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Photo: Buck Lewis

Watching the Verbs Take Action!

Meegan Voss and Steve Jordan are dynamite musicians on their own, but when together as the Verbs, their years of studio mastery truly come into the fore.
The Verbs
Cover Story
Jay-Vee Inc
2015-02-24

It’s a blast to talk to Meegan Voss and Steve Jordan, the married couple who form the core of the New York-based band the Verbs, largely because they seem to love talking to each other so much.

Each has a lot to say, but instead of finishing one another’s thoughts they instead bounce off of and build on the other’s extensive knowledge and passion. They come off as supremely respectful of each other’s talents and they listen closely and leave a lot of space for the other to talk and to develop their ideas (these are excellent traits for successful spouses as well as successful musicians).

There’s a lot of laughter from each of them during the conversation, as well, which is always a good sign, and at one point Jordan even offers up a story about one of his particularly mortifying studio experiences that gets everyone on the phone laughing. They give off an air of easy camaraderie and unforced trust. Both have managed to build up a deep understanding of how music works over the length of their separate careers and it’s clearly what they love. Their combination of passion, skill, and hard-nosed drive is something few other bands can match 

Voss and Jordan are a pair of highly-accomplished music obsessives and masterful musical technicians, and the music of the Verbs reflects both their similarities and their differences. Jordan is a first-call studio drummer and producer who has worked with seemingly everyone over an almost 40-year career. He’s had runs as the house drummer for both Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman, as well as stints with the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton, the Pretenders, Robert Cray, the Brecker Brothers, Sonny Rollins, and too many others to hope to list (he has over 600 credits on AllMusic).

Voss is a classically-trained pianist who left the conservatory world and dove headlong into the early ’80s scene at CBGB’s as a member of the all-female punk band the Antoinettes. Together as the Verbs they’ve proven that they can genre-hop and blend more styles successfully than most but their most recent work, Cover Story, focuses exclusively on dead-ahead versions of pop radio gems from the mid-’60s to early ’70s.

The songs they picked for the album are somehow familiar even if they aren’t always on the tip of your tongue (Clapton’s “Easy Now”, the Turtles’s “You Showed Me”, the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over”, a standout version of “Black Is Black” by Spain’s Los Bravos).

“They’re songs that I’ve always liked. Its stuff that I wanted to remember,” says Voss, the band’s singer, main songwriter, and rhythm guitarist. “If you had a band in New York, the thing was you always had to pick an obscure song or you were the scourge. You couldn’t pick something everybody knew. And I kind of used that with my punk mentality to kind of mess things up. And it did mess things up; it messed up some of my punk friends, actually, because I ended up picking hits. You know, I had two girl rock bands so I’m used to picking the obscure thing or the unusual thing, but I just really like these songs and I thought, ‘What the hell, I’m going to do them.’ [So] the driving force was great songs and great songwriters. And they might just pen one great song. But, it’s such a magical place. You can’t get there if you tried. You can’t get there if you had a map. It’s an accidental thing.” 

Cover Story is filled out by contributions from other top-shelf session players that would make any producer lose their mind; bassists Willie Weeks (Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Steve Winwood), Pino Palladino (The Who, D’Angelo, John Mayer), and guitarist Tamio Okuda from the Japanese band Unicorn. “They play the perfect stuff all the time,” says Voss. “They’re freaks!” 

Yet even with marquee players at every instrument, the album doesn’t include a single moment of shredding. Instead, the band uses the songs as a jumping off point for exploring the possibilities of velocity and feel. “I’d look at Steve when we first started playing together years ago,” says Voss, “and think, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not you. I’m not your friends.’ And he would say that if we got our thing together, we’d be able to do anything. And so he just kept thinking that I could do it so we just kept playing together. That’s been his mantra.”

“Meegan,” continues Jordan, “is one of the best rhythm guitar players I’ve ever played with in my life.”

 

There’s something playful, almost mischievous, about a band made-up of so many supremely talented players, who remain as relevant now as at any point in their careers (Jordan and Weeks both appear on Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special and Palladino is on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah), covering a batch of 40 year old songs that are unlikely to even be heard on most oldies stations. And instead of trying to modernize them, they worked to put them across with the feel of band playing live in a room; an approach that seems almost on the verge of dying out of mainstream pop music. To do so, Voss and Jordan worked initially as a duo to take the songs apart with a focus on getting them to feel as good as possible within the limited set-up of Jordan’s drums and Voss’s guitar.

“When the two of us get our groove together,” says Jordan, “we sound like an engine. So, that’s why it’s so much fun to play with her. And we can play these songs just the two of us, because it really lives in there and the feel that we get and then that unlocks everybody else. It’s the kind of energy I always looked for when I wanted to have a band. And [Meegan] has had two great bands. I’ve been in a couple of really good bands myself but not this type of band. The thing here is Meegan’s experience with CBGBs and working with the Antionettes, in particular, was the kind of thing I was always into. When we started playing together, I finally was playing with a person that had that energy, had that vibe, and knew what that was that I was talking about.”

You can hear the approach on their re-working of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue”, where they dial back the originals’ wide-open drum fills and half- to double-time shifts and instead establish a bare bones attack that they dig into for the length of the song. “[The original] is what you’d call a definitive track,” says Voss.” There’s no way to better that, to change it, to make it yours. You can’t even think of that. It so iconic; the guitar solo, the timing of it, everything. When we did it, it was very accidental. We did kind of the small combo thing and we got down to that kind of a groove and really emptied the thing out rather than making it big.”

And there’s an element of romantic vulnerability and real yearning that comes to the surface in Voss’s vocal performance that’s much less apparent in the Badfinger version. “It’s all about the, kind of, jalopy feel that we ended up getting on it that unlocked all these other layers,” says Jordan. “So, we’re not comparing it to the original because the original is so good that it would be silly to even try and emulate it. It just wouldn’t make any sense.”

You can hear the approach again on their take on Todd Rundgren’s, “I Saw the Light”, where Jordan carves out a massive groove that has no reference point in either Rundgren’s version of the song with The Nazz or his solo version. There’s momentum to the Verbs’s version but Jordan’s control and command of the feel is so complete, that the song feels almost suspended in mid-air. It’s the elusive idea of a song “being in the pocket” on display in high definition.

“When you play classical music, when you’re going to play something, you take it apart,” says Voss. “You don’t play it in its entirety and you don’t play it with it all the dynamics and everything. You take it apart. You really learn the piece. And in piano, you might be playing something that’s 40 pages long but you learn it backwards as well as frontwards, because you have to memorize it. And that really means starting from the last chord, going backwards, measure by measure, for 40 pages. And when you really take something apart and take the time to learn it, even with rock and roll, it kind of clears everything up.”

“Dissecting a piece of music is a good thing,” adds Jordan. “It’s not a boring process. Some of the great songs, like a Sly and the Family Stone or a Sylvester Stewart song, for instance, or a Lennon/McCartney song; every section is a hook. Those songs are made up of three or fpir choruses. These days, people are writing songs with two bars of those great songs. That’s how great those songs were. So when you dissect them that way, you see the beauty of each section and you get the most out of it. You’re kind of unlocking a discovery instead of just skimming over a song and missing some of the beauty of it. And when you’re covering songs it’s good to open that Pandora’s Box and see what’s really in that song. And that’s the way you can get the most out of a song to make it something worth doing over for the public to hear.”

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