Looking back on his band’s platinum-selling success, the Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark quickly pointed to his most surreal moment from the group’s peak.
“Meeting David Letterman,” Vander Ark, 59, recalled, thinking back to the band’s April 1997 “Late Show” performance. “We were huge fans.”
That same year, thanks to the international success of the group’s moody alt-rock ballad “The Freshmen,” the Verve Pipe also performed on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” That’s a rock ‘n’ roll dream come true for a DIY band that formed in East Lansing.
“I was living in Grand Rapids at the time, but I soon moved to East Lansing to be with the band,” Vander Ark told City Pulse. “I was a manager at a sporting goods store.”
After meeting a couple of talented Lansing natives, drummer Donny Brown and guitarist Brian Stout, things came together in 1992. While the lineup changed various times over the following decades, those early days — the height of now-defunct venues like Small Planet — were pivotal to the band, which continues to write, record and tour.
“My brother (Brad Vander Ark) and I formed the band with two musicians from Lansing, which is why we were known as an East Lansing band,” Vander Ark said. “I lived there for some time while we got our act together. Our first meeting was at the Wendy’s there. We all had yellow legal pads, Diet Cokes and baked potatoes — the standard meal for poor musicians. Our notes included what original songs we had and what covers we would want to play.”
The Verve Pipe was set to return to its old stomping grounds July 15 to play the grand opening of a new chapter in Lansing’s music scene: Grewal Hall at 224, a new venue in the heart of downtown Lansing. However, construction was not completed in time, so the all-ages show was rescheduled to Dec. 9.
That homecoming gig will no doubt spark old memories for Vander Ark. Thinking back to the band’s mid-’90s pre-fame days, when it shared stages with countless college bands and touring acts across the state and beyond, Vander Ark said East Lansing was flush with gigging options — and some competition, too.
“The Small Planet was a great venue,” he said. “They really enjoyed bands that played original music. Rick’s was not a pleasurable experience, although they did have live music every night. Unfortunately, the owner of Rick’s refused to let you play there if you played the Small Planet. We jumped ship.”
Of course, once “The Freshmen” broke on MTV and radio stations across the map, the Verve Pipe’s horizon quickly expanded. Released in March 1996, the band’s “Villains” LP, its third studio album, slowly gained traction over the next year and ultimately went platinum.
In 1997, “The Freshmen” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Alternative chart and peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100. However, this was far from an overnight success story.
“The Freshmen’ was written over many months in 1990,” said Vander Ark, who penned the hit song. “There was no inspiration for the story — only that I wanted to write about an experience I had with my on-and-off girlfriend at the time.”
In 1996, the Verve Pipe received its first taste of mainstream success after “Photograph” climbed the charts. The dynamically melodic track reached No. 6 on Billboard’s Alternative chart and No. 17 on its Rock chart.
“‘Photograph’ was written much later, after the band had released two albums,” Vander Ark said. “I thought it was an interesting concept — the idea that someone is frozen in a photograph, unable to move. Whatever pose you are in is how you will be perceived for the life of the photograph.”
After its 1990s pinnacle, the band soldiered on with Vander Ark at the helm. The week after the 9/11 attacks, the band dropped its “Underneath” LP. The record features songs by Vander Ark and Brown but also co-writing credits from its Grammy-winning producer, the late Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and “That Thing You Do!” soundtrack fame.
“Adam was a gem to work with. He came up with a lot of great ideas — he really held the band together,” Vander Ark said.
After a few years of inactivity on the album front, the Verve Pipe returned in the 2000s with a couple of curveballs: a holiday EP and a children’s album. The band even played shows with its children’s material. Looking back on those records, Vander Ark said that period was not a calculated career move.
“We were asked to be part of a compilation of children’s songs for charity. Once we wrote a couple of songs, we decided to continue on and write more,” he said. “Although it was a great experience playing kids’ shows, I felt like we needed to get back to the adults. Never say never on recording another children’s album, but I doubt we will go back to those live shows.”
Back in the day, Vander Ark scored a hit after penning a song about an ex, but these days, he said his song-crafting stimulus is not easily traced.
“I can’t pinpoint a certain inspiration other than reading fiction or coming up with my own stories,” he said.
But when it comes to the band’s still-thriving calendar of live shows, Vander Ark said both new and old fans will be pleased.
“We put on a very entertaining show. Dynamics are important to us, so you’ll get hard rocking and some acoustic songs. It’s a fun night,” he said.
And while the band’s current setlists are filled with cuts from its lengthy discography, fans should also expect to hear some newly penned songs, including tracks from 2021’s “Threads” LP. Vander Ark produced the full-length during the pandemic. While that was a stressful time for the world in general, the songwriter said the album was a joy to work on.
“I didn’t feel much stress recording it. It was my third time producing my own band,” he said. “I enjoyed the experience very much. We are working with another producer for the new album so I can concentrate on other things and not be all consumed.”
Did he say a new record is in the works?
“We hope to have a new album out soon,” he confirmed. “The songs have been written. Now comes the best part: laying the instruments down and singing.”
As for the yet-to-be-named record of original songs, a fall release date is “very much a possibility,” according to the band’s management — though an official date hasn’t been announced just yet.
With an enduring and fruitful three-decade career behind him, along with more than 27 million YouTube views on “The Freshmen’s” music video, Vander Ark offered one bit of advice to new and emerging local songwriters: “Always go with your instincts.”
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