-Ron Nine, Vaporland guitarist/vocalist/songwriter
Twenty or so years ago, Seattle exploded when Nirvana single-handedly changed the course of popular music. Those who played in the city's grunge bands have since ventured along different paths. Some have moved on and started families, perhaps keeping their band together as a hobby. Others are still trying to make a go of their musical careers. Some, like Pearl Jam, became legends.
Prior to the grunge phenomenon, Seattle was a sleepy town whose music scene consisted of self-described losers playing in bands and living in communal housing. The small underground community supported each other's musical endeavors. You'd go to a Soundgarden show, for example, and the audience would consist of members of other bands.
Then came Nirvana's Nevermind, and the once-subversive music scene turned into a "let's get rich by pretending to be Pearl Jam" fiasco, where thousands of kids, dressed in flannel, descended onto Seattle to become rock stars. The grunge rush destroyed the city's music scene. But now that the dust has settled and the survivors have grown up, Seattle's musicians have begun to reconnect with that pre-Nevermind spirit, before the major labels came to town.
Case in point: Vaporland, consisting of former members of grunge era Sub Pop bands Love Battery, TAD, and the Fluid. They share a long history of playing in bands and touring together. Vaporland is not just a reconstituted oldies act, however. The whole has unexpectedly become much greater than the sum of its parts, due to a combination of chemistry and life experience. Vaporland released its eponymous debut CD in 2014 on Strange Earth Records and has another planned for 2015.
Songfacts' Stephen Tow sat down to interview the band in Ron Nine's garage. Unfortunately, it couldn't be conducted in his house since Ron has cats (as does apparently every musician in Seattle), and Stephen is extremely allergic. Along with Ron (formerly with Love Battery), we were joined by guitarist Kevin Whitworth (also from Love Battery), drummer Garrett Shavlik (the Fluid), bassist Kurt Danielson (TAD), and singer/percussionist Katie Scarberry (Brother James & the Soul-Vation). Ron and Katie served coffee, and the hour-long interview began. The chat quickly took on an informal conversational tone typical of old friends who routinely finish each other's sentences.
Stephen Tow (Songfacts): Tell me how Vaporland came together.
Ron: Originally, I was just trying to get a later version of Love Battery together. And I was thinking we would just play Love Battery songs and write new songs. Me and Kurt were hanging out quite a bit at the time and had Kevin and Garrett kinda slated to play and so we started writing these songs and right away it was a whole new entity. We decided we wouldn't even try old songs. We had Katie step in for our first show on tambourine and maracas. Basically, it was kinda ad hoc. [Ron turns to Katie.] I don't know if you even practiced with us? Did you practice with us?
Katie: I was getting ready to go to the show and you called me down to see if I could just put a...
Ron: Like on one or two songs play tambourine and maracas.
Katie: We went through about five songs twice and then just...
Ron: And then, it just was so natural and it added so much. Just having percussion, plus we figured we're a bunch of old geezers and having a pretty young lady up there doesn't hurt.
It was just kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing that turned permanent. And it's really great, because obviously Katie adds such an element to us. It takes us out of that kind of nostalgic grunge thing and it makes us sound more modern. We had a female voice singing lead and backup on every song. And the percussion, too, it just takes us—brings us up a notch. We call Katie our secret weapon. Of course, it's not too secret anymore. But that's kinda how that happened.
Songfacts: When you listen to the [Vaporland] record, you can certainly hear—Love Battery's got this heavy, yet melodic at the same time, definitely a psych influence. And now you're bringing in that bluesy thing. And then you've got Kurt with that weird post-punk influence.
Garrett: He's such a cool bass player. As a drummer, it's really fun for me to play with. Always wanted to play with Ron, because of those [Love Battery] melodies. And I'm not just a basher, I can swing. [At least] I think I can swing.
Songfacts: Katie, tell me a little about—this is your first band, right?
