EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH VALIENT HIMSELF: VALIENT THORR FRONTMAN SHARES HIS BELIEFS WITH VINCE NEILSTEIN
Valient Thorr must be experienced live to be experienced at all. Sure, you can get down with VT’s delicious concoction of southern rock and punk on their records, but in order to truly appreciate and understand what this band is about you’ve got to see and be a part of the live show. Mainman Valient Himself is all too aware of this fact, and it’s a topic we talked about at length in my interview with him last week. Turns out — surprise, surprise — that’s he’s got all sorts of theories about it, that a live show is the ultimate art form as a combination of audio, visual, and physical stimulation. The ideas he shared with me over the phone came off a whole lot like his infamous on-stage rants at VT’s shows. And if you’ve seen VT live, you know full well that said rants (VH describes them as “beliefs”) are some of the best in the biz.
We also chatted about Valient Thorr’s new record Stranger (out today! read a review by our own Urbandale Grimes here), their upcoming seven-week U.S. tour with Junius and Howl, how Valient Himself spends his time off, what it was like to work with producer Jack Endino, and how the band’s career might’ve been different if their records had been pushed in Walmarts the nation over.
I initially had a hard time reaching Mr. Himself on the phone, so he had to call me back from a landline at VT’s self-described “secret laboratory.” Our chat, after the jump.
What secret laboratory is this? What’s going on?
Well, we’re rehearsing and getting ready to leave for our 7 week tour which is our CD/album/LP release tour.
Indeed. So how’re rehearsals going so far? What’s a Valient Thorr rehearsal like? Do you guys just do the set all the way through or do you fine tune transitions? How does that go?
We go over stuff that we haven’t gone over. Then we go over new stuff and then we do old stuff. Eventually we work up to doing the set.
Well I got to say, man, and I’ve seen you guys live a couple of times, your between song banter is amongst the best in the entire world of music.
[Laughs] Well thank you.
Is that stuff all off the cuff or do you have some idea of what you’re going to say?
Well, I have beliefs. I have habits, beliefs and desires. It’s pretty much all off the top. It’s not really pre-planned, but I have things that I want to get off my chest and things that bug the shit out of me, so I think about those and they just come out.
Well you definitely put everything into your live performances, and I think that’s why so many people have connected with you guys over the years.
Yeah, I think that’s possible. I think so. I think you’re right. You know what funny is it’s been years now, so there might be a few that are like “ah, this is bullshit. I don’t care,” and whatever. They’re there to see somebody else or whatever. 99% of the time — that’s stretching a bit — but a pretty big percentage of the people once they see us live go “oh, okay. I get it. This is good. This is fun. I see what’s going on here.” I can imagine that the whole thing is hard to swallow unless you’re just really excited for something like that or that your buddy knows you’ll like it. “You got to check this out.” I think we win people over when we get up in their face and maybe sweat all over them a little bit.
I think that’s definitely true. I was one of those people. I didn’t necessarily get it until I saw you guys live. Is that something that you struggle with is trying to make the albums like the live performance?
Okay. Right on. Well, that’s a different thing.
An album is a piece of art. A live performance is performance art. It’s not something that you can hold in your hand. It’s not something that you can tame. It’s two totally different types of art-making. One is something that you hope will last for a lifetime. I see them as what trumped what in the history of art and each person has an art history and each thing has it’s own history. That’s why, I think, I really enjoy history. I really enjoy finding out the history of things. I think that in the old days people collected paintings and there were patrons for paintings that paid lots and lots of money. Someone was like “well, this is visual art.” At a certain point, people sold records that had visual art and audible art and because it touched another sense there it trumped it. Maybe if somebody wasn’t paying thousands and thousands of dollars for one record, you know not right in the beginning anyway, but they had thousands and thousands of people buying that record so that they could sell it and make just as much as somebody would off of one painting. There in lies the thing — it hits more senses.
So in the live show, it can be visual. It can be audible and you can even get touched. You can get touched. You can get the sweat on you. You can be a part of it. You can actually be a part of art. The audience becomes a part of it. I think that even trumps the records — for me. That’s just for me. A lot of people maybe don’t think like that, but in their head somewhere, it’s sort of like that. It’s a really great experience to see music live, not necessarily just us. We haven’t done a live record yet. If you think about it like this, take an example like Kiss. Once they finally put out Kiss Alive!, it made all their other live records sound like dog shit. The songs that are on there, if you go back and listen to the studio recordings, you go “oh man.”
