"The Freshmen" Band Finally Graduates
Two decades later, The Verve Pipe looks back on the '90s - and forward to now

By Lee Valentine Smith

The late '90s music scene is filled with some massive hits and heartbreaking misses of the moment. One of the biggest radio hits of the commercial alternative boom was "The Freshmen." Michigan-based The Verve Pipe has managed to turn their one huge hit single into a twenty-plus year career with a catalog of fine, if often overlooked, albums.

Leader Brian Vander Ark now leads a new line-up of the group and the result is a batch of more good music than they originally released during their 99X-approved heyday. Currently touring behind last year's Parachute and a sprawling live reboot of their successful Villains album, the revived band returns to town for a show this month at City Winery.

Vander Ark looked back on the band's interesting history during a recent call from his home in Grand Rapids.

I used to see you around Atlanta often, back when commercial alternative radio was going strong.

Yeah 99X were big supporters of us, early on. The program director, Leslie Fram was terrific to us, even before our major label album came out. Atlanta was good to us. We had a good following in Atlanta because a lot of people were moving from here to Atlanta - especially back then. The migration from here to Atlanta was incredible because it's cold here and in the 90s there. It's always been one of the cities we can really count on.

When Villains was released in '97, you became a part of the last gasp of big-money label support.

Yeah, toward the end of the '90s, that kind of record deal just stopped and that's what happened to us. A lot of bands kind of fell into that same class. And now we're all out doing anniversary shows of those days. But that's what you have to do to sustain a life in music. Some guys have it and some are back working in the mall again.

Oh yeah, the old "superstar of the Guitar Center" syndrome.

That's the classic one. But ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Once you have kids, working becomes a priority but I can't imagine not having a life in music. It's just who I am. When I had kids, we ended up putting out a kids album and it took off for us like nobody expected. Next thing you know, we did more kids music. It helped us survive. Plus, it's fun and it keeps us afloat so we can also make rock records.

That's a heck of a lot cooler than working in a store.

Yeah, I pour cereal out of my guitar when I do the kids shows but I'd rather do that than work at the airport.

An audience of kids is a really tough gig. That's nearly as tough as playing to a room full of jaded hipsters.

You're exactly right and it's kind of the same thing! But the thing with kids is, you have to keep their attention for an hour and if you don't sustain that entertainment factor, you've lost them. They get antsy and their parents get pissed. So we have to turn it on and be 'on' for an hour. It's not like at a rock show where you can take a minute to tune your guitar.

When Villains was hot in '97, you went for a couple of years before the next album and right in the middle of that era, the industry was changing so fast.

Yeah, what happened with Villains was the single "Photograph" hit and then the next single didn't hit, but then "The Freshmen" hit and it just kept hitting. We'd try to put a new single out and radio was like, 'Well we're still playing Freshmen.' And that was almost a year later. We should have gone right into the studio and done a new record. When we did finally record our next album, it cost us nearly a million dollars to make. You're right, by the time it came out in '99, the whole scene had changed and the album was a huge failure.

But it was a very strong record. Better than Villains, actually.

I'm proud of it. We'd sort of come into our own by then and people still say it's one of their favorites. Sometimes I have to go back and look up my own lyrics online to relearn some of those songs because people want to hear them now.

Then Underneath was even better, but it really had some really bad luck.

Oh yeah, it was released on 9/11. We were so pumped before it came out and then 9/11 hit and stations started playing classic rock and comfort music. We were so prepared and RCA was ready for a big marketing storm with it. Then two months later, we got the call that we were dropped. That was the end of an era for us in so many ways.

The industry went into an overdrive of upheaval but you had a good run with your solo stuff. That period might have even happened for you had you stayed on the charts.

I think in hindsight, yeah. But at the time I was just grasping for straws. Then the solo records started happening. Then we did the kids records just to dip our feet back in the water and here we are with two new rock records in three years. It's all come around.

And you've finally released a live record.

Yeah, it wasn't time before, but when the 20-year anniversary of Villains was coming, I thought it would be fun to do a live record of it. So we used different instrumentation and told stories and just redid the whole thing start to finish and it's gone over great.

Now you're back on the road with a new line-up.

Yeah and everybody gets along now, which is important when you're my age. I think a lot of the problems we had came from me and my dissatisfaction with the label and agents and all that. When you get on the road with a bunch of guys who'd been together since '92, you all start to commensurate and then it's that whole feeling of like, 'Why are we doing this anyway?'

So you cleaned house.

Yeah, if they were unhappy, why stay? I've tried to find great players that actually want to be out playing music. That's the group I have now, just terrific players and we have a blast on the road. So it's fun again to play music people love and to be able to play new music too. We've been getting very positive reactions to the stuff on Parachute and I didn't even expect it. You know, sometimes people roll their eyes when you say, 'Here's some new music.' But this record is going over great. We're getting requests for songs from it. It's a great feeling.

To be totally free of major label pressure must be a great relief.

I do some corporate speaking and I always tell young people, 'Don't try to get on a major label. Run your band like it's your business. You're the CEO of it. It's much more profitable and you'll be so much happier. Back in the day at RCA, a song would be designed by a committee. You'd go into meetings and there'd be the band and then there'd be a dozen other people who would all be going, 'Why don't you do it like this?' It was like, 'Who are you and why am I listening to you?'

The Verve Pipe plays April 21 at City Winery. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.


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