Katie: Ron and I actually were in another project prior to this [called] Brother James & the Soul-Vation. We started playing together during that and I had a couple of other projects going on with [legendary Seattle punk drummer] Ben Ireland and some other great people. And I have more of a gap between where I was doing a lot of performance—not necessarily playing or singing in a band—but dancing, and acting, that kind of thing. So [I've] been around—I just loved performance art and music. But this is the longest going commitment that I've had. When I started playing with these guys, it just opened up a whole new realm. Brother James & the Soul-Vation started as like a temporary thing, with covers and [Vaporland] is where [we] can actually be free to write our own music.
Songfacts: Kurt, we were talking a little bit about what everybody's bringing to the table. Garrett was talking about the Fluid, obviously Ron with Love Battery. We talked about this [in prior interviews] about your post-punk thing. Like that's your home, post-punk. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about your bringing your influences into this band.
Kurt: I got a hold of Gang of Four records, and Wire, and Joy Division, and stuff like that….It showed me that you could be naïve and uneducated and unschooled and still have a vision—a viable vision. Living in Seattle and being sort of saturated in the atmosphere of Seattle gradually began to change the way I approached music. That was the good thing about Seattle. You'd go out to play a show and usually the audience consisted of other bands and they were friends of yours and maybe some people from work, maybe some family members or something like that. But mostly you were influencing and being influenced by your friends. So over time that had an impact on the way I looked at music and so the post-punk thing was always there. It was an important early influence, but it got modified.
Kurt: [continues] To this day, bands that I like most are ones that are obviously naïve, that have no—I always liked [Olympia's minimalist punk band] Beat Happening for that reason. Because they had this naiveté that allowed them to do things nobody else would ever do. If you were preoccupied or self-conscious about your approach because you were taught that way, then you would do things a certain way, and a predictable way. But if you aren't hung up on those kinds of things, then you can make all kinds of leaps—logical and otherwise, that no one else would make. And write and perform things that are surprising and unpredictable. You can make these quantum leaps. That's the great thing about naiveté.
Songfacts: Kevin, you and Ron were basically the core of Love Battery, so from your perspective, how is this not Love Battery II?
Kevin: Love Battery was pretty much psychedelic, but not really that bluesy. This feels like a blues band, which I'm really enjoying right now.
Kurt: I think that's true, and it's because of the stuff I've been talking about and the notion of naiveté and post-punk and all these things. We can concoct our own brand of blues and we can evolve it in our own special way, using different tools maybe than other bands would.
Garrett: When we toured the UK together - TAD and the Fluid, Kurt and I - we hung out all the time together. We were like connected spirits. We were really, really close. I love Kurt as a bass player. We always said, "We should play together."
Kurt: Yeah. We always used to talk about that.
Garrett: But it took forever. And then it finally happened.
Ron: That was I think me trying to be Greg Sage of the [seminal Portland DIY punk band] Wipers. But the riff itself—that little ning-ning-ning—is probably Pixies, I don't know. The usual influences for a grunge guy.
Kurt: I remember thinking the Wipers when I first heard that. Just how that song struck me at the beginning and in general, this is how I approach it, is that there's always an obvious thing for a bass player to do, what's expected, what's traditional. I always figure out what that is first, and then that's what I don't do.
Garrett: Coming in on the upbeat of that, yeah.
Ron: That bass part really takes the song in a whole different direction. Because there again, the rhythm is totally doing their own thing compared to what me and Kevin are doing as far as guitarists. And I can remember when Kurt came up with that riff, it took him forever to remember it 'cause it's so unique. It used to be like—"Wait, that's not it." We'd come back after practice, "No, that's not it." We'd have to wait for Kurt to remember that riff 'cause it's so out of sync. Not sync, but it's out of the norm. For the chord progression, it was so unique that even Kurt couldn't remember it sometimes.
Songfacts: It's almost, as a listener, you're driving down the road and all the sudden you take a hard left.
Ron: Push and pull. It's really unique in that respect. I can't think of anybody except people like maybe Gang of Four or someone who has that kind of uniqueness.
Kurt: That's what's great about Vaporland, too, is that we all allow these things to happen. Nobody steps up and says, "You can't do that." We just let things sort of flower in their own peculiar way and go where they're gonna go and follow 'em. I always think that's exciting because you never know where it's gonna end up.
