With their 1997 smash "The Freshmen," which married an effortless-sounding tune to a tale of deep regret, the Verve Pipe showed they could get across dark sentiments in radio-ready melodies.
When they followed up the Jerry Harrison-produced Villains with their self-titled 1999 album, though, they let producer Michael Beinhorn who'd previously worked with harder-edged artists like Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson bury their melodies in a dirtier mix. On Underneath, out Tuesday (September 25), the focus is again on catchy tunes and moving lyrics.
"I kind of believe that in rock and roll, it isn't just 'go for the simplest thing,' " drummer Donny Brown said. "It doesn't matter if it's about love or about death or about sadness; the emotion should get out there."
The songs on Underneath catch you off guard, revealing weighty stories beneath the pretty sounds. The downside to that approach is that sometimes, Brown said, the songs can get misinterpreted. Just as "The Freshmen" became a bleary-eyed college sing-along, the new album's hard-rocking "Medicate Myself" turned into a rousing drinking song in early live performances.
"The song's actually about alcoholism," Brown said, adding that he had to ask frontman Brian Vander Ark to stop touting it as a boozy anthem. "If you've ever dealt with anybody who's got a drinking problem, you know that's not a pretty thing. I gotta believe that people will be able to understand that song for what it is."
On Underneath, the band found the right producer in Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger (see "Verve Pipe Land Fountains Of Wayne Co-Founder For New Album").
"He's a young guy our own age, he's got his own band that we admire, and he's a great musician," Brown said of Schlesinger, whom he first met at a club in New York. "We sat down with him at the label's office in Beverly Hills, and pretty soon it was just like being out in a bar and talking music with a friend. So we got to get up in the morning after going out drinking with the guy and go into the studio and start working on these ideas we got the night before."
That relaxed relationship comes across on the album, which is full of catchy melodies and reflects the natural sound of a great bar band, which is what the Verve Pipe were in Lansing, Michigan, in the early '90s. Brown said he and Vander Ark came into the recording sessions with more than 60 songs between them, and Schlesinger helped them not only narrow the song list down, but also take those songs places they hadn't envisioned them going before.
"I wrote 'Gotta Move On' as kind of a Radiohead-ish thing, really somber, and Adam convinced me over dinner that night that I needed to make it sexy," Brown said of the tune, which is sung from the point of view of a guy trying to end a relationship. "It's a guy being openly emotive, and that's something guys don't always do. Adam turned it into kind of a smoky heartbreak song."
The collaborative spirit the band had with Schlesinger also reflects the way Brown and Vander Ark work on each other's tunes. "There's this level of respect we have for each other. I find that instead of telling Brian 'we should do this,' I go ahead and do it and ask him what he thinks of it," Brown said, saying that he came up with the background vocal arrangement and guitar lines on "Only Words."
"It's great having that kind of relationship in a band," Brown said. "The first song Brian gave me for this album was 'Underneath,' and I was like 'Whoaaa ... I get to play drums and sing harmony on this!'"
The group will perform at a record release party Tuesday at Schubas in Chicago. Proceeds will go to the American Red Cross.