You know what it is? I think it’s like a lot of times bands write these songs, and they haven’t performed them live. If you listen to songs off Total Universe Man or Legend of the World (some of our earlier records) those are written and were never performed before they were written. They are a lot slower. Once we started playing them live in front of people, the energy got added to the mix and they became more explosive songs. Now if we went back and recorded those songs they would be totally different albums. I think that’s what happens. I think a lot of times if our records sound stale compared to the live versions of them it’s because these are the initial beginnings, the rumblings of what is to come.
In terms of what you were talking about as far as art forms evolving, how does the modern day record business model fit in with that in terms of people downloading music and not necessarily buying albums anymore? Has it, in a sense, just evolved to be all about the show?
There’s a lot to think about there. Most people who buy records now, the large percentage of people who buy records, only go to the places where they are available. There are people who buy off the internet and there are people who still buy CDs and stuff. Most people who buy records go wherever they can go in every small town (and let’s just talk about America for a second). Most of the independent record stores are gone. There are still some out there but most are gone and more and more are closing up every day. Your average person who’s buying music is buying it at the only place they can which is Wal-Mart. What does Wal-Mart or maybe Target sell? Pop, country, R&B, rap and hip-hop, and that’s why those genres are the ones that still can have people who sell a million records or your huge acts like AC/DC who does a Wal-Mart exclusive or something like that. Unless you can break into distribution like that, it’s super hard. Distribution is what’s hard these days.
The key to making it is promotion and distribution even if you suck. Take a band that gets a lot of money behind them, I won’t say Vampire Weekend because whatever, I never listened to them and maybe they’re good. I know they got pushed before anybody had heard of them by Spin magazine or something. Take a band like Panic at the Disco! – a band that nobody had heard of and all of a sudden, bang, all these fucking teeny boppers are talking about them and then they go away. Two years later, boom, nobody gives a shit. They’re gone. They’re like a flavor of the month type thing. That’s what happens when your record gets really awesome distribution.
I don’t know. I’m talking about a million things at once. This kind of conversation can branch off. For us, in the last 3 years, we sold more vinyl than CDs.
Wow, that’s great.
If you built your own grassroots following or whatever, you can still make a living off of it. Not really. I can’t even afford a place myself. We stay on tour because pretty much we have to. It would be different if we were on a big label or something. I don’t know.
It might not. You guys have carved out a specific niche for yourselves, and you seem to do well within that niche. Yours isn’t necessarily the kid of music that’s going to appeal to people who are buying Panic at the Disco! or Vampire Weekend records.
Right, but I think people buy what’s put in front of them. It seems sort of mindless. If something wild is put in front of somebody, they’re still going to pick . . . they eat up what is told to them is good. That’s why a lot of horse shit is huge – just if it’s in the right place.
Yeah, definitely. That’s very true.
That’s why all these, what I call “Wal-Mart acts” [are successful]. We were at a hotel and there was a country music awards TV show on, and I heard this guy, out of his mouth he said “thanks to our fans because they helped us sell over 10 million records this year.” I was like “10 million records? Who the fuck still sells 10 million records after 2005?” Really, who does? It’s because this shit is available in the fucking small towns and stuff. They see it and go “oh this is supposed to be good. I’ll get it. I don’t give a shit.”
Don’t sell yourself short. That kind of music is a lot simpler and more generic than what you guys do. It definitely appeals to more people, I think, even if you guys were to have mega sales at Wal-Mart.
Of course, that’s nothing against your music.
No, no, no. I’m with you.
That’s definitely an interesting tangent I didn’t intend to go down, but thank you for your thoughts!
With this tour coming up… remind me again who else is on the tour.
On the first half is this band called Howl who are on Relapse and a band called Junius who I don’t know. They [Junius] were described to me as a combination of Neurosis and the Smiths. I listened to a song and thought they were pretty good, but I haven’t met them yet. The second half of the tour are more of our friends – Red Fang from Portland and Radio Moscow (who’s a really rad band) are on a little bit of it and then Caltrop (another local North Carolina band will be taking over after them).
Are you looking forward to the tour and being out for 7 weeks?
Oh yeah, man. We just did 7 weeks in Europe and took a month off to get everything ready for the U.S.
Like you said you’re on the road all the time because you have to be, but what do you do when you’re not on the road?
