Unlike many other genres and music communities, the indie/alt culture appreciates new and rising artists that create diversity and new insights within the genre.
We constantly feature notable indie and alternative artists on the verge of success. Meet this week’s featured artist in an exclusive interview, the San Francisco based and Pandora-approved group Verst:
We recently talked in-depth with the Verst guys, John Dickey, John Parsons, Brandon Hemley and Mark Marvelous. Read on to find out more about the group's influences, creative process, and of course their take on alternative culture.
Pretty much all critics who have covered Verst agree: they have created an incredible collection of songs in their debut album Starship Crash, where not even one track skips a beat. With captivating and winding melodies guiding experimental rock instrumentals, the album is fresh yet experienced. It's a contemporary feat grounded in sonic nostalgia of the 70s. It's very indicative of the era in its amalgamation of the zeitgeist sound, but updated as if Bread was baked longer and shared the stage with Julian Casablancas, Kings of Leon, and Temples.
John Dickey (JD): Impossible to whittle down to three. I'm too old and have been through too many eras for that. Here is a quick list off the top of my head of big ones..
- Zeppelin - Zoso;
- Judas Priest - Unleashed in the East;
- Echo and the Bunnymen - Crocodiles,
- Heaven Up Here;
- U2 - Boy;
- Bread - Best of Bread ;
- Bowie - Low, Heroes;
- The Damned - Black Album;
- Pavement - Slanted & Enchanted;
- Sonic Youth - Evol, Goo
John Parsons (JP): Wow. Tough question, because I have so many different musical influences. But the albums that probably inspired me the most to learn how to play and start creating my own music are probably Television’s “Marquee Moon,” Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti,” and Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”
Brandon Hemley (BH): Oh, I get it. You want to know how old we are. Well, I started playing drums when I was 10. I had a sweet all-in-one HiFi with a record player and big-ass headphones with a long coiled chord, much like Matthew Sweet’s on the cover of 100% Fun. The first albums I really got into playing along with were Aerosmith Toys in the Attic, Led Zeppelin IIand The Cars. You do the math.
Mark Marvelous (MM): The Beatles Revolver was the first album that blew my mind. Prior to that, I had been limited in my exposure to exclusively show tunes (thanks Mom and Dad), so it was a seminal experience for me and a much-needed journey outside the American songbook. After Revolver, the floodgates were open. But standouts would have been Dark Side and Are You Experienced.
What are your fondest musical memories?
JD: As a band - I had some profoundly magical times living, traveling and playing with my band Pie when I was in my 20s, in the mid 90s. These are not necessarily even musical experiences, but the extraordinary life experiences I had while in the process of making music so ardently. Like the time we played a show in NYC then going home to Queens with a gang of Irish girls who helped unstick our van from the snow, waking up at 1pm to an enormous hours-long Irish breakfast, going sledding with them in Central Park until sunset, then getting back in the van aimed at the next show, crossing the bridge South as the last rays of the sun disappeared, continuing on our mission of rock.
As a listener - Lately I've been thinking back to some of my earliest showgoing experiences, especially as a young teenager going to see shows at UCI's Crawford Hall. My friends and I saw bands like X, Black Flag, The Cure, The Alarm, Iggy Pop, PiL. Seeing U2 on the War tour in the LA Forum. Then later, seeing Sonic Youth on the Goo tour in Boston. I'm just such a sucker for, such a big fan of, the unique, badass, transportive, fierce emotional music.
I also remember the shock of hearing revelatory, life-changing music for the very first time. Two examples: 1) When I was more or less a hesher hard rock kid in 7th grade, my best friend nabbed a copy of U2 Boy from his older brother. The needle dropped and I heard.. fucking bells? Sounded like some wussy little elves with bells and that delicate, knife-like guitar sound. The only comparison I could muster was to hear some Judas Priest in "Twilight." The contradictions drove me wild. 2) During a particularly musically lost & searchy period (I was attending Berklee music college and playing lots of edgy free improv music) my friend sat me down, got a couple whiskeys in me then busting out Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. The first track was "Flower," actually. I had never really even heard indie rock at that point. I had never imagined that there was a girl like that somewhere and that I myself could actually be that honest and direct when I recorded music. That moment push-started a creative songwriting process in me that has never stopped since.
