by Mark Kadzielawa
VHS or Beta formed in 1997 in Louisville, Kentucky. They were bound by the love of the 70s, 80s, and 90s music. Then they experienced a few rave parties, and it turned their musical world upside down. While maintaining a healthy dose of their original influences, the band added the rave element into their music, making it very energetic, and dancy.
The band released their debut EP, “Le Funk” back in 2002. It was an independent release, but it got the band’s name out there. Two years later, in 2004, “Night on Fire,” was released, and it really established the band nationwide. The record received great exposure, and the band became a hit with the underground audiences. Touring and promoting the release all over the globe. “Bring on the Comets” saw the light of day in 2007, and it was perhaps the most ambitious release from VHS or Beta. The album brought the guitar more to the front, and showed this band can really rock, and still maintain its own identity. The album, as good as it was, received a split reaction from the press and fans alike. It's a superb work, yet to be widely acknowledged.
2011 finds VHS or Beta relocated to New York. The band original lineup is reduced to the two founding members. Bass player, Mark Palgy, and guitar player/vocalist, Craig Pfunder, quickly found themselves in a new location, reassembled the band, and released "Death and Diamonds."
"Death and Diamonds" is a fair mix of what VHS or Beta does best, leaning more towards the underground dance scene. It's a strong record full of great melodies, catchy rhythms, and very interesting arrangements. VHS or Beta really allows themselves a lot of space on the new record. Songs tend to take time to develop as the excitement builds up. A very clever approach indeed.
Bass player, Mark Palgy, talks about the making of the new record, the recent change of the scenery, and the realities of being in a band.
Your new record, “Diamonds and Death,” is you first album in four years. How would you describe the creative process in which it was written?
Mark Palgy: We were actually doing a lot of it long distance. I was in New York six months before Craig moved there. We’ve had some ideas that we had saved on computer, and we were fooling around with those, a little bit long distance. And when Craig got to New York, he set up a studio in his apartment. We sort of finished the ideas in his room.
That was a serious move from Kentucky to New York. How would you say the new surroundings affected your musical progress?
I think when you move anywhere, it’s gonna affect the way you live. And then New York is a whole other thing. I think the New York didn’t affect it so much like on a day to day thing. It was sort of like, we both got better at doing computer stuff. We both came to the table with a lot more experience. I think New York provided us with a lot of new friends. We were making friends that were in the business. So, all of a sudden we could get this guy to help us out, and we can get this guy to mix. It was more like we could assemble the team really quickly in New York. It was like, “let’s meet for lunch, and talk about the record, what we can do.” It was more like external things.
And on the personal level, how is Brooklyn treating you?
I love it! I live in Bushwick which is part of Brooklyn. It’s like East Williamsburg. There is like two parts of Brooklyn the people are moving to. They’re moving to Bed-Stuy, and they’re moving to Bushwick. And it’s like the last little sort of place where you can find a place to live, and it’s not crazy expensive, and you can be an artist there. It’s not the crazy Manhattan lifestyle. I really love it. I can’t complain.
What do you think “Diamonds and Death” brings into your style?
We did "Bring On The Comets” before that, which was like a big guitar anthem kind of a record. After that, we wanted to do something maybe with less guitar, and more synthesizer, a return to be more like a dancy band. We wanted to be kind of underground again. There were some things about “Comets” record that left a bad taste in our mouths, as well as some good things, but we also wanted to sort of change it up again.
I read some reviews of the new album, and they call it a return, which is strange because the band never left. And I found strange how badly “Bring On The Comets” was criticized at times, when it’s a record that got me into the band. So when I went back and listened what came before, it became more than obvious that “Comets” was a natural progression.
Oh wow. I hate looking at reviews, but for some reason somebody pulled up a review the other day from “Comets,” and we were universally just shit-on for that record. We had a lot of buzz for “Night On Fire,” and we felt pretty good, and we thought the “Comets” was a nice natural progression, and when we released it, it was the worst critically penned album of the year. I couldn’t understand why they were picking on us because we’re still in a van, we still had a trailer. We weren’t like these big blooded rock stars on a huge label. We were just dudes trying to make a living, and they completely tore us to pieces. I never understand now, when people tell me they like ‘Comets”, I say, “that’s great,” but nothing makes sense to me. Then you have people telling me “Comets” was terrible, and they love “Diamonds and Death,” or they say, “what happened after Night on Fire? You guys suck now.” It’s like everybody’s got this like opinion of us, and I don’t know where it’s coming from. To us, we just, me and Craig are friends, and we’ve been friends for 20 years, and we make music together. We’re not like this crazy success story, so I don’t understand certainly why people get this way.
