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The Pelicans were a NYC quartet fronted by Ari Vais in the early 2000s. The band consisted of Ari’s junior year abroad to the UK pals Joe Rosenthal (bass + guitar, from Colorado) and Blain Kennedy (bass + guitar, from Wisconsin). Ari Vais played guitar, wrote the songs and sang, and the group was rounded out by multi-instrumentalist, and producer, Art Tavee on drums. Years later Ari Vais became the frontman for The Campbell Apartment which started in NYC and ended up in the 2010’s out in San Francisco. The Pelicans first resurfaced in the digital streaming era with a few tracks on “The Very Best Of Ari Vais and The Campbell Apartment” and soon after plans were made for the Pelicans full discography to be released. We caught up with band leader Ari Vais and asked him about the new collection by this class NYC power pop band.
BT: Nearly 20 years have passed since “London Crawling” was recorded. Why has it emerged from the vault now?
AV: I don’t really listen to my own music, there’s something painful about it, I love the way it sounds and beat myself up for not writing more. But listening to this one, I was gobsmacked by how good it is. I think I was peaking as a songwriter, only because I still hadn’t gotten a “real job” and music and painting was all that consumed me. But also because Art Tavee, Joe Rosenthal and Blain Kennedy, the other Pelicans, contributed as much as I did to the record, my homies wrote their own parts for my songs, were incredibly supportive, even though I was something of a mess of a front man, and the folks that produced and played on the album as guests treated the music with a sort of reverence that I could NEVER have done on my own, and it’s as good as if not better than anything else I’ve ever done. Why now? I’m on a cool record label that has the same punk rock aesthetic I have – not punk rock like the Sex Pistols but more punk rock like Pavement, where you just do what pleases you and not ever pander to any imaginary audience, and then it sounds honest and real. Also, it can reach a massive audience now because people can just listen on their favorite streaming services anywhere in the world. Back then, it took being on Queer Eye to garner a global fan base, but this was before Spotify, et al, so even though I have a fan club in Adelaide, Australia, as a result of being on the show while a Pelican, the music did not get listened to the way it is being gobbled up as we speak by music geeks around the world (much love to my fans, I am the biggest geek)!
BT: What are your favorite moments on the record?
AV: It was actually two 6-song EPs – “London Crawling” came out around ’03, and then I was unexpectedly made over on Queer Eye, and the episode heavily featured the band, I was only on the show to promote my music, so I wrote another 6 songs and we made another EP, “Dangerous Love”, the most ironic hipster album title one of us could think of (we were slacker indie kings of the Lower East Side) and rather rushed it out in time for my QE episode debut. I have so many fond memories and spots on the album – for example that exquisite drum fill that Art Tavee plays :54 seconds into “Waiting for the Moon”, the arrangements the songs received by the wonderful people that worked on them, the obvious nods to my music heroes at the time (the electric piano outro on “Dead”, I asked the guest musician, Ken Maiuri from The B-52s, to play something sad with a cheerful very end like “Freeze the Saints” by Stephen Malkmus, and it’s little coda that ends cheerfully, which fully confuses the listener in a delicious way, that slight ray of sudden happiness and hope at the end of the saddest of songs, or the second half of “(Hey Hey) We’re The Snipers”, which could be an outtake from The Soft Bulletin by Flaming Lips. We played a ton of shows, all over the Northeast, New York and New Jersey and Boston mainly, although we did Western Mass. & New Hope, PA as well, how well we all got on with one another, how much professionalism and mutual respect there was, how many laughs, how little complaining and zero negativity or bad feelings towards one another despite the pressure we put on ourselves – we were like family, but a magical music family that never fought. It was a utopia. Anyone that threw out an idea, the other 3 Pelicans always loved and implemented the idea, and it made the music better. I enjoyed singing in my lowest register for much of it, which wasn’t intentional or a conscious choice, other than I was possibly at the height of my Lou Reed obsession, and how cool it was to sing in that talky way, especially when you’re writing (as in the case of “Friday Night”, which I wrote as an exercise to try to write a very fast song) about very real places and people – “We started out at Franklin and had strawberries and break and went down to the screening at 8, I wanted to be with you and now it’s Friday night, the band had nappy hair and we had nuts and chardonnay and Kenny told us that he wrote a play”. I think with music, as with standup comedy, or fiction writing, the more real places and people are memorialized, the more it sounds like the listener is being let in on the details of somebody’s life, rather than a bunch of pretentious made up dross that never happened. The devil is in the details. Joe and Blain from the Pelicans had a friend name Kenny, who I remember was eccentric like Kramer from Seinfeld, and I remember him excitedly telling us he wrote a play, we ran into him at some bar in Williamsburg in Brooklyn where I was living at the time. I was listening to Kim Deal’s band The Amps a ton at the time, and so the chorus of that really short song to me sounded like something Kim would do – she’s kind of my all time rock hero. “Penny’s On The Dole”, which was actually like a short story I wrote (after having returned from 2 years in England at the turn of the century, full of inspiration and new material), I’ve never known anyone called Penny nor anyone on the dole, not well anyway, but a new song can be informed by any experience the writer may have had, however indirect, how devastating that song is, how hopeless (and yet the fictional Penny has hope, even as the listener knows she has no future), and Frank Padellaro from King Radio played glockenspiel on a tiny section of it, I wrote the melody, he pulled out a glockenspiel and played it, and really the entire experience was the most collaborative one of my life – what a band is really supposed to be in a utopian rock universe – a true team.
