Verbena returns after four years with La Musica Negra
On the phone from his home in Alabama, Scott Bondy is talking trash about emo. "You're not too old for emo," he tells me after he finds out that, at 28, I'm two years younger than him. "You're too good for emo." He elaborates: "I mean, singing about your girlfriend all the fucking time is just really not cool."
Bondy, the lead singer/guitarist for the power-rock trio Verbena, is on a press junket to promote his group's new studio album, La Musica Negra, the first recorded material to surface since 1999's Dave Grohl-produced Into the Pink. Which, by the way, is an album he's not real fond of: "Some albums you can be angry with, but that album ... it was angry at you."
Into the Pink never yielded any commercial radio "hits," but songs like "Baby Got Shot" and "Bang Bang" laid a framework that many critics said rested too close to the ground Nirvana had trod. As Bondy notes, "Pop culture's collective memory is short enough that the Vines aren't getting nailed for their Nirvana influence. Now it's almost considered 'cool,' but back then, it was too tender of a subject."
That Grohl produced the album, too, became a focal point for critics, as did, of all things, Bondy's hair color (at the time Into the Pink was released, he was sporting the Kurt Cobain bleached-blond look).
"I don't even listen to that record anymore," Bondy says. "It doesn't make me happy. I really couldn't tell you why, because I wasn't unhappy during the writing process, but it feels like I'm wearing someone else's clothes. It wasn't like it was some commercial attempt to make a radio-ready record, either. It sounded more like a tribute to all our favorite punk bands."
Into the Pink and its subsequent fallout are clearly sore spots for Bondy. As if the Nirvana comparisons weren't enough, tumultuous personnel changes both within the band and at Capitol Records, the band's label, forced Verbena into hibernation for nearly four years.
"We were in a holding pattern," Bondy says. "Another thing is, we didn't get 'dropped' by the label. It just seemed like the last record was a cerebral event, an attempt to create this ultimate primal rock song, which seems kind of ridiculous ... those kinds of things tend to be over-thinking in general, unless you're Tom Waits."
The band started recording La Musica Negra two years after Into the Pink, but like a bad novel, it was just one thing after another. The band started with a production team that wasn't honest about what it thought Verbena was, and how much it liked the band, which made the studio a "horrible experience," Bondy says. "The process of choosing a producer is difficult, and producers in general are kind of eccentric. I felt like we went with our gut the first time, but they just wanted a job, and it showed."
Also during this time singer/guitarist Ann Marie Griffin left the band. Despite the tumult, the follow-up was finished in the fall of 2001, but neither the band nor the label liked the result, and so Verbena regrouped. Some hard decisions followed, and Bondy says he realized being on a major label brings with it a set of responsibilities he'd never even contemplated.
"The stakes are so much higher and you're just not used to it," he says. "You've gotten money, but then you're in debt; there are accounting firms who want to handle your business ... There's more and more money, but you're not handling your own business. They keep you like an adolescent, and that's how they control you."
So, with Capitol's blessing, Verbena scrapped the entire record and started over. Though the group intended only to record five songs during the second go-round, the process started to click, and on May 20, Capitol will release La Musica Negra, an album Bondy is infinitely more comfortable with, both sonically and personally.
"I didn't want this album to be as dark, or be compared to Nirvana again," Bondy says. "We were all coming from a happier place. On Into the Pink, there was an absence of color, unless you count gray or black as a color. This record is a lot more colorful."
Though hints of the dark power of Into the Pink surface on new songs like "Way Out West," Verbena has spread its wings with ballads like "All the Saints" and bluesy swingers like "I, Pistol." Taking a more worldly approach and concentrating less on form and more on feel, Verbena has made an album that captures the feeling of spontaneous creation and realization.
One of the album's strongest songs, "Camellia," finds Bondy repeating "Hallelujah" like a mantra. Several of the album's other songs flirt with themes of funerals, religious imagery and life's little struggles in a very rock and roll context, the way the Stones flirted with the devil and Bob Dylan and Neil Young locked horns with the deeper meaning of life.
In a very real way, La Musica Negra is about recapturing your faith and triumphing over adversity. It's a Southern album, steeped in the mystery and excitement of humid nights, raw passion and crazy folk, told in the language of distorted guitars, strung-out vocals and deep rhythms.
"Everyone down here has a crazy story; it just seeps into people's lives," Bondy says of living in Alabama. "People here seem much more into preserving their way of life, especially in smaller towns."
And that sits fine with Bondy, who was brought up on the music of Led Zeppelin and CCR and finds most of what passes for rock and roll these days to be a pale shadow of the 1960s and 1970s.
"When 28 million people buy the Alanis Morissette record and you don't own it," he says, "you know you don't have much in common with the mass population."