Remember when you were young and your parents promised you that you could have dessert if you finished all of your vegetables? Take that same system of rewards and apply it to rock ‘n roll. What if you were fourteen and your really cool older brother promised that if you practiced your instrument enough, the two of you could start a band?
That’s exactly how Seattle’s indie act Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band began. Marshall Verdoes started learning drums at age eleven and by the time he was fourteen he and big bro Benjamin had assembled a full indie act. “We would jam, when he was done with schoolwork, but he would always ask, ‘When are we gonna play a show, when are we gonna play a show?’ Eventually I was like, ‘All right, we’ll start a band,’ and it just kind of took off from there.” After they’d found a sufficiently offbeat name and created a Myspace page, Ben, who was part of other musical projects at the time, tapped his industry resources to find them at least one big gig. “I started trying to figure out how we could book a really big show, cause I wanted [Marshall] to be like, ‘Oh, I really did it.’ But then as we got going and we started writing, it was really fun and I thought, you know, this is what I’d like to do more than play with a bunch of dudes. If I’m going to be with my family, then I can’t go on tour and be gone for a really long time, it just wouldn’t work.”
So he found a way for the family to be a band. Marshall and Ben are joined by Ben’s wife, Traci Eggleston, as well as two of Ben’s former bandmates and friends Matthew Dammer and Jared Price. They built ingenious DIY buzz through a series of self-made campy PSA’s that focus on innocuous, banal concerns like boredom, the virtues of technology and safety while roller blading. The group is taking YouTube by storm, they broke the silence of anticipation with a debut concert at Seattle’s famous Neumos in July of 2008, where their self-released EP, Weepy was offered as the first publicly available MSHVB recording. That fall, they signed with the Dead Oceans label and released a self-titled full length album. Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band drew critical approval and comparisons to genre peers like Tokyo Police Club, Grizzly Bear, and Washington neighbors Modest Mouse.
When asked about the influence of Seattle’s particular brand of alternative music, Verdoes readily acknowledges a deep love for local sounds from Sunny Day Real Estate to underground math rock. In terms of placing MSHVB on the Seattle family tree, he admits that, “It’s one of those things where you want to believe you’re not just like your parents, you know, the people that created you. There are these distinct differences and things you do differently, but ultimately you still share certain things in common and have that same background. There will always be that connection to them and that will inform some of our sound, but I’m always challenging myself to do different stuff.”
Successfully, so it seems. Mt. St. Helen’s second full length release Where The Messengers Meet, out on Dead Oceans as of August 3rd, finds them redefining through focusing their sound, narrowing its perimeters and restraining the more exuberant experimentation of their debut.
Criticism that the band relied too heavily on the indie tendency to musically defy expectation for defiance’s sake have quieted and turned instead to praise for their courageous make-under that has deepened the quality of what they offer. Some of the notable shift may have to do with differences in how the two albums were created. “The first record, I kind of approached like, ‘Don’t overthink this.’ I wouldn’t let myself go overboard with it. I also didn’t want the music or ideas to be too heady or divorced from something Marshall would understand, something that was respective of where he was at, because those were the riffs that we started the band with, he and I. I wanted to do something that was reflective of what he was interested in, and almost what his personality is like. So there are kind of these chapters, a little series of narratives.”
Verdoes likens the new record to a more broadly-structured movie narrative that encompasses the whole album, starting the story with the first song and building through to the end. Each song cross-references others on the album, too, building a “kind of web” that both guides and envelopes the listener. “I felt like Marshall was older, and I wanted to write a record that maybe explains more of what I’m interested in, my personality. The shift… just kind of explores different pieces of who we are.”
Plans are already in the works for a third album, one that Verdoes has predicted will return to a more collaborative working process. In the meantime, they’ll be touring through the U.S. for almost six weeks straight. Ben, the big brother everyone wishes they’d had, is quick to emphasize the value of having Marshall as part of the group, despite the challenges of home-schooling on the road. “He loves playing shows, he loves meeting people… he’s definitely aware of what’s happening, but he’s got a certain innocence that we try to protect. He doesn’t really have an awareness of the hierarchy of things, and I love watching that.”
Marshall also helps keep the ethic of continual growth central to the band’s endeavors, and Ben is very aware of the value and creative freedom that can offer. “The nature of this band that’s kind of cool is that it gives us an opportunity to take chances and do things differently, and always be learning.”
Stay tuned to BTR this week as we celebrate the growth and work of this rock ‘n roll family operation, and catch them live at one of their upcoming shows!
Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band Live
Aug 27 – Mural Amphitheater, Seattle Center – Seattle, WA
Sept 10 – Neurolux w/ David Bazan – Boise, ID
Sept 11 – Urban Lounge w/ David Bazan – Salt Lake City, UT
Sept 12 – Larimer Lounge w/ David Bazan – Denver, CO
Sept 14 – The Waiting Room w/ David Bazan – Omaha, NE
Sept 15 – Mojo’s w/ David Bazan – Columbia, MO
Sept 16 – The Empty Bottle – Chicago, IL
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– Britt Sondreal