[15 July 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Contrary to popular belief, Brian Vander Ark was never much of a rock guy.
Oh sure, he was the guitarist and lead singer for the Verve Pipe, who, in 1996-1997, dominated the airwaves with the inescapable, era-defining modern rock single known as “The Freshmen”, but in truth, Vander Ark was a pop purist at heart. Their 1999 follow-up to their breakthrough album Villains featured memorable pop-rock numbers like “Hero”, but by the time they released 2001’s supremely underrated Underneath, they brought on Fountains of Wayne frontman and noted pop-savant Adam Schlesinger as producer, and were focused on crafting pop songs in the most classical of senses. Their commercial prospects never matched the heights of “The Freshmen”, but while that song somewhat defined the band for some people, their hardcore fans knew that the band was capable of so much more.
Thus, after Vander Ark went on to pursue his solo career and work on his film acting chops a bit, the prospect of another Verve Pipe album was nothing short of daunting, but here, in 2014, we are treated to Overboard, their first album of all-original material since 2001, and it features a more acoustic-based vibe than any album they’ve done previously, with songs like the upbeat, cello-driven “The Latchkey Kid” easily ranking among one of their finest pop moments, which is really saying something given they have a discography absolutely full of them. Although the album is a bit more languid in tone, Vander Ark and his merry band of brothers sound positively engaged throughout, and fans who have been waiting for a new album from the group for so long won’t just be satisfied, but also impressed with how much the group has grown.
To help celebrate the album’s release, Vander Ark sat down to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions, here revealing what he thinks is the most tear-jerking scene from Frozen, what it was like to write music with Andy Partridge, and just how long he can sustain a burp ...
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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
So stupid, but that scene in Frozen where one sister wants to build the snowman and the other one says from behind “Go away Anna” and the little girl bows her head and sings “Ok bye” killed me. That’s what having two young daughters does for you.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Hawkeye Pierce. Serious about nothing, but surgery. The sanest in the asylum. Loved poetry, sang, was silly, told corny jokes, hated the establishment. Drank martinis. Loved women. Was a good friend to those around.
3. The greatest album, ever?
C’mon, ridiculous question! But if I had to choose one to listen to for the rest of my life it would be Bob Mould’s Workbook. It speaks to me on so many levels, and was the reason I got into alternative rock in the late ‘80s. That album led to the Pixies’ Doolittle, which led into everything underground until Nirvana opened the whole scene up for me. But Bob Mould was the impetus.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
5. Your ideal brain food?
Movies. Old and new. Mostly old, though. I need a good story to watch to take me into my own head, and create something of my own. Sometimes I’ll write the entire song of a movie I just watched and then change the names, then what the characters say to each other or do to each other, and then try to come up with a new ending.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I wrote with Andy Partridge. He was a god to me early in my career. Very important lyricist in my lifetime. I sat in a room with him for two days, sitting on our amps three feet from each other, playing off of each others’ ideas, swapping solos, throwing out lyrics. Best time of the ‘90s for me.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
I want to be remembered for what I do in 2019, making the story of a song as important as the music itself, and the whole world figures that out and it becomes the norm, and the stars align with the sun and moon and a great beacon of light forms on what we may have always imagined God to look like, and he smiles and says, “It’s about time everyone. Thanks be to Brian.” Oh, and to be a good father and husband.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Bob Mould, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, John Lennon. In that order.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
East of Eden. Why write another book? I’d have retired as a writer and done something else for fun.
10. Your hidden talents ...?
I can burp for 23 seconds straight. Seems like it’s not that long, but try it.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
I once told someone that I wanted to take up piano but I can’t because I won’t be any good until I’m 60, and he said, “Dude, you’re going to be 60 either way, why not be 60 and be great at the piano?” I’ve started taken lessons.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My wife and I once bought our friends new brakes. Not really a big deal, but they were down on their luck and we called the mechanic and paid for it, and when they found out the look on their face was as if we had bought them a new house. Best purchase ever. I stole some Halls cough drops when I was seven and ate them all because I had stolen them, not because they tasted good. It was an impulse, and I grabbed what I thought would be candy.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?
I have a pair of Dolce & Gabbana boots that I bought 15 years ago that I still wear all of the time because they make me feel like dancing with myself 12 hours a day.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Well, Marty Feldman would be pretty cool to have along, and a bunch of women with huge breasts so that he could do an eyeball schtick with them. I suppose Steve Jobs so I could figure out why I can’t get one of my email addresses onto my iPhone. Abe Lincoln because he was our most interesting president, and he would be so enamored with what Steve Jobs has done. The devil and a priest to keep him at bay if he gets too devilish and at least one Beatle. Even if it was Ringo, it would be awesome, because who would say, damn I couldn’t have McCartney or Lennon. No one would say that because you have Ringo at your party. Oh, and my wife.
15. Time travel: where, when, and why?
At the end of every day, I would like the option to start that day over. I’d probably go back only a handful of times.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country farm. Ojai, California.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Me, me, me. Do it for me specifically. Why the hell not give it a try? Could be powerful stuff.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
This is the most writing I’ve ever done, so this interview.