When Verbena singer/guitarist Scott Bondy took a phone call in a restaurant two summers ago while his band was on tour, he couldn't have known it would change the course of his group's live outing, let alone its career.
The caller was the band's booking agent, who asked Bondy if he and his two bandmates singer/guitarist Anne Marie Griffin, 27, and drummer Les Nuby, 24 would like to support the Foo Fighters on a series of European dates. The agent explained that the band's leader, Dave Grohl, had heard Verbena's 1997 debut, Souls for Sale, and had called him to ask if they were available.
"We were just like, 'Yeah, duh,' for a number of reasons" (RealAudio excerpt of interview), Bondy, 26, explained from his Birmingham, Ala., apartment just prior to the release of the band's major-label debut, Into the Pink (July 27).
Over the course of Verbena's summer 1997 European tour with the Foo Fighters (which was preceded by two weeks of U.S. dates), Bondy and his bandmates became friendly with Grohl, developing a relationship that culminated in the ex-Nirvana drummer's producing Into the Pink, a collection of mostly punk-infused songs that draw as much from the Sex Pistols as they do from Nirvana.
The 13 songs on Into the Pink are emotional snapshots. The album's solo-piano opening track, "Lovely Isn't Love," for instance, is a somber reflection on love. Asked about the rest of album's often-angry lyrics, Bondy claims that Into the Pink features what he calls an "us-versus-them" slant.
"We should make up/ But I don't wanna, I don't wanna," the singer sneers on "Submissionary." Similarly, on "Depression Is a Fashion" he and Griffin sing, "You can't win/ 'Cause we've got sin." These confrontational lyrics were inspired in part by the city of Los Angeles, where the album was recorded with Grohl in the summer of 1998, Bondy said.
"Part of the reason ... we did it in Los Angeles is that it's not really hard to be angry [there]," Bondy said. "Your car ride to the studio is enough f---ing inspiration to sing with some kind of attitude."
Though things seem to have fallen into place, getting to this point has not been easy for Verbena. Initially, the band worked with its label, Capitol Records, and its management to find a producer for Into the Pink, Bondy said.
After an exhaustive search yielded no suitable candidates, a friend finally suggested Grohl, Bondy said. Both the band and Grohl were wary of mixing their friendship with business. However, once approached, Grohl was enthusiastic, Bondy explained. "He was kind of scared to do it at first, and I was scared to ask him. But when he did say 'Yes,' we just felt like two kids in a candy store" (RealAudio excerpt of interview).
Grohl has a keen understanding of Verbena's music, Bondy said, and he used his knowledge as a musician and producer to orchestrate the sound and feel of the album. In addition to coaxing the best vocal takes out of the band, Bondy said Grohl also paid attention to the emotional tenor of the sessions, often keeping performances that were less than technically perfect, because they conveyed a desired intensity. "More than anything we just wanted to get the best snapshot of each particular song," Bondy said. "And that didn't necessarily mean that everything had to be in perfect time, or in perfect pitch."
Because of Grohl's involvement in the project as well as the bludgeoning riffs, powerful drumming and angry vocals by Bondy and Griffin that color many of Into the Pink's songs, including the frenetic "Bang Bang" (RealAudio excerpt) Verbena have been compared to Nirvana.
While Bondy acknowledged these similarities, he defended the band against those who would call it derivative. "To me, [the comparisons] are a little short-sighted. [Nirvana] were one of my favorite bands, but I think we're influenced by the same spirit that influenced them, as opposed to being influenced by just them" (RealAudio excerpt of interview).
While Verbena's similarities to Nirvana may be unintentional, Bondy acknowledged that Into the Pink owes a heavy debt to the Sex Pistols. His love for the pioneering English punk band began at age 16, he said, when he first heard their seminal (and only) release, Nevermind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.
Into the Pink showcases both musical and lyrical references to the Sex Pistols. "John Beverly" takes its title from the birth name of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, while "Submissionary" and "Pretty Please" (RealAudio excerpt) refer to lyrics from Nevermind the Bollocks. "We could play 'sumbission,' " Bondy sings on "Pretty Please," referencing the song "Submission" from Nevermind the Bollocks. Elsewhere on the song Bondy sings "She's so pretty/ He's so pretty," a reference to the "We're so pretty" chorus of the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant."
Formed in Birmingham in 1994, Verbena forged an early sound that was considerably more pop than it is now, according to Kerry Echols, their manager from roughly 1994 to 1997. "Most bands [in Birmingham] were referencing blues-rock or hard rock," said Echols, who is now managing editor at Black & White, a local free bi-weekly paper in Birmingham. "Verbena had a very European sound. It was rock with shoe-gazer elements, a real pop sensibility."
Echols said that although tapes of the band's music were circulated to several prominent independent labels, North Carolina's Merge imprint was the only one to respond. Beginning in 1995, Merge issued a succession of Verbena releases, including two singles, an EP and, in 1997, a full-length album, Souls for Sale.
Echols is not surprised by Verbena's transformation from pop to something harder. The change was a natural progression for the band, he claimed. "They started as indie pop and then they just very naturally started moving toward something with more balls to it," he said. "By the time they recorded with Grohl, they'd been playing some of those songs for almost a year."
Bondy explained that he and his bandmates have an affinity for the raw, undiluted sound on such albums as the Sex Pistols' disc. He describes the Pistols and Verbena as blues bands, but with a lot of attitude.
"It's almost like I wanted to write the record that they didn't, because they only made one," Bondy said of the Sex Pistols. "I have no problem with that. [Into the Pink] is an homage, you know?"
Bondy acknowledged the recent resurgence of the loud rock that Verbena specialize in. "But none of it, to me, is really good. We're not f---ing Buckcherry," the singer said, referencing the Los Angeles band currently spearheading what some have called a "new rock" movement harking back to such hard-rock pioneers as AC/DC and Aerosmith.
Bondy explained that he does not consider Verbena a part of any movement, just simply a good rock 'n' roll band like hundreds of others before it.
Verbena is tentatively set to mount a U.S. club tour in support of Into the Pink beginning in July.
Asked what audiences can expect from the band in a live setting, Bondy said it will concentrate on its louder material. "I can't stand to hear people talking while I'm playing," he laughed. "So in order to avoid that, it's like, play as loud as possible."