This Boston-based group–with a three-lead-guitar attack–is the best instrumental band you’ve never heard of. Loaded with seasoned studio talent, the group evades categorization, moving gracefully from surf to lounge to alternative country in the laid-back Chet Atkins style to edgy White Stripes covers. In between, throw in some Moog-fueled sonic experiments for good measure. At the heart of it all is an affinity to garage-rock of the 1960s, and a clear love and respect for the greatest instrumentalists of the era like Booker T & the MGs, The Ventures, and Dick Dale & the Del-Tones. The group’s fourth CD in eight years, Instro-Tainment, comes out June 3. We recently caught up with ringleader/guitarist/producer of note Pete Weiss of Verdant Studio to get the 411 on a number of issues, including how they snagged ex-Velvet Undergrounder Doug Yule as a part-time Weisstronaut. We have no MP3’s here but the band is quite generous, offering a load of different tracks downloadable at its home page, Sonicbids, and its MySpace page.
I love the new record, congratulations. How long did it take you to make that thing? It’s been a couple years since the last one.
That’s a tough question. There were really productive spurts separated by long periods of time where we just had trouble getting everyone together in the same place at the same time. Then there was kind of a long delay in getting the artwork. It actually came together very quickly, we had kind of realized it had been at least two years since our last album and that we didn’t have any new material. So we challenged one another to write some new material in a short period of time.
Everyone rose to the occasion; every member of the band either wrote at least one song himself or participated in the writing process, which was a little bit different for us. Once the songs were assembled, we recorded them quickly, over two long weekends, and I mixed it all in my spare time, basically.
I’d noticed that, before, you’d written a lot of the tunes, and it seemed kinda like a Pete Weiss vehicle, at least from the outside looking in; this one’s a more collaborative effort.
Well, it’s kind of tough to generalize like that because I am sort of the benevolent dictator of the organization (laughs). I do get veto power, and sort of executive producer privileges. In the past it’s been more of mixed bag; I’ve had a handful of songs and then some of the other guys would have a song, or there would be a lot of co-writing, which makes it interesting. This one was a little less co-writing, and more like, just individual songs that came from individual guys. There certainly was collaboration on how to arrange them.
So this was your White Album.
(Laughs) I think so, yes. Or at least beige.
You guys are going out on tour. How do you describe your music to club owners when booking gigs? Lounge? Alt-Country? How do you do that in a quick sound bite?
It’s hard. Kind of all over the map. Unfortunately we get stuck with the surf label, and that’s just a small part of what we do so that’s too simple. We just say eclectic triple guitar instrumental rock. And then maybe flesh it out with surf, psychedelic, lounge. [Guitarist] George Hall came up with the term “spy,” which I think is good. The tunes sort of lend themselves to a spy-movie soundtrack.
What if I refer to you as “the Ventures on crack?” Would that be OK?
I like that, that’s fine by me. I think we’re kind of similar to the Ventures. You can take the easy road and call them a surf band but they were more like an eclectic instrumental band.
Same with Booker T & the MGs. You can call them a soul band but they did a lot more than that.
How did you hook up with Doug Yule, one of the Velvets?
I’m a producer-engineer for my day job, and I meet and work with a lot of musicians. I recorded Doug back in 1997, we worked together on a still-unfinished solo project of his. We hit it off, remained in touch.
We booked our 2006 tour and we didn’t have a bass player. Well, we had one but he couldn’t make it on the tour. We put together a list of possible substitute bass players and, almost as a joke, we put on Doug. I said to the fellas “Well, I owe Doug a phone call anyway so let’s call him first and I’ll bounce it off him in a joking way.” You never know, but he’ll at least get a kick out of it.
So I called him and we caught up a little and I said, “Hey, let me bounce something off you. In October we’re going on the road for just a short tour, maybe eight days. Not really much money involved, we’d be sleeping on friends’ couches and stuff. But we need a bass player, you feel like taking some time off and coming out with us?”
Amazingly, he said “Yeah, let me check my calendar, that actually sounds kind of fun.”
So what was it like to have this guy in your band? Surreal? Does it bring you new credibility? Is it like having your grandfather in the band?
It’s a combination of a lot of things. He’s about 20 years older than most of us, but he’s really taken care of himself. He has no trouble hauling his amp around, or sleeping in awkward places…and surviving on road food. He did really well, better than some of us. And he’s great for stories from the old days, we got a lot of those from him. But he’s an unpretentious guy, wasn’t…if you ever get a chance meet him you’ll get this vibe, immediately, that he’s a balanced, regular dude you can just hang out with. You don’t get this awkward feeling that you’re among rock royalty, even though you are.
So we made a new friend, and he loved it. He wrote us in an email, “that was the most fun I’ve ever had playing in a band.” It was, like, gee, Doug, are you serious? Can we use that on our website? He’s like, “Absolutely!” Then we thought, that other band he was in had Lou Reed, so maybe that was a little challenging.
I’ve asked this of several bands and no one can answer it but maybe you can–you can hear a Nashville sound, you know whan a song is a New Orleans song, but what exactly is the Boston sound? Is there such a thing?
