Photographs by Sara Sanger
'Elysium' Fields: Josh Staples, Judah Nagler and Casey Dietz are the Velvet Teen.
Delicate Crashing Juncture
The Velvet Teen and the many thought dreams of this very second
By Gabe Meline
Waves have come to represent serenity, but in truth, an ocean's wave is a tricky business. Passionate surfers have long dissected a wave's many separate segments, seeking a divine truth to explain nature's unpredictability. There is a perfect moment, they say, just after the cresting swell, before the wave closes out and crashes into chaos, and negotiating this crash is crucial. The unprepared get swept under while the experienced ride out the whitewater in style. Presently at this delicate crashing juncture, from a musical-career standpoint, we find the Velvet Teen.
For the past five years, the well-known Santa Rosa band have built a steadily expanding fan base, one that has grown from a strong local following to an impressive national audience. The miles are staggering: three headlining U.S. tours, two opening-slot tours, a week-long stint in Japan and small jaunts too numerous to count. They are, at this point in time, Santa Rosa's most widely noted indie-rock export.
It has been over two years since the release of the Velvet Teen's much-lauded debut album, Out of the Fierce Parade. The resulting firestorm quickly became the stuff of local lore, as new Velvet Teen stories rang over the grapevine every week: "Didja hear Jeff Buckley's mother came to a show in Florida?" "No way, dude, I heard Liz Phair was hitting on them in Texas!" "Shut up! For real?"
But loose lips and road trips alone do not an album sell. Out of the Fierce Parade is an intricately great record, one which continues to sing to all walks of life and shows no sign of undertow--to date it has sold over 15,000 copies. But for two years, the band have been performing the same songs and it is not uncommon to hear shouted requests of "Play a new one!" It has sometimes felt like watching the Velvet Teen at another show was akin to watching a perpetual-motion machine slowly winding down.
The big question was, would the band bounce back or drift away? Last year, after high-profile tours opening for Cursive and Death Cab for Cutie, the band took a six-month breather and this year have finally finished recording a long-awaited new album, elegantly titled Elysium.
With an official release date of July 20, it is too soon to tell what the public will make of Elysium. Many of the band's early trademarks are absent from this slow, densely layered work, with electric guitars pushed aside for pianos, string quartets, horns, synthesizers and electronic effects. There are no "hits," no danceable ditties like "Counting Backwards" or Parade's "The Prize Fighter." It is melancholic, pensive and, at times, completely ambiguous, elements typical of a sophomore effort. Occasionally it seems so wrapped up in itself that it misses the opportunity to make a statement.
Yet despite the Velvet Teen's changing tide, this record is a rich masterwork.
There is an undeniable charm about the rural practice space, and the Velvet Teen are lucky to have a very old wooden shed--leaning under its own weight, surrounded by fields and down the hill from the Sonoma County dump--as their working area. For years, a neighbor has been posting conspiracy- theory signs about the U.S. government across the road. I pull into a driveway and park next to two cannons poised beneath a banner advertising the local Civil War Reenactment Days.
Their small recording space is furnished with an old Western Holly stove, an antique writing desk and yellow flower-print curtains. An apron hangs from a hook near a stack of slides marked "Europe, 1961," and a mannequin head rests on a shelf above a tackle box labeled "Mildred." These are all pushed aside; the old has made way for the new since, on this night, it can't lend a hand.
Here, Velvet Teen frontman Judah Nagler and bassist Josh Staples are working on an extra song for Elysium, one to be included as a bonus track for the vinyl version of the album. The age-old format of vinyl is receiving its boost from a very modern luxury: the song is being recorded, like the rest of Elysium, on a portable laptop computer program.
Much in the way that Photoshop has stunted the evolution of graphic design by giving its users instant "skill," the apparent ease of laptop recording frequently allows shoddy work to be presented in an impressive way. The Velvet Teen are an exception, having honed the process down to a science and employing all the supplemental equipment needed. As Nagler runs through bass lines in the cluttered shed, a long cord snakes across a gravel driveway and into a makeshift control room, running his notes through a stack of pre-amps and compressors and finally turning them into little squiggly lines on a PowerBook screen.
The portability of this setup allows for maximum guerrilla-style field recording, and has sent the Velvet Teen all over the county in search of the perfect ambiance. Drum tracks were recorded in a large decaying poultry warehouse; both a small downtown jazz club and a large chapel set the stage for recording piano tracks. String quartet and horn sections were recorded in the Mission District residence of musician Adam Theis, who also impressively handled the accompanying arrangements. Even on the freeway, headed to complete the final touch of Elysium's mastering, Nagler and laptop shared the back seat of a Toyota Tercel, adding last-minute synthesizer parts.
Much of this hectic initial tracking was assisted by Ephraim Nagler, Judah's soft-spoken younger brother, who understates the experience as being "kind of crazy." Ephraim has been particularly geared toward recording as of late, and describes the thrill of experiencing the forest for the trees when the project was done. "I'd never actually heard any of the parts together," he explains. "My mind referenced a bunch of different places and locations we had recorded at throughout two months that I could remember for each individual little part." An album's life flashes before his eyes.
