Prone as these apes are to wasting time, we found near the end of the recently concluded year the great pleasures that exist in re-examining a crucial piece of literature known as “The Acid Archives.”
At nearly almost kinda sorta approximately close to precisely the same, we found ourselves in the possession of – and inordinately possessed by – an album that seems to exist outside the confines of time, seems to be exist within its own time, in the form of an extraordinary piece of crackling kosmiche entitle “EXU,” delivered by the Chicago group known as Verma.
This was not our first time in the company of either of these two things. The extraordinary treasure that is “The Acid Archives” is a permanent resident of our alien bookshelves, while we bestowed the highly questionable honor of “Band of the Week” on Verma a moon duo ago.
These two things, naturally, have everything and nothing in common.
The pleasure of revisiting “The Acid Archives” is for us defined by the pleasure of discovery, of the always present thought that spins like the , “Oh, wow, look at this world of the past we’ve created where there is so much weird, heavy, awesome, strange and beautiful music to hear. Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world.”
The pleasure of Verma’s “EXU” is the pleasure of realizing that world is going on right now.
Welcome to the New Wave of American Space Rock. Or not. Doesn’t matter. We’re thrilled to have the members of Verma respond to our ridiculous questions below. Enjoy.
What is the earliest recollection that you have of an album making an impact on you due to its combination of sound and aesthetics or visual presentation? What was it about that sound that made it so compelling to you? What was it about the visuals that band or artist presented that made have so much impact on you? Have your impressions about that album evolved over the years? In what way?
Whitney: I sat next to this guy in high school biology class who would always draw the four members’ symbols from Led Zeppelin. He was obsessed with Druids, and I think I probably had a thing for him and his pagan ways. He turned me on to Led Zeppelin number four. I think the hermit with the lantern on the record sleeve was what did it for me, that he came from a tarot deck. He has this melancholy look on his face that I thought must come with wisdom, and you can hear that on the record.
Johnny: I’ve always wanted to name my children I, II, III, and Zoso.
TJ: I spent my teen years solely listening to punk, hardcore and metal. But prior to that I was a pretty big Nine Inch Nails fan. Their sound has always shaped what I listen to and what I write … still to this day. There was that doomy, morose, apocalyptic vibe that came through … always staying in the minor keys … not quite goth but close. Even when I was real into punk and metal, I had tendency to listen bands that had that same gloomy vibe. And going back and listening to albums like “Downward Spiral” or “Broken” … it blows me away how great the synth work and sequencing is. At the time I had no clue what I was listening to … or even the process that went into make those records. Now that I really dig in I appreciate on a whole new level. And I don’t even need to mention the art and videos NIN put out. The “Broken” and “Downward Spiral” packaging layouts are still amazing.
Zach: As embarrassing as it may be, the album “For The Punx” by the Casualties. The ridiculous get up paired with the abrasive broken english made me want to freak out. I just thought it was so bad ass at the time. I remember crouching behind my friends house in the burbs smoking weed out of a pop can and saying with all seriousness, “I just can’t picture a time in my life when I won’t listen to the Casualties every day.” I graduated to grimier and less fashionable music shortly after but I can’t say that I don’t miss that feeling.
Johnny: Musically, TJ and I have been into the same scenes. That being said, I think Ministry’s “Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste” was the album that set me into the stratosphere musically. It was the first record i wanted to listen to alone in the dark and it definitely scared me. The cover, an X-Ray of a skull with some kind of metal straps connected to it balanced by the script font, it was just the raddest thing i’d ever seen, like an invitation to hell. i think it also helped that we didn’t have the internet like we do now, so the cover was all you got to see. i had no clue what the band looked like, i just imagined electro-robots in leather jackets smashing through car factories on fire. i’ve heard people theorize about how musicians go back and try to embrace their roots, like whatever they listened to when they were in their early teens. i’m definitely a victim of that, or i guess a proponent of the theory depending on how you look at it.
Can you recall a time when music began to take on a larger significance in your life? Perhaps it came “out of nowhere” or perhaps it was a long, slow-burn toward obsession, but what were the things that began to take on greater significance for you in terms of the co-mingling of music and your own life?