BT: Have you seen the film “Meet Me in the Bathroom”, about the NYC rock scene of the early ‘00s? This sounds like a scene from the movie.
AV: I have not actually seen it, but it was a scene man. It was great because I was living in Northampton, Mass., in the mid to late ‘90s, and that was an incredible music scene, then a basically traveled to the Mecca of great indie pop rock (they call it low-fi over in ole blighty), London, and then returned to NYC just in time for 9/11, and then all the music that followed. Everyone was playing everywhere and we went to all the shows and played all the one we did not attend, it was a breakneck pace, it was very naughty and dirty but at the same time focused and determined and inspired, that I don’t need to see the movie, I was probably in it. The Strokes had just broken and I loved the singer’s voice, so you can hear that all over the album as well, especially on “Like A Flood”. It was a funny time, very debauched and yet very musically fertile. I remember darkness, night, and in the brief daytimes I awaited night when it all began again, either rehearsal or a gig or a recording studio. I lived with Joe in Brooklyn during that time (that’s how tight the band was) and was an avid oil painter, but my room was tiny, so I had my bed, an my easel, pallet and canvas and wake up in the morning to put on a shirt and tie to commute to midtown to whatever mindless day job I may have had, and always got fresh oil paint on my shirt on my way out of my room since there was no space and the paint was never dry because I painted constantly, it was like a race against eventual non-give-a-fuckery. I still make music like a banshee, but no longer at a breakneck pace, I don’t think I have anything left to prove.
BT: How come the Pelicans only made 2 EPs and how did the band end?
AV: I think – my theory always has been – let’s take “69 Love Songs” by the Magnetic Fields for example – I think if you take the REALLY stellar songs off that album, you’ll get like “12 Love Songs” – it’ll be a perfect LP, one of those rare perfect albums. If you leave off all the songs that are clearly not as strong. I’ve been making records for a very long time now, but at a tortoise-like clip of a new record every three years. I think it’s absolutely quality over quantity. Why release an only okay song, or novel, or poem, or sculpture, into the universe. Does it knock you out, does it blow you away, as the person who created it? Did you surprise yourself by how good it is, that it almost sounds like another, more gifted person created it? Then release it! Anything short of that, I just don’t bother finishing those ideas. It’s not like I work in the Brill Building or Tin Pan Alley (although I did have a residency at the 12 Bar Club in London’s actual famed Tin Pan Alley around 1999-2000), so my answer to you is that only 2 EPs is phrased wrong. We could have made 30 LPs and all of them bad, like the Rolling Stones, but I love the no-fat approach, everything incredibly wrought, brief, not one stray idea that isn’t necessary. Then it’s “wow, you made all those 12 great recordings in that short a time span?” Like, 12 timeless songs is a lot. I’m not saying “London Crawling” is genius, but I am going on record to say it’s really very good. Like I said, I never listen to my own music, I don’t even listen to rock music much, I listen to piano based chamber music mostly, or psytrance, or Reggaeton, but listening to this after almost 20 years, I am incredibly proud of every note, every sound, on this album. I wouldn’t do anything differently if we did it today, and I doubt it would have been as good if done today. It was a zeitgeist moment.
BT: Some call you the grandfather of indie rock. What would you say to songwriters starting out today, who want their music to be heard?
AV: Can we call me the father of indie rock please? Grandfather is bit much, innit. Who said that? Where am I? Seriously, the thing I would say is that – like standup comedy – it’s a calling. Do not get into it for the money, do not get into it for the fame, that’s folly, go into finance if you want those things, if you want fame, start a tech startup. Art is celestial. Do it because it’s yours, your experience, your story, your song, reference things from your life in it, like the actual name of the place where you were in the song, in other words do it for you, not based on what you think might be popular. It took me a long time to learn that lesson. Every time I write something, I’m trying to write The Single. And that’s fine, as long as you break every rule and convention when writing it, and never produce something that’s an exact regurgitation of what others had done, like Interpol stealing Joy Divisions entire everything, but their fans being too young to know from Joy Division. But they didn’t fool me. People can smell bullshit a mile away so – unless you want your audience to be made up of dumb dumbs, people who like Guns n Roses, and why would anyone want that, then write up to people’s intelligence, write creatively, write so that the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end when you’ve put the jigsaw puzzle of the song together so it fits perfectly together and is truly original, while at the same time being completely relatable by anyone listening, even if it wears its influences on its sleve, it’s an homage, not a theft, then you have my divided attention. In other words, do it to amuse and one-up yourself, and then you’ve arrived. Who listens or how many followers you have is beside the point. Kill the ego and you will be free.
BT: What’s next for the Pelicans?
AV: Well, with the luminaries who gave us quotes and support, from Fountains of Wayne to Badly Drawn Boy, to Tom Allen (from Queer Eye who went on to do the show “Chopped” and loved the Pelicans), to Rolling Stone Magazine legends Anthony DeCurtis and Joe Levy, and even one of rock’s greatest legends Danny Goldberg, I’m hoping the album gets enough buzz – since it sounds fresh today and not like something from 20 years ago – it’s not dated, good anything never sounds/looks/reads dated – where we reunite for one-off shows in LA, Chicago and of course NYC. We were a good little band, and I would love to see my friends again. Anyone who’s ever been on a team or an orchestra or a rock n roll band, the community, the collaboration, the stick-togetherness, that’s always transcendent and beautiful and incomparable to anything else in life. So yeah, reunion shows in LA, Chicago and NYC – that’s what’s next for the Pelicans.
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