By Bree Davies
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The Velvet Teen practices in a shack made of long white planks covered in fuzzy, sea-green moss. Located in Petaluma, California, a couple dozen feet off the highway, next to the home of bassist Joshua Staples's parents, the shack is a small room with low ceilings; if it were underground, you'd call it a bomb shelter. Smelling of sweat socks and beer, the cramped inside is littered with battered drums, well-worn amps, roughed-up guitars, and keyboards covered in stickers that say things like "Jealousy Is to Love as Asthma Is to Breathing." One assumes that when practice is over, when the musicians are covered in sweat and a little drunk, they walk outside, breathe the moist, cool air of Sonoma County, and take in the golden, windswept grass that rolls in waves over the nearby hills.
It's no wonder they named their new record Elysium.
A few miles from that shack is an industrial warehouse where parts of the album were recorded; that's where the bandmembers -- Staples, vocalist/pianist/guitarist Judah Nagler and newly minted drummer Casey Deitz (original drummer Logan Whitehurst, who plays on Elysium, left the group in March to attend to a medical condition) -- meet me on a sunny summer afternoon. After showing me the cavernous room in which they tracked bass and drums, we retire to a nearby taquería to discuss the story behind what promises to be the most stunning rock record you'll hear all year.
That story is about a young band that, two years ago, found itself in the throes of a cliched major-label bidding war. Though it had no following to speak of, the Velvet Teen had two polished EPs that proved it could write cerebral yet accessible rock, full of hooks and harmonies that sounded as pained as they did poppy. The music had as much in common with the sweet experimentalism of Radiohead as it did with the driving gut-punch of Fugazi; Nagler, with his tortured, Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto, was the perfect frontman. With a few strokes of the pen, the guys' days of cheap beer, cheap equipment and a steady diet of tortillas could have been over. All they had to do was sign on the dotted line.
They didn't. Instead, they released their debut full-length, Out of the Fierce Parade, on Portland-based micro-label Slowdance Records. Recorded in just eight days by lauded indie producer (and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist) Chris Walla, the album became an underground sensation over the course of two years of DIY national and international touring. For those of us who couldn't stop humming Parade's crunchy, mostly guitar-driven songs, expectations for a followup grew and grew.
Elysium is that followup, and it jukes every expectation. Instead of reuniting with Walla, Nagler and his brother Ephraim, both novice producers, recorded the work themselves. Rather than another collection of three- and four-minute rock songs, Elysium is six songs that stretch over three quarters of an hour. Both lyrically and musically, it is an awesome, shimmering achievement, divergent from the group's earlier sound yet consistent with its overall vision. It's also the last thing the Velvet Teen would have been allowed to release on a major. There are a number of reasons for that, including the fact that there is no discernible single, the lyrics are provocative and often cryptic, and seven-plus-minute songs do not get played on alternative radio. But perhaps the biggest reason a major label would have shelved this album is this: Though the Velvet Teen is technically a rock band, there's not one note of guitar on the entire record.
The sequence of events that led to the Velvet Teen's chatting here with me about Elysium can be traced back to a decision every music fan has made: Which show should I go to tonight?
"We're thankful that we didn't go to that shitty Ima Robot show, but went to the Death Cab show," explains Staples. This was in February 2002, two months before the release of Out of the Fierce Parade, during the week in which the band was in Los Angeles playing the showcase circuit -- essentially a series of shows for suits and lawyers.
"On our way down, we were thinking, 'This may not work out,'" recounts Staples. "'We're gonna go down there and see what it's like.' Then, four days deep, there's so much going on. We're meeting everybody. Tony Ferguson, the guy who runs Interscope, the guy who signed No Doubt. We met Rick Rubin."
Staples continues, "After four days of that, staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel, getting taken to dinner every day, having everybody saying, 'You guys are gonna be the biggest band in the world,' we were like, 'Well, shit, which one are we going to sign with?'"
"Yeah, that was the big question," adds Nagler. "Which one?"
Pause the story.
Can't you just seethe labels salivating? Here was a band whose first few songs were of a caliber most spend years trying to render. Best of all, it was a band that had never released an LP nor toured outside California, a band from a small town that could certainly use a couple hundred thousand dollars in advances and a chateau in the Hollywood hills in which to blow it all. To a label, these are the babies from which to take the candy. Luckily, the Velvet Teen grew up just enough that night.