A Breath Of Fresh Verve Pipe
Being the architect of a generational anthem can have its ups and downs. A number one song for a young band sets the bar impossibility high. It’s the comet that all future work will be measured against. On the flip side, an early peak proves the band has what it takes to go the distance. In 1997, the Verve Pipe topped the charts with it’s massive number one hit ‘The Freshmen’. Lead singer Brian Vander Ark had no idea when he wrote the dark pop classic that his words would later be considered one of the most prolific songs of the decade.
“In fact, it was written in such an odd way. After a year of working on a song about two guys that did some things they were sorry for, I was still missing a verse,” he says. “I was getting ready for work and I looked down and there was a VHS copy of the movie with Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick called The Freshmen and I was like, ‘That’s it!’ Who could blame us? We were just figuring things out. I had no idea it was going to be so important to people and put a stamp on the 90’s.”
The Verve Pipe perform a stripped-down set of hits and fan favorites, including ‘The Freshmen’ and ‘Colorful’ (featured in the film Rock Star), February 4th at The Original Café Eleven in St. Augustine (www.originalcafe11.com). For this tour, Vander Ark says the band will deliver three very different performances including a full rock show, pared down combination of acoustic and rock, and an all-acoustic reimaging of the band’s debut album Villains. As the principal songwriter for The Verve Pipe, he looks forward to the chance to showcase what he considers to be the band’s core strength.
“We’re all songwriters. We all go off and write and bring it to the table where we all put our bits and pieces on it,” says Vander Ark. “We’ve never been a band that uses gimmicks. If you can’t play it on one instrument and sing it, then it isn’t a Verve Pipe song. I need that to be projected live.”
In 2017, the Verve Pipe celebrated the 20th anniversary of its multi-platinum album Villains with an acoustic reimagining of the material as well as a collection of new music on the release Parachute. “We try to figure out how to play Villains as many times as we can. We put out a live album a couple years ago that did really well for us. If the venue is smaller, its more conducive to that kind of vibe. We really like the more singer-songwriter type venues,” he says. “That being said, we still like to plug in and really rock out.”
While the original lineup has changed over the years, the band’s commitment to its craft has remained intact. With Vander Ark on guitar and lead vocals, Lou Musa on lead guitar, Randy Sly on keyboard and backing vocals, Craig Griffith on harmonica and backing vocals, drummer Sam Briggs, and bassist Joel Ferguson, the band retained its signature sound. It wasn’t until they incorporated a female voice to the mix with the addition of Channing Lee that the Verve Pipe took on a new dimension. “It wasn’t like ripping a bandaid off. It happened over time. Adding Channing has been amazing. She’s a prolific songwriter and a terrific singer. We’ve already written some new songs together. She brings a great energy to the group.”
The Verve Pipe formed in 1992 in Lansing, Michigan from the ashes of two local bands. Vander Ark and his brother, former bassist Brad Vander Ark, had previously played in Johnny with an Eye, while original drummer Donny Brown and guitarist Brian Stout were veterans of Water 4 the Pool. Both bands had been local favorites throughout the region, which helped the Verve Pipe become a hit on college campuses across the state. Through relentless touring, the band developed a solid reputation and loyal following in their home state, eventually selling a combined total of more than 40,000 copies of their first two albums, I’ve Suffered a Head Injury and Pop Smear.
In 1995, the Verve Pipe signed to RCA Records and began recording their major-label debut, Villains, which appeared the following year. After spending a year touring in support of Villains, including an opening spot for Kiss on the European leg of their reunion tour, the Verve Pipe issued a re-recorded version of ‘The Freshmen’. Originally released on the group’s debut album, it went on to become the signature song despite its dark themes of abortion and a drug overdose and occasional butchered lyrics.
“The funny thing is it still happens. The line, ‘For the life of me I cannot believe we’d ever die for these sins,’ I’ve heard as, ‘Die for 40 cents,’ and I’m like, really?” says Vander Ark, who also cites the misinterpretation of the line, “She’s a punk who rarely ever took advice,” to “Punkarelli never took advice.” Vander Ark laughs, “Punkarelli. Like that’s her name.”
While Vander Ark is happy to play the fan favorite, audiences in their home state aren’t always as anxious to hear ‘The Freshmen’. “Up here, it’s different,” he says. “We have a really great core fan base and we do house concerts here a lot where they say, ‘Please don’t play ‘The Freshmen’.” And then they do. “We like playing the hits, and there is always that one person in the crowd that would be really disappointed if we didn’t play it. We like making people happy.”
Vander Ark is grateful to be part of something that has such special meaning to so many people. He never tires of hearing a crowd singing his words back to him, even if they still mess up the lyrics now and again. “I think some songs are just out there, and we are lucky to come upon them in the universe,” he says. “If I’d come upon ‘I’m Too Sexy’ I couldn’t live with myself if I had to play that night after night.”
To hear hits other than ‘I’m Too Sexy,’ look for tickets at www.originalcafe11.com.