By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Sonny Kay is as punk rock as anyone in Colorado. Ask him if he agrees, however, and he'll deny it. "No matter what, we're always going to be considered relative to punk," he says of his band, the VSS. "But just for me, personally, what's considered punk now not only has no relation whatsoever to something that happened fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, but it really has nothing at all to do with what we're doing. I think that we exist completely independently. I mean, what's the comparison between us and a band like the Offspring?"
Not much--because while the members of the Offspring and their cousins in outfits such as NOFX produce color-by-numbers pop songs that pay homage to the ghosts of punk's past, the VSS strives to chart new territory--and it does so in a distinctly un-punk state. "As far as what's considered punk rock around here, we don't have much in common with what's going on," Kay admits. "We're such an obscurity in the context of everything else."
That's especially true when you consider that the group's home base is Boulder. Kay and his mates--guitarist Josh Hughes, bassist Andy Rothbard and drummer Dave Clifford--formed from the ashes of Angel Hair, the Kay-led outfit that went against the whole-wheat grain of the town's music scene over a two-year-plus span. Angel Hair, which in its final incarnation also featured Hughes, released four seven-inches and one EP on a variety of independent labels and toured almost endlessly. The result: a cult following in areas such as the East Coast and Southern California, as well as writeups in national publications such as Maximum Rock and Roll and Flipside.
But Angel Hair became a victim of its own success, and when drummer Paul Iannacito left for San Francisco last winter, Kay and Hughes decided to take another tack. "With Angel Hair, we were really kind of stuck with no place to go," Hughes notes. "We created this sound for ourselves that tended to limit us. The last couple of songs we did were really good, but we weren't allowed to be the same band and play those songs. We would've had to totally revamp the entire thing. We were kind of going down this tunnel with no room to grow. But with this band, we've left a lot of things open. We can go in any direction."
The path Kay, Hughes and the others have taken has something in common with the straightahead speed punk of Angel Hair, but there also are radical differences. The VSS's sound is noisy and fast, first and foremost. But it's also jarring, strangely glamorous and, on some inexplicable level, smarter than that made by most bands of its ilk. Live, Kay, who's well-mannered and soft-spoken in conversation, throws himself about with truly reckless abandon. Meanwhile, his bandmates' cool yet manic energy practically streams from their pores throughout sets that rarely last more than half an hour and are tied into one seamless effect by recorded interludes.
The players put a lot of thought into their stage act. "We're trying to make it theatrical," Hughes says. "There's always been this thing in hardcore and punk that you're supposed to be up there playing your music and you aren't supposed to be up there entertaining. But that's exactly why we are up there." He adds succinctly, "It sucks to bore people."
A similar aversion to predictability powers the act's first seven-inch, the recently released Via the VSS. That platter, recorded in March at Denver's Time Capsule studios, has "a lot more embellishment," Kay says, including "organs, backing vocals and other things that we just sort of skip live and cut to the chase." The resulting piece, Hughes believes, is a musical animal with a unique growl. "A lot of people say we're new-wave," he comments. "I think maybe a lot of new wave went sort of that electronic way. If you look at something like Bauhaus or Tones on Tail or Echo and the Bunnymen, it's all kind of dancey. I think everything went that one way, but new wave could've taken more of the direction that we took."
The most recent direction the VSS headed was east; the musicians presently are on a three-week tour that's taking them through cities on the Atlantic seaboard. The jaunt comes on the heels of a West Coast trek in support of Washington, D.C., hardcore band Kerosene 454. The success of these shows has convinced Kay that "we're more part of a national scene than a local scene. When I think of the realm the VSS exists in and the circuit of fans I guess we're a part of, when I think of where we fit into things, I think of us in terms of other places, if at all. I kind of think that we're involved with the two coasts a lot more. I don't imagine us as a Colorado band, carrying a banner or anything like that."
Kay's attitude could have something to do with the band's impending relocation to the San Francisco area, which should take place sometime this winter. While he believes that GSL, the independent record label he's run for the last two years, will survive the move, he concedes that he'll have to quit his job as manager of CU-Boulder's Club 156, one of the Front Range's prime punk venues. But in Kay's mind, it's time to move on; after watching a seemingly endless string of bands play at the venue, he says he's learned as much as he could. "I set the VSS up to be a lot more interesting than everything I've seen in the past three years," he claims. "We don't want to limit ourselves to punk.