I find what you just said strange, and honestly, I couldn’t not get enough of the “Comets” album.
I know people, whom I consider music snobs, who think they know everything about music. They tell me that “Comets” is the best thing you’ve done so far. But I could pull up a review just by chance, and it would be like the worst review possible. It was just like, “you guys suck, I can’t even believe the progression is so terrible, terrible record.” And then comments, and this when blogs were getting big, and now people don’t even reply to blogs anymore, they just go and steal music, and leave. So this was back from the time when they read and left comments, and it was like, “this record suck so bad, and we’re giving it 0 stars.” and then there were ten people going like, “yeah fuck them.” And we were like, we’re not like billionaires travelling the world in a jet. We’re just dudes, like 30 years old, trying to make a living. We were like , it was crazy. So when we did “Diamonds and Death,” we were like, “fuck it man, why even try to shoot for the stars?” We should just make a cool underground record and fuck everybody. That’s the way we felt.
When you formed the band initially, what were your objectives?
We were kids then, and we didn’t want to work in the restaurant. That’s the bottom line. We just did not want to work day jobs, we loved music, and we knew that’s what we wanted to do. Back in those days there seemed, the early 2000s, late 90s, like you could have a career in music. You didn’t have to be headlining a festival to make a good living. We were like, “let’s tour the world, let’s see what we can do.” That’s all it was.
The name VHS or Beta is very tied to the 1980s, the big video boom, and all. How was this name selected?
It’s really not that interesting of a story actually. It was just a name we threw in the hat. There is no real significance. It was a clever name we came up with. We disagreed on all these other names, and that was the only one we kind of liked, so that’s why we went with it.
Your sound also has that 80s vibe. Is that something you pursue consciously?
Maybe....I mean I don’t set out to make anything that sounds like the 80s, but I love music from my childhood, which is late 70s, 80s, and 90s. Sometimes what people think it’s 80s to me sounds like 90s, and sometimes what people think sounds like 90s to me sounds like 70s. I don’t really know. Sometimes people say, it sounds like the 80s, but we were going for like a U2 sound from the 90s. I mean we grew up listening to “Achtung Baby.” I don’t really know why they think it sounds like 80s because in our heads we were going for something completely different, like house music for example. It often doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t go around listening, or reading reviews. I’m not like a music dork, or anything. I just like to hear stuff through friends. So I don’t really know these descriptions as well as other people.
I was listening to the title cut from your new album, and there were some synthesizer sounds very similar to what Depeche Mode was doing on “Broken Frame” back in 1982. I was very surprised to make that connection myself because I find that sound to be very distinct and difficult to achieve. And that comes from a time when Depeche Mode was still an up and coming band, much like yourselves.
We definitely like Depeche Mode. I’m not that into Depeche Mode. I’m more like a hits guy with those guys. But I think with “Diamonds and Death” song, that was something that Craig was doing on his own, and he asked me to comes in and work with him on it. To me, it reminded me almost like a “Kid A” type a thing from Radiohead. And we were like, we don’t want to go too far in that direction because that’s not who we are, so we added some techno clap. I was listening to a lot of techno around that time too. And I liked that clap thing the minimal techno guys use. I didn’t want the song to get too crazy serious which is like a Radiohead thing to do. We always try to balance things, and not go too crazy, too far here or there. Let’s try to just stay who we are.
How different is VHS or Beta now from the band that released “Le Funk” back in 2002?
Very different. We have a different guitar player, and a different drummer. It’s just a totally different band. Me and Craig assumed all of the songwriting back in 2006. I think “Comets” was mainly Craig writing all the songs, and with “Diamonds and Death” I kind of came into the fold a little bit more. I look back at “Le Funk,” that was 10-11 years ago, I was just a kid you know. When we were doing that record we all worked at the restaurants, we weren’t touring. We did some shows before, but when we were making it we’ve never really been on tour. I look back and think like, all bands do today is act like the new comedians. All these new comedians just come out on stage, and they just want to get a sitcom, and get a movie right away. And I think that’s the way with bands. It’s like they come out, they want to get a tour, they want to be huge like in 2 minutes. We played in Louisville for 5 years before we went on tour. We started in 1997, and we didn’t go on tour until 2002. So we really just played a lot before we actually went on tour.
Your second album, “Night on Fire,” really solidified you position on the scene. How serious things have gotten between your first and second album?
