Sitting casually in the dusty basement of Madison music
venue The Annex, national label-independent act VAST looked lovably ordinary ?
except for bassist Michael Austinmoore, who was garbed in a flowing velour
trench, stubbed dreads and eyeliner. But when they spoke with The Badger Herald
that afternoon and hit the stage later Thursday night, VAST made it very clear
they are both dynamic and anything but ordinary.
Starting off with a brief chat about the virtues of college
towns, the interview with frontman Jon Crosby and guitarist Ben Fenton quickly
moved to headier fare, as they discussed the multifaceted effects of the
Internet, operating as a band independent of a record label and the source of
their early sample-laden sound.
Explaining the impact MySpace and other Internet
distribution routes have had on VAST ? who left Elektra after their second
album ? Crosby said, ?Now it?s just the music industry has completely changed.
It?s not the same industry whatsoever, and [the Internet] is going to change the
nature of everything. Writing is different; journalism is different. People get
their news online. It?s changing the face of the press. It?s going to change
the face of everything a lot more than people realize.?
And Crosby also explained why he now reluctantly runs his
own record label to produce VAST?s records.
?Well, I never wanted to run a label; it was just something
that made sense. There are a lot of pros and cons to working with another
label. The pitfalls are that you lose control over not just your artistic
integrity, but your life, because they kind of tell you what to do. And it?s
not a great financial [situation]; the Mob gets you better rates then the
record companies do ? literally.?
But running 2blossoms Records has provided VAST the creative
freedom they need, Crosby said.
?We can release things when we want, how we want, whenever
we want. It?s difficult to compete with corporate stuff, but in the end, it?s
satisfying and rewarding to be able to do what you want to do.?
And what VAST has done with that freedom is both innovative
and successful. Hailing from various locations in California?s Bay Area, Crosby
explained that the burgeoning digital revolution and alternative philosophies
of his early stomping ground influenced VAST?s digital sensibilities and
?When I first started VAST it was ? from the loins of the
whole ?90s-coffee, Internet-aware alternative explosion that kind of happened.
It was the beginning of this new liberal movement, this new social movement
that was happening,? Crosby said.
?Computers [were] making new opportunities to make sounds
and music,? Crosby said. ?The rave thing was really big in the Bay Area in the
mid-?90s when I as a kid. I was a guitar player, but [my friends] would have
these keyboards with samples on them. ? And I?d be like, ?Oh, what?s this?? And
I would mess around with it.?
But this makes playing live particularly important for VAST.
The live show provides a different experience for both the band and the
audience, Crosby said.
?We can really kind of mingle with the audience. We don?t
know what the show is going to be every night, and I love that.?
This tour, VAST has left the tracks and samples at home ? a
decision embraced by Fenton, the band?s guitarist for the last two years.
?It gives everybody ?? not just me as a guitar player,
but everyone ? room to play. When you play with samples, it?s really
restricting. You have to stick to the program; you have to stick to the songs
in a certain order. Now we can just pick up and play anything, ? so I like the
freedom a lot more without the samples.?
This move toward a more organic sound follows the ?07
release of April ? the band?s first, mostly acoustic album ? and Jon Crosby?s
Generic I and II, which are challenging but rewarding listens for fans of
VAST?s dark and noisy youth. The albums? unique sound is the product of the
Americana influence from Crosby?s current home in Austin, Texas.
?The musicians, the people, it?s just something that?s
seeped in,? Crosby said. ?I?ve learned about music. [There are] a lot of great
story-songs in that kind of style that I resonate with.?
But nostalgic listeners have new material to look forward
to, including Big Band Sixx?s Relay, a heavier, more electronic collection
sharing the band?s name with Crosby?s new book and a new VAST album nearing
?It?s very different ? it?s VAST, yet it?s very different,?
Crosby explained. ?We?re kind of toying with the idea of calling it Jon Crosby
and the Resonator Band. But I think what we?re going to end up doing is it?s
going to be a thematic VAST album.?
And that?s when, as Crosby said, the explanation got ?kind
?So it?s like us as a band having an alter ego. Us as a band
experimenting with the idea of being a different band ? like an accidental Sgt.
Pepper-type theme, or Ziggy Stardust, where we step into these other shoes.?
Crosby and Fenton laughed elaborating on the project?s name.
?It was originally going to be R-E-S-I-N, but we didn?t want
to be a weed band,? said Crosby, chuckling. ?There were a lot of strings
initially in that project, so the idea of resin. But as we made the record, the
strings kind of dropped out. There?s not as much strings on that album as even
on the April album, I think. So it?s our little baby.?
And it?s that enthusiasm for his art that makes creating
music such an elaborate process for Crosby.
?I?m trying to let the music tell me what to do, and I?m
embracing the different directions at the same time.?
Yet, VAST doesn?t want to alienate fans; they just want to
follow wherever their music takes them.
?It?s fun to sit there in front of a computer and use
sequences and samples and loops, and then it?s also fun just to tinker with an
acoustic guitar and go outside and strum some sweet G chords and sing about
life. I like having both. It?s like sushi and pizza, though; they?re both
great, but not together. So you have to keep them separate a little.?
But ultimately, it?s the song at its simplest state that is
most important for Crosby.
?Everything I?ve ever written is a song you can play on
piano or guitar, and it shines as a song versus the chorus and some lyrics and
the melodies that aren?t a cohesive message. And I think that style of the
genre or the production really, it?s just clothing. I?m also going to be making
electronic albums in the future. I think people sometimes view ? unfortunately
? records these days as sequels. And I view them as completely different
But letting the audience scream in adoration or grumble in
disgust is part of VAST?s art, Crosby said.
?That?s like the completion of the whole process of writing
a song, recording a song, producing a song and then the feedback you get from
the audience. It?s like you?re full circle. Without that it feels incomplete.?
And escaping a static sound isn?t just a way of avoiding
boredom, Fenton mused. It?s also one of the band?s strongest attributes. ?We?re
good enough to be able to? play all that ritzy Americana stuff, and then we can
totally switch gears and rock out.?
And that?s just what they did Thursday. Plowing smoothly
through a set of early maverick hits, contrasting acoustic ballads, a hypnotic
cover of Chris Issak?s ?Wicked Game? and the western tango of ?You?re the
Same,? VAST proved they are just as comfortable in the realm of the
singer-songwriter as they are dishing out the noise. But not only did they play
in a dynamic fashion, they segued between these different types of songs with
And VAST?s five Annex-rocking members ? Crosby, Fenton,
Austinmoore, a drummer and a violinist ? played crisply as a band with the
tightness only experience can provide. Crosby and Fenton both agreed VAST is
finally settled as a unit, but it seems no one knows musically what direction
they will go next.