JP: We’re just getting started with Verst, so it’s a bit premature to list memories, I think. In my previous band, Rule of Thumb, I’d say that opening a show for Austin legends The Gourds was a highlight. Playing a set (and I think we played a great one that night) and then getting to listen to one of your favorite bands afterward is a pretty amazing thing.
As for memories as a listener, there are so many. I got to see Led Zeppelin as a kid; that was pretty mindblowing. Going to a record store and bringing home vinyl on the first day of release is always a joyous occasion. Learning David Gilmour’s solos from “Animals” and playing along with the record is one of my fondest memories; it felt like scaling Everest. Listening to Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” in headphones for the first time…trying to figure out what the hell Michael Stipe was singing on R.E.M.’s “Murmur”…I could go on for days!
BH: Playing with my high school cover band, Four Play, in the quad at lunchtime. That was a thrill. Still might be the largest crowd I’ve ever played to. Been toiling in obscurity ever since.
Also in high school, we played a party at some kid’s dad’s warehouse. When the cops came to bust it up, we launched right into Police on My Back by the Clash. I don’t think we made it past the intro. The cops didn’t appreciate the irony. But at least no one got shot.
Countless good times in Rule of Thumb, Parsons’ and my old band when we were 20-somethings. Made some lifelong friends in that band. Somehow we got to open for the Gourds and I got to lend Keith Langford my drums. One of the best bands never heard. Real nice guys, too.
My younger brother turned me onto Neil Young, and I vividly remember riding my cruiser on the beach boardwalk listening to Decade and Zuma on my Walkman. I guess it was around this time I realized that I was pretty passionate about music, moreso than most of my friends. But I didn’t realize that I actually needed to play music to feel my best until much later in life.
MM: Learning the solos on several tracks from Are You Experienced by lifting/dropping the needle an infinite number of times. I can still feel that warm, zipper-like scratching sound when the needle (I say needle 'cos it was such a cheap stereo, I couldn't afford a stylus). For all you kids out there, we didn't have youtube or rock transcriptions back then, so we actually had to figure shit out. You just can't get that kind of satisfaction by letting the computer teach you.
Lately what musical periods or styles do you find yourself most drawn to as a listener?
JD: Oddly, in view of my own guitar focus, some synth pop and electronica. Bedroom stuff.
I'm also into Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Somehow the guy plays guitar very similarly to how I play, even though I was playing that way before he was born. And he has a similar approach to production.. a comprehensive vision that includes the whole arrangement and all the sounds. Tame Impala is like this too, and I like them also.
I like music that has a unique vision and cool, characteristic sounds. I like songs that create a whole world right there. That's what I try to do every time I play. If it's just wanking or playing someone else's music, I'm not at all interested. In fact, I hate that. So the reality is that I rarely like music people share with me and I don't go to see many bands.
JP: I’m kind of a musical omnivore, so it’s hard for me to narrow it down to specific periods or styles. I guess i have musical ADD to some extent. I can never get enough of 80s college and indie rock (R.E.M., Talking Heads, Smiths, Replacements, etc.). The 70s AM Gold stuff still slays me. John (Dickey) and I have a lot of similar tastes…everything from Bread to King Crimson, so sometimes what I’m listening to “lately” is something that he’s reminded me of in passing…and then I’ll go back and dig deep. I also try to constantly find new stuff that turns my crank. I subscribe to a lot of music magazines and try to devour music blog content on a regular basis. Pandora is a great resource too for those “two degrees of separation” musical discoveries.
BH: This varies so much from day to day. I like a lot of different stuff but I just sort of explore whimsically. Recently been mining the Meters catalog and trying to decipher Zigaboo’s beats. In terms of newer bands, Unknown Mortal Orchestra is pretty rad.
