It's no wonder they named their new record Elysium.
A few miles from that shack, at an industrial warehouse where they recorded parts of the album, is where the band members -- Staples, vocalist/pianist/guitarist Judah Nagler, and newly minted drummer Casey Deitz (original drummer Logan Whitehurst, who plays on Elysium, left the group in March to attend to a medical condition) -- meet me on a sunny summer afternoon. After showing me the cavernous room in which they tracked bass and drums, we retire to a nearby taqueria to discuss the story behind what promises to be the most stunning rock record you'll hear all year.
That story is about a young band that, two years ago, found itself in the throes of the clichéd major-label bidding war. Though it had no following to speak of, the Velvet Teen had two polished EPs that proved it could write cerebral yet accessible rock, full of hooks and harmonies that sounded as pained as they did poppy. The music had as much in common with the sweet experimentalism of Radiohead as it did with the driving gut-punch of Fugazi; Nagler, with his tortured, Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto, was the perfect frontman. With a few strokes of the pen, the guys' days of cheap beer, cheap equipment, and a steady diet of tortillas could have been over. All they had to do was sign on the dotted line.
They didn't. Instead, they released their debut full-length, Out of the Fierce Parade, on Portland-based microlabel Slowdance Records. Recorded in just eight days by lauded indie producer (and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist) Chris Walla, the album grew into an underground sensation over the course of two years of DIY national and international touring. For those of us who couldn't stop humming Parade's crunchy, mostly guitar-driven songs, expectations for a follow-up -- which would surely be released by Warner Music or RCA, we assumed -- grew and grew.
Due for release on July 20, Elysium is that follow-up, and it jukes every expectation. Instead of reuniting with Walla, Nagler and his brother Ephriam, both novice producers, recorded the work themselves. Rather than another collection of three- and four-minute rock songs, Elysium is six songs that stretch over three-quarters of an hour. Both lyrically and musically, it is an awesome, shimmering achievement, divergent from the group's earlier sound yet consistent with its overall vision. It's also the last thing the Velvet Teen would have been allowed to release on a major. There are a number of reasons for that, including the fact that there is no discernable single, the lyrics are provocative and often cryptic, and seven-plus-minute songs do not get played on alternative radio. But perhaps the biggest reason a major label would have shelved this album is this: Though the Velvet Teen is technically a rock band, there's not one note of guitar on the entire record.
The sequence of events that led to the Velvet Teen chatting here with me about Elysium can be traced back to the decision that every music fan has made: Which show should I go to tonight?
"We're thankful that we didn't go to that shitty Ima Robot show, but went to the Death Cab show," explains Staples. This was in February 2002, two months before the release of Out of the Fierce Parade, during the week in which the band was in Los Angeles playing the showcase circuit -- essentially a series of shows for suits and lawyers.
"On our way down [to L.A.] we were thinking, 'This may not work out,'" recounts Staples. "'We're gonna go down there and see what it's like.' Then, four days deep, there's so much going on. We're meeting everybody: Tony Ferguson, the guy who runs Interscope, the guy who signed No Doubt. We met Rick Rubin."
"I didn't know who Rick Rubin was when I first met him," says Nagler of his encounter with the studio wizard whose beard is as long as the list of bands he's made famous. "I was like, 'Oh, that guy's got a beard. All right.'"
Staples continues, "After four days of that, staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel, getting taken to dinner every day, having everybody saying, 'You guys are gonna be the biggest band in the world,' we were like, 'Well, shit, which one are we going to sign with?'"
"Yeah, that was the big question," adds Nagler. "Which one?"
Pause the story.
Can't you just see the labels salivating? Here was a band whose first few songs were of a caliber most acts spend years trying to render. Best of all, it was a band that had never released an LP nor toured outside California, a band from a small town that could certainly use a couple hundred thousand dollars in advances and a chateau in the Hollywood hills in which to blow it all. To a label, these are the babies from which to take the candy. Luckily, the Velvet Teen grew up just enough that night.
