Smile Politely

A motley crew

Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band is a band on the rise, signed to Dead Oceans and featured in a variety of print publications from Spin to Teen Vogue over the past year. They’re playing tonight in the Pygmalion Music Festival opening show at Canopy Club. The evening starts at 8:30 with Common Loon, followed by (in order): MSHVB, Owen, Japandroids, Headlights, and closing out with the Physical Challenge DJ’s at 1 a.m. Festival passes are sold out, but tickets to this one are just eight bucks at the door.

I spoke to Benjamin Verdoes, the head Mt. St. Helenser, a couple of weeks ago before they headed out on tour. He spoke about having his 14-year-old adopted brother, Marshall, in the band (he’s the drummer), as well as their last C-U show, this past spring at the Courtyard, when men in suits ran on stage screaming. Read on, won’t you?

Smile Politely: So you guys are taking sort of a northern route for your tour, mostly in Canada on your way to the Midwest?

Benjamin Verdoes: Yeah, we’re pretty excited about that. On the one hand, you get sort of used to the cities that you normally go to, just the familiarity of it. But one of the perks of being in a band and touring is to go places that you wouldn’t normally go, and see cities in Canada that I probably never would have gone to. And just by virtue of playing with a Canadian band, you play in venues that you wouldn’t normally play at.

SP: Cool. You’re touring with Japandroids, is that right?

BV: Yeah. Almost all of our tour is with them.

SP: OK, I didn’t realize they were Canadian. Where are they from?

BV: I believe they’re from B.C., from Vancouver.

SP: So, you’re both from the Pacific Northwest, and both on a record labels in Indiana, that seems sort of random. [Ed. note: I thought Japandroids were on Secretly Canadian, when actually they are overtly Canadian, but on Polyvinyl, which is of course based in Champaign. I’m a moron. Let’s just move on…]

BV: Yeah, that’s funny. Polyvinyl’s somewhere out there, and Dead Oceans has some connection with Secretly Canadian. That’s a really good connection.

SP: All right, I have to ask the obligatory question about your 14-year-old adopted brother [Marshall] being the band’s drummer. What’s that like?

BV: It’s going really well, other than just the challenges of doing home-school, and being on the road and adjusting to that. It’s hard for adults to do, so he does a really good job. It’s definitely an interesting and unique situation, and I certainly would have guessed that it would have ended up being this way.

SP: I was reading an earlier interview where your mom lives in Wisconsin and you guys all live out in Seattle now. So, does Marshall live with you?

BV: Marshall stays with Tracey and Ale, almost exclusively. And my mom actually lives nearby, less than an hour away, so we actually stay in pretty close contact with her. We moved to Wisconsin as a family for a couple years when I was in high school, and then we ended up moving back. So it was when we moved back that Marshall ended up staying with me.

SP: So, you’ve also appeared in both Spin and Teen Vogue in the last year, that’s got to be a pretty interesting combination for most bands too, I would think.

BV: We’ve had a real variety of different press outlets, and we’ve had a pretty good reception in the past, which is really encouraging.

SP: You have have some unique instrumentation in your music, like glockenspiel, etc. How did you settle on what instruments compose your sound?

BV: I play drums, too, and Marshall and I would work on drum parts a lot, so sometimes we’d write overlapping drum parts, or we’d want to combine that. We’d do that or Tracey would play something. And the glockenspiel, she moves around a lot, so it’s a real easy to transport and move around on stage. Our guitarist now, plays these old analog keyboards, and he’s kind of creating this little fort, keeps getting bigger. Jared and I have been playing in a band together for a long time, and I think over time of playing in a band, you create these different instruments and different ideas for arrangements, and we just try to keep it interesting.

SP: Does having a teenage drummer cause problems with venues, places he couldn’t get into, things like that?

BV: Most of the issues have been that certain venues have been less hospitable. Most of them are really cool, and our booking agent gives them the information and says, hey, this kid’s really young. Usually, the problem would be that they’re not used to it and they’re not that excited about it. If they’re really small and they don’t have a green room to accommodate us, so sometimes we’ll have to hang out in the van or hang out in a restaurant and stuff, and then he’ll come in and play, and one of us will hang out with him afterwards and stuff.

SP: Can I ask a little bit about how the name for the band came about? It’s a bit of a mouthful.

BV: Basically, the band started that Marshall and I started playing together to teach him to to play, and it was something we could connect on. I was in another band, and he really wanted to start a band, and I said, “OK, if you learn drums, we can start one, too.” It was really fun, and I thought he was doing really well, so I said, “You can name the band whatever you want.” So, he was 11 at the time and he just blurted out some ridiculous thing, and that’s fine. It was something that wouldn’t have come out of an adult’s mind – it’s a really random sequence of words, but I thought it was interesting and thought-provoking. So I was like, “Whatever, man. Sounds good.”

SP: What’s the weirdest reaction you’ve gotten to the name, or the strangest misunderstanding?

BV: Yeah, we’ve had people try to give it a thorough analysis. I’m trying to think of some that people have been really off on. Someone said that they thought it was a group of Vietnamese people that lived at the base of Mt. St. Helen’s, and that’s how we put it together. The best thing that someone said about it was, when I talked to an old friend about it, was that both of those things were disasters, and it was descriptive of perhaps, at times, how we feel about things. There’s no right answer. It comes from deep in the mind of an 11-year-old.

SP: “From the mouths of babes,” or whatever.

BV: Totally, totally.

SP: You guys just played the Courtyard last spring. Any recollections or first impressions of the town?

BV: I really like the town. It was a funny show, because we played at the university and they were having a meeting, like an executive’s meeting upstairs, and some guy in a suit and tie came running out onstage and started screaming at us while we were playing. So we stopped for like 15 or 20 minutes, and talked to the kind of quaint audience that was there.

SP: Yeah, hopefully they won’t double-book the venue this time.

BV: That would be awesome [laughs]. It won’t be as dramatic, but probably better for the continuity.

SP: And you should get a better turnout. Pygmalion is usually really well-attended. Anything else you wanted to talk about?

BV: Well, we’re really excited about the tour, and then when we get back we’re going to record an album, shooting for next spring on that.

SP: I forgot to ask about the vests. Are you guys still rocking the vests onstage?

BV: No, we’ve actually abandoned the vests. We made it almost to our first anniversary, and we’re trying to change it up a little. We’re going to transition into something different. We don’t really have uniforms proper anymore, but we have thought about the possibility of making new ones or doing something different, but we’re playing it by ear.

SP: Yeah, you don’t want to get typecast as the vest band.

BV: And it’s impossible when you’re touring. They get stinky, and you grow to loathe them. Once we decided that we were officially disinterested in them, we decided for one show that we weren’t going to wear them. At that point, we could never put them on again.

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