Q&A With VHS or Beta's Craig Pfunder

Yeah, everyone has a story – but most of them aren’t nearly as interesting as Craig Pfunder’s.

In the Q&A below, the singer/guitarist for VHS or Beta, a band spotlighted in the December 6 Westword, shares plenty of details about his fascinating background, noting that, as an adoptee from Korea, he’s uncertain of his birthday and even his age – but he knows all about growing up in a large blended family that moved numerous times during his youth. He also talks about his circuitous path to Louisville, Kentucky, his home base; his leap from indie-rock noisemaker to the musical backbone of a twisted post-disco dance band; subsequent musical transitions that ended with guitarist Zeke Buck’s expulsion; the decision he made in conjunction with remaining players Mark Guidry and Mark Palgy to soldier on as a three-piece rather than adding a fourth member (the extra person in the shot above is touring keyboardist Chea Beckley); the process by which the act’s latest CD, Bring on the Comets, burst into life; his frustration at the critical reaction to the disc, which represents yet another significant stylistic shift; and his contention that after ten years, VHS or Beta is getting back to the business of being a rock group again.

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it:

Westword (Michael Roberts): I’d like to start at the beginning, literally. I understand you were adopted from Korea.

Craig Pfunder: That’s right. I was adopted from Seoul, I was born in Seoul. Moved here at an undetermined date, since I don’t have a birth certificate.

WW: You must have been very young.

CP: Well, when I was naturalized, a group of people who I don’t know gave me an age based on probably my size. They said I was fourteen months old. So my mom, who graduated in psychology from Johns Hopkins, says to me as I’m growing older, “Craig, you’re probably two years older than they said you were. You were naturalized as a fourteen-month infant, but developmentally, you were a two-and-a-half-year old.” And there’s a big difference between being a fourteen-month-old infant and a two-and-a-half-year-old child. But I don’t know my birthday. I celebrate it on November 14 – November 14, 1975, which makes me 31-years old, almost 32.

WW: How did you choose November 14?

CP: I didn’t. It was chosen for me.

WW: By your folks?

CP: No, by the naturalization people. That’s bullshit, right?

WW: As you were going through school, did you always feel that you were much more advanced that your other classmates?

CP: I was in all the decent classes, yeah. (Laughs.) But who knows. You’re as old as you feel and you make yourself. That’s such a clichéd statement. But if I’m really 33 going on 34, so be it. I still get carded for cigarettes. And I’m a skinny string bean, so no one assumes I’m 31 going on 32. I don’t think anyone would really believe me if I told them I was 33 or 34 or 35.

WW: It doesn’t sound as if you were towering over all the other second graders.

CP: No, no. There was no ass-kicking happening.

WW: You grew up in Maryland and Oregon?

CP: My family was living in Maryland when I was adopted. Then we moved to Georgia, a small town called Gainesville, Georgia. From there, my dad transferred jobs, and we moved out to Eugene, Oregon. And then I went to school in Kentucky, and then I moved to Cincinnati, and then I moved back to Kentucky.

WW: Did you always feel like the outsider? The new kid?

CP: You can talk to other people who’ve moved a bunch, but I think it becomes part of their personality, like everything does. I’m one of, now, seven children, and because I’ve relocated enough times, and enough times on my own – I haven’t lived with my family, per say, since I was fifteen. So I think I meet people easily and hold conversations well no matter who it is. It’s just part of who you are. You learn to make the best of your environment if that’s what your situation is.

WW: Are your brothers and sisters adopted as well?

CP: I have four adopted sisters. One of them is biological to my parents, and my brother is biological to my parents as well.

WW: Are they from far-flung locales?

CP: If you call China far, and Korea far, yes. Two are Korean, two are Chinese.

WW: Were you actually in the house with most of them? Was there a point where all seven of you were under one roof?

CP: No. When my little sister Paige finally graduated from high school and moved out of the house, they realized, “Holy shit, we don’t know what to do but parent.” So they adopted a young girl from China – her name’s Miller. And Miller lived with my parents for a while. And then realized, “Holy shit, Miller needs a sister.” So they adopted another. And that’s where the family is currently, and I feel confident saying they’re not going to adopt any more children.

WW: Why’s that?

CP: They’re getting older. I think they bit off more than they could chew with the other two.

