VHS or Beta Mixes Genres, Defies Expectations Kentucky's VHS or Beta has evolved from French disco to an '80s-style rock-revival sound. Hear the band perform acoustic versions of songs from its recent Bring on the Comets. Singer Craig Pfunder also relates his experiences as an Asian-American rock singer.
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VHS or Beta Mixes Genres, Defies Expectations

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VHS or Beta Mixes Genres, Defies Expectations

VHS or Beta Mixes Genres, Defies Expectations

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Today, an in-studio performance from the rock group VHS or Beta. They're on tour now promoting their new album, "Bring on the Comets". Now you might hear echoes of '80s British pop rock - the Cure or Duran Duran - but VHS or Beta is actually from Kentucky. Their look and sound defy expectation, mixing genre -ranging from rock to disco to electronic.

With me, in NPR's performance studio 4-A, is the band's lead singer Craig Pfunder and their guitarist Mike McGill. Welcome. Thanks for stopping in.

Mr. CRAIG PFUNDER, (Lead singer, VHS or BETA): Thanks so much for having us.

MARTIN: And before we start our visit, how about a song. Let's do "Can't Believe a Single Word."

Mr. PFUNDER: Sure.

(Soundbite of song "Can't Believe a Single Word."

Mr. PFUNDER: (Singing) Hey you, in the middle of the night with the lights on, did you believe that you could love? Hey you, with your head up in the clouds and your eyes closed, did you ever think we'd grow? Hey you, throwing everything away just to save face, and the silence always shows. Hey you, you can wish it all away in a heartbeat, but is it free? Is it free? Is it free, free, free, free? Don't you stop. Everybody wants you, but you can't say no. If you even try, what you see inside if you could believe it. But you can't believe a single word. I say to you, would you ever want to walk away from here if you really loved. Believe now, whatever you want to believe. But you can't believe a word. I said I can't believe a word. Hey you, still silence in the eyes of the idols, did we believe that you could know? Hey you, doing everything you can just to blend in, what was there to show? One day, we will never know the feeling when it's over, but until I raise my head. Hey you, you could have it all your way like you wanted to set us free, us free, us free, free, free, free. Don't you stop. Everybody wants you, but you can't say no. If you even try, what you see inside if you could believe it. But you can't believe a single word. Said I can't believe a word.

MARTIN: That's Craig Pfunder and Mike McGill of the band VHS or Beta performing the song "Can't Believe a Single Word." It's from their new album "Bring on the Comets."

Craig, I wanted to ask, how did you come up with the name?

Mr. PFUNDER: Our bass player. You know, it was one of those things were - back then, we were, I think we were really opinionated and harder to come by decisions, so the fact that we all agreed on it was like a sure shot for us. You now, it was four out of four. It was unanimous. We went with it. Well, really it was just three words we thought worked together.

MARTIN: Craig, you formed this band in the late '90s. What were you going for?

Mr. PFUNDER: I think we were just kids wanting to play music. I mean, honestly, I think most kids start bands are just excited and youthful and want to express themselves in some sort of way. And when we started the band, we were really into loud punk-rock music, and we're so happy to be doing it. And I guess the records we put out have been a culmination of the past 10 years of us being friends in a band together.

MARTIN: What are you - I'm intrigued by, that you're interested a lot of genre, shall we say? And I mention that you were from Kentucky, but for your first album "Le Funk," you chose to tackle French house music.

Mr. PFUNDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: What's up with that?

Mr. PFUNDER: We fell in love with it. I mean, we truly honestly were like skinny rock kids that fell in love with this dance music right around the time of when "Homework" came out, which I think was '97 by Daft Punk. There was a club night on Wednesday nights in Louisville where you could go down in there'd be resident DJs and 50-cent wild drinks, so, it's kind of hard to beat that when you're, you know, right when you turn 21 and...

Mr. MIKE McGILL (Guitarist, VHS OR BETA): Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, we'll go with that.

Mr. McGILL: He has…

MARTIN: Oh, right, when your IDs get really good.

Mr. PFUNDER: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. Okay.

Mr. McGILL: Well, the attitude of parties and rave seems so different than what we were used to with Indie rocks, you know, the scene, it was, so like who's who and that was so cool it just go to a night club that's dark and you can't see anyone's face and just listen to music for the sake of listening to music that you like. And it was genuinely something that we all really felt at the same time. So…

MARTIN: I like to play a little bit from your track, "Teenage Dancefloor," let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song "Teenage Dancefloor")

MARTIN: I'm feeling younger all the time.

Mr. PFUNDER: Yeah, that's - yeah, that's a live track off that record. We were just known at that time for having these sets that would start and then not stop until we were done. We would mix our songs like a DJ would mix a set, so, you know, we would have an hour and 20 minute sets and people would come out and dance all night. It was really great.

