It has been a long day and I am drunk. I can’t tell if I am becoming languid because of my consistent consumption throughout the day or if it is the rising humidity. I am also aware that a corn dog from a shack on the Coney Island boardwalk hardly qualifies as a well-balanced meal or as an effective agent to absorb all the liquor and brew that I was comped backstage courtesy of my VIP wristband. I am transcribing notes and revising questions from interviews I have already done and still waiting to complete when bass player Mark Palgy of VHS or Beta quietly sits down next to me.
“I’m sorry, man,” I say after shaking his hand. “My recorder just shit the bed. I am going to have to do this long hand, if that is okay.”
“No worries,” he says without the slightest bit of exasperation in his voice. He looks around the back stage area like he is as excited to be there as I am. He has finally arrived as he and his band (all old friends and roommates) are in the midst of playing the summer festival circuit (“It’s tough and stressful but it’s definitely better than waiting tables”). that includes a stop at Lollapalooza and now today Siren Music Festival, after years of tireless self-promotion and an admirable DYI attitude. A few people walk by that Palgy recognizes with whom he happily catches up, makes small talk, and even exchanges a few hugs while I prepare to talk with him about being from Kentucky, disco-‘80s rock revival, and his band’s recent promotion to the big leagues as they recently released their first album on a big label, Astralwerks.
“Growing up in Louisville was great. There is an amazing music scene. We are pretty good friends with the guys from My Morning Jacket [who also hail from Louisville], but we are all really busy these days and are rarely in town at the same time.” I tell them that MMJ resembles the sound that most people would associate with music from Kentucky rather than the skitz dance rock that VHS or Beta own. “Growing up we were really into French music. I mean we always hear our band mentioned in the same breath as the Cure and Duran Duran, which we were fans of. But we listened to everything—from Sonic Youth to Daft Punk and a lot of stuff from overseas.”
I ask him the same question I posed to the Junior Boys a few months back, if he feels that dance music is finally starting to break the seams here in the States, and he provides a different perspective than his Canadian counterparts: “Oh, now more than ever. Rock embraced dance to get here. DJ’s spinning is now just starting to get some respect in the States. I mean Oakenfold gets to play in front of 30,000 people to some crowds in Europe because a band like Kraftwerk paved the way. Europe always seems the first to embrace something that is new; something gauged to be the next big thing. America is too puritanical. Here, it’s like, if something is too big, it’s too big. Fuck it.”
He continues, “Rock has always been dance music. The Stones, the Beatles—these guys went out to get people dancing. It has always been one of those things that needs to be seen live to be truly appreciated and understood.”
In the studio as well as on the stage, VHS or Beta is all about keeping it real. They do not rely on synthesizers or samples for any of their songs. He elaborates: “We just want to be creative. Pressing play doesn’t really impress me. We have considered a synthesizer and we know we don’t want to be a slave to the drum machine. It takes away from some of the magic.”
Their first full length, Le Funk, was an instrumental affair but the band agreed that this album had to be progression from their last work as they all took turns singing on their latest album, Night on Fire. By adding words to their music they felt it would bring them closer to their rock roots while maintaining a balance between dance and rock that makes them accessible to many uninitiated ears and unclassifiable in most any genre. It also brings them closer to the fans as Brian suggests that, “singing along means rock,” and that the band was limiting themselves, as “you can only go so far being an instrumental band as it lacks intimacy.”
“Le Funk was a process, man, ” Brian sighs. “But it was a priceless experience because we released it on our own label and had to learn how to handle the business aspect on every level. You oversee business lawyers, merchandise—it’s all business, business, business. You don’t know how much goes into putting a record out until you do it yourself.” Their burden has been lessened after signing to popular dance label Astralwerks as Brian likens it more to a family than a business, as they are eager to get involved and “cultivate their talent.”
The band enjoys many of the acts on today’s bill as I saw them talking to other bands earlier and even saw lead singer Craig Pfunder bobbing along to Ambulance LTD’s set earlier in the day. Brian brings up Mars Volta when asked whom he admires amongst his modern day peers. “I wasn’t really that into them at first but then I saw their first video off France the Mute, and I was blown away. It was so bizarre. My girlfriend likes them a lot. I like them because they represent music that is completely free—they do whatever they want to do. They have total creative control. It’s a complete ‘Big Fuck You!’ to whoever doesn’t like them, or get them. And that freedom is the ultimate kind of success story.” When VHS or Beta come out to a sea of sun burnt hipsters ready to get down in their vintage jeans and tour t-shirts, it seems that the band is exactly where they are supposed to be and will have little trouble writing a successful ending to their own story.