Cult NYC favourites THE VAN PELT are brimming with new energy, returning to the fold with their first album in bloody ages.
“Nostalgia’s a dangerous drug,” laughs The Van Pelt’s Chris Leo. “But I think that, for our generation, we got a pass with COVID. It’s easy to start dreaming about the glory years and to spend too much time thinking about how things used to be. But those two years of silence were a great time to put everything in its place.
“So yeah, I can feel like we’re nostalgic for the past – we all are in a lot of ways – but I feel like I was able to put it in the present tense.”
It would have been easy for The Van Pelt to cash in on nostalgia, especially given their legacy and influence. The group formed in New York in 1993 from the ashes of Chris’s former band, Native Nod, yet between 1993 and 1997, they burned bright and fast. Despite several line-up changes, they dropped their debut ‘Stealing From Our Favourite Thieves’ in 1996 and the defining ‘Sultans of Sentiment’ in 1997, alongside a handful of EPs and singles in their oh-so-short run.
They perhaps didn’t expect to be sat here, some 30 years later, talking about the re-emergence of the act, but, in a similar way to American Football, they’re a band whose legacy has grown in their absence. Celebrity fans include Frank Turner and BBC Radio 1 Rock Show host Daniel P Carter. Even Charlotte Church has written about how much she adores ‘Sultans of Sentiment’.
Yet the iconic indie/emo act have never been ones for an easy life. Instead, after rallying for a handful of shows way back in 2014 – the results of which were recorded for posterity with their excellent ‘Tramonto’ live album – the quartet started to think about making new music but wanted to give themselves the space to explore what The Van Pelt should be once the rose-tinted glasses were removed.
The results are displayed on ‘Artisans & Merchants’, a record which possesses the same restless energy as their 90s pomp but refracts it through the language of today. It’s still unmistakably The Van Pelt – for a band with such a unique sound and style, it couldn’t be anyone else – but it is like looking at them through a different lens.
Indeed, when Chris talks about bringing the present into the future, he’s bang on the money. He also talks about the sense of realising there was unfinished business with The Van Pelt – especially after their short 2014 reunion – meaning ‘Artisans & Merchants’ feels like the next novella from a band that’s constantly evolving, rather than just the next chapter.
Yet, the likelihood is that this reunion wouldn’t have happened at all if it wasn’t for some luck in 2014, with the group thinking they’d put a pin in it after a 2009 SXSW show.
With their records long out of print – and festering bad blood between the band and their old US label Gern Blandsten – Spanish label La Castanya stepped in to repress the ‘Stealing From Our Favourite Thieves’ and ‘Sultans of Sentiment’, bringing them to vinyl for the first time in two decades.
Then, they were approached to play All Tomorrow’s Parties’ notorious Jabberwocky festival in London. The festival itself – which started the death knell for the company – descended into a proto-Fyre Festival for bookish nerds in horn-rimmed glasses and cardigans. Meanwhile, the bands – many of whom had already flown into the country by the time the festival was cancelled – were left to sort last-minute shows across the capital to mitigate their losses. The Van Pelt played two sold-out, intimate shows, which reignited the group’s passion for the band.
“The energy was there in ‘14, but we were still working through a lot of kinks,” says Chris. “And identity wise, too; like ‘What are we doing? Who are we? What’s happening right now? I think we have a much clearer vision of all that now.”
Of course, the danger with resurrecting such a storied act – and one with a small and perfect catalogue – is that the fans who initially took the band to their hearts bite back if it doesn’t live up to expectations.
“If we moved at a more rapid pace, that fear would probably have been there,” says Chris when asked about the dangers of resurrecting such a beloved act. “Let’s say it was 2014, and we’d have said, ‘OK, let’s get together and let the songs write themselves’, and that record came out in 2017, and that momentum was rolling, then maybe we’d have had that fear. But right now, we’re all so defeated as human beings, as a band, and as a society at large that I don’t think anything could get in the way – like with COVID. So all of this really feels like a bonus.”
Instead, this extended break has allowed Chris and the group – Neil O’Brien, Brian Maryansky and Sean Greene to figure out how to bring the past to the present.
“It’s been a strange journey, but the process was sort of realising that The Van Pelt has its own identity, and that is something that’s larger than the sum of us four. So, it’s about being aware of that without doing something that is paint-by-numbers Van Pelt songs. We want to pump new energy into The Van Pelt but, at the same time, acknowledge that it has got its own soul.
“I actually think, though, the main concern of every resurrected band is, ‘Will anyone care about the new songs we’re doing?’ And so far, at the shows we’ve played, people have been awesome. I don’t know if people are just more awesome now, but everyone’s been very supportive.”
Yet by taking appropriate time and care, ‘Artisans & Merchants’ stands as a monument to this approach. It’s still thematically dense – and cuts like ‘Image of Health’, ‘Old Souls From Different Epochs’ and ‘Did We Hear The Same Song’ will resonate with long-time fans – but it eschews any sense of nostalgia to sound fresh and relevant. This is especially true on ‘Grids’ – an anxiety-inducing trawl of a city, the absurdist ‘Cold Coconuts’ or reflective – but in no way nostalgic – ‘Punk House’. Here, the band drifts through poorly-attended shows, sleeps on horrible floors, and meets douchebag promotors. These, Chris says, were the highlights.
“I mean, the actual experiences of touring in those days were way worse than ‘Punk House’,” he laughs. “Our first tour, we had so many cancellations we eventually bought a four-person tent that we ended up using six or seven nights. And this was pre-internet. A lot of the time, we’d get there and realise the show was cancelled.”
Today, The Van Pelt don’t have to worry about such issues. Their forthcoming London show has already been upgraded, while there’s a sense of expectation around a whistlestop four-date UK and Euro run.
But that doesn’t also mean The Van Pelt are living a life of luxury. While the band is a going concern, it finds itself competing with the band members’ other jobs, which in the case of Chris, means running a wine import business and preparing to launch a bar in New Jersey.
While the ‘Artisans & Merchants’ of the title might reflect the different career paths of the band’s constituent members, it’s also a commentary on the dwindling American middle class and a bastardisation of the American dream. It might be easy to drown in the polemic, but for artists, it ultimately circles back to the idea of making art in an environment which craves an end product – a commodification of craft, as it were.
“Even on our macro level, all this is important,” ponders Chris. “It’s not easy to come up with $3,000 to record an album – and it’s certainly not the easiest thing to justify to our wives,” he laughs. “We must make The Van Pelt at least mildly fiscally responsible. Our shows need to pay for themselves; our recording needs to pay for itself. But to do that means writing songs and having some responsibility to get them out there.”
As such, it means The Van Pelt exist within a machine that focuses on product rather than process. Fortunately, they’re showing little signs of slowing down now that the gears are again turning. Chris says that another, weirder, album is already written, indicating a future for the band beyond this small run of shows.
“One of the main goals with this album is to have enough interest so that there might be some record label out there willing to release a second, but mostly we’re goalless. We kind of always have been. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve never signed to a major label because once you scale up, it’s just too easy to come crashing down. We just always wanted to have the freedom to move the way we want to move.”
Artisans to the end, The Van Pelt have always made music on their own terms, regardless of styles or trends. Three years too early to reap the benefits of the emo explosion, they have nevertheless been cited as a significant touchstone and influence for those that came after. Three decades later, they can finally reap the rewards.
Taken from the April 2023 edition of Upset – order a copy below. The Van Pelt’s album ‘Artisans & Merchants’ is out now.