Zach: I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to be a drummer, but it seems like the passion for music didn’t come until later. I lived in a little neighborhood in Pittsburgh growing up and everyone I knew rode BMX bikes. On the street, in the woods – we always were on bikes. One day I strapped a walkman with a Doors cassette tape to the handlebars and rode around. I think it was the first time I could use the word “cruising” to describe what I was doing. I had already been in the school band at that point, but it was probably the turning point where I knew I wanted to be in a real band. I quickly became a burn-out. The only reason I didn’t totally fall off the face of the earth was because I was obsessed with playing shows and zoning out while listening to mix tapes. Format is the only thing that has changed.
Rob: For me music has always been a pretty significant part of my life. I can’t think of a time where music wasn’t a presence. A lot of my oldest memories are just of being in a car with some member of my family and hearing this or that song on the radio. Looking back, those moments are pretty mundane, but for some reason they stick out in memory – I could probably make a list of the specific songs. Beyond that, I’ve played in bands since high school. The majority of my close friends have always been musicians or music lovers. For me, music is a constant – it’s always there, it’s the only thing I never get tired of.
How do you feel like that connection with music has served to propel your own musical evolution? Are there any particular bands, albums or entire spheres of music that you now find yourself drawn to that you would have been resistant to even five years ago? Ten years ago?
Rob: As a lover of music, you’re always sort of bouncing between two modes – listening to stuff that is happening now and trying to discover things from the past. In the years before we started this project I had been pretty focused on music from the past – listening to a lot of world/afrobeat type stuff and krautrock/kosmische. There were a couple years – say around 2006-2007 – were I got pretty disillusioned with all new music that was coming out – there was a lot of second and third albums from bands that had been around for years – things felt pretty stagnant to me and I just stopped looking for new music. Then a couple records came along that got my attention – Cloudland Canyon, White Rainbow – then some bands like Wooden Ships, White Hills, and The Black Angels started popping up and it got me really excited to start listening to new music and start working on creating. In Chicago, it started to be fun to go to shows again – bands like Cave and Sadhu Sadhu were blowing our minds. All these bands were taking a lot of the same ideas from the krautrock and afrobeat that had resonated with me and doing new things with it. It felt like things were waking up, and it was exciting.
Whitney: I can feel the close of a cycle right now (maybe it’s just my Saturn return) that’s bringing me back to minimalist music. I guess I left off with serialism just before I went on the hunt for stranger and stranger music, but now I feel a condensing back to some of those roots, picking up where I left off. Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley … there’s this feeling of vacancy and distance, but still warmth, that’s so satisfying in a lot of that stuff .
What can you tell us about the name Verma and what it represents to you, personally, and to the music the band at large creates? Is the name itself derived from the Hindu word meaning, “shield”? Is there something you wish to communicate through the name alone … or is it, at the end of the day, just a name?
Rob: Deciding on anything can be a bit of a challenge in a democracy of five people, so it definitely took us a while to land on a name. I think Verma was probably the first one suggested, but we still went through hundreds of possibilities. We were scouring Wikipedia looking for inspiration and in doing so we first latched on to the old Norse meaning which was “hot.” We saw the Hindu meaning – shield – also. It seemed to work on multiple levels. It sounded kinda German or Indian or Norse. It could be a the name of a planet in a sci-fi novel, a tough biker chick in a post-apocalyptic motorcycle movie or a monster in an old Italian horror movie. I guess compared to some of the other options it had a nice amount of cultural vagueness to it, yet also jived with a lot things that inspired us.
It meaning “hot” took on more relevance for us as we started writing songs. We always play with a made up storyline or scene of some sort in mind – it helps us collectively align our vision for the song. Most of our early songs were set in the desert, so it seemed appropriate. As things progressed, that warmth became an important aspect of our overall sound.
Johnny: Jesus, that took forever…
Whitney: It makes me think of worms, like, “We are the ones who come from the worms.” I’d say we’re based on a story more than a name. If there’s something we could communicate, it would probably be the image of a beat up vehicle driving through a post-apocalyptic desert. That would be the perfect definition for the word Verma.
Zach: Black Sabbath was already taken.
If a primary emotion cannot be conveyed through the name alone, is there a primary emotion that you feel looms large across all of the music created by Verma? What is the most frequently repeated comment you’ve heard about the band that doesn’t necessarily ring true in your mind? To our own ears, there’s a definite sense of deep space exploration in Verma’s sound, yet combined with what we hear as an almost “down to earth” selection of enormous, undeniable hooks – the outer and inner space combined.
