by Andrew Matson & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & s Velella Velella's sound has matured from experimental beat sketches (2004's By The Wind Sailor) to focused, crowd-rocking funk (2005's Bay Of Biscay), the results have been met with surges of print and radio acclaim. Recently signed to Portland label Hush Records (The Decemberists, Norfolk & amp; Western), the band has begun to consider itself in the third person.
Sitting in a Seattle coffee shop, frontman Andrew Means elaborates on his band's evolution. "The whole concept when we started out was that I wanted to write the music I wanted to hear. It was a very self-serving model, really exploratory."
Early Velella Velella was defiantly out of place in bar-rock Spokane; its anti-structure required an overly cerebral, mildly detached listener: someone who didn't need to know where the music was going. While VV's playful ear for production/arrangement ensured moment to moment fun, concerts were abstract performance art. Confused audiences didn't know how to react.
Spokane scenesters might recall VV's engaging/alienating early shows at the B-Side. The original two-piece incarnation (Means and Michael Burton, both multi-instrumentalists) had zero stage presence, but an intriguing mix of buoyant melodies, broken beats and bear-trap bass lines begged attention. In the trad-rock Inland Northwest, VV's wild ambition left an indelible, rebellious impression. "It really surprised me that people liked it, and I realized I had to start taking people's thoughts into consideration. It's been a really great progression for us."
The progression involved a move to Seattle, where Means and Burton teamed up with Jeremy Hadley (former Local Planet music editor, also transplanted from Spokane) and Sylvia Chen. Back in Spokane, VV had been working in colors and textures: vibraphone rhythm beds, atmospheric guitar loops and stuttering breakbeats that refused to play it straight. As a four-piece, VV incorporated vocals, keys and auxiliary percussion into a more directed sound. They also played a lot more concerts. The beats got easier to follow (the better to snap your neck), and a riffy, figural sensibility emerged. The "new" VV showed its work on stage, picked up and put down more instruments, and rode lock-tight grooves straight into joyous, four-part vocal hooks. Brought to full climax, VV's songs devastated unsuspecting audiences and created white-hot word-of-mouth.
"People react to music on different levels," Means offers. "To me, it's always been about the beat, but for some people it's about lyrics, or seeing someone move on stage. I realized that's an important aspect of the music." Just as teachers employ diverse techniques to match students' learning styles, Seattle-era VV learned to rephrase points for clarity. Specifically, they began speaking and moving. Through onstage banter, loose dancing, and eye-contact improvisation, they now provide more audiovisual cues for audience involvement. "Before, I was really averse to talking between songs, or even paying attention to the audience. Now I feel like we're performing."
Though his voice is hardly the star of the show, Means is sharpening every arrow in his quiver, taking weekly vocal lessons. Throughout the interview, he expresses a desire to take dance classes. Maybe the whole band could do it. But not to pull off synchronized choreography; Means seems to think increasing VV's dance-confidence will add a "vibe." The band has deep discussions about onstage dress, wanting to present a fully formed persona without being cute. A web design artist by day, Means has managerial concerns: he wants VV to be its own press kit, a distilled essence to exploit big breaks (he offers a hypothetical Conan O'Brien appearance). Though unwilling to dumb down, VV is making its pill easy to swallow.
Trading must-see YouTube suggestions, Means mentions James Brown and enthuses over Otis Redding (live on UK TV) and Wilson Pickett (on stage in Germany). VV's lust for performing comes from soul legends with warm, evangelical crowd-control. But Means sees them from the perspective of The Roots' ?uestlove, a band director at once lost in wonder and emboldened to borrow from masters of the ecstatic moment. He's a music nerd whose taste is for that which excites the gut and the butt.
Means is leading his band in exactly the right direction, branding VV as a distinctly modern dance group. Like looped samples from a '70s/'80s jazz/funk obsessed hip-hop DJ, the band's phrases and layers imply a remixed version of music that should have but never existed. Means' expertly programmed beats -- the only prerecorded element of VV's live set -- are created with a J Dilla/Madlib ear for individual cymbal and drum sounds, a rap producer's quest for the ultimate boom-bap.
Though clearly post-everything, nearly all VV's sounds have nothing to do with computers or digital equipment, meaning that, from a snob's POV, it's a curious musicultural comment. From the audience's perspective, it's an invitation to get loose. The origin is complex, but the delivery is deadly concise. Velella Velella is its own entity, has its own voice, and doesn't rely on any trends to Trojan Horse itself. When audiences accept the band -- which they do -- it's on Velella Velella's singular terms. It's a great achievement.
That Means' poison-dart vision is near full realization is clear from his primary statement of focus: "We're trying to be really joyful... There's a lot of dance bands that still feel like this nihilistic, post-new wave post-disco stuff, no soul, really angular..." trailing off, Means shakes his head. "We're pretty passionate about not being ironic." He knows VV's musical divination is pure; he's heard the Word, now it's time to preach it.
Velella Velella with No-Fi Soul Rebellion, Skillet Jones, Cris Lucas and Real Life Sound at the Bing on Friday, April 6th at 7 pm. $10. Call 835-2638.