VHS or Beta were running late.They thought they could leave some of their equipment in New York, but that turned into a mess that put them hours behind schedule. Still, the band arrived at Johnny Brenda’s on Aug. 31, and between loading equipment, sound checking and getting food before the show, their bassist Mark Palgy had time for an interview.
The band is not a stranger to conflict and working with the situations that they’ve been thrown into.VHS or Beta has undergone a few changes since their last record. They’re minus one guitarist, plus a few My Morning Jacket members on select tracks and still making slick, funky dance-rock, the listening of which isn’t completely guilty pleasure-free. Their influences are obvious – Duran Duran, The Cure, Daft Punk – but VHS or Beta aren’t trying to become a predictable bunch.
The new record is perplexing in that critics have generally given it less than stellar reviews, yet fans of the band have been turned on by the musical changes it showcased. VHS or Beta have tried to go more rock n’ roll, recalling The Killers and Interpol on their title track. And despite having only one guitar, a bass and drums, the songs still sound layered and display imaginative crafting.
“Bring on the Comets” is actually quite unpredictable.
“[The critics have] been nice to us in the past, they’ve been sh—y to us in the past. We’ve generally always had mixed reviews so it’s nothing really new,” bassist Mark Palgy said. “This time around I think people were a little more abrasive to us because they think that we were like a flash in the pan, or something, so they just wanted us to go away.”
Good thing they didn’t. Even though the song-writing process was strenuous, their music managed to surpass what they’ve done before.
Writing as a three-piece allowed the band to focus more on the music and less on its personal preferences toward the music. Songs typically began with lead singer/guitarist Craig Pfunder playing out some ideas on a keyboard or guitar, then putting those ideas on a computer and sending them to the other two members of the band. As soon as each person got a feel for their own role in the song, things would start rolling.
“It was a lot easier,” Palgy said about creating songs with three band members. “Craig was writing for two people, so it was harder to rehearse since we kicked out somebody [guitarist Zeke Buck], so we actually needed an extra hand. But once we started recording things, it was fine. As a three-piece, there’s a lot less arguing about stuff, and it was more like we were totally on the same page and everything was just smoother.
“When we’re writing it [a song] we generally think about trying to envision it live,” Palgy added.
“I think a lot of times bands try to over-decorate certain things and I think this record came out a little more stripped-down than stuff we’ve done in the past. We first and foremost want to write great records but we also want to be able to deliver the record exactly how it is live.”
Though they were not able to bring them for the tour, VHS or Beta were able to get a few members of the band My Morning Jacket – from Louisville, Ky., just like VHS or Beta – to contribute to a few tracks and add even more depth to the band’s music.
“Craig and [My Morning Jacket lead singer] Jim [James] are really good friends,” Palgy said. “Jim said he’d be happy to do some background vocals and stuff, and we got [MMJ keyboardist] Bo [Koster] to do piano because . . . Bo is amazing. We wanted somebody really, really good to come in and just slay it.
“For a second, we were wondering if this record was going to translate in that room,” Palgy continued. “We’d been playing ‘Night on Fire.’ We toured that record for a year and a half, and we didn’t know if anyone had heard any of the new songs. And it turns out that some people were singing along to the new tracks, and there was a lot of fist-pumping and dancing and we were like ‘Ugh, good . . .’ It makes things like when you read a sh—y review, you’re like, ‘Who cares?’ People are still out there paying attention and they still care, so that’s the balance for us.”
Chris Zakorchemny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.