In the 1990s, The Van Pelt’s two albums, Stealing From Our Favorite Thieves and Sultans of Sentiment, made waves throughout the East Coast alternative rock scene. Nevertheless, they went out of print in the early 2000s. Now The Van Pelt has been reunited, though, and fans have plenty to celebrate. In 2014, the band released Imaginary Third, a collection of songs originally meant to comprise its third album. Then, on May 12, its first two albums were re-released. To top it all off, this summer, the band will play shows in various East Coast cities.
Recently, we chatted with lead singer Chris Leo about The Van Pelt’s past, present, and future. Read on to learn his thoughts about the political frustration that influenced his songwriting, the meaning of the word “emo,” and the similarities and differences between the ‘90s and today.
TYF: You officially reunited with the Van Pelt in 2014. Had you kept in touch over the years, or was it your first time seeing each other in a while when you decided to reunite?
Chris Leo: No, we did keep in touch. So, I think it was 2009, we played South by Southwest, and [someone from] one of the old locations reached out to us. She was like, “Hey, I’m doing a ‘My Favorite Band From the ’90s bill. Would you guys be interested in coming down?” And we were like, “Actually, yeah, that would be great!” So we got together, we practiced a bunch. It felt right. So we played Austin. And then we played kind of what we’re doing now—D.C., Philly, New York. And it was good. It was good… not great, you know? It was good, but we were, like, a little dusty. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We weren’t exactly sure why we were doing it—we were just doing it. But then after it was all over and the dust settled, and we had talked about things more and we had a clear idea of what reunion means and why we were doing this, we talked to a Spanish record label called La Castaña about releasing the tracks that were supposed to be on our third album that we had recorded but never released because we broke up. And so they agreed to do it. And when they agreed to do it, we booked a bunch of shows in Europe. And that was 2012. And that really felt right. That felt great, you know? [When] we went there, we had already been through this one amorphous stage of, “Who are we? Why are we doing this?” And now it felt really good, and we played better as a result. So then La Castaña wanted to re-release our albums, because they had been out of print forever, and hence, now we’re back together and playing our shows.
TYF: Speaking of the old albums that you’re about to re-release, which messages from the albums do you think are most important for today’s rock music fans to hear?
Leo: I think they’re all pretty relevant, I’ve gotta say. It’s interesting going back and singing the words you wrote 20 years earlier. And many of them are about what I considered to be current themes back then. And a lot of [those themes] are current and recurrent. Politically, there are similar spreads that happened in the ‘90s and now. Disillusionment with the left is kind of a constant theme, and I still feel that a lot. Gentrification is kind of a theme. It seeps in in little ways, you know. There’s no song about these things. The songs are more about more personal things. But they seep into the lyrics as well.
TYF: So there are a lot of political themes in the old records, as you were mentioning. How do you think that the Van Pelt of the ’90s would have reacted to today’s political climate?
Leo: So I feel like this… I went to an all-boys Catholic high school in New Jersey, and the first thing that I wanted to do was get the hell out of here, go to New York, where I felt my people were. I thought, This is the left. I can’t wait to go and, like, be with my fellow Commies and punks, et cetera, et cetera. And once I got to the left—once I got to New York—I was kind of shocked by the language and the mode that the left used. And I found it cliquey. I found it equally kind of fascist in their own way, kind of closed-minded. There are right things to think, there are wrong things to think, there are right things to say, there are wrong things to say… There were so many rules. And what I was attracted to was a lack thereof. I was attracted to dialogue. I thought the battle was between the conservatives, who were against dialogue, and the liberals, who were pro-dialogue. And dialogue means dialogue. It means that you’re allowed to talk about anything, and you encourage that. You encourage the environment where anything can be drawn out. And I didn’t find that. I think that I share that with the rest of my band. I think that was something that made us mold well together. And I think that you could say the same thing about that now, particularly how the DNC has reacted to Trump and the right. I feel like there’s just so much vitriol about opposing views, differing views, and it’s not a real dialogue environment.
TYF: So it’s a lot of the same stuff that you were seeing back in the ‘90s?
Leo: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s the exact same stuff.
TYF: Stealing From Our Favorite Thieves is an interesting title. Who are the favorite thieves you refer to in that phrase?
