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Interview: The Verve Pipe frontman Brian Vander Ark

Verve Pipe photo 1
15 October 2021

With their ubiquitous 1997 hit “The Freshman,” The Verve Pipe became one of the more popular rock bands of the 1990s, earning multiplatinum sales around the world. They haven’t coasted on that success since then, though, remaining active in both touring and recording. On November 5, they’ll release their seventh studio album, Threads. Calling from his Grand Rapids, Mich. home, frontman Brian Vander Ark offers up candid insights into his evolution as a songwriter, how Willie Nelson helped launch his career, and why even the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t convince him to write depressing songs for this new album.

What made you decide to do another album now?

BRIAN VANDER ARK: I think it was the pandemic. We’re always writing, but when the pandemic hit and we lost forty-some shows. It was like, “Well, what do we do now?” It took me about four days of being home to go, “The universe is telling me to write, write, write, and complete another album.” So I think, oddly, that was the motivation, to get it done. Such a Negative thing. But turning the negative thing into a positive, it’s actually antithetical to what I normally do. I usually take a positive and turn it negative, as a songwriter. So this was different for me, but I think it really worked. There was plenty of time to work on the songs and really make this album more special than what we’ve done in a long time. There was plenty to write about in 2020. There were all these little things where you go, “This could be a really prolific time if you just open up your eyes and your mind and your ears to what’s going on right now.”

When you’re inspired during such a dark time, how do you avoid having your songs becoming all gloom and doom, then?

BRIAN VANDER ARK: Being aware of a song getting pulled down into a black hole, I’ve tried since I wrote “The Freshman” to do not get sucked into too much. “The Freshman” was poorly written – not melody-wise, but lyrically. There were so many extra things I put on top of it. The girl [in the song], not only does she have an abortion, she commits suicide. Why did I have to go that far? It wasn’t true. But as a neophyte songwriter, who’s trying to find his footing, it was like, “I’m just going to keep going and going with this.” The song, to me, is so depressing for that reason. There’s nothing in it that is optimistic. I think since then, when I’ve gone the negative route, I’ve tried to find at least one or two positive things I can say. There’s a song on this new album called “No One’s Gonna Break This Heart (Again).” I wrote it and sent it to our old A&R guy. He said, “This is a beautiful song but I need something hopeful in here.” I changed a couple of lines and it was and it was so much better. It was an example of getting into one of those places where I can’t get myself out of the hole until somebody else on the outside says, “Hey, this is really a downer.”

It’s interesting that you’re trying to change, as a songwriter, instead of trying to do the same thing that already has brought you such success.

BRIAN VANDER ARK: I never wanted to write “The Freshman 2.” I didn’t want to follow the path that most hit song writers travel, which is, if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. For me, it would be so boring to continuously write the same [type of] song over and over again. That’s why I feel like this [new] album is exciting to me because we take the listener into different places through every song. For me, it’s satisfying and gratifying, and I can look back on the catalog of music and say, ‘We really tried to do some things that were different, and it’s worked.”

Verve Pipe cover art

How did you know that being a professional musician was the right path for you?

BRIAN VANDER ARK: Willie Nelson really gave me a shot in the arm. I was in the Army and I wrote a song and it had references to farming. Then I got to meet Willie and gave him a demo. He listened to it and called me a few weeks later and asked me if I wanted to play Farm Aid 4. I got to meet Elton John and Neil Young. It was amazing. That was a huge break in 1990. I went up there in my button-down shirt and just looked like a country singer and I sang this thing. Then nothing ever came of it from there, but it gave me the confidence to write and say, “Willie Nelson said this is really one of his favorite songs right now – maybe I can do this.” That was the inspiration.

How did you really get your career kicked off from there?

BRIAN VANDER ARK: I started at the Holiday Inn bar, just playing cover songs [solo]. Then I started playing my own songs, and then it was time to form a band. I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I still live here. I lived in New York for about a year and a half, and I lived in L.A., [but] there’s just too many distractions. It’s too much. I wasn’t getting anything done. I came back to Grand Rapids and frankly, there’s not much to do here. It’s like, “All right, well, I’ve got time to write and read and explorers film and that kind of thing.” It’s always worked for me to be here.

But now you’ll have to leave there to tour for this new album. You’re always going to be expected to play your hits at every show, though, so how do you keep that interesting for yourselves?

BRIAN VANDER ARK: Playing “The Freshman,” I know that it’s going to be really nostalgic for people to hear it, and that’s just a great feeling for me that I can actually transport somebody back to that time in their lives. So I look at it that way. There’s never going to be a night that we don’t play it. A couple that got a babysitter and drove two hours to see our show, to satisfy them by playing three or four songs that they want to hear, I have no problem with that whatsoever.

What do you think it is about your music that’s kept your fans so loyal?

BRIAN VANDER ARK: I’ve always felt that it’s the lyrics. I think the people that follow us still have the expectation that I’m not going to half-step it on the story. I’m not going to go to the same old clichés. I’m going to find new ways to make metaphors interesting.

How did you learn to write like that?

BRIAN VANDER ARK: I grew up listening to conceptual rock and roll albums. The funny thing is, the Genesis Duke record is the one that keeps coming back to me. It wouldn’t be the one people would go to for a Genesis record, but I love that record. I loved Alan Parsons Project’s Turn of a Friendly Card. I love Styx’s Grand Illusion. This is when I was a kid, fourth or fifth grade, and I’m singing every word. That’s where I learned how an album should be. When iTunes came out and the album [format] was dying, we’re like, “Well, people are making their own albums now, and they’re picking the best songs.” Well, I can either go that direction or I can continue to stay true to myself and try to make these epic records. I haven’t really deviated from that.

But your music doesn’t sound like any of those prog artists you just mentioned. How did your sound evolve out of that?

BRIAN VANDER ARK: I listened to pop radio, ABBA songs and all the stuff that was the top hits of 1976. The Carpenters and all this stuff. There’s a melding of those two things.
So if I can take four minutes of somebody’s time and have a really catchy melody and a great lyric that they’re going to remember, then I’ve achieved something on the level that satisfies me.

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