1990s \

Pipe Dreams: Our 1997 Feature on Verve Pipe’s Villains

The Verve Pipe’s Villains originally came out March 26, 1996. In honor of the album turning 20 this year, and our new list of the Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997 that includes The Verve Pipes’ “The Freshmen,” we’ve republished a piece on the band that ran in our August 1997 issue.

When Brian Vander Ark was a kid growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he and his brothers often played a perverse game of “church,” with Brian as Jesus and his brothers as the congregation. Once, his brothers crucified him mid-sermon by strapping him to the backyard deck with belts and rope. Alone to atone, Brian wept as his brothers partied on. “After hours of screaming, they finally took me down,” recalls the Verve Pipe singer. “My brothers were relentlessly sadistic Christians.”

Along with crucifixion anxiety, Vander Ark says his religious upbringing left him “ridden with guilt,” a subject that figures prominently on the Verve Pipe’s major-label debut album, Villains. Set to a hummable brand of workingman’s grunge, Vander Ark’s painfully earnest tales of regret have made the group this year’s dorm-room poster boys. Either their ascendancy is a sign that for every year there must be a grunge giant, or the scholastic set is more wary of irony than anyone could have imagined.

“We appreciate the dynamics of grunge,” says drummer Donny Brown, brushing off charges that the Verve Pipe’s music can sound plainly derivative. “If the song feels heavy and it sounds better driving it, then we drive it. Make it grunge. Who cares?”

Brown and Vander Ark met in the early ’90s when they were both painting a Lee’s Famous Chicken Shack restaurant in Kalamazoo. Along with Vander Ark’s younger brother Brad on bass, the trio enlisted guitarist A.J. Dunning and keyboard player Doug Corella from Michigan-area alternative bands. The band soon found a home on the fertile fraternity circuit, where, says Vander Ark, “they’d still pay us, even after the cops pulled the plug.” Now, six years later, they’re in New York on “the biggest day of our lives,” taping Letterman and VH1 appearances, with the proud Vander Ark parents in tow.

After a day of minimal hijinks—the Verve Pipe behave like scrupulous Midwesterners—Vander Ark kisses his parents goodbye and gets ready to head north for another gig. Still, he seems more like a frustrated choirboy than someone living out his rock’n’roll dreams. “I still believe in blasphemy,” Vander Ark admits. “Like that scene in The Exorcist where Linda Blair is masturbating with the cross. That absolutely bothers me. For the sake of the movie, it’s a fabulous scene. But it makes me squirm.”