At Large

A Cautionary Tale from Benjamin Verdoes

When the Mount St. Helens Vietnam Band first appeared three-and-a-half years ago, it was a disorienting event. Based on little more than a series of oddball viral videos wherein the members decried the dangers of boredom, the band managed to play its first show at Neumos to more than 400 fans. Not only was it a coup for the brand new band to do well in the mid-sized room, it was also a coup for the new world of social media. The sudden success of a band with an online identity but no recorded material to offer was an affirmation of many great hopes and fears within the music industry.

The band rode its upstart momentum into a record deal with the Dead Oceans label, released two albums and an EP of asymetrical guitar pop and toured extensively, all in a little more than two years. Then, after opening a show for Dismemberment Plan a year ago, that momentum stopped cold. On the heels of abysmal reviews for its second album and amidst rumors of band turmoil buoyed by evident membership shifts, MSHVB disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared.

Then, just as suddenly, it appeared again. Last month, that long awkward name once again graced the Neumos calendar, slated for an April 5 headlining spot. Last weekend, the band made its first public appearance, playing at the KBGA End-of-Thon in Missoula, Montana. And now, Benjamin Verdoes is sitting in front of me at Louisa’s Café in Eastlake, telling me about what is happening now and what happened then.

What is happening now is that the band is back. After a summer spent recouping in San Francisco and a fall spent writing new material, Benjamin reformed the band. The quartet—minus keyboardist Traci Eggleston, plus guitarist Drew Fitchette—spent the autumn rehearsing in Bellingham and just recorded at a church in Anacortes. Benjamin is hoping the resulting EP will be released by the time of the April show. He’s excited about the future.

“The songs are a lot different,” he says. “None of them change time signatures. That’s a big step. In a way, it’s exploring new territory. Most people who write in weird patterns would say that’s old territory, but it’s new to us. We have a song that just gets on a groove and goes. It’s really fun.”

That’s wonderful to hear, but I’m interested in the past. I ask Benjamin what happened. He starts at the beginning.

“The band I was in before Mount St. Helens, I wasn’t a very good salesman,” Benjamin says. “I even struggled with the idea of inviting people to shows; I felt like I was bothering them. For some reason, something clicked when we started doing Mount St. Helens. I realized that there actually are no rules. That’s the first time I made a decision in my life to push this to the max. And it was really fun, but if there is some kind of unwritten rule, I certainly broke it.”

Benjamin looks different now than he did near the end of his band’s initial run. He is bright-eyed and ebullient, his hair cropped short and his face clean shaven. His table manner at the café is much like his stage manner. The words tumble out of his mouth, even as he tries to hold them back for a moment to develop a thought. Much like his band’s chaotic sound, his thoughts zig and zag and then return to fragments of a theme. For the purposes of this interview, that theme is social media.

“I just think that social media doesn’t really fit into my personality,” he says. “I still use the stuff now. It’s not a bad thing; its just a new thing. I think for me, personally, I need to make it a healthy part of my life, rather than looking to see how many people are going to this event, or how many people are liking this photo, how many people want to be my friend.”

Social media can’t be directly blamed for what happened to the Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, but it did provide the fuel for Benjamin to take the band to extremes. After that initial show, the band—which included Benjamin’s wife Eggleston on keys and his adopted son Marshall Verdoes on drums—recorded its first full-length. The band never looked back.

“We toured a bunch and then, as soon as we got home, I was already recording demos,” Benjamin says. “I was working all the time. Then we released the second album and then we went on tour again. When you have that adrenaline push, it was just like, Cool, we’re gonna do this. But once you stop, once you pull the plug, it really starts to catch up with you. I really had suspended my reality for about two years.”

That suspension was lifted after the band returned from a national tour with the band Portugal the Man* in the fall of 2010. Two weeks later, Benjamin and Eggleston split. The band went on another short tour without her, but it was a depressing affair. Then, Benjamin’s mother fell ill. When she passed away in the winter, the band didn’t matter much anymore. Benjamin focused all his energy on Marshall and on recouping.

“It makes me think about Napoleon,” he says. “You have this momentum and you want to keep doing everything and you spread your forces too thin. You do that tour you shouldn’t have done, or you try to make your record too quick. Once I stopped, I realized that it wasn’t good for my relationships and it wasn’t not good for my physical and mental health. It caught up with me. I didn’t have the adrenaline anymore. And it’s just like, What did I just do?

“This time around, everything we are doing is geared towards creating real relationships,” he continues. “For the here and now, I just need to realize that we have something special.”

*I know that the proper name of this band is Portugal. The Man, but I refuse to give in to bands’ puncutation whims.

Mark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. If you have something you think Mark should see, in the flesh, email and tell him about it. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Photo of the Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, circa 2008: (l to r) Jared Price, Traci Eggleston, Marshall Verdoes, Benjamin Verdoes and Matthew Dammer.