Monday, February 22, 2010


I first heard Nervous Circuits in December of 1996. It was a dub of a dub of rough mixes that we listened to on my car stereo, the audio quality left a lot to be desired but that wasn't why we were listening. Leaks were harder to come by in those days, etc.

The VSS were like the Velvet Underground -- not many people saw them or heard the records, but those who did all started bands or labels. This was a different era when to go on tour was to take the message to the people, and the only way to find out about new bands was to go see them -- if you were lucky enough to know about the show. Zines with ads for the tour would be be hit with delays and not come out until after it was over. If you were out of the loop, you missed it. It was an inscrutable world, and the only way to gain entry was to meet someone who already knew about it.

This record is important, so I asked singer Sonny Kay to tell its tale:

"Nervous Circuits was written and recorded in the early fall of 1996. The band had relocated to San Francisco from Boulder, and secured a rehearsal space in the Tenderloin, at what was reputedly the 'highest murder rate intersection' in the city, Turk and Mason. We'd been in limbo regarding a record label for quite some time. Our singles had all been issued haphazardly, far later than planned, and with countless aggravating personal strings attached that we just didn't feel like maintaining at that point. I remember sitting at the bar in Bottom of the Hill one night, chatting with Lance Hahn, who was astonished that no one had stepped-up to offer us an LP deal. He did so on the spot and so the album was suddenly destined for release on Honey Bear (essentially Lance's 'wing' of Revolver USA). I believe that was the impetus that really set the wheels in motion.

The band had emerged from a fairly chaotic summer (including supporting Unwound on the west coast with a fill-in guitarist) but with Josh back in the fold once again, we set out writing the album probably sometime in early or mid-August. As I was the sole East Bay resident, I'd ride BART over during rush hour, emerging from the packed train at Montgomery Street where I'd promptly make a beeline for Taco Bell on 6th and Market, my usual meeting spot with Andy. A rock n' roll romantic might surmise that many a great idea was hatched at that Market Street Taco Bell. But in reality, only lice were hatching there.

I think we all perceived the album as being our most concise statement after a series of singles and EP's - although I don't think any of us suspected at that point that it would be the only LP. We'd been wearing our influences on our sleeves (literally, in Dave's case) since the beginning, and tasked ourselves with molding the quintessential hybrid; borrowing liberally from the Birthday Party, Pornography-era Cure, Gary Numan/Tubeway Army, early Public Image Limited, Swans, and The Doors. I don't remember ever sitting down and planning this out - we were all just in the same mindset, thinking like a hive-minded gang at war with the confines of the Ebullition-centric scene which we were struggling to differentiate ourselves from. The indifference towards 'hardcore' that had taken root in Angel Hair really blossomed with The VSS, although we were well aware that 'the kids' who identified with it were the ones coming to our shows. Of course, we knew we had allies - we could sense the boredom and redundancy other people were feeling - not to mention being aware of vaguely similar bands such as Mocket, Satisfact, and Brainiac. I think it's safe to say we felt as though we were fighting our way out of a box - using Rolands and flashing lights to counter the stiflingly dull earnestness of what was in those days called 'emo'. We wanted to inject a cold detachment and aesthetic opacity into what we perceived to be the phony world of 'woe is me' posturing typified by bands like, well, almost anyone on Ebullition, Council, Repercussion, etc. who all just seemed locked in homage to the truly great Rites of Spring.

For my own part, I distinctly remember struggling with the lyrics. Although I feel like I can write on command nowadays, back then it really didn't come easily. I would drive up to the overlook near Lawrence Berkeley Labs to try and clear my head, staring out at the Golden Gate Bridge while tapping my pen on an empty page. A lot of the content, I now realize, was my coming to terms with the frustrating reality of my existence - uprooting myself from the small-town college bubble of Boulder for the added expense and menial employment opportunities of post-graduate life in a big California city. I was striking back at traffic, rent, and exhaustion, and at the same time trying to embrace the precariousness of my/our situation. I mined relationships from years prior for inspiration, and I deconstructed the social fabric of the punk scene we were inevitably a part of. The overall difficulty/object was in how to say things in a manner that wasn't simple to comprehend - I wanted things to be abstract, poetic, and difficult - or at least challenging. Whether they are or not, I don't know. They certainly were to create.

The album was recorded in Denver in late October, culminating with our Halloween-night warehouse performance about 30 minutes after we'd finished mixing it. Ultimately, it was our only record. All I can say it truly represents is a brief window in the lives of four individuals who felt inspired to start with something old in the hopes of ending with something new. Beyond that, it's vague, inarticulate, moody, unpredictable and hopefully a little confusing - everything we meant for it to be."

Dave Clifford also felt compelled to add his two cents:

"Sonny's recollections are definitely very astute, and I look back at the time we spent creating that album as one of the most focused, clear-minded and incredibly inspired recording projects with which I've ever been involved. The thing that still impresses me about it today, despite the flawed, rushed mix and my limitations as a drummer, is that in the writing and recording process it seemed like anything was possible. While we were actively trying to create sounds that embodied many of our most bizarre aesthetic aims, it somehow worked without seeming completely hackneyed.

At the time, Andy Rothbard (bass/keyboards) and I lived in a small group house in the southern outer-reaches of San Francisco's forgotten zone, The Excelsior. We were all working grueling day jobs, then immediately proceeding to practice 5 nights a week, for 3-4 hours at a time working up a set of songs for the album. Afterward, Andy and I would sit up late into the night playing records and talking in abstractions about how to distill certain essences of music into something different. Once, listening to a Stooges CD that suddenly started to skip, I thought, let's make a song that sounds like a skipping disc ('In Miniature').

I still clearly recall another night sitting in my room and hearing a Leonard Cohen record playing in Andy's room upstairs. Muted and transformed by the thick walls, Cohen's gentle acoustic guitar plucking sounded like a rumbling mechanical hum of a thousand synths, his voice like a droning choral lull. That became the foundation of the album's title track droning thud.

All the time in the year or so that we spent composing and ruminating on musical ideas it seemed I never listened to music for the music's sake, but all for a song's mood, how certain sounds smudged into a powerful new and unique voice. Repetition, layering, buried sound effects, rhythmic juxtaposition... we had a screed of odd sonic ideas, and just dove in head-first without hesitation.

The VSS certainly also aimed to revamp the chilly detachment of the post-punk era, inspired both by the faux-earnestness of the major label Grunge ubiquity and the sniveling of the screamo underground. We'd always felt somewhat looked down upon by the white belt coterie for being Colorado hicks playing what some said was too 'rock', and we brandished our over-the-top musical and visual assertiveness in the faces of the foppish, roll-on-the-ground screaming babies with whom we shared the basement and VFW 'stage'.

At the time, I was very fixated on the writing of Antonin Artaud, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and a host of other highfalutin philosophers, whose every idea I seemed to try to find a way to apply musically. I was also listening to a lot of 'tribal' rhythm recordings, Balinese gamelan, Bulgarian folk singing, Funkadelic, 60s soul music, et al. Essentially, listening to anything other than what was going on in the contemporary underground. I'd only begun playing drums one year before we recorded the album, and I was hellbent on avoiding the Jesus Lizard-esque trappings that were so predominant in the era. Likewise, we were all very picky in the songwriting process about what was deemed worthy of keeping. While all of us were bringing in a vast array of influences and ideas, every one of us found a way to building upon the most abstract visions and creating something that I still think is pretty unique. I will always remember that time for our completely aligned sense of purpose and aesthetic."

I got this record the day it came out and I still listen to it. My copy sounds sounds great after all these years, and now you can hear it too.

Thanks to Sonny and Dave and Hyrdra Head.

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

Nervous Circuits (Honey Bear)
1. Death Scene
2. In Miniature
3. Sibling Ascending
4. Effigy
5. Lunar Weight
6. Conscious
7. What Kind Of Ticks?
8. Chemical In Chemistry
9. Swift Kicks
10. Nervous Circuits


A.W. Hilst said...

so good. what an underrated band.
have you heard clickitat ikatowi?

Damian Hade said...

stoked on this post even, if I have had the record for years.