WW: They’d actually like to sleep through the night someday?

CP: I doubt they do much of that.

WW: After graduating from high school, how did you choose to move to Louisville? Had that been one of the places you’d lived along the way?

CP: No. I moved to Cincinnati after high school. Chased a girl. Very quickly realized it wasn’t working. Was living there, and I had to go to summer school for one more credit. Met a girl there. She was living in Louisville. So I moved to Louisville, and the day I moved there, my roommate from my school, who I moved in with, told me that he and my girlfriend had hooked up. So that wasn’t going to work. The world is a nice place, isn’t it? (Laughs.) Actually, it really is a nice place. I was 18-years old then, and I ended up staying there in Louisville. And I consider Louisville my home.

WW: I thought Slint and Rodan might have had something to do with the move.

CP: No, but Rodan was the very first show I saw in the city after I moved here. Rodan, Crane and a band from New York called Spavid.

WW: I understand that the first music you made as a band was on the noisier tip. Was that in part because of what else was going on in town at the time?

CP: Yeah, of course. Like I said before, I think everything around you can have an influence on you in one way or another. Louisville was a mecca of indie rock, post-rock, 90-ism kind of stuff, with Slint and Rodan and Crane. There was a huge hardcore scene here, with Endpoint and bands like that.

WW: So that sound obviously had an appeal for you.

CP: Yeah, that, plus I’d been introduced to Sonic Youth when I was in high school, and started listening to a lot of weird things, and upon meeting people here realized it was music I felt like I could play comfortably, and wanted to play. It was angry and youthful and fun to play, albeit a bit too loud for people to listen to. So we started a band, and it was loud, and it felt punk-rock to us. We were playing shows with bands like Melt Banana and U.S. Maple and the VSS and Man or Astro-man and Servotron and bands like that. We were starting to make a little name for ourselves in the indie-rock scene. But we realized afterward that a lot of the scene left a bad taste in our mouths. The way it felt. It just felt really stale and cold. Everyone was fucking too cool, man. Everyone was just too cool.

WW: Pretentious?

CP: Yeah. And then I realized, when I was talking to my quote-unquote friends about music… It was like, if I have to hear Steve Albini sing one more fucking time, I was going to stab myself in the throat. You know, he’s a great producer. But because Louisville and Chicago had this thing, there was even more of it that you had to deal with. Yeah, I had Big Black records, and I had Shellac records, and I like those bands. But at a certain point, some people end up wanting more. And I definitely felt like I wanted more. We had started going to this night, on Wednesdays, at this club that used to be called Sparks, and every Wednesday night, they would have resident DJs and fifty cent well drinks. You can fill in the blanks from there. Fifty cent drinks and massive amounts of people dancing to a guy playing records. And everyone there seemed like they wanted to be there, and they weren’t afraid to be expressive, and I fell in love with that music. I’d been going to parties and stuff like that. And soon Mark and I started buying records and deejaying our own warehouse parties for fuckhead little indie rock kids who would dance up and down and skip our records on purpose. But we did it, and upon falling in love with that music, the band decided to try and create that music with instruments that we already have, not with just samplers and computers and turntables.

WW: Was the appeal of making that kind of radical transition that the music was about as far from what you were doing previously as you could possibly imagine?

CP: Well, if you think about what punk rock felt like to make, I felt like when we sounded punk, we were the least punk thing out there, because everyone was doing this noise rock.

WW: You were conforming.

CP: Yeah. So we were like, “Fuck this. Let’s have fun. Let’s create an environment where we can have fun.” And that seemed like the punkest thing to do then. We were like, “Fuck it. We’re going to lose fans” – and we did lose friends in the process, because we really did switch overnight. And all of a sudden, instead of having 42 people at our show… We played this one show, and word traveled around Louisville: “Oh, there’s this dance band. It’s fucked up. They sound like Kraftwerk meets Devo.” And the next show, we sold out a 400-capacity room. And ever since then, we’ve been doing really strong, at least in our city.

WW: Were the friends you lost because of that switchover ones who, in retrospect, you don’t miss that much?

