Artist: For The Verve Pipe’s Vander Ark, success wasn’t normal

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Benjamin Weatherston, The Ann’s photo wizard, recently sat down with Brian Vander Ark of Grand Rapids, who had just played a kids’ concert at the Michigan Theater. Vander Ark was formerly lead singer of The Verve Pipe, which had a hit single, “The Freshmen,” in the late ’90s.

Brian Vander Ark by Benjamin Weatherston

Brian Vander Ark by Benjamin Weatherston

Ben: Has music always been a part of your life?
Brian:  As much as anyone else that grew up with little TV in the 70’s.  I remember the year end countdown was important enough for me to make a poster of the top 40 of the year, with my own little notes of whether I liked the song or not.  ’76 was a stellar one, if I remember correctly.  Love Will Keep Us Together, Rhinestone Cowboy?  C’mon! AWESOME. My tastes changed quite a bit in high school thank god.

Ben: When I listen to The Verve Pipe songs, it seems like they were wasted on the graduating class of 1996. Do you feel like there was a maturity in your songwriting that kind of went unnoticed by the record label’s target market?
Brian: Sure, of course.  I was aware (and still am) that those fans of the Freshmen were and are fleeting.  The real fans are the ones that buy the solo albums I think, though many claim to NOT like TVP.  That’s a sonic issue I think.  The solo stuff is more folk rock, finger picking acoustic guitar stuff.  TVP was about the heavy guitars and solos, harsher vocals, etc.  But strip all of that away, and I like to think people would appreciate the melody and lyric.

Ben: Did the Verve Pipe’s success seem normal at the time?
Brian: NORMAL?  haha.  It was anything but – but I will say, in a very arrogant way, i expected it.  I was an asshole.  But most bands think the “have it” and it’s just a matter of time until they are discovered.  They have no idea how hard it is once you get there.  If you aren’t a priority at the label, you’re fucked.

The Verve Pipe photo by Benjamin Weatherston

The Verve Pipe photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Ben: How did you process life after a hit #1 single and platinum album?
Brian:  Well I couldn’t sit still and enjoy it.  That sucked, in retrospect.  I never had the mai tai on the beach.  It was always “what’s next?  let’s go?  Gotta follow up!” etc.

Ben: Did starting your family naturally evolve into making children’s music?
Brian:   No I don’t think so – it was really by default.  We were asked to write a song for a compilation cd for kids, and after writing a few ideas, I thought ‘well, 6 more ideas, and we have a kid’s record’.

Ben: How was this past Kid’s Concert at the Michigan Theater? Is that a cool venue?
Brian:  Amazing.  I have to say it was up there in the top 5.  really fun and silly, and the response at the end, overwhelming.  Kid’s are often bored after an hour of any activity. The screaming and stomping for an encore? NICE.

Ben: When you were up on stage with your girls you seemed liked a man that was extremely content with your life. Is that equal parts personal and professional satisfaction?
Brian: Absolutely.  I’m happier than I’ve ever been.  I wouldn’t go back and do anything different.  Personally or professionally.

The Verve Pipe at Leon Loft photo by Benjamin Weatherston

The Verve Pipe at Leon Loft photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Ben: When did you get the idea to start doing house concerts and when did you realize it could be a viable way to make a living as a musician?
Brian:  We had just bought a house in a more upscale neighborhood, because we wanted our kids in a great public school.  No way could we have afforded that mortgage on the wages of a songwriter playing in sportsbars and coffee houses.  TVP gigs were few and far between then.  I knew it would be viable of the first weekend –  3 shows in one day?  Why not?  I went from (and still do) city to city on a weekend.  And made great money for the show.  And bigger money in CD sales, because people actually listen at house concerts.

Ben: How did you start working with Channing & Quinn?
Brian:  I saw their video of the Amtrak tour they did – across the country, by train.  I thought it was a great idea – then I heard the music, and the lyrics and THAT VOICE of hers.  Awesome.  Very broadway-esque, which I loved.

Ben: Your blog has some great information and lessons you’ve learned on the road. What first motivated you to start giving advice to other musicians?
Brian:  I’m asked!  ha!  I wouldn’t give out info unless someone asked – seems like a pretentious thing to do otherwise.  “I know stuff you don’t know!  Pay attention to me!!”  That’s not my style.  But I’ve had heart to heart talks with many bands/musicians over the years.  And then it made sense to help them on the path of NOT being a part of “the problem”.

Ben: Ann Arbor has a ton of extremely talented musicians. What would you like them to understand about success?
Brian:  Success starts with the heart.


Leon Loft