4.26.2008

Loving His Black T-Shirts, Metal and the World through Music: Interviewing Craig Pfunder [YellowBuzz edition]

I interviewed Craig Pfunder of VHS or Beta when the band came to Richmond's Toads Place to perform a couple of weekends ago. Below is a version of the interview longer than what will be published in the upcoming issue of the RVA Magazine. This version contains some of Pfunder's thoughts and stories of potential interest to YellowBuzz'ers.

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Craig Pfunder fronts the dance-punk band VHS or Beta. First emerged as a noise punk band in Louisville, Kentucky in the 90s and now signed onto Astralwerks, the band recently released Bring on the Comets (2007), an album consisting of songs that mix two worlds of music – electronic dance and rock – that not many thought would collide in the 1990s. VHS or Beta offered us a set of intense love for music, fun, and movement at the Toads Place in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom on April 12, 2008.

Before sound-check, Pfunder sat down with me and spilled details about his background and insightful thoughts on the changing social and cultural landscape of indie rock. He told stories that verge on being a social and historical scrutiny of indie music. Craig Pfunder’s self-conscious, critical lens brings out indie rock music’s cultural ebb and flow, with convincing frankness.

WH: Tell me about your training or influences.

CP: I never really had any formal training. The only formal training I had was when I was in middle school. I was playing saxophones when I was a kid. Everything is pretty much self-taught. I got my first guitar when I was in sixth grade and just kept playing playing and playing songs. At some point I really wanted it [formal training] because I was really interested in the technical aspect of music. I still think that having a background in some sort of music theory is good because I still retain that. And I was teaching myself music theory when I was in high school.

WH: That’s really cool actually. What did you do? Did you find music textbooks?

CP: Yeah, textbooks…teaching myself chords, theory, and scales.

WH: Does that affect what you do now?

CP: Well, having the knowledge, the foundational knowledge of things, can help. And I think with music, sometimes people get over-schooled. Sometimes they have a tendency to lose the imaginative part of music. I know a lot of people who can sight-read anything. Then when I ask them to compose a song, then they say, “I don’t really …” I guess it boils down to the person.

WH: What about influences?

CP: Early on, I was just influenced by a lot of different things, almost anything that my ears grabbed onto that I could like. I guess when I first started playing music, there was a lot of weird metal in the 80s. At the same time, I was listening to college rock, or the music that was being claimed as college rock at the time like REM. I really embraced that kind of music as well. I think I ended up going more of the alternative end, instead of the metal end. You know, we were playing early Metallica in the band the other day. That kind of music still resonates with me and I enjoy listening to it. At the same time, I just got the new REM record.

WH: I totally hear REM in your music.

CP: Sort of my early influences. I think they’re probably in my top 10 bands of all time.

WH: What do you think of indie rock in general? What do you think of the scene? What do you think your role within it is?

CP: Indie rock has taken so many forms and meanings. For a while, there was a strong sense within indie rock that that you’re doing it yourself, you’re independent, and that you’re free of the major label “corruption.” And that, I would say, existed more in the 80s and 90s. You know like, “we’re independent and fuck all this, label’s money and all this stuff.” But now, it’s so easy to be independent because you have blog culture, Internet, Myspace, Facebook, and you have all these things that can help you exist without corporate dollars.

It’s different to be indie rock now than it was 10 years ago. Well, this band [VHS or Beta] has been around for over 10 years. We did everything ourselves, down to packaging to transferring the masters to final versions, to booking our own shows and taking out personal loans from banks or begging our parents just so that we could buy a van so that we could tour and do all those things. Now that we have a label, I don’t know what part we have in indie rock. I feel like, though, there was a part the indie rock scene that we didn’t want to be a part of. I think the 90s had a staleness in the indie rock scene, at least where I was. A lot of it felt dark and just that people weren’t having as much fun anymore.

WH: But that was kind of the zeitgeist of the 90s, wouldn’t you say?

CP: Yeah, maybe there was a national cloud that was just lowering over the audiences of indie rock. And we kind of wanted to go in a different direction. At that point we had really fallen in love with house music, raves, but maybe not rave culture per se, but like going somewhere like a big fucking place with a bunch of different rooms, all these different types of music, and all these different looking people. It wasn’t for us so much about the drug culture as much as it was that our ears were hearing things that we had never heard before. That was exciting and people were inviting us to be a part of that in a way that indie rock never really felt. Indie rock really, in a way, felt exclusive. I was going to those parties and those nights felt really inclusive. I think the band somehow went kind of anti-rock for a minute, you know, anti-wanting-to-go-hang-out-at-the-hipster-bars, or anti-wanting-to-be-a-part-of or, -being-aware-of-what-was-on-the-radars-for-what-was-cool.

