June 1 2016 11:40 AM

Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark recalls the fun and frustration of ‘The Freshmen’

Brian Vander Ark penned "The Freshmen," the biggest hit from the Verve Pipe's platinum-selling "Villains" album. The band will perform the entire album live June 10 at the City Pulse River Rock Concert.
Courtesy Photo
One morning at the dawn of the 1990s, Brian Vander Ark was eating cereal and getting ready to go to his “crappy day job” at a sporting goods store. MTV was playing in the background.

For months, the singer, guitarist and songwriter for a young East Lansing rock band called the Verve Pipe had been worrying at a sad, drifting melody he couldn’t shake off. But the lyric had a nagging five-syllable gap and the song still lacked a title.

Looking up from the bowl, he caught a glimpse of helium-voiced singer Chrissy Amphlett oozing all over a divan in gauzy black and white in a video for the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself.”

She was touching her face.

“Da-da-dee-dadee-da, there’s the line right there,” Vander Ark said. “Done.”

The muses weren’t done with him. Looking idly around the room, his eyes rested on a VHS copy of a movie he rented the night before and loved, “The Freshman,” with Marlon Brando.

“Oh my God, that’s it,” he said.

Done and done. “The Freshmen,” a murky tale of abortion and breakup and sex gone sour, struck a nerve with high school and college students across the country, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1997.

The line “I won’t be held responsible” had a lot to do with the song’s success.

“Who am I, as a songwriter, to grant anybody permission?” Vander Ark asked. “But the song almost does that. ‘I’m going to make mistakes, screw it, let’s make a mistake tonight.’ That’s expected at that age.”

The Verve Pipe first recorded “The Freshmen” in 1992, in an acoustic version, but it broke through to national attention in 1996, as part of the platinumselling album “Villains.” The band played it on “Late Show with David Letterman” show in August 1997.

“I still regret my hairstyle on Letterman,” Vander Ark said. “It looks like I’m wearing a big blond wig.”

Since “Villains” hit the charts 20 years ago, the members’ comings and goings, indicated by colored lines on a Wikipedia chart, resemble a tangled timeline of prehistoric evolution. Along the way, Vander Ark, the only original member left, went through phases where he was fed up with “The Freshmen,” but he’s made his peace with it.

“For some reason, the universe blessed me that morning,” he said. “If I hadn’t rented that movie the night before, that song could have been something else completely, not been the big hit that it was, and not affected people the way that it did.

“I also ended up with a lyric that makes no sense, but that’s the lyric everybody talks about. Everybody wants to know why ‘she was touching her face.’ It’s just so ridiculous, but I’m thankful that it happened to me, man.”

Taken as a whole, “Villains” is a dirge-y slog, bristling with self-loathing and vague discontent. But 20 years later, fans on YouTube are rhapsodizing about how it reminds them of a happy, simpler time.

“Though it may seem uncool to the rest of the music world, I’ve always liked it that the songs resonated with young people back then. It was part of their lives,” Vander Ark said. “If I could go see Michael Jackson play ‘Thriller’ from start to finish, I’d love it. If I could see Styx play ‘The Grand Illusion’ start to finish, I’d be in heaven.”

Piquant lyrics and dark humor break through the album's crust of grunge, especially in the song “Cup of Tea,” with Vander Ark hilariously shrieking about the things in life that are not his “cup of tea,” sounding like Cole Porter possessed by an enraged raptor.

A yeast of Beatles gives “Villains” some lift as well, and not just because of nods to lines like “twist and shout” and “I me mine.” Around the time Verve Pipe was recording “Villains,” Vander Ark was listening to a lot of XTC, a band often described as Beatles-influenced. Verve Pipe drummer Donnie Brown and keyboardist Doug Carella, whom Vander Ark described as “straight from the Beatles camp,” pushed for four-part harmonies. But after the band signed with RCA, its sound was stripped to a raw, wire-brush rubdown of two guitars threaded with Vander Ark’s vulnerable, sullen vocals.

The album’s huge sound was sculpted by Tom Lord-Alge, who mixed records for Santana, U2, the Rolling Stones, the Dave Matthews Band, Marilyn Manson and dozens of other top bands. Lord-Alge was a master of compression, smoothing out the loudest and softest extremes so the whole wad can be jammed into your speakers and cranked to maximum volume.

“Most musicians say they hate compression, but compression can be your friend,” Vander Ark said. “It sounds amazing and huge on the radio.”

The band’s post-Villains saga is one of hubris, survival and adaptation.

"All of these things came together, and it was the recipe for a successful record — one we haven’t been able to follow up on,” Vander Ark said.

A self-titled follow-up album in 1999 blew through a million dollars in studio time and flopped.

“We were full of ourselves,” Vander Ark said. “We spent too much time in the studio and not enough time with the songs.”

“Underneath,” released in 2001, hosed off the ‘90s grunge and brought the band back to the nimble, literate, juicy pop sound it embraced before “Villains.” “Overboard,” released in 2014, excels in atmospheric storytelling, with a northern Michigan gothic vibe.

But the albums haven’t come close to the success of “Villains.” It’s hard to make a living in rock.

“Streaming is just killing everybody,” Vander Ark said.

These days, about half the 50 dates the Verve Pipe plays each year are devoted to the band’s real moneymaker, kid’s music. The band fell into the field almost by accident, when Vander Ark and Brown wrote a few songs for a charity compilation. They kept writing and ended up with a full album.

“Sirius XM played the hell out of that kids’ record,” Vander Ark said.

That led to gigs at the kids’ stage at Lollapalooza with fellow rockers like Perry Ferrell and an endless string of house parties.

Vander Ark still has good luck with cereal. His kids’ song “Cereal” is so catchy it gets requests at rock gigs. (At the end, he tips his guitar over and pours Froot Loops on himself.)

It’s not all balloons and cupcakes, though.

“If kids don’t like something, they’ll jam their fingers in their ears and they’ll cry. Their parents will get pissed off, and they’ll leave,” Vander Ark said. “You have to be on for a full hour, absolutely entertaining and at the top of your game.”

But the genre has a surprising upside: freedom from the rock ‘n’ roll requirement to be cool. Vander Ark, who is happily married with three kids, loves the idea of simply inspiring kids to pick up an instrument.

“If I was to put an oboe on a rock record, you’d think it was pretentious,” Vander Ark said. “You can put any of that stuff on a kids’ record, and some kid will go, ‘Oh my gosh, I play the oboe!’”

City Pulse River Rock Concert

June 10-11 Adado Riverfront Park, Lansing

The Verve Pipe “Villains” 20th Anniversary Concert With Wally Pleasant and Triple Lindy Friday, June 10 $25/$15 adv./$20 adv. reserved VIP seating

Top of the Town Party With Elliot Street Lunatic, City Mouse, Stefanie Haapala and James Gardin Saturday, June 11 $15/$5 adv.

Two-night combo: $28/$18 adv./$23 adv. VIP reserved seating

Tickets are available at riverrockconcert.com or from the following locations:

City Pulse office 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday- Friday; closed Saturday and Sunday 1905 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing

Flat, Black & Circular 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday- Saturday; closed Sunday 541 E. Grand River Ave., East Lansing