Progress Makes Perfect
I think it's hard to pull off actually having feeling in aggressive rock," says Chris Sorensen, guitarist of the pigeonhole-dodging Denver group Vaux. He and his bandmates were once known as Eiffel, a clean-cut, emo-scented combo that somehow went horribly wrong. Instead of sticking to meek melodies and humble ambitions, the band got tough. And hungry. And hairy. Now signed to the indie label Volcom -- a subidiary of MCA/Universal -- and fresh off this summer's illustrious Warped Tour, Vaux is ready to show the world just how much feeling and aggression can be packed into one rock album.
A dun-colored tract house in suburban Aurora hardly seems like a wellspring of musical creativity, yet Vaux practices in just such a space. Surrounded by huge paintings, half-unpacked boxes, beer cans and Doritos bags is a massive jumble of equipment -- six bandmembers' worth, to be precise. Joe McChan mans the drum kit like a turret gunner -- frowning, focused. Sorensen, Adam Tymn and Greg Daniels calibrate the settings and positions of their amps with all the precision of radio-telescope engineers. Ryder Robeson, grim and solid, exudes the bearded-bassist mystique of Joy Division's Peter Hook or the Who's late John Entwistle. Meanwhile, Quentin Smith, barefoot and unshaven, sits almost bored in a chair while pulling a sound out of his lungs that could reanimate fossils.
So begins Vaux's daily rehearsal. It's 10 a.m.
"We were already tired of the nine-to-five career world when we quit our jobs," says Smith. "We'd been working for a while after we all graduated college, and finally we were like, 'This is stupid. If there's even a chance we can make a go at it with the band, we should try.'"
"Some of us quit $50,000-a-year jobs to have zero income," says Sorensen with a hint of ruefulness.
"Yeah, it's pretty brutal," Smith concurs, "but having the dedication to be and to stay in a band is so important. Having ambition is even more important than being a good band."
Luckily, the members of Vaux realize that ambition and excellence are not either/or options. Their music is, in a word, majestic. Guitars are braided into thick tangles of tension and melody; time signatures shift with the smooth, instinctive complexity of biochemical reactions. Orchestras of feedback and digitally processed texture are conducted as if they were strings and brass. Vocals pace back and forth, from guttural snarl to breathy falsetto. Shards of pop, art rock, noise and metal poke holes through Vaux's post-hardcore armor, ventilating its dense arrangements and opening up a range of expression that is nothing short of epic.
"I get sick of hearing bland music on the radio," says Robeson. "We've got six guys bringing in a million different influences, so many that it would be hard to listen to one of our songs and be like, 'This is exactly where they're getting that from.'"
"Personally, I would list all kinds of bands from Britain," says Smith of his musical idols. "Vocally, that's the stuff that's interesting to me. The melodies, the dynamics, the range... It doesn't seem like anyone's really applied those things to more energetic music."
Listening to the softer end of Smith's vocal spectrum, his Brit-pop influences becomes clear: David Bowie, Morrissey, Brett Anderson of Suede, even Thom Yorke of Radiohead.
"Yeah, the Radiohead thing's probably pretty obvious," Smith confirms. "Sigur Ros, Coldplay, Muse -- that's a lot of the shit we listen to."
Cardigan-clad sensitivity aside, there are many more homegrown and harder-edged influences that Vaux has absorbed into its sound. Besides the dark prog of A Perfect Circle, the band is firmly aligned with some of the heavier, more conceptually adventurous outfits to come out of the hardcore scene in recent years (Cave In, Refused, Drowningman, Boy Sets Fire), many of which are also known for the intensity of their live shows.
"A live show will make it or break it for a band," Robeson says. "That's a big part of what we do -- playing for people and feeding off that energy. If you see us on stage, usually we're just running around like chickens with our heads cut off."
The members of Vaux surely acquired their stage aesthetic from their early days in Denver's emo and hardcore scenes. Veterans of assorted short-lived groups such as Marjorie Reed, Seasons Run and Dim Mak, they began playing together under the Eiffel moniker in 1997. "Quentin, Joe and I went to the same art school, and we just started talking about playing in a band together," recalls Robeson. "A lot of it was just learning to play our instruments that first year and a half. [We] went from being a four-piece to a six-piece when we added Chris and Greg."
"We were playing some pretty burly stuff until we got Chris," says Smith with a grin. "Then we got all emo."
"It's true," Robeson agrees, laughing. "Chris brought the pompadour, and it was all over from there."
Eiffel's debut seven-inch record was released in 1998. The full-length followup, 2000's AudibleNarcotic, was issued on Florida-based Undecided Records. That disc solidified the band's early sound -- ardent, intricate and melodic, with cascades of arpeggios and anguished vocals in the tradition of Sunny Day Real Estate and Jimmy Eat World. In other words, cookie-cutter emo.
