Most of us don't really have much control in the world," says Judah Nagler, lead singer of Santa Rosa foursome the Velvet Teen. "Most of the time, it's hard to tell what's even going on, although WikiLeaks is helping out."
We're speaking on the phone about the band's new four-track EP, No Star, as Nagler ruminates about the mythological figures—Apollo, Artemis, a demon, a seer—that appear in his lyrics. "In mythology," he says, "gods often refer to the people who run the world, or at least have more control over the world."
It's hard to think about powerlessness in the context of No Star. Despite its short length (just over 14 minutes), the record sweeps cinematically over burning bridges and crashing waves; forests and harvest-ready fields; guns, bones, deities and even Ivan Pavlov's infamous bells. Musically, it's a supernova blast of pounding drums, clashing cymbals, racing guitars, tempo shifts and Nagler's high voice rising at times to a near-shout. With the EP's titan-sized sound and imagery, pre-WikiLeaks fallibility is hardly the first thing one notices.
While this adrenaline shot could be overwhelming in some hands, No Star is both exhilarating and welcome, partly because it's the Velvet Teen's first release in four years. After the band recorded the experimental, distortion-heavy Cum Laude in 2006, manager Jordan Kurland—who'd put them on tour with Death Cab for Cutie—waved goodbye. Later that year, bassist Josh Staples took a hiatus to focus on his other band, the New Trust, and former drummer Logan Whitehurst, who had already left the band and been replaced by Casey Deitz, died of brain cancer. Finally, their longtime label Slowdance Records closed its doors. "We worked on some stuff then," Nagler says of the tumultuous time, "but it was hard to get stuff rolling, hard to get the momentum back."
Last year, however, Staples rejoined the band, reinvigorating it as a foursome with the earlier addition of guitarist Matthew Izen. "We wrote a few songs then," Staples says, "but we were never happy with the arrangements." When they were invited to tour Japan in October of this year, they had what he calls a "catalyst."
"We'd been to Japan about four times before this last trip," Staples says. "Something about the cinematic quality of our music really appealed to Japanese audiences before, but our music has changed a lot since we first made an album that appealed to Japanese kids." They quickly recorded No Star to sell in Japan on CD, released it digitally in November and will have vinyl copies at this week's release show Jan. 7 at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco.
Though No Star may sound like a war cry on first listen, it is, at least in part, a collection about defeat. In "Fofor," bass riffs and cymbal crashes clang like a battle march, but Nagler subverts the winner-loser paradigm with his final lines. "If there ever was a time to stand up rather than fall in line," he sings, "it is forever, forever will we find this mutiny at home." Ode-to-conditioning "Pavlovian Bell" slyly states, "Kill your neighbor, lock you away for bad behavior - Kill a million meet heads of state." Though some parts may resemble a declaration of war, there's really no tangible enemy in No Star—or perhaps too many to count.
"I do feel powerless in most situations, in a lot of ways," Nagler says. "I was watching No Country For Old Men and this one line really struck me. It's when the dude is waiting in the bedroom for the main character's wife, and he tosses a coin and tells her to call it, and she's like, 'No, I'm not going to call it, I'm not going to choose,' and he says something like 'The coin and myself came here the same way.' That would probably sum it up."
Nagler furthers this idea in our interview. "I think people with power function with the same rules as us," he says. "We think they're born into it, born into better situations and better control over circumstances, but really they're subject to the mechanisms that are in place all over the globe as a society generations deep into the industrial age."
It's hardly a new idea from a band that has skewered the politics of everything from school budgets to the Sundance Film Festival. Their earlier work echoes throughout the new EP in other ways as well; "No Star," the most whimsical and upbeat of the collection, sounds like a distant cousin of "Caspian Can Wait." Throughout the tracks, the group adds electronic flourishes to the ethereal, hook-based melodies prevalent on their first two albums, Out of the Fierce Parade and Elysium. "A lot of the EP reminds me of an even combination of the electronic craziness [of Cum Laude] but definitely with some more simple pop arrangements," says Staples.
Both Staples and Nagler, however, can't exactly say what makes No Star the way it is. "I don't really think it was conscious," Staples admits, of any stylistic and lyrical changes and continuities. "It's always just kind of based around what Judah's writing." Nagler, meanwhile, is just as enigmatic. "I always try to be intentionally kind of vague," he says toward the end of our interview. "I try to put in as much as I leave out."
The Velvet Teen play a record-release show for 'No Star' on Friday, Jan. 7, at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. 1233 17th St., San Francisco. 10pm. $10&–$12. 415.626.4455.