CP: Yeah. I mean, a lot of the people I used to hang out with during that period of my life just aren’t there anymore. Not because I’m like, “Fuck you guys. See! It happened! Our band caught on!” It wasn’t like that. It was more like, how many people do you hang out with in high school? Do you know what I mean? As you grow older, you find the people you really like. And I made a decision to surround myself with really good people, people I love and that I can take care of, and they take care of me. But it takes a long time to get to that point, and you go through a lot of different kinds of people, and you go through a lot of different versions of yourself until you realize what’s the best thing for you. But Mark and I, the bass player, we’ve known each other for fucking twelve years, and I’m blessed to say he’s one of my best friends, and I really love him and care about him, and we’re still making music together. Obviously, certain things happen for the right reasons.

WW: The first incarnation of the band was much more groove-oriented. Some of the songs just had chants in them. And then from the first album to the second album, you became more song-oriented. Were you afraid of being typecast as a novelty group? Did you want to turn the band into something more long-lasting?

CP: I’ll say this: We’ve never been afraid of making music. We’ve never written music for critics. We’ve never really tried to edit ourselves to be more accepted. Having said that, I think we’re making music because of things we want, and what we wanted out of Le Funk was – we had a vision. We love this music. We love all these filters. Let’s see what we can do with our guitars. Let’s use wah pedals to make it sound like a filter. And Guidry was like, “I’m going to get this trigger-to-MIDI interface, and I’m going to trigger sounds that I can’t get out of acoustic drums. I’m going to build an electric drum set.” And he did that. And we bought a vocoder, and we started making music that way. As far as being afraid to make a transition from Le Funk to Night on Fire, we realized at a certain point that this band had more to say than just four-on-the-floor and dance songs. We wanted to, within reason, incorporate vocals. And on a more emotional level, connect with an audience, not just on an aesthetic dance level. And I’ve been playing guitar for a long time. The reason Mark and I know each other is that I used to sing in this crappy old band he had, because I was playing guitar in a coffee shop doing Velvet Underground and R.E.M. covers. And one of their friends was like, “This guy’s got a good voice. You guys should get together. You need a singer, right?” That’s how Mark and I got together. And I never truly considered myself just a singer. I played guitar and sang. That’s really comfortable for me. But it was never something where I felt, “Hey, I’m gonna be a singer in a rock band!” I consider myself way better of a guitar player. I still do. And when we made that transition, it felt really obvious that I would step up and do that in the band. And I definitely wasn’t about to try to sound like Aretha Franklin and do diva disco stuff. We as a band started writing songs more around our voices and how we could sing honestly to them. And Night on Fire was the product of that decision. And it was a really fucking weird record to write and record, and there was some turmoil going on with a past member. But it all got worked out, and we toured the record for about seventeen months. After that record was done, the turmoil got to a boiling point, we had to just part ways, because if you’re not having fun doing this, don’t fucking do it. That’s my thing.

WW: I wanted to ask about Zeke. Usually when a bandmember leaves, the other musicians go into the whole creative-differences rap.

CP: Definitely there were.

WW: But I came an interview where you called him a cancer, which is pretty straight-forward.

CP: Yeah, well, if there are all these cells working toward one thing, and one cell doesn’t cooperate, and it’s supposed to be a democracy, that doesn’t lend itself toward positivity or forward motion. At this point in my life, I have no interest in bashing or trash-talking anyone. But it got to the point where we weren’t happy. The three of us weren’t happy with one other person, so the obvious thing to do was to get rid of that one other person, instead of breaking up and splitting off in different directions – going, “We can’t do it without all four of us.” It’s not like the Bad News Bears or anything like that. You know? We did realize, and we did have the passion and want to move forward without this person, and that’s exactly what we did. But Night on Fire, we were writing songs the way we’d always written them. We were getting together in a room and playing instruments and we edited it and talked about it. But the only difference was, everyone wants music, so I found myself in the weirdest way trying to write vocals over music that’s done, with the best interest of my bandmates. That was weird for me. Imagine sitting in a room with your friends with a microphone in your home studio, and you’re like, “Okay, start it,” and you sing and then you go back in the other room where they all are, and they’re like, “Ehhh, I like that one part of the melody you just did. Keep trying that one part and expand on it.” With all the instantaneous editing going on, it made it hard. Imagine any creative process, where at that moment you come up with an idea, and it’s either being accepted or shot down. Definitely weird. Biggest difference in Comets is that I was given the freedom to write in my bedroom with no one around but my cat and edit myself and then bring it to them, and then we went into the group-editing process. That was a blessing, and that was a blessing that the other two guys in the band felt the faith in me, and felt comfortable enough with me, to let that process happen that way.

