I COULD SPEND MY TIME INSIDE, BUT WHAT WOULD BE THE GOOD OF THAT?
“This is your life! You’re a musician!” Weeks later even she would become nervous of the adjustments I’d have to make, but on this particular February night Lucy Michelle was making an adamant pitch. The Velvet Lapelles needed a guitar player for their summer tour promoting their new album, HEAT. “You’re only young once, Matt,” she said, “We’d love to have you.”
Earlier that evening I saw Sharon Van Etten at the Cedar with a friend whom I’ve been vaguely in love with for seven years. Both of us had just gone through breakups and I was hoping she was as consoled by my disenchanted state as I was with hers. The show ended around 11:00 and I said, “Lucy invited me to a house party in St. Paul. Want to go?” My friend was tired.
I climbed an embankment of steep, dark, cement stairs to a small but spirited gathering with boxed wine and generic cheese balls. Even among the Lapelles who were there Lucy was the only one who was more than an acquaintance. While others tossed cheese balls into each other’s mouths I chain-smoked in the corner, monopolizing Lucy’s company. Within fifteen minutes of greeting her, my future was up for revision. She said the band needed someone who they could stand to be in a van with for weeks at a time. “I could do gigs around town but I can’t tour,” I explained, “I have a job.”
I could tell by Lucy’s smile that she was not giving up so easily. “We all have jobs,” she said. I told her I’d think about it.
The next evening I texted her. “Very seriously considering your offer.”
AND EVERYONE IS SITTING IN THEIR OFFICES, LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW
I met Lucy for coffee a week later and she gave me an advance copy of HEAT. I was already familiar with the band’s previous albums and was surprised by how different HEAT was. The shapes were bolder and the songs more direct, arranged with a sophisticated simplicity. Suddenly it became easy to imagine myself on stage with the band, playing these songs. My course, as far as I was concerned, was determined. Within a couple days I had learned all the chords and committed myself to succeeding as their guitar man.
Of course, in bands (and life) there are no guarantees. I know this, Lucy knows this, but Lucy didn’t know I knew this. I quickly fell in love with the promise of adventure and in my fanatical abandon may have said things suggesting I was investing myself too rapidly. We hadn’t even rehearsed yet. I’d never played guitar in anyone’s band but my own. I’ve never toured. The band and I didn’t know each other well. I could be an antisocial deviant for all they knew. It was important before making too many plans that we first explored whether or not we were similar enough types of weirdos (so far so good).
Lucy recommended we take things one step at a time (we still are) before I think too much about ‘uprooting my entire existence.’ I proudly declared myself to be a ‘grown-ass man’ and agreed wholeheartedly that we’d take it one step at a time. The very next day I went to work and learned that I was being laid off. Step one.
WHAT DO YOU SAY TO COMING OVER TODAY?
Rehearsals have been held three times a week in Geoff’s Energy Park basement, which feels like a mix between a child’s playroom and a library. Let me assume you’re a friend of mine who doesn’t know the Velvet Lapelles (though I’m sure the opposite is true). These are the folks I got to know in this basement:
- Geoff Freeman – Drums – A drummer with tremendous musicality. He understands his drum parts as conceptual elements of the overall song (listen for it). He plays with a strong sense of purpose, which becomes easy to read and is why I like to be positioned near him on stage.
- Ashley Boman – Accordion, Bells, Keyboard, Sax, etc – An accordionist with exceptional harmonic sensibility. She provides instrumental melodies and vocal harmonies that perfectly complement Lucy’s. Ashley doesn’t concern herself with what chords everyone else is playing. She plays it by ear and who could argue with it? (Fun Fact: Ashley and I share stage right which we have ceremoniously dubbed ‘Shattley Palace’.)
- Eamonn McLain – Cello – A cellist who makes brilliance seem effortless and who can provide emotional color to a piece at any instant. In a former life he was an acrobat or a gymnast and has retained an excitement for balancing himself on things and standing on his head.
- Liz Draper – Bass, Keyboard – A versatile bass badass who truly loves her instrument. Liz plays with an appreciation for tradition while imbuing her own sensitivities into her performance. Liz had been playing upright bass with the band for only a few months before I joined. I first knew Liz as the bassist of the Cactus Blossoms.
- Jesse Schuster – Bass, Guitar – On either guitar or bass Jesse plays with ease and great character. He has a keen mind for arrangement and is the guy who always knows what is technically going on in every song. When I have a question, he has the answer. He isn’t always around because he also performs and tours with his lady friend, Caroline Smith.
- Lucy Michelle – Vox, Uke – Writer of ditties that magically become symphonies before your very ears. Heartfelt, optimistic, honest lyricist. Lou Reed often says that he sings as if he’s singing in the same room directly to you personally. Lucy does that too, only she has a really pretty voice.
So then I show up for at practice at Geoff’s house…
- Matt Latterell – Guitar – Socially anxious mumbler. Eternally nervous and fidgety. Requires frequent encouragement. (Plug: I’m also a songwriter. Look me up.)
…and I learn that it isn’t just a matter of showing up and playing my parts. Clearly, this band has a lot of members but ‘and-the-Velvet-Lapelles’ doesn’t make it a dictatorship. It’s an animal, evolved by organic process. Sonically and psychically, I would have to find my place.