MARTIN: Michael, I wanted to ask you how you describe the band's sound and what attracted you to be with the group? You're relatively new to the group.

Mr. McGILL: There's really no description. It's so versatile. I think I heard "Night On Fire" and I heard, I think one track off "Le Funk" and I liked it. And a mutual friend of ours, from My Morning Jacket, we are at a party one night and he was telling me a friend's band needed someone that could play multiple instruments and sing and that, I don't know, he told me what band it was and I liked them already. But, yeah, I mean, as far as describing the band itself, it's just so eclectic from one album to the next.

MARTIN: Can all the guys in the band play multiple instruments?

Mr. PFUNDER: Yeah. Pretty much.

MARTIN: Are you all trained musicians?

Mr. PFUNDER: I was trained by myself.

Mr. McGILL: We're all pretty self-taught musicians.

Mr. PFUNDER: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: Mike mentioned your second album, "Night on Fire," some people say you kind of have an '80s beat to it. Some people say compare it to Duran Duran, I just wonder how you feel about that comparison. I know you're touring with them.

Mr. PFUNDER: yeah. I mean, people need to compartmentalize things, I think. VHS or Beta gets compartmentalized as sometimes like an '80s throwback thing or a Cure/Duran Duran type band, or electro pop sensation. You know, it's like there's a million things you can call it and I can never really concern myself with it because that's the last thing I think about when I'm writing music, so it's okay with me. Duran Duran sold a lot of records, so…

MARTIN: That's okay. Let me play a little bit of "Night on Fire."

(soundbite of song "Night On Fire")

Mr. PFUNDER: (Singing) Two times and back again this is really startin' to grow old. Two times back again we're leaving this behind. And when you hear from you'll know it when it's time. We're listenin' believing that it's true. I feel it, you know I feel it.

MARTIN: That was a little bit of "Night on Fire" from the band VHS or Beta from their previous album of the same name. The band is currently on tour now promoting their new album, "Bring on the Comets." I'm speaking with VHS OR Beta's lead singer, Craig Pfunder, as well as guitarist Mike McGill.

Now, Craig, you were talking about the fact that media people who write about you sometimes feel the need to put you in a box but a lot of artist that way. But if you heard the song on the radio, you might think, oh, this is a bunch of, you know, white English guys. Well, you're English, you're not white.

Mr. PFUNDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're born in Seoul, grew up in Georgia, Maryland, live in Kentucky.

Mr. PFUNDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Now does that surprise people when they see you?

Mr. PFUNDER: There have been reactions where I never thought this Asian, little, skinny kid could be the singer at least, you know? Yeah, I think it's a little weird for people at first but, you know, I mean, if you listen to Sam Cooke, you wouldn't think he was a black man, immediately, I don't think.

MARTIN: I don't know.

Mr. PFUNDER: I don't know. Like having heard it first the basic structure of that music seems very white to me.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. PFUNDER: But he has such like a force of music and I think - I don't know, I just think raising all that stuff seems to be something that people, I don't know, I never thought it like that because I, you know, when I was in middle school, I always thought I was white, because I went to school with all white kids and I was filling out on the bubble test like, what race are you, I was other because I wasn't white and I wasn't Hispanic or black. So back then, you know, in those parts of the '80s, I was, they didn't have an Asian bubble yet. So...

Mr. McGILL: Which is Hispanic?

MARTIN: Is that freeing, in a way? That there wasn't an Asian bubble or…

Mr. PFUNDER: I've just started realizing that I'm Asian, I think. I mean, not really. I mean I know every day I've looked in the mirror and been that, but I America, there's not a huge, huge representation of Asian culture because I don't think those groups of people are reaching out saying they feel like they necessarily need to be heard. You know, like you don't see until maybe recently I've noticed, there are like Asian themed magazines and maybe some stations on like the weird 942 parts of the cable that are like maybe Asian-centric, but…

MARTIN: Well, there are a number of Asian-American musicians who are very prominent in music…

Mr. PFUNDER: There's a few.

MARTIN: …second o the classical music.

Mr. PFUNDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know? I mean, some of the giants of classical music are…

Mr. PFUNDER: Sure.

MARTIN: …you know, have Asian-American background but I also wonder if that has its own stereotype as a rock musician, as a guy who's into Indie and all these different genres, so people, they go, you know, where's your violin? I don't know.

Mr. PFUNDER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean there's stereotypes exist for a reason, I think we can all agree with that to a certain extent. And I understand, like, the geeky Asian guy with the bowl cut, that was kind of me when I was in the middle school, I guess. But I still - was trying to listen to like AC/DC.

MARTIN: But for a lot of rock is about sex appeal.

Mr. PFUNDER: Yeah. Well…

MARTIN: And I wonder if you feel that you get…

Mr. PFUNDER: Maybe that's why we're still not big.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McGILL: I think you're pretty sexy.

