Ranking among the best indie rock records of recent memory is one you may never hear, by a band that remains mostly unknown. Santa Rosa, Calif.,-based group The Velvet Teen released Cum Laude a few months ago, though it barely made a blip on the radar. The reviews have been favorable but few. Nevertheless, the album is a staggeringly ambitious effort.
“Pretty much every album we put out attracts less and less people,” says Nagler, Velvet Teen’s singer, keyboardist and guitarist. “I think it’s because we don’t give casual listeners much to listen to,” he says.
That much is true. Cum Laude is visceral post-punk for intellectuals, reminiscent of math rock quartet June of ’44 and, to a lesser extent, early Radiohead and Shellac. Nagler pens lyrics like “How can we ever expect we’re getting out / when we can’t even see what we’re inside,” then wails them in a disaffected tenor over a mountain of keyboards, dense guitar riffs and Casey Dietz’ impeccable, often off-kilter drumming. Cum Laude is progressive rock for punks. In short, The Velvet Teen’s overall sound is nothing that approaches mass appeal.
But, in adhering to one of those great rock music clichés, Nagler assures me the band is big in Japan.
“That was kind of a surprise,” he says, six years after forming The Velvet Teen (which has toured the island nation numerous times). “It’s not like we’re huge over there, but it’d be like concentrating all of our fans in America on one small island.” Case in point: After one particularly rough gig, Nagler recalls, he found more than 50 fans standing around the venue, waiting for autographs.
There are other odd indications of their success as well. The band’s first full-length record, Out of the Fierce Parade, was produced by Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla. Labels courted them. The Velvet Teen became one of the “it” bands of 2002. But after deciding to self-produce follow-up album Elysium, a piano-centric affair with nary a hint of hit singles, the band made it clear that they wanted to maintain their independence.
As evidence of this, much of Cum Laude was recorded near the band’s home in Petaluma, Calif., in a grapefruit seed extract factory where bassist Josh Staples works. “We recorded the rhythm track there,” says singer Nagler. “It has a high school basketball gym-sized room we used for the drums.”
They have the luxury of doing what they want, when they want, without kowtowing to others’ expectations. When they feel like touring, they do. Thankfully, Nagler says, “We have certain friends who are doing well and can help us,” such as current tourmates Minus the Bear. “We’ve seen a dip but there are good things in the works,” he says, adding casually, “plus, I’m playing with my favorite people in the world.”