Leo: Thieves… That was our kind of humble way of saying, “We know we’re young…” At the time when we were writing the album, most of us were kind of around 20, maybe 21. We were fanboys, first and foremost, musicians second. We were soaking up music as much as we could. So we didn’t want to be copycats. We were aware that inevitably, these things would be coming out in our music—ideas, influences from bands we were listening to were gonna be coming out. We weren’t good enough at our instruments to not let that happen anyhow, you know? So we were humble enough to realize that that was what was gonna go on, but cocky enough to be like, “But the people that we’re ripping off definitely ripped off other people as well.” So we’re part of that same thread that continues ad infinitum. A song’s a song. It can be almost anybody’s.
TYF: Two of the songs on that album have similar names: “His Steppe Is My Prairie” and “His Saxophone Is My Guitar.” Were you trying to make a connection between the two tracks by giving them these titles?
Leo: No, not really. No.
TYF: They just fit the songs?
Leo: Yeah. Just things that look and sound alike. No deeper meaning there.
TYF: Another song on that album is “You Are the Glue.” In that one, you say, “Hopefully the next generation will be too fine for the enemy to pick apart… Octoquadroids won’t fly in the next millennia.” First of all, can you elaborate on the meaning of this, and second of all, now that we’re in the next millennium, do you think your statement is still accurate?
Leo: No, it’s not accurate at all. I guess what I was hoping was that… At the time, in the New York scene, the racial battle then was black versus white. And since the ‘50s, it’s been a very Puerto Rican town, but it wasn’t yet a very Mexican town. There was a community in Corona… They were there, but in relation to other American cities, it wasn’t massive. And I was hoping we would kind of form this glue between us and we’d all just kind of start intermixing and it would be too much of a mess for anyone to care about these old divisions. So… I was very wrong. (Laughs.) I didn’t see that. The [influx of immigrants]… I didn’t see that it would actually be more divisive, that it would divide the country more. I was thinking the exact opposite.
TYF: The 20th anniversary of Sultans Of Sentiment is approaching. One of the songs on that album is “We Are the Heathens.” In the chorus, you say things like “We are the psychos, we are the rejects, we are the heathens.” In the context of the song, what does being a heathen mean to you?
Leo: That’s my way of saying that—and this kind of goes back to the disillusionment with the left a little bit—we’re a country of losers, of barbarians. And throughout history, those are the ones who win, you know? We’re successful right now, but we’re the people who couldn’t cut it in our home turf. And get ready, because our hordes are coming for you, just like they’ve come for everybody else.
TYF: You’ve talked a lot about how your songs from the ‘90s still reflect the way you think about what’s going on today. Are there any songs that don’t really fit as much with how you’re thinking now?
Leo: Hmm… Let’s see… No, but I could say that I was a little more confident back then. I think the approach is different, you know? Like, in your early twenties, you wanna take on the world, you think you can do anything—or, at least, you should think you can do anything, you should think you can take on the world—and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve pulled myself back a little bit and been a little bit more of a watcher and a listener. And I think more in terms of how things go, and I’ve just kind of more subtly changed things than loudly changed things. So it’s more of a tone and direction that’s changed rather than an overall theme. I think the overall theme is mostly the same.
TYF: You’ve been described as one of the early emo bands before. What does that label mean to you, if anything?
Leo: It doesn’t mean a lot. That’s a name that gets thrown around, I think, everybody. To me, “emo” means you’re trying to be honest, and sometimes that delivery is so heartfelt and honest it can maybe be a little cheesy, or a little histrionic or a little hard to believe. And that’s I think why there’s a pejorative sense to that word sometimes. I think people feel that there’s an overreach in emo. You’ve tried to bite off a little more than you can chew and it comes off as cheesy, you know? We were never really part of the canon of emo bands. Sometimes it gets thrown around; sometimes it doesn’t. It’s weird. Yeah, I’ve never really known where we fall in that world. We’ve always tried to hang out in the world of punk—playing basement shows, playing DIY shows, playing all-ages shows, playing weird shows, sticking with indie and indie labels—and I think that left us more in the social category of emo than in the actual music category. We didn’t really have booking agents. We didn’t do these sort of things. And therefore, we would be playing with bands that were in the social world of emo, even if we didn’t necessarily sound like that.
TYF: Do you think there are any major differences between that scene—the alternative rock scene of the ’90s—and the alternative rock scene today?
