ton. So what has this been like? What have you been doing?
Brian Vander Ark: I think what everybody’s doing is creating content, you know, working on albums, working on videos, and that kind of thing. I mean, I have the feeling that come January next year, we’re gonna see a wave of new, creative music or videos from everybody. And then everybody’s gonna want to go tour again. I think that’s pretty much what everybody has to do.
Otherwise, we’re trying to figure out ways to do creative shows as well. Because now at 25% capacity in most of these venues, you have to find a way to entertain that isn’t the typical just kick up your right foot and do karate kicks and play rock ‘n’ roll, so we’re trying to do different things.
KC: Have you been good with staying at home and hammering that stuff out? Or are you a little stir crazy?
BVA: No, it’s been really good. I mean, I’m one of these guys that believes the universe tells you what you should do. Most of the time, you just have to be open to it. We went so long there touring and playing and not concentrating on content that when it finally was time to sit and make new stuff, it was really good.
I had the feeling when all the shows got canceled like, well, what the hell are we going to do for money? And then you realize, I’ve got enough stockpiled away that I can go ahead and take some time and just be creative. And so that was the blessing, being able to do that.
KC: It’s good to know you’re financially stable. Not everyone is!
BVA: It’s been one of those things where, you know, I would love to have more money in retirement. But if push comes to shove, I can pull a little bit out of my retirement and continue to create, I mean, a day job is not even in the cards. There’s no question that I can’t take a day job. It’s not in my DNA. This is what I do.
KC: You have done some streaming shows, but you tried to do it differently than everyone else. What was that like?
BVA: Often with those streaming shows, you’re either playing your living room or you’re playing with the band to no one. That is boring to me, though. It’s so boring to me. Everybody’s streams from Blake Shelton to my old Army buddy, you know? There’s so much out there, you have to find ways to make it interesting. So what we did last Saturday was a really, I thought, a really fun idea.
I had to think to myself, how would I want to see my favorite band play? I don’t want to see them pretend like there’s a crowd in the audience. I want to see them interact with each other. I want to see a workshop a song or two, you know? I want to see him play a couple of hits, yes, but try different instrumentation and all that. So that’s what we did. We sat around in the circle and an empty club with chairs piled around us, you know, because the club is closed.
We did a four camera shoot, we told stories to each other and didn’t acknowledge the cameras so that the viewer can be part of it part of the process. And I watched the footage yesterday. I was just I was so happy with the way it came out. I thought kind of wish everybody would do this. Well, I hope nobody else does it!
As an entrepreneur, I love a good challenge. This is the challenge. Let’s do something interesting, that sets us apart. And I think that we’ve achieved that. And now I think we’re gonna you know, we need to take it to the next level, whatever that level is. I haven’t figured it out yet.
KC: That’s a cool way to do it. I love concert films with a crowd and whatever, but I also love things that are more behind-the-scenes, so to speak, showing how a band puts things together.
BVA: I explained to the band what I wanted to do and how I wanted to approach. I said, “Just watch Let It Be and just go. You know, we’re not The Beatles, but there’s going to be a moment where I pull a brand new song out to you and hand you some notes. I say, “Hey, Lou, play this. Try it this way,” or whatever. And he’s gonna say, “I don’t want to play it that way,” or whatever. We’re gonna go back and forth a little bit, and everybody’s gonna see it live. But there’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s who we are!
That’s what’s so interesting to me is to find out who the band members really are, what their personalities are like. And we were ribbing each other. We played a song we hadn’t played in years, and the drummer messed it up. We all had start over. “Take it from the chorus again!” These are things that I think I would want to see if I saw a band.