I’m not anti-rock at all. You can listen to our record and know that. But I definitely feel like I’m at the point where I’m not as concerned about indie rock and coolness. There’re a lot of bands coming up, not that I don’t like them or would like them. I feel like I used to find out about music in such a different way than I do now. Nowadays it seems like if I want to find out about something, there’s going to be a flood of people telling me about it because they read about it on a blog. Not that that’s bad, but things are different.

I think we’re at a weird time in music where we feel like it’s hard for anyone to invent anything new. For me, it’s like – is the product good? Is it different enough to call it good? I feel like a lot of the Pitchfork-y like places really latch themselves onto bands based on the question of: “not is it good - but is it new, or does it feel new to listen to.” Like Vampire Weekend, it’s kind of AfroPop influenced, kind of indie rock, like French Kicks, kind of Walkman’ish voice, but it’s got things on that not a lot of bands are doing right now. So it gets praised for that. Not whether it’s good or not, but it’s just different enough to attach themselves to. There are songs that I enjoy but I don’t think the whole record deserves that much attention.

WH: This is a really ambiguous question. What I’m trying to get at is there are certain things about indie rock, particularly the people who are in it, predominately white, predominately middle-class. How do you feel about that?

CP: Well, I think people feel safe in their little pocket of existence. If you look back on bands that have been influential to indie rock people, whether it’s CAN or Captain Beefheart, Neu, or like all these bands that are über-fucking hip. I mean, these are the foundational building blocks of a lot of indie rock music and bands… But I’m also an Asian American. My parents are white and I wasn’t really raised as an Asian child. So if you put me behind a surface, you couldn’t see behind that. I might as well just be a white guy to anyone else, in a weird way.

I know that it’s very ambiguous to ask it and it’s a very ambiguous answer. It’s hard to even grab onto completely. In the end, it’s just music. It’s not to be taken too seriously. I mean I live and die by music. That matter of white American rock and roll that’s heavily influenced by art and middle to upper class white American people…who knows why that stuff exists. I think it’s like early jazz music in the 20s, primarily coming out of the slums, African American or wherever spawned that music. It just all has history and it all has relevance. And if you change that, then you maybe get a different type of music.

I think we’re at a weird time in music where we feel like it’s hard for anyone to invent anything new. For me, it’s like – is the product good? Is it different enough to call it good? I feel like a lot of the Pitchfork-y like places really latch themselves onto bands based on the question of: “not is it good - but is it new, or does it feel new to listen to.” Like Vampire Weekend, it’s kind of AfroPop influenced, kind of indie rock, like French Kiss, kind of Walkman’ish voice, but it’s got things on that not a lot of bands are doing right now. So it gets praised for that. Not whether it’s good or not, but it’s just different enough to attach themselves to. There are songs that I enjoy but I don’t think the whole record deserves that much attention.

WH: So newness isn’t necessarily good.

CP: It doesn’t mean that the product is better. I think there’s a black T-shirt somewhere at a thrift store that I will love just as much as any other T-shirts that I own. I don’t need the new color. And if it fits right and feels right, just because I have 8 million black T-shirts, doesn’t mean that there is not another black T-shirt out there with my name on, just perfect. And there are records out there I know are pop records. I know that they’ve been done that way a million times, but I like it, then I like it. I don’t need the filter of what’s going on with music, is it stamped with approval by [pitchfork] or whoever.

WH: One last question, you guys have played with Melt Banana, have you guys toured Asia?

CP: We just got back from Jakarta, Indonesia. It was great. It was awesome. We have plans. We’re gigging in Bangkok. We’re hopefully doing some things in parts of China and maybe South Korea, which is where I’m from, so would be a big deal for me because I haven’t been back there since I was adopted. We completely want to a part of a music scene that exists. We’ve done Japan. I would love to go back. I will play anywhere. But it would be special for me to at least be a part of something in Asia because I’ve always lived in the States and it would be nice to spend time over there. And if music is the way I can do that, then that’s awesome.



More images of VHS or Beta at the show.
[comment - please - if you think I should get a better camera.]

2 comments:

Alli said...

Thanks for posting this interview, Wendy! I really enjoyed reading it.

You know, I'm not sure if getting a heftier camera will help in concert situations. Maybe. But it is so dark in most clubs, and there is so much movement on stage, it's probably not going to make a huge different unless you get, like, a monster flash. I think your pictures are good and capture the energy and excitement.

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