Photo by Ed Marshall
by Kurt Hernon
"The music," Danny Chavis says gathering his thoughts, "the music, man, the music is what you hear in your head." Chavis pauses, then adds, "That's what you hear on this new record of ours – it's what is in our heads right now. That's all."
What you hear in your head. On an average day, in an average mind, that would likely be pretty heavy shit, on any level. But in the mind of Chavis, in the mind of a man who has a twin brother Daniel who he's been bandmates with since, well hell, since the day they were born. In the mind of a natural born American southerner who grew up "poor" and singing church hymns and listening to soul music and rhythm and blues. In the mind of a kid who, along with his brother, in the mid 1980's put together a band (some would say THE band) in the midst of a simmering towards a boil Raleigh-Durham music scene. In the minds of soul-filled electric fuzz Anglo-pop loving R&B bopping Prince-idolizing and post punk gloom psychedelia listening (think Echo and the Bunnymen's first handful of platters) pair of artists whose band was often, and misguidedly, dubbed "shoegaze" (whatever the fuck that means in the context of their collective output of music. In the mind of the men who once heard someone say, "What are niggers doing opening up for the Cocteau Twins?" Well, one can only imagine the music that those cats are hearing in their heads.
Yes, Danny and Daniel Chavis – collectively known as The Veldt – are African Americans who dared to form a band and play guitars and play some fine, fine music that aimed for an audience that included everyone, even white folks. How ambitious of them, no - how audacious! Who do think they are? Do they know what they are doing? Is this some sort of joke? What the fuck is up with their attitude? Do these guys know that they are black men playing so called white music? "We didn't accept it," Chavis says with a chuckling seriousness. "We just didn't accept that people wouldn't like us because of our skin and because we were poor."
Chavis was right, to some degree. It turns out that they didn't like them, the record industry that is, because they were very, very good, as well as very, very black. It is, perhaps, the most dangerous combination in this land we call, by title, united - to be both black and good at what you do.
Chavis doesn't want their story to be about race though. He wants it to be about music. About that stuff in his and Daniel's head. And it's been terrific stuff all along. From the opening chiming singsongy and soaring guitar of "CCCP" that announced their musical arrival on 1992's Marigolds EP to the Otis Redding as new wave pop star of "Soul in A Jar" off of their first proper full length Afrodisiac (these cats, fucking with the "system"!) right on through the frantic D. Boon howl of "3/5th's A Man" (political? as the song goes "c'mon, c'mon, c'mon!!"), ‘96's Universe Boat with a sidestep through the gorgeous psychedelic guitar fueled Prince trip of Love At First Hate (just check out the album artwork Daniel threw all over THAT disc, talk about what's going on in your head) and landing squarely in today's atmospheric trip hop dare-we-call-it jazz (it's got that sort of vibe and deserves that sort of stature in my book) that is The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur: The Drake Equation.
The music that is indeed what they hear in their heads.
But what's in their heads, what they are hearing has been informed by so much of who they are, who they've become, the things they've lived through, things said, preconceptions brought on by the simple fact of the matter that their skin is dark. And we are all the better for the Veldt because as artists Danny and Daniel Chavis are good - that good.
"The major labels were always trying to get us to change our sound, our look or both," Daniel Chavis has told others. But how so? What do they want to see happen? Did they want them to change their race that made them all so uncomfortable (and unmarketable)? Or, hey, how about we let you keep your pigmentation but you guys play the sort of music that "people like you" are supposed to play? Post-racial America? I say bullshit.
But, while that's not OK, I will say that we are navigating it better than before. The lights were turned on for a moment and the cockroaches scattered. We are a tad more familiar with the lay of our land. Maybe.
"We were a political band in the sense that we were black men on stage playing "white" music for white audiences," Chavis says bemused. "In that sense, yeah, we were always political!"
But, we're talking about the music now; celebrating the talents of a band that never got to be celebrated properly. And while we can't extricate race from the stuff that's in their music (nor should we ever) because that stuff is the stuff that's in their heads, what we can do is let the glorious sounds that that "stuff" in their heads has rendered wash over us like so much holy water.
"The Happylife Home," that was the place Ray Bradbury wrote about when he penned his terrifically weird short story that became the Chavis brothers band namesake. The Veldt - a place that was so fully automated that life was rendered idle and parents became useless and children became essential equals to the point that the "grown-ups" were dispensable and dispensed of. A sort of inverted power structure the predicted the advent of the Internet and virtual realities that have today turned, in particular the music recording industry, on its hard slow-to-catch-on head.
And while it's hardly ironic that there is largely no "industry" left to the music industry, it does bid well for irony's sake that a band like The Veldt – in this somewhat more democratic modern musical environment – is hearing the praise they've earned so loudly and so clearly. It's been a long, long road from Raleigh, North Carolina to The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur: The Drake Equation . A nod to the Canadian singer? Eh, maybe in part. But moreover, the Drake Equation is an actual mathematical equation used to determine the odds of finding intelligent life in the universe. That sounds about right for the Chavis brothers. After all they've been through, still looking for intelligent life! But traveling that road fills one's head up with stuff. Fills one's head with a lot of stuff. And when that stuff, all that going on up inside of your head, comes together and you can find a way to leverage all of that "stuff" into you art, well, the world just might be a little better off for it.
And we are.
There is a chorus, a church chorus – a call and response that fades out the glorious, hopeful and The Veldt defining "Sanctified," the opening track of The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur: The Drake Equation. The song is all things Veldt: Danny's buzzing guitars drifting around the room like streams of cigarette smoke; Daniel's high, hopeful soul pouring out of his mouth like the very air he breathes; Hayato Naka's bass line occasionally walking the room softly; a Roland TR-808 keeping time efficiently and emphatically. But it's that chorus at the vocal fade, punctuated with Daniel's soft shouts of "hallelujah", that really shines and really delivers.
Hallelujah. It's what they hear in their heads. Hallelujah. After all these years, Daniel and Danny and The Veldt lean on this word of praise amidst the cacophony of everything swirling noisily around it; carrying it as a walking stick – a metaphorical biblical staff - into an uncertain but beautiful future where the music is always what you hear in your head.
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