The sound of the East Coast underground in the 1990s was atonal and thoughtfully uncomfortable. The D.C. vibe was dominant, and its post-punk bands (Candy Machine, Dismemberment Plan, Jawbox, etc.) would travel down the coast on mini-tours, influencing every scene they passed through with their distortion. There was a lonelier vein of that sound in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York; since the New York post-punk bands stood in the shadow of the DJ scene and the PA and NJ ones stood in, well, no real scene at all, every VFW and fire hall show was a struggle to be present, noticed and meaningful. It also meant that the bands were weirder—like animals that evolve on islands, isolation made things more interesting.
A trademark of these bands was songs that were daring to the point of being hopeless. Many of them were almost unlistenable: high-pitch feedback, philosophical treatises for lyrics, and true loudness. And then, every once in awhile—a perfect song.
Chris Leo (brother of rock and roll crooner Ted Leo), bassist Toko Yasuda (later of Enon), guitarist Brian Maryansky (Jets to Brazil), drummer Neil O’Brien, and Yasuda’s eventual replacement, Sean Greene, formed one of the more popular bands of the time: The Van Pelt. “Popular” might be a misnomer, here—The Van Pelt was (and is) an obscure oddity, but in that tri-state scene, a success. Leo doesn’t sing so much as talk through songs, with an occasional scream. Some of the songs bear the stereotypical post-punk/emo theme of relationships; most don’t. Van Pelt songs were about religions, growing up, different countries, and imagined conflicts. “This is the lunacy by which we kneel,” Leo says in “Nanzen Kills A Cat.” “This is the doublespeak by which we kill/This is the inertia that keeps tradition feared/This is the absurdity by which we walk barefoot with shoes on our heads.”
Over 20 years after they formed—and 17 since disbanding—two unreleased Van Pelt albums are coming out: Imaginary Third on La Castanya and The Sultans Demos from Psychic Volt. Neither are new, exactly, but neither of them are reissues, either—Imaginary Third is the Van Pelt’s final album, as well as their “Speeding Train” single. (Many of the songs ended up in a substantially different form on Leo and Yasuda’s post-Van Pelt output as The Lapse.) The Sultans Demos is an earlier take on the band’s most popular record, the frustrated and peaceful Sultans of Sentiment.
I talked with Leo in Los Angeles about the new albums, the band’s style, and where his mind was when the Van Pelt straddled the line between unknown and popular, unheard and successful.
AUX: In a lot of your songs, you talk about places, which, especially back then, was rare. Britpop bands were doing it, but those were usually bound up with characters, rather than being personal.
Chris Leo: It’s from a youth raised on the Bible, which is really place-oriented. From grand to mundane occurrences—the weight that’s put on places and the problems attached to places in this book shaped how I viewed the world. It’s also one of the reasons why I protested the Bible as I got older. 2nd Avenue is just as Biblical, why didn’t God’s word show up there? Why aren’t the Jews that walk over the Williamsburg Bridge part of that narrative anymore? I was playing with the form.
It’s still pretty rare to locate songs so squarely in places. There are indie rock bands that sing about places—being in old times, saving your damsel with your saber.
(Laughs) I’m so glad I have no idea what you’re talking about.
There’s a lot in Van Pelt songs about being a kid, too.
Yeah, including the songs that are about to be released. I realize that now. At the time, I was a major in education, so that has something to do with it. I viewed the world through the NYC board of education. It’s funny because I never think about my childhood.
That childhood theme reflects the vibe of a lot of the songs. And I wonder if it’s why there’s a resurgence of interest for the ’90s post-punk bands now. Nostalgia not just for the bands we liked when we were kids, but for bands that expressed that feeling.
There’s a nostalgia for the imperfect. The disparaging version is that it’s all pretentious: kids overreaching their means. Kids that can’t play guitar well, music that’s honest but falls short. But there was a series of points all those bands wanted to hit. We wanted to do something new. So honest and flawed. If it were honest and perfect, you’d have Motown.
I wish people would just fail more. Those embarrassing screams of youth and failure, look at the kids that made them as home run hitters. Kids making music should be striking out nine times out of 10, and every once in a while, hit it out of the park. That’s what the young idea was then. And if you want, you can put together a greatest hits that hold up.
So if it’s nostalgia now, what was it then? What need was all that music feeding? I mean, I get what the Deadguy hardcore scene was feeding, and obviously the pop-punk music was just loud pop. But bands like the Van Pelt…
What did it offer? We were making music that wasn’t really “fun.” Rock shows were early back then, like at 7 or 8 p.m.. It was like a cultural event. You’d make the same sort of mind space between dinner and going out, so it was just a different sort of event.
It’s not that we didn’t believe in fun, it’s just that I didn’t think what we were doing was the venue for it. Fun was after. And the success of Sultans is amazing to me. When (the band’s first album) Stealing from Our Favorite Thieves came out, Nirvana had just made it. You can see a major label thinking, “We’ll polish these kids up and their album will be the next Nirvana.” So I get how the first one could do well. But with Sultans, we thought it would be commercial suicide. People want bands to make the same record over and over again, and we didn’t. But people loved it. I have no idea why.
You didn’t compromise.
Yeah, but compromise is a way of making yourself seem like you’ve done something more ballsy. I could only do the things I do.
There’s this alteration on your records between totally atonal songs (“My Bouts with Pouncing”) and ones where that are totally smooth, almost like sighs (“Pockets of Pricks”). Like you couldn’t settle on frustration or peace.
The evolution of frustration is what we’re talking about. When you’re a teenager it’s evident. It’s a key change in your personality. All I’m concerned with is the space between on and off, the space between yes and no, the transition space. When a newborn is learning their tools, there’s always a period of tantrums, it always screams and cries. With teen angst, there’s a mellower form of the baby’s tantrum. And now, as an adult, it’s not a tantrum exactly, but there’s still a frustration in the forest. There’s still a space between, a transition space. My reaction is just different.
And that’s a difference between the Van Pelt version of the songs on Imaginary Third and The Lapse versions. There was a heavy Fleetwood Mac influence on the Van Pelt right before we broke up. But in the ’90s, there weren’t many bands of our ilk in New York. Four scrappy post-punk kids were rare in New York; the DJ was what was common.
We were all pro-DJ, but we wanted to understand, “What are we?” So on the one hand it was Fleetwood Mac and on the other hand, we wanted to put the process and emotion over the quality of the song. There was a polished perfect product, or this imperfect raw version. At the time of the break up, I was more into the provocative raw product. So the Van Pelt songs are more restrained and adult, less aggro. They sound more like songs.The Lapse ones sound like outbursts.
Do you regret that transition from polished to raw?
The 40-year-old Chris Leo would have loved to hear what the Van Pelt in that form could have done. Getting together with the band now for the upcoming reunion shows, it takes very little effort. It all comes out, it all comes together. There’s a temptation to write new songs.
That you’re resisting?
I’ve already gotten more out of this than I wanted. It gives me reason to revisit the memory and the people I worked with and it’s less exciting to see the new than to see the reoccurring themes: where we don’t change. To see the constants is comforting.
[magazine month=”May” year=”2014″]