MM: Everything and nothing. I will always have a soft spot for old school funk and early rap/hip hop. But I never spin that shit anymore. In fact, I just reconnected my turntable after Starship Crash was released, so I'm just picking out random albums from years past, like King Crimson Discipline and Steve Stills first solo record. Truthfully, I don't have enough time to choose to listen to other people's music very much - so I hear what's on the radio or what's getting played at house parties and alternately scoff (frequently) or am intrigued (less frequently). The other guys listen to more au courant stuff, but they commute to work so it's easy for them. And Parsons doesn't seem to ever work, so he has a ton of time on his hands. Mostly I just listen to Dickey's stuff over and over so I can learn my parts better or else he gets mad.
What is your creative process like? How do you approach the writing process?
JD: I'm a guitar player first. So ideas usually emerge from inspired moments I have while playing. My way into a new song is usually a riff or a melodic/harmonic hook. A strange chord or a chord progression that modulates through different keys, with words or just a vocalese melody that may be a part of it. Usually there's an attitude or feeling to it that I need to build out, hone and focus more. So I try to build a song around it. Sometimes I get lucky and two great pieces I already have will fit together. When I get too technical or meta about the songwriting or arranging process, that's when I lose the emotion. So that stuff doesn't turn out as much.
JP: In Verst, Dickey really has a fully realized vision most of the time. His Pro Tools demos are better than most bands’ best efforts in the studio. As the bass player in this band, I try to ensure that I’m listening and absorbing his ideas first and then I try to internalize that and come up with what I think is a complementary part that serves the song.
As a writer of my own songs, I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out the “process.” It’s different every time. Sometimes music comes first. Sometimes lyrics. Sometimes I just press record and improvise for 15 minutes and hope there’s something I can use. Sometimes I hear a nearly complete song in my head and the challenge is how to get it out as quickly as possible before it’s gone. I don’t read or write music, so the creative process is still kind of a black box to me. I wish I had more formal skills to put into play, but there’s also a certain freedom in not having those skills. I get to be surprised and delighted more regularly because everything seems like magic to me. And magic is best when you don’t know how the trick is done.
BH: Unlike many rock drummers, I actually like to do as I’m told. I love the way Dickey brings nearly fully baked demos to the table, right down to the kick drum patterns. Of course, I do it my way sometimes to stay within my limits. But it’s fun to dissect what’s going on and try to improve. The demo for Black Sybian Mantis is out of this world. My version is a little different, because it has to be.
MM: I write words first then music. Sometimes I write the music first. Not that I'm advocating, but smoking weed helps *me* loosen me up and make unique lyrical and melodic associations that normally I would have difficulty accepting/letting in. I don't know why all my stuff turns out sounding like Bowie with a head cold, though.
What is your dream collaboration and why?
JD: I would love to write and record an EP with David Bowie, I suppose. I would also just love to have some real time - a month or six - to spend with the Verst guys just making stuff up and recording. That would be heaven.
JP: Personally, I’d be over the moon if I ever had the chance to do something with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, or Jim James and My Morning Jacket. Those two guys and their bands seem to be doing exactly what they want to be doing, without any concern at all for the commercial implications. It’s, as 10CC once sang: Art for art’s sake. And yet, they’re both wildly successful, which is amazing and fantastic. I’ve always approached music that way; I write and play it because it brings me great joy and I can’t imagine NOT doing it. So, being able to do something with people who think that way and are at the top of their game (and making the “business” part of it all work for them) would be a dream. And most likely will probably remain one.
BH: I’d jump at the opportunity to play drums in Crazy Horse, if Ralph ever retires. That seems like an easy, decent-paying job. Just sayin', Neil.
MM: I would love to write with Dickey. His lyrics and hooks are so innovative, and he moves between styles so effortlessly - I think my songwriting would improve immensely by actually sitting down and writing together with him. And James Brown and all my other heroes are dead, so that pretty much leaves John.
