Interview: The Verve Pipe embraces fate on new album ‘Threads’

The Verve Pipe, Brian Vander Ark

The Verve Pipe, courtesy Jamie Geysbeek.

On the day this conversation was first supposed to happen, The Verve Pipe vocalist and bandleader Brian Vander Ark was driving to guitarist Lou Musa’s house in Western Michigan so that the two could both participate. Maybe it was fate, then, that Vander Ark’s car was hit by another driver, who then tried to drive away, ruining the rest of his day.

The Verve Pipe
Self-released, Nov. 5

“I had to chase her down and get her license plate! Then waited for the cops,” Vander Ark said a day later, now in North Carolina for a Verve Pipe show. He was shaken up, but otherwise unhurt. “It was a mess, the whole thing.”

The Verve Pipe is about to release its ninth album, Threads, which Vander Ark has described as being heavily connected to the idea of fate and its role in our lives. The name, thought up by new bandmember Channing Lee, comes from a Japanese proverb about people being connected to each other by holding one end of a red thread of fate, which bends and stretches, but never breaks. The songs themselves are about love, addiction, abuse and the yearning for something bigger, which comprise humanity’s experiences. To Vander Ark, fate is a force for good.

“I’ve always thought of fate in an upbeat and positive light,” he said. “Some people feel helpless when it comes to fate. Like, ‘What’s the point? … What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen.’ I don’t look at it that way. I look at it as you have to take advantage of [what] we have. And though your path may be already predestined, I think it’s all about the ride and the process along the way.

“That’s the important thing I’ve learned with music: It’s all about the process and not so much about the end result,” the Grand Rapids, Mich. native added. “I feel optimistic. Listen, it’s been great for me so far. I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I came from a small town, … I played music when I was 16 years old, then joined the Army and came back and got into music seriously. I’ve done plenty of things. I’ve been able to play ‘Leno’ and ‘Letterman,’ I married a beautiful woman. If all that is my fate, then wonderful! Take me wherever you like!”

The Verve Pipe has indeed seen some heights, mostly early in the band’s history. After forming the band in 1992 with his bassist brother, Brad Vander Ark, the band signed with RCA Records in 1995 and struck gold with 1996 sophomore album Villains, which contained the hits “Photograph” and “The Freshman,” which reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.

A third, self-titled album in 1999 proved to be a disappointment. Vander Ark called it a left turn that the band shouldn’t have made back then, coming off the success of Villains. A 2001 record, Underneath, had a couple of songs featured on film soundtracks (to “Rock Star” and “Joe Somebody”) but had the misfortune of being released the week of 9/11.

“It really was an awful time to try to promote anything,” Vander Ark said. “We put our heart and soul [into it], working with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, who was just a genius. We finally got to work with a producer that we wanted and he did such great work. … But the timing of the release was terrible, and we got dropped by the label. We went into a funk and we needed to get back in the studio.”

That brought on a two-album stint making children’s albums. After they were approached about contributing one song to a compilation album, Brian Vander Ark and then-drummer Donny Brown competed to see who could write the best one. Each wrote two, and the band decided to write six more and release its own kids’ album in 2009; then another in 2013.

“And our kids’ albums outsell our adult albums, which is crazy. It’s nuts,” Vander Ark said. “At least the new ones. Villains is up to three and a half million or something [units sold].”

Vander Ark had plans for a third children’s album; it would be a conceptual piece, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, except for kids, but he made it only halfway through.

“I was spending so much time toiling over these ideas and these concepts that it was, like, ‘What am I doing? It’s going to go over every kid’s head … and it might upset a parent or two,’” he said. “It was just the wrong thing to do. And another thing I did one time was at a kids’ show… I said something like, ‘I want all you mother-fathers to get out there and buy our CD!’ I just saw the parents [gasp]. And I thought, ‘OK, I might be done with this for a while.’”

Two more albums followed: 2014’s Overboard and 2017’s Parachute. By that point, the band had been through numerous lineup changes. Perhaps the most notable was the departure of Brad Vander Ark more than two decades prior. His departure was not due to some brotherly spat, but rather the conflict was between the bassist and Danny Brown, the drummer.

“To be frank about it … we had a great rhythm section with Danny Brown and Brad, but they were oil and water,” Brian Vander Ark said. “It was the weirdest thing. Off stage, they were terrible together. They didn’t get along; they didn’t see eye to eye on things. Whether that angst came across on stage—where they tried to out-play each other or whatever—but they were great together onstage.”

