A blueprint for emo: retrospective interview with THE VAN PELT

Short lived NYC band THE VAN PELT (1993-1997; 2009; 2014) wormed their way into many befringed young men’s hearts back in the early 90s, their unusual mix of plaintive fingerpicked guitar interplay and wordy spoken vocals from singer Chris Leo still sets hearts a quiver to this day. The band has recently tetamed up with Gringo Records (UK) and Flying Kid Records (Italy) for an amazing, atmospheric, intimate live record Tramonto, offering 19 classics from their 3 studio albums, recorded in a garden in Ferrara in Italy on their 2014 European tour. The record marks the first release since their 2014 compilation album Imaginary Third, and acts as a really great retrospective of all their past material. We caught up with the band to learn more details on both early days and newer chapters in their history.

While only active for a matter of years, The Van Pelt have grown into something of a cult favourite since they original disbanded in 1997. And rightly so – even in that short period of time their music evolved considerably from the charged, proletysing punk of their debut album Stealing From Our Favourite Thieves to the quiet, creeping, minimal music of sophomore release Sultans of Sentiment. While the band called it quits at the peak of their success, with members going on to play in other acts including Jets to Brazil, Enon and The Lapse, to name just a few, The Van Pelt only continued to grow in popularity in underground circles.

Far from being a release that’s purely for prosperity, Tromonto (and indeed the tour that spawned it) has actually propelled the band into a new period of activity, with more material and touring planned for the future.

THE VAN PELT are are Chris Leo, Brian Maryansky, Sean Greene, and Neil O’Brien.


Hey there! It’s a great great pleasure having you here on IDIOTEQ. How are you? How’s November been treating you so far?

Ehhmmm, not so good as I’m sure you’ve seen on the news.

Yup, let’s better not go into that. I’ve had way too many conversations about the US elections this Fall, haha.

Please tell us a bit about your recent live recording, Tremonto, which captures your show that served as an opener for VAN PELT’s most recent European tour over 2 years ago. What made you decide to release it and how do you feel about it now that it’s released?

We released it because believe it or not we think age helped those songs settled in so to speak. We sat in the differently rhythmically and my voice finally made it past puberty…


How was that intimate gig organized and how do you remember that evening?

One of my old great friends in Italy, Manuele Fusaroli, has a fantastic recording studio in a barn outside of Ferrara. Seeing as no one in the Van Pelt lives anywhere near each other we decided it would be easiest to meet up there at Manu’s studio to rehearse before tour and hence we also wanted to play a ‘trial’ show amongst friends to make sure everything was ok. A truly emotional grand evening.

How about the rest of the tour? Do you remember some weird, interesting or funny stories that happened on the road back then?

Well after the garden show there were supposed to be 2 shows in Italy, 1 big festival in the UK, and 2 festivals in Spain. We were in the Dolomites with patchy internet connection when we found out the UK festival just 2 days away had been canceled! Luckily we scrambled to make things happen and booked two pub shows in London instead — which stylistically is obviously much more our scene. They were amazing. It took us another 9 months of endless litigation to get the money we were owed for the festival show, but I wouldn’t change the way things went down for the world. Give me shitty pubs or give me death. I really wouldn’t know what to do with myself in a big arena with a proper sound system.

Did you feel a lot of pressure in revisiting your material back then? What was your approach towards reinterpreting these tracks 20 years after their initial inception?

In fact we felt less pressure. Back in the day we put so much pressure on ourselves to play well that we often stepped on our own feet and choked under the pressure. Now we were playing these songs as much for ourselves as for anyone else and we sat in them so much easier. In a sense, we approached these songs as spectators revisiting ourselves.

Do you often revisit your old stuff?

Not THE VAN PELT stuff. I released many albums after, but one in particular drives me crazy, ‘Truth Loved’ by THE VAGUE ANGELS. Next to ‘Sultans of Sentiment’ I think it was one of the best albums and recordings I ever made yet it fell flat on the public. We signed to Matador Records for this album and then they dropped us before it came out. Instead released it as a chapter in a novel I wrote called ‘White Pigeons’ and a German label called ‘Expect Candy’ released it on its own…yet no one cared. That’s the album I pull out a couple of times a year and still say to myself ‘WTF?’

Do you view ‘Stealing From Our Favorite Thieves’ and ‘Sultans of Sentiment’ as ways of clearing your head when you were younger? Do you believe these records serve an equally important purpose for you now?

Great way to articulate it. Yes, that’s exactly as I see them both. I’d add to that as well that I was using art to explore the world around me as well. I was very rarely the type of musician that brought a finished piece to the studio. It was all about feeling things out, pushing the edges, seeing where the other guys in the room take it, etc. If the final product was great, fantastic, but if the final product was flawed in some way we found vital we ran with that as well.

When it comes to our records, yes, I hold those albums dearly to me. I never listen to them, but when they come up I like revisiting my younger self.


Back to 2014, was it tempting to take it another step further and write new songs? How did you go about the idea of recording another new record with THE VAN PELT back then while being on tour? Will there be any way for us to get some new tracks from THE VAN PELT soon? Also, are there plans for yet another trek and more touring?

VERY tempting. When we practiced together it almost seemed like new songs wanted to be written but we wouldn’t allow it because we didn’t have enough time and had to concentrate on relearning our old songs. If we do a future tour I would love make room for time to write some new songs. Next year we will also be rereleasing our albums via La Castanya Records in Barcelona. If those generate any interest we would definitely tour again. I really miss pub & squat shows in the UK, BeNeLux, and Germany so hopefully we’d be able to put together a long week of shows or something.

Ok, so how do you see the evolution of indie emo genre and this particular niche you’ve been representing with THE VAN PELT since 1993? How would you evaluate its clash with modern times?

Last time I checked Emo was completely recognizable to what it was when we were starting out. I remember playing this punk club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called ABCNORIO in 1991 with my band then called NATIVE NOD. Someone came up to us after the show and said we were ‘Emocore’. I asked what that was and they said “Like RITES OF SPRING’. WOOHOO, I thought, we were just put in the same genre as RITES OF SPRING. However, as you know, shortly thereafter the term became something disparaging, a way to make fun of bands that were too earnest or took themselves too seriously. Some people called THE VAN PELT emo, but mostly we were just guilty by association because we preferred to play punk clubs rather than ‘college’ clubs. In the end, I think of 90s emo as a genre that, yes, mostly came up short — but that’s to be expected by anyone that’s trying to hit a home run: most of the time you strike out, but when you succeed it’s glorious.


What are some of your personal favorite records this year? What are some of your recent new finds?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Cumbia this year. I also discovered an Italian band from the 90s called STARFUCKERS. There’s this flamenco player from Spain called Nino de Elche that has gone weird lately. And while we’re in Spain, PONY BRAVO are some of my faves. You’re also catching me at a time when I’ve gone back to the first few REM albums which also lead me to revisit other punk bands of the American South at the time like PYLON.

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