I don’t know. I think of the Boston sound as the 1980s or 1990s garage punk. Or even the 1970s with the Lyres…we occasionally do that [type of sound].
Is there anything in your music influenced by your being in Boston?
I don’t know, I’ve never thought of it, that’s a good question. I have to think about that. Occasionally we do have raw, garage-y songs…and that’s kind of all I can think of.
Always wanted to ask you about this: What’s up with your first three album covers, which feature a guy in a monkey suit at various cheesy landmarks on Route 1 in Saugus (Mass.)?
Here’s the story: Our friend Jeff Mellin is a great graphic designer. And we asked him if he’d do at least the first cover. We said there was a deadline, we had to get CDs pressed up in time for this event or whatever. He said, “well, I’m gonna need a photo of you guys,” and we all looked at our calendars and realized we couldn’t be all five of us in the same place at the same time to pose for a group photo and we said “Jeff, can you work up something without us, and oh we have no budget, we can maybe give you fifty bucks.”
He said “Fifty bucks? OK, I can work with that.” So he spent $40 renting a monkey suit and another $10 on film and went on Route1 with a great photographer named John Soares and they took a bunch of pictures of Jeff in a monkey suit just having a good time, maybe in town visiting for some sort of monkey convention. The nice thing is, they took enough photos that we were able to keep mining those photos for three albums. Seemed like a good way to do a trilogy.
Hah. It fits in with the band’s attitude and music at least for me. Speaking of which, tell me a little about the music on the new album. For openers, the first song “Fisticuffs” seems to quote The Who and “Brown Eyed Girl” but making something completely different.
That was one of mine. That’s an example of one that garage-y Boston sound, but definitely those power chords were definitely influenced by the Who, it echoes “I Can’t Explain,” unashamedly. But also I wanted to make the simple chords and simple melody…I wanted to take it somewhere where it got a little more complicated and more rockin’ as the song went along, hence the name “Fisticuffs.” Kind of supposed to create a mood where maybe–poom!–you wanted to start fighting or something (laughs). And well, yeah, we kept writing this song that kept changing, there’s not a lot of repetition in the second half, and it goes into that trading-off solos like the Beatles did at the end of Abbey Road. And those solos–me, Kenny Lafler, and George Hall–we actually played those live in the studio as an overdub, but the three of us, three separate guitars and amps. We fed off each other’s energy, and I think you can hear that in the recording.
How does that work, three lead guitarists? Just look at each other and nod, striving for equal time? It’s not the standard configuration.
Yeah, it’s difficult, challenging. I think if we were younger it’d be more challenging because we’d have more ego and want to elbow each other out. Guitars can take up a lot of sonic space, and if they’re not arranged properly and doing things that enhance each other, it can turn into a big load of mud. So there’s two elements we try to stay close to: One write specific arrangement for specific songs so the actual parts are composed and work together. The other thing is, while we’re improvising, we try to be aware that if someone’s soloing or improvising, the other guys should lay back and give him a lot of space. You do a lot of eye contact and signals–“Over to you, George or Kenny.”
I confess: I am an obscure 1960s garage rock junkie. Are you, too, heavy into those no-hit wonder singles anthologies?
I have the Nuggets and Pebbles from back in the 1970s on vinyl [all available now on CD] back when I was in high school when they were quasi-bootleg, gray market. I’ve had Sirius satellite radio, my favorite station is 25, Little Steven’s Underground Garage. I love it for the raw, visceral-ness of it. I think the other guys do, too, but I think I’m most into it.
How did the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” make it on the new record?
I always loved that song and I played bass on that song for Mary-Kate O’Neil–New York pop singer–she invited me to play bass, she was on a Monkees cover compilation. Learning the bass line made me appreciate the song even more. It’s deceptively complicated, for a song that’s just kind of very singalong and simple. That was 10 years ago. Maybe three years ago, now I’m playing mostly guitar, I sit down and I’m trying to figure out the main riff and–of course–realized quite quickly that it’s deceptively complicated to play. Quite tricky. It became a challenge, and I finally figured out how to play it properly, with feeling…and said “let’s do it.” It became a live, end-of-the-night staple.
You also did the VU’s “What Goes On” on the new record. Was that a tribute to Yule, who helped out on several tracks?
It’s one of Doug’s favorite Velvet Underground songs. We played it a few ties while we were out on tour with him. He was in studio with us, playing bass on a few tunes, and we decided to record it with Doug on bass. We tried to do sort of a slower, reverent version of it and it just fell flat, kind of dirge-like. Out of frustration we spontaneously broke into the shitkicking rockabilly–I don’t know if you’d even call it rockabilly, but kind of a boom-chicka, boom-chicka, boom-chicka version of it–and that had a lot more life to it. Doug payed bass on that, and he overdubbed some fiddle on it, too, which was a lot of fun.
You’re a producer, you see all styles of music. Why do you record–and why do people like–old-style homegrown rock in this age of electronic music?
In the case of the Weisstronauts, it’s just fun for all of us to get together, play music together, and bounce ideas off each other. It’s almost a social thing; some people get together and play golf or whatever, but we get together and do this collaborative stuff, which is really rewarding.
Thanks for your time and good luck. You’ve got at least one hardcore fan.