Ready to Blow
Pulling Back the Curtain on Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band
It all starts with a floral curtain. In a homemade video, a cream-colored, rose-covered curtain opens up to reveal a 13-year-old in a sheepskin vest sitting behind a drum set. His name is Marshall. He looks at the camera and dryly defines the word homeostasis: "What happens to people when they become too comfortable with their traditions and customs and are blind to the beauty of the future."
"So please help Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band in a fight against homeostasis," he continues. Then he plays a drum solo while odd clip-art (sea horses and a cheeseburger) flashes around him.
The curtain closes and the video directs confused viewers to the Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band MySpace page. But at the time, their site offered no music and no announced shows—basically, no evidence that Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band were really a band at all.
But MSHVB aren't quite the mystery they make themselves out to be.
A few years ago, Benjamin Verdoes of In Praise of Folly and his younger brother Marshall started jamming as a nameless guitar/drums duo. In 2006, they played a couple original songs at Marshall's school talent show. And when In Praise of Folly broke up that same year, MSHVB rose from their ashes—recruiting that band's Jared Price on bass; Matt Dammer on guitar, keyboards, and sometimes trumpet; and rounding out the lineup with Traci Verdoes (Benjamin's wife) on vocals, tambourine, keyboards, and xylophone. It's the Partridge Family, only without the flower-covered bus (at least for now).
They didn't set out to make the teaser videos. At first, they just wanted to make music videos. The idea to withhold the music came rather by accident.
"I was looking at the Jogger's webpage," says MSHVB's Benjamin. "I had heard their name, I wanted to hear their music, and their page wouldn't load. It really pissed me off. I was like, 'I want to hear their songs right now!' This lightbulb went off in my head: 'People hate not having something. We should not post our music and really promote our band.'"
The strategy worked. Reaction to the "Homeostasis" video on Line Out ranged from tentative interest to harsh criticism, but at least people were talking. Within days, several people—including the band's current manager—asked me who the band were. Funny thing is, I had no idea, and Benjamin is my brother-in-law. That's how tight they kept the project under wraps.
"We decided to build everything around our first show," says Benjamin. "We were like, 'Let's come out of the gate at full speed.'"
On Thursday, July 31, MSHVB will finally bust out of the gate with their "world premiere" at Neumo's—playing an all-ages show with Boat and "Awesome"—and releasing a four-song EP, Weepy (which comes in a hand-sewn pouch made of felt, yarn, and buttons).
Fortunately, MSHVB's meticulously structured, guitar-driven pop songs more than live up to their playful video campaign. Quick, poppy drum beats snap under layers of dancing keyboard and racing guitars, all anchored by smooth, steady bass lines. At times, the guitars reconstruct the pretty, sonic mazes that Benjamin and Matt showcased in IPOF, while blasts of trumpet, tambourine, and lots of gang vocal harmonies provide dramatic flourish.
Marshall is an especially competent drummer for a 13-year-old (hell, even for a 23-year-old), the songwriting is strong, and their live energy, witnessed at a recent practice session, is infectious—Traci dances around like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club when she's not playing the tambourine sticks; it's totally adorable.
So Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band really are a band—a good, potentially great band. You just have to get past the promotional videos.
"There's this indie-rock moral code, or Seattle moral code about not promoting your own music," says Benjamin. "It's promotion. It's art. There are no rules. We are really proud of what we're doing. We really like it and we have a lot of fun."
"I have noticed that in Seattle, everyone wants to work from the ground up and earn a lot of cred," adds Traci. "But we kind of went through the front door and said 'Hello! Here we are!'"
Well, hello, Mt. St. Helen's Vietnam Band. Nice to (finally) meet you.