MARTIN: Oh, that's okay. I think you're pretty hot.

Mr. PFUNDER: Thanks, guys.

MARTIN: But is that, but I want to ask you if you feel, does that hold you back at all in getting where you want to be and projecting what you want to project? Do you feel there's something you have to fight through?

Mr. PFUNDER: You know I feel like image is part of anything. The way you present yourself is part of anything that you do. But as far as sex appeal, I have no interest in like portraying like the band is some sort of like sexy band, you know? I think there's a way to be classy and still present yourself as like a professional band.

MARTIN: I also read a quote where you said, we're totally Dukes of Hazard.

Mr. PFUNDER: I don't know we're - yeah, probably, because like, you know, we are the, like…

MARTIN: What does that mean?

Mr. PFUNDER: Well, I mean, people are like, you live in Kentucky. I'm like, yeah, we do live in Kentucky and yeah, sometimes we do go out to our keyboard player's dad's house, 45 minutes away and shoot guns and eat like wild game and go fishing. So, yeah, we are part of where we live. I think most people hopefully are a part of what they surround themselves with, like I'm a big fan of Bluegrass. I don't…

MARTIN: Do some, do some, come on.

Mr. PFUNDER: …I don't think there's…

MARTIN: Do some, can you do some Bluegrass, come on, man. Make it happen.

Mr. PFUNDER: Next we go every Monday and play Bluegrass music and there's some great Bluegrass musicians in the area. So, yeah, I think maybe I will start a Bluegrass band. I'll come back and play.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Well, this band, it really is about redefining expectations about what types of genre mixed with other kinds of genre, it's about discovery in a lot of ways, it's about whatever interests to you at the moment, what you're feeling. Have you been able to find the audiences to go along with you on that journey?

Mr. PFUNDER: Yes, and it's hopefully still growing, you know? Our band's path has been somewhat of a hard one. We've - our timing has been oddly off. You know, I think when we put out "Le Funk," it was too early for the people that we're going to buy that record to like it yet because dance music and Indie rock weren't mixing at that point. People were not really accepting it, you know? And by the time "Night on Fire" came out, a lot of its present critics, honestly, were done with the dance rock revival. So, on "Comets," we just didn't care about it anymore. You know, we stopped caring about what people would expect from us or what we should expect our records to sound, like we just wrote these songs out of hearts and that's all we concern ourselves with.

MARTIN: Well, I mentioned that you stopped in on your North American tour. What's next for you guys? What next for the band?

Mr. PFUNDER: We're going to odd places like Hawaii and Europe and Australia and Japan and hopefully back to South America and Mexico. And, so we're going to be doing this, yeah, for quite sometime.

MARTIN: So, you're not busy at all?

Mr. PFUNDER: No, not all.

MARTIN: Yeah. Plenty of free time to work on my Bluegrass album.

Mr. PFUNDER: Exactly.

MARTIN: Okay. I want to ask you to play something from you latest album, "Bring on the Comets." What are you going to play for us?

Mr. PFUNDER: "Burn It All Down?"

Mr. McGILL: Sure.

MARTIN: "Burn It All Down." Okay. Craig Pfunder and Mike McGill, members of the band VHS or Beta, they joined us from NPR's performance studio 4A. Thanks so much for stopping in guys.

Mr. PFUNDER: Thanks for having us.

(Soundbite of song "Burn It All Down")

MR. PFUNDER: (Singing) We will try to waste them, sick and tired of feeling. It's all in the name of hell. We've got to fear it with a good sensation. It's easy come and go. We want something. Well, everyone wants something everyone's got to believe. We take you to it with nothing else to do but live the life, it's all a lie. We burn the flags, burn the house, burn the churches, burn it all down. We burn the streets, burn the trees, burn the lessons, burn it all down. We burn the flags, burn the house, burn the churches, burn it all down.

We burn the signs, burn the saints, burn the sinners, burn the whole thing down, down, down. Burn it all down. We pay with riches, we take the stitches out of our wounded eyes. Install the masses with cynical retraction in all your coded lies. We can't function, well, no one here can function. No one can even speak. I hear the bombs, one million silent bombs. I close my eyes, I close my eyes. I'll bring the bread and you'll bring the wine. This party's over, one last time. Burn it all down. We burn the flags, burn the house, burn the churches, burn it all down. We burn the streets, burn the trees, burn the lessons, burn it all down. We burn the flags, burn the house, burn the churches, burn it all down.

We'll burn the signs, burn the saints, burn the sinners, burn the whole thing down, down, down. Burn it all down.

MARTIN: That was an acoustic version of "Burn It All Down" from the band VHS or Beta. They joined us here in NPR's performance studio 4A. To learn more about the band and to hear their NPR performance of their song "Bring on the Comets," check at our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also visit our blog and submit your ideas of music you want to hear.

And that's our show for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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