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By Kyra Scrimgeour
"I kind of figured that we'd get bashed on this record some," says VHS or Beta singer/guitarist Craig Pfunder about the band's latest album, Bring on the Comets, which has garnered widely varied reviews. "But you've got to just go, 'Fuck it.' People hear what they want to hear in music. I can't change that."
Maybe not — but pretty much everything else is up for grabs. When the band was formed in Louisville, Kentucky, a decade or so back, its sound fit in with the post-punk noise rock then in vogue. Before long, though, Pfunder soured on the genre: "It was like, if I have to hear Steve Albini sing one more fucking time, I was going to stab myself in the throat," he remembers. So he and his bandmates — bassist Mark Palgy, drummer Mark Guidry and guitarist Zeke Buck — reinvented themselves as an instrumental dance combo that locals began describing as "Kraftwerk meets Devo." Although the switch cost the players some friends (mainly fellow musicians who found the new approach to be exceedingly uncool), it won them a much larger following and, eventually, a recording contract with Astralwerks, whose execs were entranced by the mirror-ball-friendly style captured on Le Funk, their independently released 2002 disc.
Rather than stick with this style, however, the Beta bunch switched gears on 2004's Night on Fire, adding vocals by Pfunder and backing off the novelty elements. These alterations further broadened the group's audience, but they also led to friction that ultimately led to Buck's expulsion. "The three of us weren't happy with one other person," Pfunder concedes, "so the obvious thing to do was to get rid of that one other person instead of breaking up or splitting off in different directions, going, 'We can't do it without all four of us.' It's not like the Bad News Bears."
Replacing Buck with a new member was never seriously considered. "To invite somebody else into this weird world of ours to write seemed like the most unattractive thing ever," says Pfunder, who worked up all of the material on Comets "with no one around but my cat" before subjecting it to a group editing process. The songs feature more conventional pop-song structures than previous outings, as Pfunder acknowledges. In his view, the trio, supplemented live by keyboardist Chea Beckley, "is becoming a rock band again, but using all the elements of our past to do that."
Granted, not everything is different. "We didn't completely want to abandon dance music, and I don't think we have any interest in doing that in the near time frame," Pfunder says. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that "we're not making music for critics. It's a blessing when people receive what we do with open arms — but we understand if they don't.
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with VHS or Beta's Craig Pfunder.