Tuesday, March 10, 2009


The VSS are a pretty important band to me. They were one of the first bands that I made an effort to go see every time they played, and as an 18 year old they just seemed like the coolest band ever.

Sonny Kay was a fixture of the DIY community in those days. He was at just about every Gilman show with crates of records from his Bottlenekk distro, selling singles and LPs by bands that you would probably never find unless you combed the ads in HeartattaCk (or went across the bay to Epicenter, but if you weren't a volunteer you would often find the record you were looking for was sold out). I still remember the first item I purchased from him -- The Make-Up's Destination: Love - Live! At Cold Rice -- which he was nice enough to sell me despite the fact that I was a dollar short. It was 1996 and although I had been going to shows for a little while, I hadn't really met or talked to anyone in the bands before. It excited me to actually meet and talk to someone whose music I admired, and consequently I have adopted the habit of approaching people whose work inspires me.

Through the course of doing research for this post, I found myself exchanging a few emails with Mr. Kay. I asked him if he had a story to tell about The VSS, and he said that he did:

"Anytime anyone asks for something anecdotal about The VSS, I usually wind up telling this story. I still think it says a lot about the spirit of the band.

We recorded our only album, Nervous Circuits, towards the end of 1996. Although it wasn't coming out till mid-'97, we booked a tour of Europe for January and February based on the advice that touring in the dead of winter would be to our advantage because we could coordinate with university schedules since, largely, people that age were our "target market". So a couple of days after New Years 1997, we loaded up our newly-acquired (though by no means new) van and headed out of the Bay Area. We were joined by our old friend from our days in Colorado, Paul Drake, a veteran tour manager and driver to this day. We had plane tickets to fly from JFK in New York to Glasgow, Scotland - an unlikely first stop on any European tour, but our European booking agent/roadie lived there and it made as much sense as starting anywhere else. We'd booked a string of shows across the U.S. in order to get from coast to coast within about 4 days.

Anyway, we headed east, had a good first show in Salt Lake City, and another the next night in Denver. We stayed at my mom's place afterwards, and headed out very early the following morning en route to Omaha, Nebraska. As we crossed the barren plains of eastern Colorado, things got more and more frigid, the winds started whipping up and the snow flurries increased. Each stop we made came replete with an update on the blizzard conditions we were driving into. About 2/3 of the way to Omaha (approximately 10 hours from Denver in clear weather) we were freezing our asses off - the van seemed to be generating no heat, and we were all zipped into our sleeping bags attempting to keep warm. Out of desperation we decided to improvise and flattened a cardboard box which we shoved in the van's grill, in front of the radiator. This proved to be disastrous as within 30 minutes or so we were billowing white smoke from our tailpipe and losing power, not just heat. We'd blown the head gasket on the van, although we wouldn't know that until the following afternoon. We eventually limped into to Omaha at probably 11:00 pm (15 hours after we started), having stopped every 15 or 20 miles to top up the water which we could hear boiling inside the radiator as we drove. Miraculously, despite the absolute whiteout conditions in Omaha, the Cog Factory was full of kids apparently awaiting our arrival. That was incredible. We had a great show that night, then went and stayed with a friend of Paul's.

The following morning we woke up to not one but FOUR flat tires on the van - the record cold temperatures had literally sucked the air from our tires. We called AAA and promptly waited 4 hours for the truck to arrive. It seemed half of Omaha had been incapacitated by the blizzard. Finally, the tires were inflated and the van towed across town to a garage where we then waited 2 hours or so for "the verdict": the blown gasket meant that the engine would need to be rebuilt, and that would take about 2 weeks. Josh had literally bought the van for this trip, and abandoning it was simply not an option. So it was decided that Paul (who wasn't going to Europe with us) would hang out in Omaha for 2 weeks and wait for the van while the rest of us soldiered on. We purchased a late-70's Oldsmobile '98 sedan from the garage for $600, loaded our bags, guitars and keyboards into the trunk, and set off. Although this tour was off to a nightmarish start, I remember feeling a real camaraderie amongst all of us, and we made the most of the situation, like stopping at Dairy Queen in Missouri somewhere for Blizzards - one of those random, meaningless tour events that somehow stands out from all the others twelve years after the fact. I think we were all so pumped about going to Europe, we probably would have been glad to walk. Despite having to cancel one or two shows, we made it to the east coast in time to play our show at the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. After the show we drove to Josh's parents' house in rural PA where the Olds died, once and for all, as we pulled into the driveway. It was later towed off to be used as bumper fodder in the local demolition derby. We made it to JFK as scheduled, and flew to Glasgow. There we spent 2 days eating white bread in a dreary little flat, preparing the Euro-version of our "light show" for our 6-week tour of Europe in a tiny cargo van with no seats (we sat on the amps) and back doors duct-taped in place. Those were the days.

Paul Drake has been thanked for his role in this debacle more than once, and deserves acknowledgement here as well. The VSS is forever in his debt."

Gilman Street is famous for a number of reasons, but you may not have known that they let you bring in a cassette and record the show off the soundboard. I used to bring in tapes occasionally, and as a result I have a few pretty listenable soundboard recordings. Among others, I have 3 tapes featuring performances by The VSS (although you will miss the light show, they sound fantastic). There is one song on the first tape that I was unable to place, and Dave Clifford had this to say about it:

"That first song was an early incarnation of two songs from Nervous Circuits, actually. I remember we'd just finished writing that song when Josh quit, and then when he came back it was the first thing we did, splitting that song up into two different songs... I can't recall what each ended up being though after all the changes, but it sounds vaguely familiar doesn't it?"