"The Eiffel CD is out of print now," says Smith. "Maybe years down the road we'll re-release it. It took a long time for that album to come out, and by the time it did, we were only playing like two of those songs live."
"There was just a lot of -- I'm trying to find a way to put this nicely -- miscommunication with our record label," says Robeson.
"They're a bunch of fucking half-assed jokers," clarifies Smith.
With little support from Undecided, Eiffel took the initiative and began touring extensively in addition to its already hectic local itinerary. "On tour, people will ask us where we're from, and when we say Denver, they're like, 'What? Nothing's from Denver!' And there's no reason for it," says Robeson. "It's a big town, and there's a lot of really fucking talented people here. I just hope we can eventually do what Planes Mistaken for Stars is doing, bringing recognition to Denver."
The reference to fellow Colorado group Planes Mistaken for Stars makes sense. Both Planes and Vaux fall somewhere just outside the lines of orthodox hardcore, blurring boundaries between rock, punk and metal. Perhaps more important, both groups are zealously committed to making their music more of a lifestyle than a hobby.
"Denver's weird. I haven't seen many local bands with a really strong following that's consistent," says Smith. "Planes is the one exception. Between us and them, I think we'll give Denver sort of a sound."
Part of spreading the gospel of Vaux was finding a new label that could accommodate its ravenous ambition. After serious talks with many companies, including revered hardcore imprint Revelation, the group signed with Volcom, known primarily for its line of skate and snowboard clothing. What the label lacks in musical identity, though, it more than makes up for in pragmatism: Volcom is manufactured and distributed by MCA/Universal.
"What's cool about our setup is that we have total artistic freedom; we have great major-label distribution, and we have cool guys to work with," says Smith.
"Yeah, they help us out with whatever we need," says Robeson, "but we've always pushed ourselves more than anybody else has."
There was one catch in their new deal, however. After going through the routine legal red tape at MCA, Eiffel found that some other act had already trademarked its name. At first the group wanted to rechristen itself Vauxhall after the Morrissey album Vauxhall and I, but the members finally settled on the abbreviated Vaux. "It's short, powerful, and you don't immediately associate it with anything," says Robeson. "Plus, you can make four-finger rings out of it, you know: bling bling!"
After inking Vaux's contract this summer, Volcom immediately reissued On Life; Living, a four-song EP that Vaux had self-released earlier in the year. The band had already sold a thousand handmade copies on tour. To promote the disc, Volcom secured Vaux a slot on the Denver stop of the Warped Tour. That one-day stand, however, grew into five weeks.
"We fully pirated the Warped Tour," says Smith. "We were only supposed to play the one day. We went over really well, though, and a bunch of the other bands wanted us to stay."
Any in particular?
"Well, Bad Religion," says Robeson. "It was weird, 'cause right after the Denver show, I saw this guy with his shirt off and wearing a kilt and boots, and I was like, 'Who the fuck is this?' And he comes up and says, 'Hey, you guys blew me away.' It turned out to be Jay Bentley from Bad Religion. We wound up becoming really close to a lot of the other bands on the tour."
"It was so crazy standing up there on stage and looking out and seeing the guys from Andrew W.K. watching you play," remembers Smith.
"We were definitely a big surprise to those people," says Robeson. "We were a lot heavier than a lot of those bands. There was a lot of real pop-punk kind of stuff, very easily categorized music."
Categorization is something Vaux seems born to defy. Now preparing to record their next album this winter, the bandmembers spend as much time sifting through lists of potential producers as they do practicing songs.
"We want to make a recording with a lot of depth, the kind that grows on people," says Robeson.
"Those are always the best records, the ones that at first you're like, 'Ah, that's pretty cool.' Then after you listen to it five times, you're like, 'Hell, yeah, I'm starting to get it,'" says Smith.
"Music like that, you can tell there's so much feeling that's gone into it," says Sorensen.
"That's the type of music you get goosebumps from," Robeson says. "We've also got a lot of songs that aren't real heavy rock, things that are piano-based and more rhythmically based. But you have to categorize it somehow for people."
What about good old-fashioned progressive rock?
"I guess we could be considered a progressive rock band to some extent," says Smith.
"Progressive rock with high energy," corrects Sorensen.
Robeson agrees. "Yeah, I don't mind that category. That's what we're always trying to do, keep progressing, keep pushing ourselves. Then figure out what the hell to do next."
Besides mapping out a new record, Vaux is planning to film a video and tour Europe in the fall of 2003; the band has also secured a slot for the entirety of next summer's Warped Tour. And if the album does well enough, MCA has an option to sign Vaux to the label proper rather than just the subsidiary Volcom -- an option that the band intends to consider.
"We definitely want to take this as far as we can," Robeson says. "The orchestra's next. We're going to get the whole Metallica symphony thing going."
"We're attempting to be somewhat creative," Sorensen sums up with an earnestness that elicits a fit of giggles from his bandmates. "We're just trying to create something we've never heard before."
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