Leo: Massive differences… New York’s done a 180. When we were living there in the ‘90s, especially in the early ‘90s when we first started playing, there weren’t a lot of rock bands. There were almost none, in fact. There were big bands. There was Sonic Youth, there was Jon Spencer, there were bands like that. But mostly, the music coming out of New York in the ‘90s was hip-hop, or it was electronic… There weren’t a lot of clubs to play. We didn’t play Brooklyn, ever. Ever. I left Williamsburg in 1999 because I thought that it was saturated and it couldn’t go any further. In my mind, there were three bars and, like, two restaurants. It was, like, saturated. (Laughs) I had no idea what could happen. So meanwhile, while we were touring, we were creating all these friends all across Europe, all across America. And they all live in these small towns where life is really cheap, and you got the basement, and you can play music as much as you want, smoke weed, and there’s not a lot of stress around that, you know? Even though New York was cheaper back then, it was still expensive. So when we would go into practice spaces, we would be thinking, “Okay, we’re gonna be in here for three hours. We have to make something happen. We can’t just fool around for three hours.” But we were one of the very small groups of live instrument indie bands in New York. So I would have never in a million years predicted that Brooklyn would become what it’s become. I didn’t see that coming at all.
TYF: You’re going to go on tour soon with The Van Pelt around the East Coast. What part of that are you looking forward to the most?
Leo: So we’re doing D.C., Philly, Asbury Park, and New York. And Philly… I guess I would say Philly and Asbury Park [are what I’m looking forward to the most]. D.C., I can’t wait to go to because I haven’t been in ages. I don’t know what’s happening there at all. It’s gonna be brand new to me, even though we used to play there every month. It’s gonna be a completely brand new experience. I really have no idea what we’re gonna get into. Philly, I have a strong connection to. I’ve played in a bunch of bands that were Philly-based, so I would be going back and forth. It’s one of my favorite cities. It’s on a completely different currency. Things cost half as much there as anywhere else. There’s a quality of life there that you don’t have up here in New York, but it’s still cosmopolitan. I still have a lot of friends there. I’m excited for Philly. Asbury Park, though, is kind of the unexpected horse here for the win. It’s such a burgeoning artistic scene down there, and I think that it’s a result of being close enough to New York and close enough to Philly, but also being just far enough away that you’re not pulled into the stress of the megalopolis and all the cons that come with the megalopoli. So there’s really exciting things happening in Asbury, and I’m excited to go down there and play.
TYF: Does The Van Pelt have any plans to write new music with the band soon?
Leo: Yes, we do! So when we went to Europe to play the shows for our unreleased third album, Imaginary Third… We don’t live anywhere near each other. Two of the guys live in Massachusetts, but not near each other, and me and the drummer live in New Jersey, but not near each other. So what we did was, we flew to Venice. And I have a friend who has a studio outside of Ferrara, in Italy. And we rehearsed in the studio straight for three days. And then we played a practice concert in the garden. And playing with each other nonstop for three days, it was hard not to write songs. We realized this. The objective [was] to fine-tune all of our old tracks and get them ready for the concert. But in between songs, noodling around, you just have this forum with each other, and we had to stop ourselves from writing the songs. Now, we’re approaching it a little differently. In Europe, you’re expected to play 17-18 songs—a really long set. Here, maybe we’ll play 12-13 songs. So it’s gonna be a little easier for us—hopefully—to get our set down. Hopefully we’ll have time to write some new songs as well.
TYF: Speaking of writing, do you have any advice for any aspiring writers who might be reading this interview?
Leo: I guess I would say, “Just throw caution to the wind. Go for it. Throw it all out there, scars and all.” You’re dealing with the arts here. No matter which way you look at it, you’re going for a bases-loaded, grand-slam, hit-it-out-of-the-park… The arts are extreme, no matter which way you cut it. So if you’re not gonna be extreme, then do something else useful for the world. There’s plenty of other straighter jobs that the world needs. So if you’re gonna be in the arts, I say, “Go for it.” Don’t just blend in with the other bands or pen these throwaway lyrics that no one needs to pay attention to. Go for it. Even if people are gonna hate it.
TYF: Very good advice. Now we’re going to wrap things up. Is there anything else you want to say to our readers before we’re finished?
Leo: Come out to the shows!