Staples and Nagler are finishing the bass parts and speaking the foreign language of impromptu songwriting, singing different ideas to each other ("Could you throw some, like, 'du-duh, du-duh,' some quick ones on it?") and finishing each other's sentences ("You could try a real simple four-five thing, it's kind of generic but--" "Positive."). It is here that their similar musical mindset is on display, and where I also notice that the circular tattoos around Nagler's left-hand ring finger have faded.
The bursting talents of the dedicated players involved have given bloom to Nagler's singular, kaleidoscopic vision, and in this sense Elysium is a shining success, one that will bear repeated listenings. The album's miracle lies not in the statements it fails to spell out, but in the leftover gaps that beg the listener to be filled. Generally, the public at large does not want to accept the laborious task of ingesting an interactive record, but with Elysium, what the headphones demand they will return in kind.
Nagler once showed me an intricate collage he had made, cobbled from a bunch of photos he took from various angles of a large, blue tractor parked down the street from his house. In it, every snippet of tractor was given new purpose as a functioning part of a highly detailed and humanlike robot. It was a triumph both artistic and cerebral. He explained that he had toyed with the idea of sneaking down to the tractor in the middle of the night and taping the collage to the operator's seat, so that in the morning, a road-crew worker could discover an alternate version of his dreary reality. "But, you know," he lamented, "the guy probably just wouldn't get it."
Nagler is 24 and has been making music for most of his life. He often wears the same clothes for days, claims not to notice his own sporadic fasting and is driven by long creative spurts. He tends to talk out of the side of his mouth and has a habit of interrupting conversations to make obscure metaphors, the contextual relevance of which usually requires a few leaps and bounds to fully grasp. He relishes rhymes and puns, as when we recently pulled into a parking lot on the Sonoma Coast. "Here we are," I say, "Miwok Beach."
The response is pure Nagler: "OK. Me walk to beach."
Tucked into a quiet cove while a slivered moon hangs above a nighttime ocean, Nagler is quick to stress the fictional aspect of Elysium's lyrics and seems more interested in discussing process than subject. "I think the art, music, religious text or law that has the most powerful effect is one that's ambiguous or vague enough to be understood by anybody," he says, "just for the fact that it has no inherent definition. It's like an ink blot. You show it to somebody and they tell you what they see."
Simple enough, except that there is an obvious reigning subject in these songs. Time and again, Elysium revisits the story of an ending relationship, eroded through willful and subtle manipulation. It is not entirely fictional: at the end of last year, Nagler and his girlfriend separated after three years. Work on Elysium started soon thereafter, and when listening to the record it is hard not to think of this breakup.
"Forget about the wedding rings we lose / Only greater love will see us through," Nagler sings on "We Were Bound (To Bend the Rules)." It's one of the album's finest songs, with its pump-organ figure intertwining with polyrhythmic triplets. It's also one of three songs that deals directly with dissolution. The refrain of "Forlorn" promises that "One thing will always remain clear / I'm not here, and you weren't meant for me," and "Penicillin (It Doesn't Mean Much)" returns to wedding-ring imagery, offering the suggestion, "Let's remove the bond from these bands that we wear / The rings never closed, so there'll ne'er be a blame to bear / Where we're built to bend, the flesh never dyes."
"It's not like I'm just writing about nothing," Nagler assures. "I'm writing about lots of meaningful things to my personal situation, the easiest one to recognize being that of a relationship." Nagler's vocal range has lowered with age, and there's an intimate quality about his voice, lending a sense of importance to his words. He listens for a while to the waves crashing nearby, and stresses the importance of lyrical structure over plot. "It all has a pretty ambiguous nature. There's some things that are set out outright, but the whole weight of the words is based on their context."
Indeed, Elysium is deliciously laced with wordplay, and reading the lyrics is like observing the construction of a 10-foot geodesic dome made out of Legos on a rotating platter. The words take on a life of their own and give rise to their immediate truth when properly twisted and pulled, like yeast in pizza dough. Admirers of double and triple entendres, of multilayered meanings and inside-out phrases will find much to celebrate.
Lyrics have always been a strong feature of the Velvet Teen's older music, but Nagler is surprisingly dismissive. "On Out of the Fierce Parade, I had absolutely no concept of actually what I was writing about," he declares. This is funny, because Elysium's most impressive song is shrouded in total next-to-sea mystery.
But more on that later. It's time to walk back up the cliff and drive back to town.
Josh Staples is dressed all in black, and in the piercing afternoon sun, it can't be comfortable. He has developed, he says, a terrible habit where he cannot breathe in his sleep. The easygoing Velvet Teen bassist is surprisingly nonchalant about his insomnia. "I think it might be stress-related," he offers. "When the record was done, I got to stop choking in my sleep."
Staples, 30, recently quit his job of 10 years for the highly enviable reason that he simply had better things to do. Even though the job allowed him to take months off at a time for touring, it also got in the way of his other projects, the bulk of which are staggering. The last three months alone have seen Staples designing flyers and album covers for other musicians, scoring the full-length film The Aviary by Abe Levy (who directed the Velvet Teen's two videos from Out of the Fierce Parade), writing and touring with his own band, the New Trust, and coordinating an art opening for Headlong into Harm, a book of 14 local artists' work which he contributed to, compiled and printed. He has also assumed the role of dealing with what he dryly notes is "the 'not fun' part" of making an album: Elysium's administrative factor. As a result, Staples talks on his cell phone a lot.