“Night on Fire” got us signed to Astral Works, which is awesome, so that was our first real label experience. “Le Funk” was a self-release. We did it all ourselves. We were mailing posters to clubs, we were talking to promoters about the touring, we were talking to the distribution people, and the manufacturers. Back then you had to make CDs and records, you couldn’t just put it on I-Tunes, so we were doing all this stuff. I think like back then, we sold like 7,000 records just on our own, which was like pretty cool back then. In 2000, we were like, hey people are buying this in Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and weird places. It was like this indie thing. And that really helped us get our record deal with Astral Works. I guess we went from being an indie band that had released their own stuff to a national touring act. They helped us get to Europe, Australia and South America. It was cool.
Your music has a great sense of melody in your music. What are your musical backgrounds and influences?
It has to be the radio. The 80s, 70’s, and 90s radio. We were rock kids. We loved music. Craig’s a huge R.E.M. fan, we both adore U2. We were listening to Jane’s Addiction today, we love those records. When we were in our early 20s we started going to raves, and we were listening to electronic music for the first time. Stuff like Daft Punk and Bob Sinclair, and all this house music that we had no idea about. Coming to Kentucky, these people spinning records, in Louisville, it was like music from another planet. All these things together sort of made us who we are.
I find your music very multi-dimensional. How would you describe it?
Thanks. I think that at the end of the day. After “Le Funk,” we started to concentrate on writing songs. So starting with “Night on Fire,” it was the question of how do we make songs as opposed to tracks. I think we just stuck by that.
How much of your personalities are you able to sneak into your music?
I think we always try to make the songs fun and kind of hopeful. We never try to get too depressing. We want people to have fun at our shows. I think that was our main experience going to the early rock shows in the 90s. Nobody was having any fun. That sucked for us. We were like, “wow, it’s Friday night, we go to an indie rock shows, and everyone is standing with their arms crossed.” And we were like, “this sucks, it’s a weekend, people should be having a good time.” I think that’s the main thing for us.
Apart from music, what interests do you have?
Craig’s a really great chef, he can really cook. I just started doing yoga, and I love yoga. I’m doing Bikram Yoga, which is insane, and I think I’m sort of addicted to it. I’m a really big political junkie. I’m always reading the news, and I always follow what’s going on. I’m like a nerd when it comes to following the campaigns and stuff like that.
Do you have any favorites when it comes to the potential candidates?
I’m obviously more liberal than anything, although I don’t consider myself a hardcore liberal. I’d like to see Obama have another 4 years to see if he can do anything. I don’t think the first four years were enough for him to do much. I think the country was left in a serious mess, and everybody wants things to be fixed so quickly. I mean, we were fucked, and it’s just gonna take some time. In my life, I don’t like to point fingers at people and blame. I’m not gonna blame Bush, but we were fucked. So, I think we're trying to pick ourselves back up, and it’s gonna take a while, and people just have to wait a little.
Bands often view new albums as a new opportunities. What do you think “Diamonds and Death” offers in that regard?
With “Comets,” we felt it was more like a rock record, but we wanted to come back and be more dance music. Like, by the way, we didn’t jump ship, we didn’t like abandon our dance roots. We still love making dancy stuff. So it was a sort of a nod. We thought “Diamonds and Death” was sort of blend between “Le Funk” and everything up to the stuff we’ve been doing now. We’re still playing shows, we’re still playing festivals, and it’s great.
People tend to see the glamour when you’re in a band, but they don’t see the challenges many groups are facing. What would you say are the challenges for you these days?
Sometimes you just get judged. We’ve been around, we’ve been making records for ten years. You get judged, people will say, “oh you’re that band who does that.” So you’re not gonna get a lot of open minded people as you get with like a new band. It’s a double edged sword because a new band often gets blown up so high. They get to this point, and they’re so young and inexperienced, and they try to follow it up, and it’s like goodbye. Like Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, they’re gone, the system chewed them up and spit them out. That band came out of nowhere, the blogs were going crazy about them. The singer was like Jesus, he was the best thing since sliced bread. They got all the festivals, and everything was happening for them. They were making money, then they came out with another record, and it was like, “bye, you’re done.” I think now, our challenge is to stay relevant. We’re trying to get new fans all the time. We don’t want people to have their minds made up about us. Pitchfork had hated us ever since we were 20 years old, and we don’t understand why, whatever. But it’s like, if we can’t get the press on our side, we would just rather have people just like us from seeing us. We love playing festivals. Festivals had been breathing new life into our career, it’s great. We go down to South America and play for like 5,000 people in Argentina. It’s incredible. Then all of a sudden they want to do a record deal down there, you know. You simply have to play. We took a long time out, we DJ-ed, and people were telling us, “you got to play live.” And we didn’t for a while, but when you do play live, it answers all the questions.