"Chris [Walla] introduced us to this guy [who] took us aside and said, 'Just don't do it.' Not only did he say don't do it, but he said, 'The people you're working with, the lawyers you've been introduced to, are sharks. Do not have anything to do with them.'"
"Had we met Beck and Macy Gray that night [at the Ima Robot show]," Staples says, "we'd probably be like, 'Stars! Where do we sign?'"
"I'd probably be a Scientologist by now," concludes Nagler.
Instead, he's a guy sitting in a small taqueria in Petaluma, dressed in a ripped shirt and wrapping up the second half of his chicken burrito to eat later.
The Velvet Teen began recording Elysium when it returned from Japan in November of last year (yes, the band is big in Japan). The original plan was to record an EP that would hold fans over until the musicians could reunite with Walla to produce their sophomore effort. They did not stick to that plan.
"We had wanted to produce it more, to arrange things for it, do more instrumentations," says Nagler. So the band called in a string quartet and added keyboards and synth sounds to augment the piano-driven songs. In addition, Nagler found himself writing pages of lyrics. "The first song on the record has over 1,100 words on it," he adds. "That stuff doesn't get written over the weekend."
"They started the process in December," remembers Slowdance label owner Ezra Caraeff, adding that he had hoped to receive a rough copy in January. "I think it was in May when it was all finished."
"The only time you can afford to spend a long time in the studio is either if you're doing it alone or you have an abundance of money," explains Staples. "The latter is never going to happen. But we thought, 'We can spend time on this. Let's make the best record we can.'"
Elysium opens with an epic intro, a pretentious trick on most albums but the ideal mood-setter here: an instrumental 3-1/2-minute track of found sounds and machine noises that glitch and squirm and tighten before they fade away, leaving only the plaintive chords of a piano, the kind of playing that makes you imagine Nagler on an expansive outdoor stage, all alone, a magnesium spotlight pooled around him and his baby grand. As he plays, somber strings join him -- the lights fade up, so to speak -- and we segue into "Penicillin (It Doesn't Mean Much)," and now the spotlight tilts to hit a disco ball, sending chutes of white light raining down on the stage as a waltzing drumbeat drops in and Nagler begins to sing: "To prove your affection, you'd marry my strings/ But when I'm called away, do you bury my things ...."
As Nagler explains, the album is "about a co-dependence between two sides who are concealing things from one another." Throughout the record, the singer's lyrics reimagine what those two sides might be -- a pair of lovers, a government and its citizens, organized religion and its followers -- but they're always two sides controlling each other, dangling a glimpse of Elysium, paradise, on the end of a stick. The themes are as powerful as the music, like the grandiose strings that open "A Captive Audience" as if it were Casablanca, or Nagler's piano, which is as urgent and expressive as the most cataclysmically distorted guitars.
Taken as a whole (the only way to take it, really), the album is one huge dramatic arc, culminating with the 13-minute centerpiece, "Chimera Obscurant," and its 662-word climax, in which a concussive fury of pianos and strings and drums sends Nagler's simultaneously grim and cathartic invectives into the stratosphere: "This invite-only disparity party/ Has brought enough despair to the already brokenhearted/ In the wake of greed, in the name of flowcharting/ Leaving broken homes where once were gardens." In case you're wondering, those are just 30 of the 662.
"It's incredibly ambitious," says Caraeff of Elysium. "The whole idea of 'We're recording our own record; we've never done anything like this before,' and then going, 'OK, now we're going to get a string quartet, and there's this 13-minute song with 1,400 words in it and time changes.' It's way too ambitious. That's like the kind of weird record you make when you have the major label: 'Hey, here's $200,000 to make a record.'"
But the Velvet Teen didn't have that. Nagler and his brother recorded all of Elysium on a PowerBook G4 for approximately 10 grand.
Today, having succeeded at going it alone these past few years, the band members aren't itching to sign a big contract anytime soon.
"We're always open to offers," says Staples, "but it's still not the most tempting thing. I mean, we're traveling to Japan and stuff on our own; we can do things on our own. It can only get more profitable on our own. We're not going to fall all over ourselves trying to get major-label attention. If they really want us, they know how to get ahold of us."