As an indie artist in the digital age, social media and streaming are essential tools for marketing and promotion. What do you think about online music sharing, both as a music fan and as a musician? How do you think social media/music streaming services impacts the rising musician?
JD: I think the music industry as a money-making enterprise and as a profession for musicians has been temporarily destroyed by the internet. I say "temporarily" just because I choose to believe that at some point musicians will figure out how to make a living again. But for the time being, there's no money in selling records or distributing digitally. "Free music" is becoming an offensive concept to me. But that's the norm. That's what everyone expects now. Playing shows must the only way to make money in a middle class kind of way. At the same time, theoretically there are more avenues and opportunities for musicians to get their music heard than ever. But you have to remember that recorded music by itself represents only a tiny sliver of the ridiculous glut of content that is overwhelming people everywhere now. And people are ever more fickle, with attention spans that are shortening by the second. I really hope that people learn to slow down and get into albums again. I'm struggling to do that myself. Vinyl helps.
JP: I think it’s great that music is so accessible. I grew up when it was really hard to share anything that sounded good (cassettes were about as good as it got, and there were so many variables, you just never knew what you were going to hear). As an artist, it’s incredibly convenient to be able to send someone a link and say “please listen to our album.” At the same time, people today think of music as a free commodity. There’s very little understanding of the amount of work, time, and money that goes into creating music. And that’s a shame. Because, like any ‘craft’, if there’s no way to sustain yourself doing it, the work inevitably suffers or just dies altogether. People far more eloquent than I have written and spoken about the challenges. David Lowery from Cracker and Camper van Beethoven, in particular, has been a great voice on this subject, I think.
BH: I’d say the impact is net positive. Way more accessibility than when I was growing up, both to discover and put out content. But there is so much talent out there, along with a lot of debris. It’s still difficult to grab people’s attention, but digital makes it easier than it used to be and more choice is better than less. Of course, there are the economic issues, too, which I won’t pretend to fully understand. I love my streaming services for both convenience and value, but I’d like to see artists getting paid fairly and not ripped off. When you hear that Pharrell made like $3000 from 43 million streams of Happy, that doesn’t seem right. Free sharing is great for exposure, but at some point the consumer should expect to pay something. There’s too much of a something-for-nothing culture these days. Like never paying to support public radio. I guess we’re lucky 'cuz we’re all middle-aged family guys who get to work in offices for a living and can afford to pay for music. But if I could make a decent living making music, I would in a heartbeat.
MM: Art is for everyone man. Stream it for free. Own it if you want. Social media has helped us avoid having to rely on the man. Power to the people, yo. But it would be nice to have a record company helping promote this shit. It's exhausting!
What are you currently working on? Any new projects?
JD: The next Verst record, of course. If I have my way, it will be much more energetic, brutal and experimental than Starship Crash. It's difficult for me to write in a direct, honestly emotional way, but I'm trying.
JP: Dickey’s incredibly prolific, so we have about two albums’ worth of material ready to record. This first record had a longer gestation period than anyone imagined (or wanted), but now that it’s out, we’re chomping at the bit to record the follow-up. I have a lot of songs that aren’t very Verst-ish, so I’d like to try and get those recorded at some point in the coming year too.
BH: Next Verst album and T-shirts.
MM: I need to put my energy into creating parts for Verst songs that are worthy of the collective effort and the amazing songwriting. On the side, I write some, and record it (poorly) on my home rig. I recorded one tune when I was sick as a dog and couldn't even see what I was doing. But I thought it sounded other-worldly and rocked. The other fellas not so much. So between those two, my free time is basically gone.
Thanks once again to Verst for talking with us. If you like what you hear, be sure to buy their album over on their Bandcamp, where you can also get it on gorgeous limited-edition aqua-colored vinyl (which we will for sure be purchasing!).
Bay Area Californians, you're in luck! Verst wil play their Record Release Show at Sweetwater Music Hall next Wednesday, September 30th. For more information visit verst.org and their social links below.