BY CHERYL CHENG
Although VHS or Beta has primarily been known for its electronica dance rock, for the band’s third full-length album, Bring on the Comets, VHS or Beta brought in more of a traditional rock sound, including a full drum kit and piano compositions. Currently touring in support of the new record, The Scenestar had a chance to talk with drummer Mark Guidry before the band’s recent gig at the Echo about VHS or Beta’s new direction in sound, the current tour and the state of the music industry today.
SS: How’s the tour going right now?
MG: So far so good. We had pretty good luck with the shows.
SS: It’s a pretty extensive tour. I was surprised the band is returning to Los Angeles after the recent Troubadour show to play the Echo.
MG: We’re playing Pomona too. But yeah, we’re excited to come back there.
SS: So this time you’re touring with a full drum kit. How has that changed the live performance for you?
MG: It changes everything for me. The recording process … I had to relearn basically how to play on a real kit. I started off on a real kit, but I went about five years on an electronic kit, so when I switched over, I had to just practice like anything else and get back in the flow of it. The live part of it is more strenuous. It’s more of a workout. And also this new album is more of a rock album versus an electronica one. It’s a pretty good mix I think.
SS: Yeah, Bring on the Comets does sound more rock. Did the band have that change set in mind when it was recording the album, or did it happen while in the studio?
MG: When we lost a member [guitarist Zeke Buck], we went through some changes. We wanted to open up our palette as far as instrumentation went and that would be like adding piano. Craig [Pfunder, vocalist] started writing on piano and guitar as opposed to just guitar. I got the new drums and that added some stuff. I guess that could contribute to the more rock sound, but I mean we also wanted to be a little more rock this time around, so definitely more thought out.
SS: Last night I watched the five-part making-of video that documented the recording process of Comets. How did those videos come about?
MG: Our manager knows the guy that did it, and it was kind of a favor, and we wanted to document it, not only for other people, but for our own sakes.
SS: Will it be available later on?
MG: I don’t know if we’ll ever put it out to sell. It’s possible but … if we ever do a live DVD, we might put that on there, something like that. It’s hard to say.
SS: There’s definitely some interesting footage of the recording process in North Carolina. How was it different recording there versus in New York for the last album, Night on Fire?
MG: It was kind of the same because they were both pretty hectic schedules. You know, 12-hour days and stuff like that. We went out a lot less. There’s not a whole lot to do there. That’s probably about the only difference. And the fact that we had an extra month to record it.
SS: I also noticed My Morning Jacket contributed to this record. How did that collaboration come about?
MG: Jim [James] and Bo [Koster] came toward the end of the recording process. And the original plan was for Bo to come down because we wanted someone who could really play the piano to play the parts that Craig wrote and play it proficiently. And that turned into Jim driving Bo down, so Jim was there, and we decided, well, let’s get some backing vocals and stuff ’cause we’re all big fans of the Jacket and good friends. One thing led to another, and then when we’re in the mixing studio, Craig decided he wanted to get some pedals in there, and Carl [Broemel] lives in Nashville, so he came by.
SS: Who covers the piano for the live tour?
MG: Chea Beckley. He’s been doing a lot more lately, giving him some bass guitar to play, acoustic guitar and piano, so his job has increased tenfold. And he’s real happy about that.
SS: It’s exciting to hear the new sound. It’s still very much VHS or Beta but it’s still different, which makes it interesting. Have you gotten a lot of feedback from the fans?
MG: Yeah, there’s been a lot of MySpace comments and stuff like that, saying how much the people are really enjoying it. The live shows are a little strange because people are just starting to get the record and the past couple of shows, we’ve seen people starting to sing along, so that’s really refreshing. I think it will continue to get better as the record is out for a longer period of time.
SS: Comets was available to stream on the band’s MySpace before it was released. Why did the band decide to do that?
MG: I think the idea was just to get the buzz going a little bit early. I think the record was online before the record came out as well. We didn’t put it online but you know how that goes. Somebody always gets it. And that’s just part of the process these days. You have to take that into consideration when putting out a record. People are going to hear it before it actually comes out. You might as well use it to your advantage and get people excited about it.
SS: Right. I really like that bands are doing that. Rilo Kiley and New Pornographers did the same thing for their new albums. And it’s great because I’m so eager to hear the music.
MG: Well, it’s a different time. The Internet … it’s just different. It’s hard on the bands because a lot of people are getting the music for free and so the record companies are losing money and that trickles down and the person that gets hurt in the end is the band. People should really think about that stuff when they’re downloading.
SS: Yeah, I think music is so devalued now because it’s so easy to get for free, so people think it should be free.
MG: Yeah, it’s just going to cheapen everything. It’s just what happens.
SS: For remixes, how much does the band have a say in the end product?
MG: We usually send them out, and we’ll get it back with the person’s ideas down in a demo form, and we’ll usually go back maybe three or four times between the artist and ourselves until we can both agree on where it’s going. That’s usually how it works. I don’t think there’s been any situation where we asked somebody to remix and got it back the first time and we’re like, “Wow, that’s it. It’s perfect.” It’s a process like anything else.
SS: Has the band started working on the remixes for Comets?
MG: We have some for “Burn It All Down.” I’m not sure when that single is coming out. I know that we’re going to press it on vinyl because we want people to DJ that particular song. And I think we were just discussing which remix we want to put on it. I can’t give you any details but it should be coming out soon. It might even be going on our MySpace page as well.
SS: “Burn It All Down” is lyrically a pretty dark song. Does it have any political meaning?
MG: Well, Craig wrote that and I think, at least my take on it, is it’s not really political so much. It’s like all this stuff in the world that we see everyday is all man-made and like religion, politics, all that stuff, and if it all went away, it would probably be a lot better in certain aspects. And I think that’s the main point behind the song.
Since its beginning in 1997, VHS or Beta has had to adapt to several changes—an increasingly Internet savvy audience, a crumbling music industry, band lineup alterations—but in spite of it all, the band has managed to stay focused on its musical vision, allowing for some necessary experimentations of its own, of course. Whether things would be better if it was all burnt down remains debatable, but VHS or Beta’s new album, Bring on the Comets, certainly makes the case that goodness exists in music and there are some nice surprises when change occurs.