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Verbena : Down in the Rabbit Hole

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: May 21, 2003

w/ Full Blown Rose, Ideal Cleaners
Sunday, May 25
Sokol Underground

13th and Martha


Verbena frontman Scott Bondy likes to stay close to his roots.

Despite the major-label requirements of being available for the Los Angeles big-wigs on a moment's notice, Bondy splits his life between the West Coast and his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

"I think it's pretty important to be someplace where you know where everything is," he said via phone from San Francisco during a break in the band's current tour. "I'm not cut out for a place like New York. I can't operate at a pace that makes you invisible. I don't need to be inundated with noise."

Being near his family is one reason he stays connected to a town that Bondy says is similar to Omaha, with a population of about a half-million and a downtown with three or four tall buildings. But just as important is staying entrenched in a world lost in its own history, and that has no interest in forgetting it.

"The South is one of the last places as far as I know where they try to preserve their way of life," Bondy said. "They don't want strip malls, or maybe the strip malls don't want them. It's just darker and weirder to me."



That dark, weird world permeates the band's new album, La Musica Negra, released May 20 by Capitol Records. Comprised of modern-day roadhouse rock, the CD has its roots in Delta Blues and indie grunge. The opener, "Way Out West," is the kind of track that would fade-in during that montage sequence in the movie when the two heroes and their one fine babe are driving cross country in a late-'70s Dodge muscle car, pouring beer on their bodies and shooting guns out the window, laughing at the world. It's all rock attitude, with its chugga-chug guitars and slurred vocals, taunting "I'm letting the good times roll, down in the rabbit hole."

The whole CD has a weary, sordid, smeared-grease-on-chrome feel to it. The songs are hangover memories spiked with cigarette headaches and bad breath. The lyrics are about cheating the world and the devil, while looking toward Jesus with burning remorse, guilt or unexpected loneliness.

"I, Pistol" sounds like Beck if Beck decided he wanted to rock instead of just roll, mainly because Bondy has a gritty Beckian voice. It also helps to have Rob Schnapf (Beck, GBV, Elliott Smith, The Vines) behind the knobs in the studio. Other times ("It's Alright, It's Okay (Jesus Told Me So,)") it sounds like grunt rock that hasn't been heard since Urge Overkill was doing it right in the '90s.

It's not all rock braying. They mix things up with slower ballads like "Camella" and "Dirty Goodbyes" that manage to hold the power and your attention despite the down-shift. Through it all Verbena keeps its stark, rust-belt identity firmly in tact, though their infectious guitar riffs and driving rhythm section could make them the next Stone Temple Pilots or Foo Fighters.

Bondy said La Musica Negra was the product of the band's own determination to get it right, having thrown away their first studio efforts. "We made a record and scrapped it with the label's blessing," he said. "We all agreed that it shouldn't come out, but we had no idea what we were going to do."

That's when the trio, which includes Les Nuby on drums and Nick Daviston on bass, enlisted Schnapf, who Bondy says understood where the band wanted to go. Fans of Delta Blues (Bondy says he lives only a hours from where Fat Possum Records does business), Verbena makes no qualms about building its sound from the music that came before it.

"We have a rich sense of the bands that we come from," he said. "The story goes that rock and roll is supposed to eat its young, but how can you start a band and not know what came before you? If you want to throw out the blues and become a no-wave band, then that might work, but for someone like us, the last two records are almost classical in how we approached them."


"After six years and three label presidents, the fact that we're still on Capitol is ridiculous."

"When 28 million people buy an Alanis Morissette record, it makes me feel disconnected from humanity."



Verbena got its start on indie label Merge Records (Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon) back in 1997 with its debut, Souls for Sale, but quickly jumped to a major for their '99 release, the Dave Grohl-produced Into the Pink. Bondy has few allusions about being on a major-label.

"There's a lot more fights," he said. "But they leave us alone in the studio and don't make us do remixes -- they know better than to use that methodology with us. After six years and three label presidents, the fact that we're still on Capitol is ridiculous. There are bands that have sold 10 times as many records as we have that have been canned. Someone there must like us, or we're just a cover for a money-laundering scheme."

The fact that Capitol holds on to Verbena is even more curious considering the commercial music scene is something of a mystery to Bondy. "I don't really understand what's going on," he said. "When 28 million people buy an Alanis Morissette record, it makes me feel disconnected from humanity.

"I don't think we've ever really fit in with any trend. We're a weird time capsule band. The things we do are heavily rooted in things that have been around a while. If film makers can figure out new ways to tell stories, so can bands. When we started out, we were trying to come up with a new vernacular until we realized you don't have to sound new to be new. You can still use the same methods to tell a story. You don't have to be My Bloody Valentine for people to be interested in you."

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Portions published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader May 21, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.