"This sounds exactly like what you'd hear in some Eurotrash D.C. bar," says Collin Klamper of Velella Velella's album Bay of Biscay. Klamper is The Inlander's art director and recent emigre; from the Beltway. He likes to frame things in reference to the nation's capital, in case anyone listening doesn't know he used to live there.
We share a cubicle wall, Collin and I, so he's constantly subjected to whatever band or MC I'm listening to. He doesn't ask for this privilege, but I bestow it on him anyway. Similarly, I don't ask for his opinion, but he offers it, every time, like clockwork. Wolf Parade reminded him of the Talking Heads. Seaweed Jack got "What's this chain-clanking, Pirates of the Caribbean?" After listening to Sufjan Stevens' "Blackhawk War ..." on repeat for a day and a half non-stop, he put a sign on the back of my chair that said, inexplicably, "Shhhh, I'm listening to whale songs." That is to say, his musical analyses are like Dick Cheney's birdshot: Though they usually miss the mark, they always hit something.
That's the case with Velella Velella as well, a hard kernel of partial truth floating in Klamper's dismissive categorization of the former Spokanites. There is, in fact, a bit of electronica at play. At the surface level, "Do Not Fold / Do Not Bend" (track one on Bay of Biscay) throbs like Prague, hitting some very familiar club tropes. Over the top of that, though, and easily missed on the first listen, exists layer upon dulcet layer of dancey funk novelty. Lots of vibraphone action, for example. Thwaps of heavily distorted bass, flits of flute, breakbeats, live vocals and, later in the record, excellent use of found sounds.
There's an upbeat, neo-funk vibe that permeates the whole thing, and with the help of some very positive press, Velella Velella is using it to refuel a grand experiment that will bring them through Spokane on the way to gigs at Austin's famous industry festival, South by Southwest. They're trying something simple, yet radical within an indie paradigm dominated by self-consciousness and woe. No, they don't want much, just the thing many kids feel most uncomfortable with. They want you to slough off that hipster malaise and dance.
Everything the band has done since forming nearly four years ago has been to forward that ass-shaking end. What began as two dudes and a bunch of loops has become a four-person live instrument whirlwind. Jeremy Hadley and Sylvia Chen joined the original duo of Andrew Means and Michael Burton in 2004 after deciding to translate the vintage instrumentation they'd been recording with into a live context. That meant, obviously, more stuff on stage (an organ, a clavinet, a Wurlitzer, something called the Korg MS-20, vibes, a guitar and bass at last count) and less reliance on loops. Two years later, the live element has become so elemental to the process that the automated aspects -- the drum loops, the found sounds -- don't even require a laptop, just an iPod plugged into an amp. Who plays which instrument changes from song to song and is often chosen on a whim. Deciding to have Sylvia learn the bass, for example, came from a simple desire: "How awesome would it be," recounts Hadley, "to have this really short, super, super-cute Asian gal have a huge bass slung across her back?"
Hadley's voice takes on a kind of glee when he speaks these words. It's the same kind of unfettered, pretenseless joy he gets when talking about Velella's mission. "We want to strip down any kind of insecurities people have with going to shows. It's about communicating a sense of positivity between the band and the fans. We want to make people ecstatic about being able to shake their ass and not have to think about whether they can dance or not."
It's a mindset they share with tour mates United State of Electronica. "There is very little ironic hipster nonsense bullshit going on with any of us," Hadley says. "I don't think we have time for it. Noah [Weaver, of U.S.E.] wanted to call it the 'indie rock kid dance liberation tour.'"
And it's that frame, more than any sonic variance, that separates the group from the Eurotrash of Mr. Klamper's Beltway days. In place of the solipsistic dude-with-a-laptop creation process shoehorned into a culture of club-drug nihilism, Velella Velella creates collectively, experimenting with instruments they're unfamiliar with in the hopes that it'll convince you to try something you're unused to: shaking that little uncoordinated ass. That's an ambitious mission and will certainly be met with resistance, but their show at Whitworth will be a good first test. If they manage to win over the throngs in a dance-phobic town like Spokane, the crowds at South by Southwest should fall like shooting jellyfish in a barrel.
Velella Velella at Whitworth in the HUB Cafe on Saturday, March 11, at 9 pm with United State of Electronica and Pale Pacific. Free. Call 777-1000.