"I'm writing a screenplay, too," he adds, sitting on a colorful bench along Santa Rosa Creek, just blocks from the small basement apartment he shares with wife Sara Sanger, a professional photographer and band mate in the New Trust. It is not uncommon for their home to be overrun with crashed-out members of touring bands, local artists working on quick pieces or younger musicians eager to hang out somewhere besides their parents' house. Staples may be busy, but he relishes the opportunity to blow off steam with these people and emphasizes their abilities.
"We have these layers of generations of people that have been in Santa Rosa and are new to Santa Rosa," he enthuses. "I don't think anyone could deny it's the busiest and most prolific the Santa Rosa art and music scene has ever been."
Staples designed the band's album artwork, and Elysium's packaging features an ornate cigar-style overwrap and a striking collection of landscape photos scattered throughout the inside booklet. At first glance there are no words, but closer observation reveals the album's text in tiny, transparent tilt-it-in-the-right-light spot gloss. This unusual choice makes reading the lyrics, which Staples proudly describes as "the best Judah's ever written," a totally frustrating and nearly impossible task.
"It might not be the most accessible record musically or lyrically, so we kind of made the artwork the same way," Staples explains, though one can't help but feel like this is taking the concept a bit overboard. He makes little apology for the obfuscation. "There are themes of secret societies and of secrets in general and the design fits into that."
Secret societies? Where in the midst of a record about a broken relationship do secret societies fit in?
Staples points out that Nagler spent the first part of this year holed up in his room, immersed in working on the record "all day, every day, for three months." None of his usual acquaintances saw him during this time. "It was pretty nuts. He was pretty isolated," Staples says. Though Staples describes Nagler as "a really, really musically extremely smart person" and states that "he's a pretty sane guy, really," it's clear that something had happened.
"I was worried about him most of the time," Staples says. He doesn't have time to elaborate, though. He's got to walk back downtown and get back to his life.
Solitude yields moments of inspired serendipity, and prolonged solitude, it seems, yields "Chimera Obscurant," Elysium's most compelling track. Clocking in at just under 13 minutes, it tells the story of one who experiences an awakening amid his indifferent friends and subsequently finds the authorities on the hunt to stop him. Five minutes into the song, voices start swirling, the music explodes and the floodgates open for a desperate and unstoppable diatribe about organized religion, economic structure, education budget cuts, execution, interest rates, blind patriotism, FBI files, social control and, finally, triumphant martyrdom.
There may be more; it's hard to tell, since "Chimera Obscurant," as the title implies, takes the art of constantly concealed wordplay to new levels. One thing is clear, as the final slurred words bleed into one another: at 13 minutes, these are thought-dreams demanding to be seen.
Ask Nagler about the song and there is a very complicated response. It involves the Mayan calendar, he says, as well as the Hebrew alphabet, Biblical numerology and a pattern of ownership dating back to the dawn of time in which we are pawns in the game. However, Nagler downplays the conspiracy-theorist role, as he routinely admits that such ideas could, for all he knows, be completely untrue. For example, after suggesting an existing systematic slaughter of the lower class at the hands of "a couple people that really own pretty much everything in the world," he allows that "this all probably sounds really crazy, but, you know"--cocking his head to the side--"it's a possibility."
Many have been lost to the great sea of paranoia, and if Nagler ever tested the waters, it was during the album's completion. These days he's more likely to comment on his own perspective than re-create the rabid, snarling swirl of "Chimera Obscurant."
"I definitely believe in strange occurrences between people and strange synchronicities," he explains, "and the seeming intuition which guides, if nothing else, my life."
Going It Alone: After battling an exhausting illness, drummer Logan Whitehurst is pursuing a solo career.
Being a collaborative effort dictated by time and circumstance, Elysium is a captured moment in a band's career that could never be successfully replicated. Not that the Velvet Teen are planning to attempt it. Of key importance is Logan Whitehurst, the Velvet Teen's drummer and founding member, who has unfortunately put in his notice. After wrestling with prolonged illness for several months that recently resulted in surgery for a brain tumor, Whitehurst decided that it was time to slow down and leave the rigors of a constantly touring band.
Ultimately, the Velvet Teen are always looking forward, and in the case of yet another album, it may not take them as long to get there. Nagler and Staples seem to look back on the making of Elysium as if it took something out of them that they may not exactly want to have back. They are already working on new songs, assisted by new drummer Casey Dietz, for what sounds like a much more lighthearted affair: a "dance record."
"We try not to do anything twice, that's what this band's all about," Staples says. Should the statement ever be forgotten, Elysium will be a beautiful reminder of the band's shifting waters. Or, as the final lyrics of the album serenely proclaim:
May the end of our times make way for the rules that we bend
Times are always changing
But life never ends
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From the June 16-22, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.