If anybody wants to see The Verve Pipe play The Freshmen there’s a gajillion videos of us playing The Freshmen. Don’t pay us $20 to stream just so you can see The Freshmen. If you want to see The Freshmen, we’ll play a great version of The Freshmen, but we’re going to laugh about how we might be sick of the song or give our honest opinion. And you know what, in my my keyboard player said something really insightful. He said, “You know, we don’t play The Freshmen any more than we play our other songs. We play all the songs.” You know what I mean? It was a really good point. Well, of course, we’re not sick of it. We don’t play it any more than we play it in other songs and we’re not sick of those, you know?
Anyway, so these are kinds of things that come come up live and conversations that we have, when we’re on the road together, why not let the audience be privy to that as well? Yeah, that’s so cool.
KC: This show in Omaha, is this the first audience you’ve played to since before COVID hit?
BVA: Yeah, it is. And I’m excited about that. I’m so excited about that. Because I think getting in front of even a crowd, even if it’s at half capacity or 25% capacity, I’m ready to entertain that 25% like it’s nobody’s business. I’m ready to make sure that those people are entertained. Because we’re not a shoegazer band. We’re a band that likes to interact with the audience. I’ll stop the show to ask questions of people about the best place to eat after the show and that kind of thing. We’ll have some laughs. I enjoy that kind of thing. So we’re gonna have a great time at that show.
KC: People in Omaha are excited. There have been very few shows. Most of them have been local or area bands. Normally there are shows all the time here, and there have been very few.
BVA: We are very excited. We’ve had great shows there. We’ve done festivals there, too. Back when the ’90s fests were such a big deal. We were touring with the other ’90 bands, you know? We’ve always had a great time there.
Can you imagine how excited we are that we get down on stage again? It’s definitely going to be one of those energizing things that will carry us to the next show, which I think is a month later. Typically, the next show is the next night.
We’re going to rock this place. For sure. It’s going to be great. I know it’s gonna be an amazing show. We’re really pumped up right now.
If anything, we’re gonna have to slow the tempo down a bit. You know what I mean? You get that anxious fever, and the drummer is going a mile a minute and no one else can keep up. I wrote a lyric about that. It was a song called Supergig and it says, “The drummer has got a hard on for every song he starts on.” All pumped up and excited, you know? We’re gonna slow everything down because it’s going to go crazy.
KC: I’m sure you’e seen That Thing You Do where it’s supposed to be a ballad and the drummer goes way to fast.
BVA: Yeah! It’s funny you mentioned that because because Adam Schlesinger, I don’t know if you know this but he died from COVID.
KC: Yeah, it’s so sad.
BVA: Yeah. He produced our Underneath album. The song Colorful was on there that was in Rock Star and everything. He was the best. Anyway, he and I had a connection with That Thing You Do. We were competing because I wrote the theme song. And he wrote the theme song, and they chose his because of course his was brilliant. And it’s such a great song. And mine was schlocky and crappy!
KC: Has that ever seen the light of day?
BVA: No, it hasn’t. But I talked about re-recording it just for fun, but I haven’t gotten around it to it.
KC: I know a ton of artists at the time made songs, but I never knew you were one of them.
BVA: That was a huge deal. That would have been when we were recording Villains, which was our big album. So yeah, we were just signed to a new label. And I got this script handed on my lap, and it said Tom Hanks on it. I was like, “What? What?” Later, I heard Adam got it, you know? And I was like, “Whoa, who is this?” And then I picked up Foundtains of Wayne and was just blown away. I thought it was such an amazing band. And later he produced our record. He’s great guy, and it’s really, really sad that he passed. Really sad.
KC: So, you mentioned being creative. Have you made new music?
BVA: We’ve been working on the new album for about six months now. So this thing has come full circle now where we’re to the last couple of songs. So I think we’re going to try a new brand new song out in Omaha that night as well.
KC: How many shows do you have scheduled the rest of the year? I can’t imagine it’s too many.
BVA: For this year, we’ve got you know, four shows in Chicago. Where you used to do one show in Chicago before, now because of the 25% capacity, we have to play four. But other than that and one Grand Rapids show, there’s nothing. Next year, we’ve got all the shows booked for the whole East Coast.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.