Rob: A lot of our songs are about post-apocalyptic situations and/or being in space, so there’s a lot of isolation in there, yet I think there’s always a bit of optimism in the sound as well. When we started playing together, we were responding a bit to the growing doomsday feeling in American culture. But rather than giving in to anxiety/fear/doom, respond with confident acceptance. There’s definitely an element of pure escapism also – maybe thats where things turn inward. Our music has always been minimalist in style. Our approach to each of our instruments is minimalist, so we’re taking these stripped down parts and through repetition, the meditative nature of the music takes over and starts to propel it, inward or outward. A song like “Ragnarakk” is more of a blast off, but some of the slower ones like “Drift” spiral down some inward rabbit hole. Actually, Drift is song about person who is on the dark side of a moon that has been ejected from its planetary orbit and is slowly drifting into its sun – maybe that sums it up better than what I just said.
Zach: The outer space thing is brought up quite a bit. As Rob was saying, we do a lot of virtual storyboards for what we were doing. A few different recordings started with an apocalyptic scenario that we would all talk about. We would build emotional landscapes or kinds of tension, and there is definitely that vibe to everything we do. But in almost every end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it type scenario, half the story is survival and the other half coping with the fall out or figuring out how to make a strange place home again.
Whitney: I’d say the primary emotion for me is a sort of headstrong sense of isolation. Or feeling headstrong in isolation. We write stories as the basis for nearly all of our songs, and they’re usually in a desert or outer space scenario. Often the protagonist is alone and figuring out how to deal with inhospitable surroundings. Sometimes it’s like, “Get me out of here,” and sometimes it’s more like, “I guess it’s just me now,” but all the stories require strong will and isolation for survival – the clash of inner and outer space, the ego in the hostile environment.
Your latest release, “EXU,” is utterly astonishing – as mentioned above, a perfect blend of the inner and outer spaces, with a massive, motorik backbone that gives the album’s most “out there” moments a sense of power and poise. Was there an overarching goal to be expressed through this album, apart from anything the band had done in the past? Are we correct to be absolutely floored by the album’s vocal attributes, seemingly more at the forefront of “EXU” than previous releases? Where does the title “EXU” originate from and why was it chosen as the album’s title?
Rob: Thanks. Well, I don’t think our intent was much different than anything we’ve done previously. We’re pretty geared toward being a “live” band, so this is really just a collection of the songs that we’ve been playing in our live sets over the past year. I guess we tend to do things a little backwards, with recordings usually coming after we’ve been playing the songs for a while. Our method of recording was pretty much the same as our other trips to the studio – go in, three takes each and pick the best one, minimal overdubs. Both sessions were one day recording, two days mixing.
Whitney: This record was recorded over quite a long time, and I think vocals had been coming forward gradually throughout, not as a conscious decision at all. We’ve always been driven by images more than words, per se, so they weren’t necessary to songwriting early on. It seems hard to paint pictures with lyrics while keeping a sense of forward motion. I guess it’s hard to make out words, anyway, under all the swirly effects.
Rob: The title was something we stumbled upon. Exu is a deity that appears in a some smaller African and South American religions. Exu is the protector of travelers and the god of the roads – particularly crossroads. Exu is considered to represent dualities and often leads people though certain trials that lead to the maturation of the individual. Something about that resonated with both the music – the notion of a journey being an important aspect in all our songs – as well as the process we went through to create the album, which spanned a bit over a year. There’s more of a mystic haze to some of these songs and a duality in the juxtaposition of the desert/space, man/nature, internal/external as themes. Also, Exu is thought to dress in black and white and carry a staff and a smoking pipe – it just seemed like a fitting representation of what’s going on here.
What can you tell us about the song, “From Thunder,” and its excellent and evocative companion video? The vocals here seem to be offering shade and shadow to the already brooding sound – how do you think the vocals best serve Verma’s sound in the context of this song? Would you care to comment on the rumor (the rumor that we are attempting to start right now) that you will soon pair this song with a cover of “God of Thunder” by Kiss, for a picture-disc seven-inch that will never be released?
Zach: It is not a rumor at all. In fact we are touring with Kiss in 2013.
Johnny: It’s a 10” picture disc.
