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(l-r) Mike Bruce, Mike Grosshandler, Todd Minnick
Coming Into Their Own

After years of moonlighting as a cover band, the Velmas hope to break out with a new album and label deal

 

By John Brodeur

 

Do you want to know a secret? Here’s one: Albany pop-rock trio the Velmas. They’ve been around for a long time now—seven years—yet a biography on their new label’s Web site calls them the “best kept secret in upstate New York.” But judging by the number of Velmas-logo bumper stickers (oval-shaped, black and green) pasted on automobiles around the Capital Region, you’d think they were the most popular band in town. Based strictly on their frequent placement atop Readers Polls in Metroland and other publications, they actually are the most popular band in town. Yet they claim they’re pulling bigger crowds in Syracuse than at home, that only 10 people showed up for their label-signing party at Valentine’s last spring.

In actuality, lots of people have heard the Velmas, they likely just haven’t heard the band’s own music. For the better part of a decade, the Velmas have been doing what bands need to do to stay happy: not playing too often, keeping the vibe loose and fun, and making sure the members walk off with a few bucks after gigs. In the Capital Region, that means playing covers. They’ve been writing their own music all along—they’ve released one full-length CD (2002’s Another Day at School) and the 2004 “double EP,” Recess; guitarist-vocalist Mike “Harvey” Grosshandler also has released two solo discs (Scales and Wrote Myself)—but the bills get paid through playing acoustic happy hours and four-hour request-fests at bars like the Bayou Café, places better known for being hookup spots for drunk collegegoers than for being live-music destinations.

Obviously the Velmas would prefer not to be kept secret, hence the aforementioned label-signing. They have a photo shoot scheduled for their new record label, City Canyons Records. By Grosshandler’s count, this will be the first time they’ve had band pictures taken in three years. Bassist-vocalist Todd “Figaro” Minnick anticipates this by ordering a “low-carb” burger—basically, a hamburger without a bun (and it inexplicably costs a dollar extra!)—at the local tavern where I meet them for dinner.

Drummer-vocalist Mike “Bruce” Bruce comments: “He’s gotta get to Fig weight for the pictures!”

(The etymology of the nicknames isn’t all that interesting—“Bruce” is, obviously, the drummer’s last name—but Minnick does claim to have been passed off as “Fig” in public on occasion, and the guys refer to each other by these names almost exclusively.)

Nicknames, in-jokes, what have you—these things don’t necessarily set them apart. And the Velmas’ music is nothing groundbreaking. This is not a slight: They play pop-rock music, which some would lump into the “alternative rock” category. All three members can actually sing and play their instruments, which is nice. They’re three regular guys in their late 20s and early 30s. No out-of-control personalities, no crippling drug habits. They all have regular day jobs, regular lives. They all wear hats.

And all three share lead vocals, which can make a band seem practically anonymous to listeners. While this might make them a tough sell, it’s the band’s identity: three personalities vying for the spotlight, and it has been since day one.

Bruce and Minnick began playing together in alt-rock quartet Pour Jayce; Grosshandler joined later. The three members left that band, one by one, only to re-form a few months later as the Velmas. That was seven years ago, an impressive tally, considering that the average life span for an original, local band is less than two years. “All the bands that were around when we started [are gone now], except for Sirsy, and they’re just a two-piece now,” says Grosshandler.

Longevity doesn’t always equal success. So how do they survive, especially at what is (theoretically) their busiest period to date? We discuss the stress and, ultimately, burnout that can result from the long hours and little pay that come with being in a regularly gigging original band, to which Minnick laughs, “That’s exactly where we are, but (somehow) we’re still together.”

The band currently average four to six full-band gigs per month; Grosshandler also plays solo, and performs as a duo with Bruce. I ask exactly how much time each member wants to—is able to, much less, factoring in jobs and personal lives—put into the band. Grosshandler replies, “I want to play the most; he [Minnick] wants the weekends off.”

“Bruce does most of the booking,” adds Minnick.

“I do some booking,” continues Grosshandler. “He [Minnick] does a lot of reality-TV watching.”

“We all have our roles, and we all agree that we’re in the right spots. That’s how we negotiate—what’s the bare minimum for me to do and stay in the band?”

Bruce: “It usually requires two phone calls from me a year to keep him in the program.”

Minnick: (mimics holding a phone to ear) “Free beer? OK!”

The whole group breaks into laughter. A democratic process, indeed.

While they laugh together often, the guys are serious about their music. Their work ethic—always looking for the “big break,” trying to make a living (eek!) as musicians—is admirable, as is their ability to make the most of the small victories. For instance, in 2004, the band submitted a version of “Restless, Restless” to a contest on the pre-satellite The Howard Stern Show. While they didn’t win, they stayed in touch with Stern cohort Vinnie Favale (who, if you’re familiar with the show, wrote the “song”), and worked out a publishing deal so they could release the song commercially. Last summer, Favale released the Best of ‘Restless Restless’ Vol. 1 CD through his Web site (ripthemusic.com). The Velmas version is track six, following a version by the one and only William Shatner.

“We’ve got, like, 25 bucks in royalties so far,” Grosshandler says. “We’ve got the MP3 up on our site. We get like 600 plays a month.”

The Recess EP also provided another, unexpected success: The band’s cover of the theme song from Scooby Doo, included as an unlisted bonus track, has “taken off, without any promotion of [the band’s] own,” Grosshandler says.

People can buy the song individually because, he points out, “On iTunes there are no hidden tracks. . . . We’ve sold or streamed over 2,700 copies. With all of our other songs, we’ve made $100. We’ve made over $1,000 off ‘Scooby Doo.’”