WW: Let me take a step back. After Zeke was asked to leave, did you think about adding a new guitarist right then?

CP: Absolutely not. To invite somebody else into this weird world of ours to write seemed like the most unattractive thing ever. You know, you spend all that time creating musical trust and personal trust, and after ten years, you really have a chemistry. I think now that we’ve gotten over a big hump of whose role is what, that doesn’t mean we’d never ask anyone else to write with us. But for this instance, the idea of a fourth person was nightmarish. So we were really happy to be a three piece at that point.

WW: And it sounds like it was a rewarding experience with three versus four.

CP: Oh yeah, man. (Laughs.) The answer is “yes.”

WW: From my perspective, Comets takes another step away from sheer dance music, and that’s yet another challenge to listeners. Are they all sticking with you? Or are you hearing feedback from fans saying, “You’re not the same band I started out with”?

CP: Well, I should preface this by reiterating that we’re not making music for fans, 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. Don’t get me wrong: We’re not going to put out a fucking bluegrass-house record and be like, “Look at us! We’re changing it up again! Fuck you guys! You thought we were going to make another Night on Fire IV!” We do think about the show, and we think about the crowd, and we think about what we want to do with that. And 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. But it’s hard to feel limitless when there are limits you place on yourself. When we were going into this record, we said, “Fuck it. Let’s write songs that we’re proud of. Let’s write songs that we believe in, and at the end of the day, let’s be able to look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘We did it,’ and pat ourselves on the back and move on.” I think that’s all you can really do in your life. Your entire lifetime, you just have to be proud if what you’re doing is real and honest. Everything else that happens to the things you create, it’s really up to someone else. It’s up to Pitchfork to say whether we’re a real band or not, or whether you should buy our record. It’s up to a dude who just loves to write about bands. That part of it I truly don’t understand completely, because I feel like I’m a pretty open-minded listener to the music I like. I understand that when Neil Young puts out Trans, he’d been putting out folk records for fucking how many years, right? Let the guy put out a record with fucking weird electronic shit on it. Everyone has their own opinion about it, but who knows? I love it when bands go off and do different things. It’s exciting to me.

WW: I would think critics would have the same viewpoint. But it seems to me that a lot of them try to keep bands in the same box they’ve always been in.

CP: I think they do, too. I really do. I think compartmentalization of music is really a hindering quality of a lot of people who are taste-making this music. It’s not going to change, I don’t think. And I kind of figured that we’d get bashed on this record some. We’d already been pigeonholed as ‘80s revivalists. But you’ve got to just go, “Fuck it.” People hear what they want to hear in music. I can’t change that.

WW: And, of course, you were first pigeonholed as ‘70s revivalists.

CP: Exactly. I promise you we’ll never be ‘90s revivalists (laughs).

WW: You’re not in the planning stages for your grunge flashback record?

CP: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. (Laughs.) Although some of my favorite bands came from that era, or had their heyday in that time period. But we just wanted to write songs we loved. It was very intentional for us to write material that would allow us to do other things in the future. We knew we couldn’t just come out and do certain things. So I think this is a transitional record for us. But it’s also our proudest statement as songwriters and as a band. We’re really proud of the material on the record, and we understand that all of our old friends aren’t going to completely understand it or like it at first, but a lot of them have. And honestly, we took a long enough break between Night on Fire and Cometsthat we’re, like, a new band for a lot of people. And I enjoy when I discover what for me is a new band and then I realize, “Holy shit, they’ve been around for ten years. I’m going to go buy some of their older stuff.” It’s been somewhat of a ride for VHS or Beta fans, because we’re not going to be a band that puts out nothing but repeats of the old records.

WW: Could you have ever believed that your sound would evolve the way it has?

CP: No. But when I look back on the transition of the material, it makes a weird kind of sense to me. What we’re doing is becoming a rock band again – but using all the elements of our past to do that. So, in a way, we’re going full circle, back to the things we grew up with and loved. Whether it’s Led Zeppelin or just a lot of the other things we grew up on. I’m a huge fan of pop music, and always have been since I was a kid. So for me to comfortably do pop music that I enjoy, I’m happy. I’m a happy person.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts