San Francisco's Vue will probably never read anything about their latest release, Find Your Home, that doesn't include descriptions like "retro," "dated," or, God help us, "old-school." For an underground band on an independent label, displaying an enthusiasm for seminal rock 'n' roll styles is often tantamount to heresy, and punishable by the assumption that the group in question is a bunch of fashion victims who listened to one Nuggets compilation too many. Or, at the very least, aping the band Make Up badly. We're talking about the cutting edge of rock music, after all, where not too many people are currently willing to admit that daring music existed before The Clash — or, at the very earliest, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.
Vue's slinky, primal, darkly seductive sound, on the other hand, incorporates elements spanning rock's entire historical spectrum, from Delta R&B to sexy British rock to arty NYC postpunk to the best of their fuzz-toned contemporaries. Like any good band, the quintet makes their inspirations their own, filtering influences through a unique collection of personalities and adding a healthy dose of fresh, modern punk energy. But anyone looking to easily categorize their fractious style is likely to latch onto its most obvious associations. The question of exactly who to name-check, however, has led to some wildly disparate comparisons, most of which are to groups of a decidedly older vintage.
"Yeah, our reviews go all over the place," says singer Rex John Shelverton. "Everything from The Birthday Party to The Stones to all these bands that don't sound anything alike, and that I don't think we sound anything like, myself. It's more annoying than anything else."
While the retro tagging remains irksome, Shelverton believes that such scribbles are more a reflection of the reviewers' personal tastes than Vue's songwriting. He and his bandmates (guitarist Jonah Buffa, bassist Jeremy Bringetto, keyboardist Jessica Ann Graves and drummer Rafael Orlin) have learned to take them lightly.
"You can't be overly self-conscious in music. If you are, then you usually end up being mediocre. You have to be sure of yourself, even if you're terrible," he says with a laugh. "If people say it's really retro, we'll laugh about it — "oh, another review that says we sound like The Doors.'"
Find Your Home, the band's second full-length and first disc for remarkably still-relevant Seattle label Sub Pop, undeniably conjures thoughts of rock's nascent, bluesy heyday. The album is packed with the kinds of strained amplifiers, moody keys and sinewy backbeat grooves rarely heard since Brian Jones started ripping off African-American bluesmen. Shelverton's dynamic howl flirts with the shadows, and while he doesn't sound much like Jim Morrison (a more mellifluous Mick Jagger occasionally comes to mind) the ghost of the Lizard King does haunt his sensually menacing aesthetic. Yet for all its throwback accoutrements, the music's impact is refreshingly updated — Vue wouldn't seem out of place on a bill alongside Make Up or The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, or any group with a taste for the classics and a bent for manic execution.
Shelverton attributes the record's mix of old sounds and new blood to the band's live recording technique. Nearly every cut you hear on commercial radio has undergone extensive computer manipulation and overdubbing; if Find Your Home does sound a bit retro, Vue's straight-to-tape work ethic has at least as much to do with it as the tracks themselves.
"I feel like our new record is a really honest one," he says. "It's not calculated or perfect. It doesn't try to cover up mistakes or hide behind the production. We really tried to capture our live performance on record, which is a really cliche thing to say, but we did. When we play, we do sound like the record.
"Maybe someday we'll make this crazy studio pop record, I don't know."
The band's live show is reputedly one of the most intense in indie circles, a hugely cathartic and brutally physical display. Vue's onstage antics have been compared to the kind of sweaty gutwrenching usually associated with posthardcore's best, most angst-ridden outfits. According to the vocalist, such comments aren't so strange; three-fifths of Vue cut their musical teeth together in an emo outfit, and the genre's penchant for overt emotional compulsion and completely draining performances has never left their list of priorities. The punk rock experience and DIY perspective is also another factor that keeps the quintet's art sounding more modern than their critics are wont to admit.
"It was all about going crazy, rolling on the floor and breaking your guitar. That really hasn't changed for us at all. We still carry a lot of that," affirms Shelverton. "When you're young, you're so idealistic, and one of our ideals was to put as much emotion into all of our songs as we could. And I think we still do that. It may be what keeps it soulful, just because we got used to doing things that way. If it were more thought-out and calculated, I don't think it would be very good.
"I think that's what keeps our sound contemporary, and hopefully keeps us from being just a retro-rock band. We're into psychedelic stuff, pop stuff, indie stuff. We just got to a place where we were mixing contemporary energy with a lot of the other, more classic stuff that we liked. I don't know how it happened. We just got better at playing, and every song ended up being something different."
With the generous hype generated by New York fuzz-rockers The Strokes, and bands like (friends and fellow San Franciscans) Black Rebel Motorcycle Club beginning to garner some success, it seems as if lo-fi, roots-conscious, urban rock 'n' roll may well be the next wave in cool-kid trends. Though Vue's less straightforward style doesn't echo those of its peers exactly, it's definitely close enough for them to perhaps reap the benefits of a little scene association. When asked if they would have a problem being sucked into some sort of movement, Shelverton responds positively.
"I like both of those bands," he says. "If I didn't like their records, then I'd be pretty bummed out. But I don't mind being associated with them. Like The White Stripes — we really like them and are so grateful for their success. If regular people can like that kind of music, it can only be a good thing, you know? I try to look on the bright side. At least someone's listening to it."
Vue's eclectic, intimate yet rocking sound may well be the next one deemed buzzworthy by whomever it is that decides such things. And who knows, the guys might one day read a piece about themselves that doesn't mention Detroit proto-punk or '70s soul-rock. For Shelverton, vindicating his band's reputation and overcoming the "retro" hurdle isn't really such a big deal. Hell, at least they're getting a reaction.
"We've definitely had a lot of mixed reviews, and some of the worst reviews are my favorites. You actually made somebody feel something in getting angry. Our biggest fear is to be just another mediocre band out there that didn't make anybody care one way or the other," he confesses. "I'd rather have people hate us than think we're only all right."