It seems strange in retrospect, but the attention the post-Nirvana record label scramble for the “next big thing” brought to underground music nearly killed it.
Defensive about having outsiders pollute their subculture, musicians and scenesters in the mid-’90s closed ranks and began to shun anything they saw as tainted by the mainstream. It was into this climate that Boulder’s Angel Hair, one of the first wave of what would later be known as “screamo” bands, emerged. With a sizable underground following both in the U.S. and Europe, Angel Hair plied their brand of aggressive, straightforward punk rock to welcoming audiences.
“In the ’90s, in the wake of Nirvana and Green Day, there was this real effort for bands to remain true,” says Sonny Kay, Angel Hair’s vocalist and a 1995 graduate of CU-Boulder. “We were just so excited to be out playing and there was this great momentum.”
That momentum ended abruptly when Kay returned from a Christmas road trip to find the band had disbanded. With years of work deserted, Kay turned his music efforts in a new direction forming the VSS, a band that would eventually help change the face of punk music. But it would be a long, hard fight, culminating this month in the reissue of the VSS’s genre-bending album, “Nervous Circuits.”
That the VSS is finally getting the attention it deserves, is bittersweet to Kay, who now lives in Los Angeles — where for nearly a decade he ran Gold Standard Laboratories (GSL), the record label he owned with Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriquez-Lopez. The band incorporated electronics, keyboards and lighting into its shows — things that seem run-of-the-mill today but were sacrilege for a punk band of that era.
“It’s flattering in a sense and it’s also kind of ironic,” says Kay. “More often than not it seemed like we were fighting a losing battle. For the most part we operated on this punk rock, DIY circuit that, particularly in Europe, is so politicized and so puritan in a way that it was anything but unanimous approval. People were kind of indifferent and confused. They were resentful of us poisoning their holy punk rock. In hindsight it was almost predictable. We thought we were making a logical progression.”
The addition of unconventional elements to a punk band got the attention of “Maximum Rock’n’Roll,” a punk zine that, in the years before the Internet, acted as one of a handful of tastemakers in the scene. Bands lived and died by what MRR said about them, and what it had to say about the VSS was … nothing.
“Maximum Rock’n’Roll wouldn’t review it at the time because they said it had piano on it,” says Kay. “As an institution they exerted an enormous amount of influence.”
Even at home the VSS was not particularly well received, remembers Kay.
“The first show that we did was in Boulder in my basement where we’d done the last Angel Hair show (Jan. 1995) a few months before,” says Kay. “Three months later, playing to essentially the same people, they didn’t get it.”
Virgil Dickerson, owner of Denver’s Suburban Home Records and its analog imprint, Vinyl Collective, was a student at CU in 1995 and worked with Kay on the university’s Program Council setting up shows at Club 156. He says the difference between the straightforward approach of Angel Hair and The VSS’s sound was stark.
“When I first checked out the VSS I didn’t even know what they were doing,” says Dickerson. “I was just baffled.”
Dickerson says the music scene at the time consisted largely of pop-punk bands and more traditional rock outfits.
“In Boulder they stood out like sore thumbs,” says Dickerson.
Jason Heller, Boulder/Denver city editor for the Onion, was also involved in the local music scene back when the VSS got its start.
“The biggest thing that hit me was they had a synthesizer,” says Heller. “With anyone else I might have thought it was gimmicky, but it became clear that they were trying to tap into that 80s sound.”
Though a little disjointed at first, Heller says the band quickly turned a corner in its live performance.
“They moved away to San Francisco and when they came back to Denver on tour they had take in up 50 notches,” remembers Heller. “The execution had caught up to the concept.”
Kay says he has no regrets about taking the VSS in a revolutionary direction. For him, the iconoclastic nature of the band was its appeal.
“That was a major part of our reasoning for doing what we did,” says Kay. “We felt like scenes around the country were reverting to a puritan ethic. It was just getting so stale and predictable.”
There were those who saw promise in what the VSS was trying to do, including Lance Hahn, the now-deceased frontman of the punk band J Church and owner of Honey Bear records. Hahn agreed to release the record, but Kay says he was never totally behind the project and the record soon went out of print.
“For most of the past 10 years it was unavailable,” says Kay. “At GSL I was constantly getting e-mails and being asked about the album.”
Kay and the other members of the band began planning to remaster and reissue the record, but when GSL closed its doors earlier this year, Kay and company began looking for another label to reissue “Nervous Circuits.” They found the perfect partner in Hydra Head Records, a label known for its attention to detail and exotic packaging of records and CDs.
“They were totally enthusiastic about it,” says Kay. “They were willing to do whatever we wanted. That sort of sealed it with us.”
Today Kay is working on a new band with Rockey Crane, the guitar player from his last project, Year Future. Both bands, he says, are the natural extension of the VSS and the genre-changing music they made.
“Originally it was about presenting something visual that paid homage to the kind of aesthetics that were abhorrent in hardcore at the time,” says Kay. “We wanted to push those buttons in people.”
Contact Oakland L. Childers about this story at (303) 443-6272 ext. 129 or email@example.com