By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
A '90s underground It-Band makes peace
The last time I heard Scott McCloud's voice on the other end of the phone it was in 2002. The Girls Against Boys singer-guitarist was in middle America, on tour behind that year's ominously titled Jade Tree LP You Can't Fight What You Can't See, and he was talking about trying to stay musically relevant, about recommitting to keeping the quartet going, and about making sure the NYC-via-D.C. band was "something important to be doing" after a dozen years together.
Otherwise, McCloud laughed, "What are [we] doing playing Cleveland again?"
GVSB haven't played Cleveland since. Or anywhere else, really, except for a tiny handful of European gigs over the years, and that three-day Touch and Go Records 25th anniversary bash in Chicago back in 2006.
They didn't break up. They didn't announce an "indefinite hiatus." They just kind of hit the hold button and never got around to picking back up. Until now.
"After that tour we had a discussion about, 'Are we gonna record any more?' The answer was basically, 'No, let's not do anything more for now'—I think we were all kinda thinking for a while before that, 'Who's gonna actually be the one to say it?'" McCloud recalls. "And it ended up being a year of not doing anything, and then the years just kinda built up."
This time, he is on the phone from his abode in Vienna, Austria, where he's been living the expat life after decamping from New York City—where he'd made his home since moving up from D.C. in 1989—a couple of years ago.
The mood is a bit brighter compared to that long-ago conversation, as the congenial McCloud talks about the return of GVSB—with a brand new five-song EP, The Ghost List, in tow—from a self-imposed exile that lasted nearly as long as their initial run in the '90s and early '00s, even as he recounts some of the dark times that nearly did the band in.
GVSB is scheduled to play a long-awaited homecoming show at Bowery Ballroom on September 11, with their longtime friend and former labelmate, erstwhile Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow, set to join them onstage for a batch of songs.
"So much time has gone by, and the idea of playing again . . . I think a lot of the pressures and issues are just not there; they don't matter anymore," says McCloud. "Either the four of us enjoy making stuff together or we don't, and right now we do."
McCloud readily concedes that tension, creative and otherwise, has always been in the mix, stretching back to the end of the '80s when he, bassist Johnny Temple, and drummer Alexis Fleisig joined forces with bassist-keyboardist Eli Janney, who had just watched Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty depart an early GVSB incarnation to devote his time to Ian MacKaye and company.
The friction made them great. They were noisy, grinding, and utterly seductive. McCloud brought his seedy, raspy sneer and malevolent guitar stabs; Janney and Temple each brought their bass lines, often distorted and menacing, and shoved them together more arrestingly than Ned's Atomic Dustbin ever managed, locking tight with Fleisig's muscular rhythms for relentlessly throbbing grooves. They took frustration and release and sex and death on careening late-night drives around hairpin curves, and to the shadowy dives and back alleys they painted crimson with their sonic punches, parries, and thrusts.
They made the powerhouse Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby in 1993—easily one of the best, most enduring albums of the decade—and followed that with two more stunners, Cruise Yourself and House of GVSB.
They built it all up to underground It Band status. Major labels were all but beating each other with spiked bats over who'd get to sign them. GVSB went for it. They inked a deal with Geffen Records.
"All the labels were after us, and we thought we were being even-headed and smart about which one we were choosing—'This one is the good one,'" McCloud laughs ruefully. "And then, lo and behold . . ."
1998's Geffen-issued Freak*on*ica got a so-so reception, and then the label was folded into Interscope. Reps who'd championed GVSB, promising autonomy and more, vanished. The label wanted the band to keep making demos for songs execs thought worthy of recording. The band kept saying, No, these are the fucking songs. GVSB remained at loggerheads with the label, in limbo for nearly four years before wrestling free.
Plenty of bands from that era can tell virtually the same story.
"At some point we were just repeating ourselves, trying to write 'Super-fire' again," says McCloud. "It took a lot out of the band, it took a lot out of our sense of ourselves."
Their Times Square rehearsal space became a depressing hole where fading dreams went to finally curl up and die. "We weren't really making music there; we were just talking about business all the time."
Eventually, outside interests took over, and the quartet went their separate ways, though they remained friends. Temple continued to build his successful indie publishing house, Akashic Books. Janney became an in-demand producer and engineer who's worked with the likes of Wilco, James Blunt, Nicole Atkins, and Ryan Adams. McCloud played guitar on Courtney Love's 2004 debut solo album, America's Sweetheart, and formed the still-active semi-acoustic outfit Paramount Styles, with Fleisig on drums; Fleisig played with several bands and is currently a member of Obits.