“At one point, we were in the Top 10 children’s plays!” Minnick adds.

The band took a step toward a larger victory at a label showcase in Connecticut three years ago. There, the band met J-Rock and Patty the Radio Girl, two DJs who took to the Velmas’ music and began spinning the band’s tracks on their Internet radio show, Rock Solid Pressure. The Velmas’ music won the show’s call-in voting contest five weeks in a row. (Minnick jokes that the DJs liked the band enough that they lied about the numbers; this information is, of course, unsubstantiated.) J-Rock and Patty went on to host an FM radio show in Florida, where they befriended Trebor (yes, Trebor) Lloyd of City Canyons Records. The DJs passed on the winning songs from their Internet show, Lloyd was into the Velmas, the Velmas were into Lloyd’s master plan (something about artist development—does anybody remember artist development?) and, after a live show in August 2005, followed by months of negotiation between the band’s lawyer (William Morris, no joke necessary) and the label, the band finally signed on the dotted line this January.

“This is a genuine deal,” says Grosshandler. “[Morris] says this is the best deal he’s seen a band get, for a first-time deal.”

Lloyd is excited to have the band on board. “Our idea with the first album out is to brand them,” he says, “to make them known nationally and internationally.” That includes retail distribution, and the possibility of an overseas release in early 2007. “Our focus is really international rather than national. While we are branding the Velmas in the U.S., will be making a big effort to sell them in the U.K.”

Plenty of acts have signed label deals, only to find themselves back where they began six months on. Wisely, neither the Velmas nor Lloyd are getting their hopes too high for the new release, but rather looking at the bigger picture.

“We aren’t even thinking that much about commercial success yet because we’re still in phase one of our business plan,” says Lloyd. “We’re kind of like the Wall Street guy who buys undervalued stocks and waits for them to grow. . . . While we are always happy to have lightning strike, we are patient and don’t expect artists to become instant hits. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Station, the Velmas’ first recording for City Canyons, was recorded mostly at the John Storyk-designed Chameleonwest Studios in Buffalo over the last two years. Two years is a long time, but Buffalo is Goo country, and holdups were inevitable: Producer Marc Hunt was called on to do preproduction for the latest Goo Goo Dolls release halfway through the Velmas project.

“For four months, we couldn’t work on our album,” Bruce says, “As soon as the Goos said [they were] coming to Buffalo . . . Mark was off-limits to everything until they were done.”

“If they had an idea at three in the morning, he had to go out there,” follows Grosshandler.

The mixing stage of the project was batted around to various engineers as the studio got busier; the 10-hour round trips further delayed the project. But the band members are excited about the end result—in fact, they’re hoping to get all 15 songs they’ve recorded onto the final release, although, as Grosshandler recalls, “[Lloyd] was like ‘How do you guys feel about 12?’ I believe he called it ‘commercial suicide.’ ”

Minnick continues, “Of course we’ve said the same thing about everybody else’s 15-song records.” A possible compromise would see the cast-off tracks released as an EP at a later date.

Of the 15 songs, a handful have genuine hit potential. Grosshandler handles some of the strummier, more-earnest material, and his “Now for a Then” and “Forever With Me” sound ripe for crossover success—or placement on The O.C. Bruce plays crooner on the ballad “Would It Matter,” then imitates a Brit accent on “Tell Her I Love Her,” a fun- sounding song (think Third Eye Blind meets Blink 182) with a made-for-radio chorus. (For a drummer, his songs are pretty good.) Minnick’s “Out There” is an upbeat party-rock tune just begging to be played loud while driving. And then there’s a (sort of) tongue-in-cheek cover of Lionel Richie’s “Hello” that . . . well, defies explanation.

Overall, the sound is reminiscent of modern rock’s “heyday,” that moment in time (roughly 1996-1998) post-grunge, pre-nü-metal, when melodic, guitar-driven bands like the Verve Pipe, Toadies, Everclear, and Tripping Daisy could thrive. And right now, with no clear trend happening in rock music (nobody’s going to buy a second Killers record, and you know it), the Velmas might just be in the right place at the right time.

They wax enthusiastic about the perks, some financial, that come with having signed to a label. As previously mentioned, until recently they’ve split their stage time between all-original sets and mostly cover gigs—for the money, obviously. (Nobody plays “Brown Eyed Girl” just for fun.) And the cover-gig money has been a big help up to this point.

Grosshandler: “We bought a trailer, we bought a Pathfinder to pull the trailer, we got equipment.”

Once those bills are paid, Grosshandler continues, and City Canyons releases the record, the Velmas plan to cut way back on the cover gigs. With Station in the can (scheduled for an early fall release) and the label promising tour support, the band members are excited to mount their first more-than-a-weekend-long tour. But more than that, even, it seems like the very idea of having a label is exciting for the Velmas.

Bruce says, “All the reasons we had to play cover shows, soon we won’t have to worry about anymore.” But, he adds, “We’ll still do it [once in a while] just to have some extra. You always want to have something in the bank.”

They’re a practical bunch, which suits them well at this stage of their career. They mention that they’ve never had to pay band dues or pay out-of-pocket for anything major, that the band has “paid for itself.” This in itself bodes well as they attempt to make the move to an all-original, even full-time, outfit. (Although they could consider teaching a few classes in Band Management 101 to make an extra buck.)

Grosshandler sums up: “We’ve worked really hard to get as far as we have, and we don’t plan on messing that up any time soon! You can’t accomplish anything if you don’t keep trying.”

And that’s no secret.


ROUGH MIX

 

Got Rough Mix items? Contact Kathryn Lurie at klurie@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 143.



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