So there you have it. All the singles the band released, 3 soundboard recordings, and a number of flyers from the private collection of Sonny Kay.

I would especially like to thank Sonny for his involvement in this, as well as Dave for explaining the origins of that mysterious song. I'd also like to thank Andrew and Josh simply for being in such a great band.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your listening pleasure, The VSS.

The VSS (Strict)
1. The Flesh Inside
2. Indians Sick
3. Evolution
4. Silt, etc.

The VSS/T Tauri (Titanic)
1. Muscle
2. The Fist And The Fingers

The VSS EP (Gravity)
1. "Response"
2. I Cut My Teeth
3. Cosmic Retribution
4. Crawling In Place

The VSS/Rye Coalition (Super 8)
1. In Miniature (Remix)
2. No Hands

Live At Gilman 5/11/96 (Pukekos)
1. Untitled
2. I Cut My Teeth
3. Evolution

Live At Gilman 11/8/96 (Pukekos)
1. Death Scene
2. Lunar Weight
3. -
4. Chemical In Chemistry
5. In Miniature
6. I Cut My Teeth
7. The Flesh Inside
8. What Kind Of Ticks?
9. Nervous Circuits

Live At Gilman 3/22/97 (Pukekos)
1. -
2. Sibling Ascending
3. Death Scene
4. Swift Kicks
5. What Kind Of Ticks?
6. -
7. I Cut My Teeth
8. Lunar Weight
9. Solid Gold Follower


chnkltgy said...

Man, the VSS still remain one of the only bands that sparked that sense of hardcore urgency without being hardcore in the late 90s. I think the last band(s) that really jump started me like that were Nation of Ulysses and (to a lesser degree) Circus Lupus. But live? Fuck, The VSS were unreal.

Michael Grimm said...

Thanks a lot for this, a great read and some great recordings to boot. I loved VSS, Slaves/Pleasure Forever and this just made my week. Appreciated!

Unknown said...

great job BJ

thank you :)

Mars said...

Dave Clifford directed my ass this way - man, this is AWESOME. Thank you so much for doing this, it's not only a great document of the band but also of the time, much appreciated.

THIS is how you examine a band on a blog. Bravo.

Blog By Black said...

thank you so much for this. i'm a big fan of the vss and already have all their singles through checking ebay every single day for about a year. having said that, i'm a fan of all sonny's bands too and was pleasantly surprised when i met him in london last year at an abe vigoda gig.

THANK YOU for putting this online. this band is still so relevant today.

envythedead said...


DJ Rick said...

The VSS live at the Epicenter Zone in SF was one of those shows that I'll always remember as a transfixing moment...basically, it was the moment I realized that my budding interest in psychedelic rock no longer needed to reconcile with me being a "hardcore kid". Fast-forward to this current halcyon age of underground music that we're enjoying and witness how the definition of "psychedelic" has expanded to include so much new music....now it's got me thinking that seeing VSS on that particular night turn The Make Up obsolete was a prophetic moment.

Jackson said...

Thanks for the post. I'm looking forward to checking out the live stuff.

Sonny is a great guy. I too was fortunate enough to see the VSS play numerous times (even in my own house) and hang out with Sonny from time to time. The VSS was a great bunch of guys and I was seriously bummed when I watched them play one last time (in NYC) during their final tour. That last show is burned in my head as one of the top 10 shows I've seen. Glad to see someone else appreciate the band as much as I did.

bbta said...

can't sy thank you enough !!!
the VSS are great !!!

Unknown said...

I and so many of my friends thank you!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm 25 and grew up in atl/south georgia so i had to expose myself to vss myself in the early 2000's when i started college. They blew me away and changed the direction in my taste in music. I was never able too see them live of course but collected as many seven inches and recordings i could from them. I saw year future in 05 at the smell while being a roadie for my friends band on tour and that was the raddest (I am also a big dead and gone fan). Not to many people i run around with respect or even know vss like i do so it is a pleasure to know that their are people out ther with a mutual respect for them. Let us not forget Angel Hair as well,not many people were makin music like that then.Sonny Kay is the dude.

Greg D said...

Thanks so much for this. I loved this band, but only got to see them once. the live recordings are very much appreciated, along with the couple 7"s i never picked up (i'm kicking myself for that now).

dontyoufeelbetter said...

wow, it's pretty interesting to hear that story...i was at that omaha show however many years ago, indeed it was incredible. cog factory was an amazing place, a tiny shithole garage with some of the best people...shows all the time, many memories from high school...neurosis pulling up in a school bus like a tribe of crusty predator aliens and almost not playing due to too few electrical outlets...crash worship marching down the street w/fire... now i live right up the street from where that place used to be. after it closed someone spraypainted 'punk is dead' right across the corrugated metal front

Matt Ahearn said...

Thanks for posting these amazing songs. I've only recently got into the VSS due to Hydrahead reissuing their full length. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to score the double 7" with Rye Coalition at Black Gold Records in Carrol Gardens, Brooklyn. Cheers!


The Mad Reviewer said...

Amazing, thank you so much !!!
VSS I love you!
Absent Sound

bbta said...

Great post, thank you so much !!!