Go and visit my earth father and check him out. I have a new little earth brother that he and my earth mother adopted. So I have a new little brother to hang out with and bullshit with. I go see a lot of friends. The funny thing is being on the road all the time, you have friends everywhere. It’s hard even if we did have one place to be, it’s hard to be there because you want to see your friends and they’re spread out all over the place. So you go and visit as many people as you can. I hung out in France and surfed for like a week and a half and then I came and visited some family and went up to Best Friends Day in Richmond, and then it was time to get down to business and rehearse the tour.
Yeah. It definitely sounds like you have a busy schedule. Seven weeks is no short tour. That’s pretty intense.
Do you pretty much just accept that your life is on the road at this point or do are you somebody that likes to have their time at home to chill out?
I don’t have a home, so my life is on the road right now. It’d be nice someday — someday I’ll have a life off the road, but this is it for the time being.
Yeah. It comes out on the 14th [of September].
How is that record different or the same or better or worse than prior records?
Well, it’s the second record we did with Jack Endino. I think it’s a lot better because it was more, like I said, when you write songs and you just go “hey, this is good. Bang. What’s next” and you keep going without any kind of test to them, they can kind of sound stale after you get better at the songs and you get that live interaction. We took some of these songs on the road and saw what worked and saw what didn’t and tested a few of them before we went into the studio. There is more input from every band member. Everybody was writing. This is the first record where everybody sings on it significantly. It’s just a more cohesive record for us than anything we’ve ever done before. I think it’s more well thought out. It wasn’t just “hey, here’s a collection of songs. Bang,” we record them and we’re done. This was one where we go “okay, they’re going to listen to it, and they’re going to hear this.” The best novels are written with all these tricks already in there and thought out how the end is going to be. Why not make the record already thinking about what the listeners are going to be thinking when they listen to it? So we did a lot more planning on this record.
Was Jack involved in that process or is he the kind of guy who lays back and tries to get the sweetest tones possible?
That’s Jack’s role — he sort of lays back. He’s been making records and probably has made more records than . . . fuck. He probably cranks records out like . . . producing them like, say, Bob Pollard [of Guided by Voices] writes them. He [Bob] writes a shitload of songs. Anyway, that wasn’t a too good of an analogy.
But he really does a lot of records and so he knows his shit. He knows what kind of sound fits what kind of band because he’s done it all. He’s been doing it for well over 30 years.
He’s a pretty easy guy to work with then?
Oh yeah, man. He’s a wealth of knowledge. It’s hard to get going because all of us nerd out on so much stuff that he knows. It’s just one of those things where the vibrations are there. It’s fun to hang out with him. I like to learn things. I like to learn something new every day, and he knows a lot of shit.
Yeah, definitely. I assume it was good if you went back to him for the second time in a row. What’s coming up after this tour for you guys? Seven weeks puts you all the way at the end of October already.
We finish up the tour on the 25th in Gainesville, and then we fly to Austin for Fun Fun Fun Fest which is going to be totally awesome. It’s like Gwar and Devo and Slick Rick and Weird Al, Bad Religion, Strike Anywhere, tons of awesome bands and friends that we’ve had over the years. It’s going to be a really cool end of the tour. In December, we’re supposed to do the U.K. and Scandinavia and in January we’re going to go to Australia for the first time.
Wow! That’s great. Congratulations. Headlining there? Supporting?
I have no idea. It’s all kind of just . . . it’s going to be a couple of festivals I think. Maybe Big Day Out and some other stuff. I have no idea. It’s according to who they get. We have some friend bands that are from there that we might play with or maybe we’ll get lucky and get a good support slot with some of the other bands that are going to Big Day Out.
Are there any places that you would like to go that you haven’t been, like Japan?
I’d love to go to Japan and Asia. My number one priority after Australia is South America. I really want to go to Mexico and Chile and Argentina and Brazil — all those places. We have to get there. Kids are freaking out. Lots and lots of fans on Facebook and Myspace are begging us to come down and are going “you don’t like us. You don’t want to come down here.” I’m like “I don’t know a fucking promoter down there. Get me a promoter.”
It’s like “you pay for my flight, and then I’ll come”.
Yeah. I’ll make it happen, Jack.
It’s got to be tough to tour down there though without knowing the proper people.
If you got the right guy, you can make it happen.
Yeah. I’m sure it’s possible. Well good luck to you with everything, man. I’ll definitely be out at the show when you guys come through New York.
Okay, cool. It’s the 23rd [of September] I think in Brooklyn. Southpaw? Yeah.
Southpaw, yeah. That’s actually a cool venue. I haven’t seen a metal show there in a long time. It should be a fun one. It’s a good venue.
Hell yeah, man. We’ll see you out there. Come up and say “hey” to us.