Songfacts: Let's talk about another song off your record: "Garbage Head." First of all, I'm gonna like that song already because of the name. I think we talked about this before where you guys were starting out with a Troggs vibe and then it kind of goes off in this other direction and Katie starts singing. And I think that's what—already, I like it. I like the riff. I always like that when a song like [The Who's] "Behind Blue Eyes" goes off in a different direction or something like that. I just—as a listener—I just love that.
Ron: That again [is] just like Kurt and Garrett add[ing] that rhythmic thing, Katie adds that thing to the vocals that you go, "Whoa! That's totally unexpected. It adds so much." Which is the same thing with Kevin's guitar playing. We're almost in our own little worlds yet somehow we keep it together. One of the things, too, is we recorded it here [at Ron's home studio], so we were able to throw the kitchen sink in as well. On one song Kurt and I were pounding against some metal cabinets, trying to get some percussive sounds. I can't remember if you can even hear 'em in the mix, but the point is, if we had an idea, we tried it. And that's the way we are at practice, too. Sometimes it takes a while for the song to come together 'cause we're just trying so much stuff.
Garrett: And it's free. We don't have any expectations. It's lovely. There's no onus from a record label. We can do this shit on our own. And we're old enough to just enjoy playing. I mean, it's delightful.
Kurt: In the early days there was no expectation that you would even get a record out or make a record. You were just playing for fun, to entertain yourself and your friends — mostly yourself.
Kevin: Well, until the records did come out. [laughs]
Ron: Unfortunately, Nirvana's success actually destroyed the scene. Personally, it went to my head. We signed with a major label that didn't know what to do with us. We should have stayed on Sub Pop. We should have stayed local.
Kurt: With 20/20 hindsight, yeah.
Ron: …but the thing is—fuckin' Kurt [Cobain], he committed suicide. I mean, he wasn't very happy with the damn thing, either. That was so far from our mindset when we started. It was just so surreal when it happened.
Kurt: It became a monster.
Ron: And that's the great thing now. We have no expectations. We're back to ground zero. We have our friend—Van Conner from the Screaming Trees—put out the CD. Van is Kurt's brother in-law now. I mean that's how tight it is. And that's just like when Sub Pop was putting out our records 'cause Bruce [Pavitt] was our friend. Me and Tad [Doyle from TAD] worked with Bruce [at Muzak Corporation during the '80s.] I mean, the thing is, we're back to that kind of attitude.
Kevin: You guys, I'm really liking the new wave that we're on right now.
Kurt: Yeah. Me, too.
Kevin: Yeah, [I'm] sad to be going to Hawaii. [Kevin headed to Hawaii for vacation following the interview. His comment was greeted with a collective "boo-hoo" from the other band members.]
Ron: Our new songs are so much fun.
Kevin: Yeah, we've got a good batch of new ones.
Ron: There's a sense of freedom that we keep—
Garrett: and challenge.
Ron: Frankly, I'm hoping very soon Garrett will be singing [lead.] The role is open to everybody.
Kurt: It's a benign, supportive environment in that sense. The great thing about—Ron touched on this earlier—about Katie, in her vocals, and her percussion, too, is that we all came out of the grunge scene, which was mainly a male-dominated tradition. And, for whatever reason, that's the way it always was. And, yeah, there was always this desire, what would it be like to perform the right songs with a woman—and with a woman singing and how that would be? And…it's really cool. And it adds a dimension to the songs that we didn't have before. We talk about her voice as [a] secret weapon, because it's—for us—it's a new thing.
Garrett: I'm only looking for her to grow even more. I mean, she's knocked us out already, but, my God. The potential is just insane. She's got a Joplin-esque sort of vibe, if she wanted to go there. And she can. If she doesn't, she doesn't. But she's got the power, man. And it's beautiful.
Ron: Like I mentioned earlier, it makes us more contemporary, actually. Because without Katie we'd still be—
Kurt: Grunge is typically white territory, too—very white, very male. And we have Kevin [who is African American.]