Brad Vander Ark left in 2001. Since that time, the two brothers had only performed at concerts a few times together, primarily at the bandleader’s solo shows.

But Brad Vander Ark is now officially back with the Verve Pipe. The band’s two-time bassist, Joel Ferguson, decided to step down from performing and concentrate on producing, which created the opportunity.

“So Brad came back, and it’s been really exciting,” Brian Vander Ark said. “I love my brother. It’s nice to play with him again.”

The band now also includes keyboardist Randy Sly, drummer Zach Dubay and vocalist and songwriter Channing Lee, whom Vander Ark met years ago in Nashville. He said he hit it off with her right away because the two share a similar quirky sense of songwriting and storytelling. The band’s previous drummer used to sing the high harmonies to Vander Ark’s vocals, so he asked Lee to step in for him at shows.

Then Lee more than proved her worth when the bandleader needed help with the most difficult song on the album, “The Freeze,” which was inspired by the USA Gymnastics scandal and disgraced former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, who’s been convicted of raping numerous young gymnasts.

“I couldn’t write it and sing it from a female’s perspective. It would be wrong. It would be me mansplaining what sexual assault is,” Vander Ark said. So he asked Lee to help him complete the song. “And then we figured I can’t sing it; let’s have Channing sing it. Once we did that and added the lower harmony throughout, it was a Simon-and-Garfunkel-esque sound. We thought, ‘Wow, we can do this for an entire album; it would be great.’ … Then it was three years of writing together and getting the song exactly the way we wanted it.”

Working on that song together proved instrumental in Lee joining the Verve Pipe as a full member. After finishing “The Freeze,” Vander Ark gave her another song he had started but was struggling with. That turned into “Found,” which is also on the album. There was another, and another after that, and soon she was coming to him with song ideas that he was contributing to.

“We both know the importance of the lyrics,” he said. “Musically, I [was] a big fan of prog rock, growing up. I love tempo changes, I love harmonies. I’m a big XTC fan. Andy Partridge is just my hero. So, very fun lyrics, play on words, bully-the-English-language kind of thing. And she comes from the same school.”

But, why a song about Larry Nassar?

The song came out of Vander Ark challenging himself to write outside of his comfort zone as well as to pay attention to the world around him and to avoid the same tropes. The band had already recorded about 100 songs, and he felt like he was running out of things to say.

“You know, your first album you have 20, 25 years to come up with ideas for your songs,” he said. “But once you get to my point, in your 50s, that’s where it could go south for you. If you just visit the same themes over and over and over, it becomes derivative and boring for people, boring for me.”

He’s shared the song with Verve Pipe Patreon supporters, and it’s been their favorite from the new album, he said.

It’s not the first (or second, or third) time the Verve Pipe has delved into dark thematic subject matter. Many people who sang along to “The Freshman” in the ‘90s have yet to realize that the band’s biggest hit is about two high school boys who took advantage of a classmate; the first who convinced her to get an abortion, and the second who also left her, causing her to overdose and die. In the song, which is based on an actual experience but is heavily fictionalized, both boys blame the girl for falling in love with them “in the first place.”

Brian Vander Ark that he still has to explain the meaning of the song regularly, just like he routinely hears from people—like this writer—that they were a freshman when the song was still playing on the radio.

Because of his two daughters, he said, he’s been getting into TikTok, where he’s discovered a trend of people acknowledging that they sang their hearts out with the song without truly understanding the story.

“It’s pretty funny, but it was impactful, and isn’t that why we’re here as artists—to make some sort of impact?” he said. “We had a really great, really positive but dramatic impact on the world with that song, with the lyrical content. There really wasn’t anything like it that was a linear story back then when it came out. We were kind of an anomaly. It was nice that people can look back at that time.”

Leading up to the release of Threads, the Verve Pipe released two singles. The songwriter has described “No One’s Gonna Break This Heart (Again)” as being about building armor to protect ourselves, and how that armor may block us from finding love—or delay fate—again. The nostalgic-sounding “Forever Reaching,” meanwhile, directly references the crimson thread that connects everyone.

“Every one of these songs is connected thematically,” Vander Ark said, adding that the album is again a left turn from the band’s previous album, but that this left turn feels like a right one to make now. Listeners seem to like the songs, while the Verve Pipe is having more fun on stage.

“It’s hard to be against [us] and pine for the ‘90s when you see the band flourishing on stage as musicians and putting on the shows of our lives every night,” he added. “We want to be entertaining; we entertain each other, and so I feel people cheering us on. It’s a nice feeling.”

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *