Taking their name from the titular satellite that beamed messages to author Philip K. Dick in the 1981 novel, Stanwood, Washington residents VALIS will put out their fourth full-length, Dark Matter through Small Stone next month. As I said in last month’s review of the album that loosely coincided with it being released on iTunes, it is by far the band’s most straightforward affair, but it doesn’t completely abandon the psychedelia so typical of their earlier work. At its heart, it is a rock album, done just right.
Aside from introducing new drummer Matt Vandenberghe to the fold with guitarist/vocalist Patrick Conner and bassist/vocalist Adrian Makins, Dark Matter also reunites guitarist/vocalist Van Conner (ex-bass, Screaming Trees) with producer Jack Endino. In the interview that follows, Van discusses that, the many changes that have taken place in VALIS over the years, tour possibilities and whether he feels his past in Screaming Trees has helped or hindered his work since.
Dark Matter has a more straight-up rock feel than did Champions of Magic, but with smoother production. How was it to reunite with Jack Endino after all this time? How would you compare working with him now to when he did Buzz Factory and Change Has Come for Screaming Trees?
It was great working with Jack again. I have been seeing him around town for years and we had talked about the possibility of working together again. Our bass player, Adrian Makins, has another band called All Time High. They were recording their record with Jack and they asked me to stop by and sing some back up vocals. I felt really comfortable and natural (and the recording sounded great) working with Jack again so when we were ready to record I gave him a call. He is the same great guy he was way back when but even more full power in the hard rock dept. He really knows how to make things heavy and to get a band to pull off a great performance. He also works his ass off.
The album feels like a classic rock record in the sense that the focus seems to be just on writing quality songs, rather than having a grand concept or narrative or anything like that. When you sit down to write, are you thinking in the context of the album as a whole or one song at a time? Was there material from these sessions that didn’t make it onto the album?
This album more then any other is a one song at a time deal. We wrote about half of them in 2008 but the rest are spread out all the way back to our original lineup with Kurt [Danielson] and Dan [Peters] (“Down Like Rain”). Two of the songs, “Under Satan’s Will” and “Battleship” (three if you include the secret track “Planet Orion” which is now available as a split single with Kandi Coded on Volcom Entertainment) are from a short-lived band that Adrian, Patrick and I had with Chovie D. (formerly of Kung Pao) called Musk Ox. We didn’t have any extra songs that we recorded but we do have about five that we didn’t record. These will be on our next recording project, which I hope to have out in 2010.
In my review I mistakenly credited Sean Hollister with the drums where I see on your MySpace it says Matt Vandenberghe handled percussion. What happened with Sean and is he out of the band for good?
Well, Sean has been living back in our hometown of Ellensburg for a long time now. It became harder and harder for him to come over for practice. Last year we had a pretty hard winter and it led to him missing some shows and we had to get a fill in for practice and shows. That person was Matt. We have heard that Sean ended up enrolling in an all volunteer Russian search for the great Himalayan beast known to as the Yeti financed by none other then former Soviet Premier Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. We think he may now be based out of Siberia. We can’t communicate with him due to the sensitive nature of his work. We have not talked to or heard hide nor hair from him since. Matt is a great drummer and we are happy to have him on board.
How did “Under Satan’s Will” develop musically, and what’s behind the lyrics? Do you think of lyrics as a way to tell a story or more for general description of an idea?
“Under Satan’s Will” was one of those spur of the moment type happenings. As I mentioned earlier we had a band called Musk Ox. Chovie D. and I sang and played guitar and bass, respectively. Adrian played guitar and Patrick was on drums. Adrian was playing a riff that he had from a former band he was in and I walked in on it. I had no idea what he was playing. Pat and Chovie joined in. For whatever reason I just started singing the lyrics, “You’re under Satan’s will.” It just came out for whatever reason. Quite a few of our songs happen like this. No forethought. They just happen. Later, Adrian and I sat down and wrote the verse lyrics. To everyone it means something different. I think it is about selling your soul to the devil. We all do it, all the time. In the context of the song it talks about a woman. Selling your soul to the devil for a woman. Then it talks about the songs of Lucifer. He was God‘s musical angel before he fell. It also says, “I sold my soul and I don’t know what for,” which is basically what happens to all of us when we finally get what we want. We can’t remember why we wanted it or what it was like to want it so bad in the first place.