Kevin: We got Katie. We got me.
Ron: It's funny how things work that way, but it's really great. One thing I've learned just in general: I gotta play music to stay sane, without a doubt. These guys hear my wrath sometimes if we don't practice. I get so wound up. It's so cathartic for me. It's like [missing] a therapy session or something if we don't practice. I'll like scream, "Dammit! We gotta practice more!" These guys have to put up with my rantings, but, for me—I would be doing this whether [or not] we put out records, whether we played shows. And I'm so fortunate because I can't imagine four other people I'd rather play with right now. Other than maybe Jimi Hendrix. But he's dead.
Songfacts: You've got some new songs in the pipeline. Tell me a little about that.
Ron: We have [a new] song, the working title is "Wombat"—right now, it's an instrumental. Who knows if we'll even have vocals?
Garrett: I might throw in one. That might be where I do my debut.
Ron: We've also got a song. Its working title is "The Jethro Tull Song." Kind of baroque-ish riff—
Garrett: But it's heavy, too.
Kurt: It's got a Led Zeppelin thing going, too.
Ron: It's actually so unwieldy in a sense that we're having a hard time putting it all together.
Garrett: We need a rope, yeah.
Ron: Because of that, I have high expectations for it.
Garrett: That Jethro Tull riff. I'll sit at home. I might be in the shower and going, "How am I counting this?" and it'll just run through my head. "Ok, I got a riff for it. I got a riff for it, if it'll stay together." And then I'll bring it in and I'll just dwell on it. I used to not do that with my other bands so much.
Kevin: I think we're all kind of doing that, because every time we come back—
Garrett: I get showers all the time, which is great.
Kurt: We've done all the regular stuff—the stuff that we are known for in the past. This project, we do that, too. We want to push ourselves to explore stuff we haven't done before.
Kevin: It's great having a song stuck in your head that you're working on, 'cause that means you're working on it. You don't [even] have to have your instrument.
Kurt: The subconscious plays a very important role, obviously. I think that the way we're working on stuff now—our subconscious minds are really working hard and we don't talk about it—we don't have to talk about any of this stuff right here, but it doesn't surprise me that we're all kind of on the same page.
Ron: It's funny, [for another] song I actually started writing it on [acoustic] guitar with a capo and at the time, I was kind of going through this phase of childhood memories. So I was listening to Elton John and Cat Stevens and Garrett was appalled. [Everyone laughs.]
Katie: I remember that, actually.
Ron: Now this one totally sounds [like] Vaporland and you wouldn't believe that it started off like a little pretty acoustic, capo folk rock—
Kurt: Yeah, now it's got energy in it.
Ron: It's got some angular angst and, but it's got a break-out catchy chorus and Katie sings the lead.
Garrett: It's got tension, that's for sure.
He continues to produce independent bands out of Soundhouse Studio in Seattle and around the world. Endino mastered Vaporland's debut album.
Plus, he would just give us the friend deal. But he guided us through making this CD. It was very raw before he got a hold of it as far as basic fidelity. He just really turned it around and made it very listenable. We owe him a great debt. We're very fortunate to have such great talent be our friends to help us along.
Kurt: And that's a hallmark of Seattle. It's always been our experience. And Jack has always been behind everything.
Kurt: [continues] I think there's five new songs? I think there's four or five. We're halfway, anyway, to a new record. So, the ideas are there. It's just a matter of having the time…. If we have a show scheduled, then we'll run through the set and get ready for that. It's nice to work on new stuff. It's really fun. Exciting.
Kevin: It's been thus far.
Ron: There's nothing as satisfying as taking just an odd riff that someone brings in and creating from that.
Kevin: It's exhilarating to [when someone] bring[s] in a song and [I] go, "Oh my God! I can't wait to play something on that!"
Kurt: By the same token to be able to say, "I can't wait to hear what these guys do to this."
May 29, 2015
Jack Endino photo: Kamille Crowley
Stephen Tow, a professor of history at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, specializes in American popular music and culture. He is the author of The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge. He also contributes to national music blogs, when he finds cool bands to write about.
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