Whitney: The vocals on this one are an additional layer of melody, with the occasional cluster of words popping out. “From the Hall of Thunder, great ones fall. We’ve been torn asunder, after all.” So, hopefully the image of leaving, but not escaping, comes up. It’s about hallucination and hypnosis, the way you can’t fully leave the old world behind. It’s always the point of reference for your sense of departure.
TJ: I think we originally played “From Thunder” much faster. However, the more we played it just kept slowing down … falling into its current groove … which is fitting for the storyline. There is something about the pace that feels as though you are locked in and can’t escape. As for the video, it was shot by video artist Ben Balcom, a Chicago ex-pat now living in Milwaukee. We sort of stumbled across his work and knew his hypnotic style was a perfect fit for the track.
VERMA – FROM THUNDER from TJ Tambellini on Vimeo.
What music have you been listening to recently? If push comes to shove, what’s your favorite song by The Cure and why?
Rob: I’ve been really digging the new Moon Duo record – they really nailed it on this one. We were actually lucky enough to release “EXU” at a show we played with them a few weeks ago, which was damn exciting for us. Also really in to the new Eat Lights Become Lights (“Heavy Electrics”) – which is a fantastic kraut-jammer – and “World Music” by Goat – which is amazing and beautiful on many levels. I’ve always got some Serge, Mulatu and LOOP laying in the record stack. As for The Cure – a few months back I saw that video of “A Forest,” live in Paris, 1979, on YouTube for the first time and was really blown away. It was really cool to see them before they were goth – that song is so killer.
TJ: I’m on a big Richard Pinhas/Heldon kick right now … also love that new Moon Duo record … Deep Magic, Lumerians, Goat, Matthew Akers, Silver Bullets, Teddy Lasry, the new Om album, Terry Riley, Anna Själv Tredje, lots of classic dub, Don Cherry.
Whitney: Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Psychic TV, Flower Travelin’ Band, Harmonia, Tame Impala, Laibach, PC Worship/The Dreebs, Rind, Tinsel Teeth, Nu Sensae, The Feeling of Love, Dead Luke, Samantha Glass, Bitchin Bajas, High Rise, The Mallard, and the Dead. That’s my most recent list.
Zach: Lumerians, Ga’an, Spazz, Asshole Parade, Zounds, Tragedy, Oscillator Bug, Zath, Amebix, Althea and Donna, Bong Ripper, Tame Impala … straight off of my “recently played” list.
Johnny: Swans, Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Horisont, Tame Impala, Killing Joke, No Joy, Nick Lowe, The Go, Conspiracy of Owls, and I’ve been digging a lot of late 80’s to mid 90’s stuff from Jesus and Mary Chain, Janes Addiction, early Smashing Pumpkins, Teenage Fanclub, The Verve, Primal Scream, Mazzy Star, etc. I jump around a lot and like I said, you can never escape your roots. Then there’s my list of Guilty Pleasure (aka not guilty, just a pleasure) music that I’ll spare everyone of.
In his book “The Mission of Art,” Alex Grey writes the following:
“Some popular art reflects the spiritually blind zeitgeist of alienated egoism, soulless materialism, more degradation, violence, and the extremes of artistic absolutism. But I have come to accept even ‘negative’ art as a ‘positive’ gesture because it harnesses the creative fire and describes an aspect, even if an ignorant or vile one, of human character … An alchemical process is at work here, bigger than any of us knows, integrating the shadow into the human psyche. In art’s mission to reveal the complete range of human character, part of its function is to examine taboos and map the extremes of human consciousness.”
Whitney: I think … yes! The fusion of many existing worlds into a single hybrid world becomes more than just the sum of its parts. It’s hard to think of art in terms of positive or negative but rather surprising or obvious relationships between parts of the whole. That alchemical process can happen in terms of genre, too, new locations popping up on the musical map, like pressure squeezing up a new formation where formerly there was just potential space.
What’s next for Verma?
Rob: We’ve been playing a lot of shows the last few months – working to pay off this album, which we self-released. We’re gonna take a few months to focus on writing some new songs. We have a couple of releases on the way – a cassette with some improv jams we had done for the Vice Guide to Congo soundtrack and a couple 7-inches with some new tracks that we’re pretty excited about. Beyond that, we’ll see where the road takes us.