At the risk of sounding nerdy (a risk I’m prepared to take), the fuzz that opens “Battleship” is absolutely killer. What kind of setup are you using for guitar nowadays and how has your tone evolved over the years?
Well, that song we used one of Jack‘s “secret weapons.” It is called The Vorg and a Big Muff together through a Marshall that was hot-rodded by Mr. Soldono. Patrick used that amp on most things. I play through a Sovtek Mig 50 and use an ’80s turbo Ratt as well as a Small Stone, Morley Wah, Auto Wah and occasionally a Electro Harmonix delay pedal. Patrick normally uses a Sunn Beta Lead head but in the studio we had all sorts of cool amps to choose from and the Soldono ruled so we used it. Adrian uses an Acoustic Control Corp head and 1x 15 ACC speaker. In the old days we used whatever old gear the Trees weren’t using then we used all Sunn stuff for a long time. Then I started trying all sorts of different gear and ended up with the Sovtek. For me, simple is better.
Something about “Planet Orion,” the secret track, tells me there has to be a story there just waiting to be told. Where did the inspiration for that one come from?
It is a true story about a woman we met in Toronto, Canada on tour a few years back during the Head Full of Pills tour. The chorus is basically her exact words that night when she came back to our hotel (in the song it is a motel) room. She said, “Planet Orion is as hard as a diamond. I had an abortion, the baby is gone.” She said the baby is now on the planet of Orion and insisted that the planet itself is as hard as a diamond. She went on and on about this. Yelling and screaming. Adrian and I were trying to sleep and kept yelling for Patrick and Sean to, “Control that woman!” however, she was not one to be controlled. She ended up punching Sean in the chest and knocked his ass on the floor. I don’t remember what happened after that but I think when I woke up she was gone. The verses are about her behavior at the club before hand. I wonder if she is out there somewhere; please drop us a line.
How has the VALIS writing process has changed over the course of the four records? How do you feel about where the band is now sonically?
Some things are the same, some different. I used to write at home on a four track and use a drum machine. Nowadays I bring more basic ideas to the band. Perhaps just a riff with a melody or sometimes we just start playing and things happen. I take it home and make something out of it and bring it back for more work with the band. I think we all contribute more now. More of a band effort on song creation. We all have something to do with all of the songs.
Do you consider VALIS a stoner rock band?
As with every band I have ever been in it seems like people need a label. I remember when the Screaming Trees started out. People called us “neo-psychedelic” or garage rock. Then later when we were on Sub Pop they called us grunge. People can call us whatever they want. I prefer “acid rock” though.
You’ve toured all over the US and Europe. Where are some of the best places to play that you’ve encountered with VALIS? Are there any scenes in particular that you dig?
To me, most tours don’t bring up very many memories. They seem to be a blur. I don’t know if that is due to over-consumption or just traveling at such a fast pace. I do remember that most every stop we have made there were some cool people who had bands of their own that showed up. That seems to be an ongoing theme ever since I started out. The towns that bands come out to support other bands have the coolest feel or “scene” if you want to call it that.
Do you think that having been in Screaming Trees has helped or hurt VALIS? How do you feel about that band now as opposed to when you first broke up?
I think that it helps open quite a few doors for us but at the same time when we get through that door people hear that we don’t sound exactly like the Trees and they are not always very happy with that.
How do I feel about the Trees? Lots of good and bad memories. I think we were a great band and that we caused a lot of our own problems. We had great live shows and made some great records. It was a good time. That is how I have always felt. Since we broke up in 2000.
How much touring is VALIS going to do for Dark Matter? Is anything planned as of yet?
You never know what the future may hold as far as that goes. Perhaps we will figure out how to do a free live web broadcast show. That would be cool.
Tags: Seattle, Small Stone, Valis