Though I first met the band through the annual Big Trouble/Velvet Lapelles Valentine’s Day show, I do have an earlier memory of the first time I heard their name. They’d just been dubbed the Twin Cities’ best new band in the 2008 Picked to Click issue of City Pages. I don’t remember who said it but someone at the time complained, “They just won because they’re cutesy!” For a Picked to Click honoree to receive such scorn is not unique. Let me assure whoever said it, though, they’ve long since been proven wrong.
The rehearsals I’ve attended have been host to the most thoughtful, involved musical discussions of any other rehearsal I’ve been at in fifteen years. Debates, disagreements, compromises occur. Ideas are kicked around. New things are tried. We talk about feelings. Everyone knows how to give each other space, stepping up to the plate when it’s right. This established chemistry was intimidating. Fortunately it didn’t take long before I felt part of the process.
BUT IN A WAY IT FELT SO RIGHT
My first show with the band was March 30th at a joint called the Aquarium in Fargo, ND. I had not been to Fargo since I was a little kid. For some reason I had this odd memory of it being a sort of grid of corn elevators with a Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s in the middle. What the hell am I thinking of?
The Aquarium is a venue perhaps slightly larger than the 7th Street Entry. Geoff and I were impressed to see a wall of posters from other Minneapolis bands that had played the room prior. As we loaded in the sound man was playing the space-rock band, Zombi, which made me feel right at home. They treated us like kings/queens and made us a really great sauerkraut and green olive pizza.
Our set was performed at breakneck speed. The crowd didn’t mind. They were, in fact, one of the kindest and most attentive crowds I’ve been in front of. That day the NDSU Spectrum ran a well-researched piece about our stop, in which I learned that it was the band’s first ever visit to Fargo. Despite this, the Lapelles had somehow already generated a fan base of very sweet and enthusiastic people who yelled for us to play “Monsters” and asked for autographs. (UPDATE: Ashley informed me this was actually the band’s third time playing Fargo. I have chosen not to revise because I’m more attached to the legend.)
We stayed in a hotel after the show. Geoff and Eamonn shared one bed, leaving me to sleep alone in the other. I’m still insulted about this. The next morning I ran around like Paul Revere to warn the others that the hotel staff was about to clean up the continental breakfast. The band filed out in pajamas and cleaned it up for them. Lucy and I split duty driving home to Minneapolis. While she drove I took over the radio and forced everyone to listen to Scott Walker, Loudon Wainwright III and a horrible Van Morrison song about ringworm. I will always have fond memories of this first outing with Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles.
BURNING HOT AND FLYING THROUGH THE ATMOSPHERE
The record release for HEAT was on April 20th at First Ave. Cory Chisel & the Wondering Sons and Communist Daughter opened. For weeks we prepared for it, but if I may speak for myself, I could never have prepared for how many people were there. It was nuts.
Let me recognize here that the night surely meant more to the Lapelles who wrote the album, arranged it and spent weeks in Brooklyn recording it. I hope they felt a real sense of accomplishment as the screen was raised, revealing a very full house. I hope all those folks bought the album and I hope they’re all sitting in tiny little rooms eating peanut-buttered toast, drinking white wine and enjoying it. I know I have been.
The week before the show there was much positivity. We played an in-studio on the Current with Barb Abney. Downtown St. Paul is a construction warzone, so we crawled through with amps, accordions and ukuleles just to roll around on the studio floor. Cults had recorded an in-studio just before us. Barb was a sweetheart. She shared all the great radio secrets and tried not to sneeze during one of our songs, even though she really, really had to.
Also that week, I tagged along for a shopping trip with Lucy and Geoff to Uptown for stage wear. I tried on a short-sleeved, one-piece janitor uniform but it was too short, making it a real pain in the crotch. Too Village People anyway. I also considered a stupid-low v-neck tee but Lucy promised me I would regret it. Geoff quickly found an all-white outfit out of a George Michael video. We hit up a mall café where he ordered an iced coffee. I copied his move. He then changed his mind and got an iced Americano. I couldn’t copy a second move. I was stuck with iced coffee (the more expensive of the two) while he went on and on about how, “Iced Americano really is the greatest drink.” What a jerk.
We knew our input list for the show was outrageous and were slightly self-conscious about it. Two upright basses, two electric basses, four horns, auxiliary percussion, etc… This added an element of stress to the sound check that Nirvana never experienced. Standing on stage at First Ave is undeniably amazing though. On the door from the parking area is written in marker, “PRINCE WALKED THROUGH THIS DOOR 07/07/07”. It’s a thrill just to carry your guitar onto the stage.
After sound check we crowded around a table for four at the Depot and fretted over things that didn’t matter anyway. Soon the doors were open and in no time at all, there were people. All kinds of people. A friend of mine who I hadn’t seen since high school was there. A girl I flaked out of a second date with was there (not impressed, I’m sure). Our families were there. Communist Daughter was backstage, looking so cool. The infamous dancing madman, Rupert, arrived with his own photography unit. Ashley’s sister was there to paint half my face blue. Someone told me afterwards that they thought it was an unfortunate birthmark. I thought it was sweet.
Suddenly we found ourselves onstage in the Mainroom at First Ave.
For an hour and a half I got to play music with my friends.
HOLD ON TIGHT
That’s my story so far. I’m a junior Lapelle and a fan so I was allowed to say all those flattering things. As the HEAT tour gets underway the others will be blogging here too, I think. If they don’t get around to it I’ll keep you in the loop. It’s going to be a wild summer.
(pssst…there’s a great photo album from the First Ave show here, though I seem to be suspiciously absent from it)-Matt Latterell 4/23/12