By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
"Tomorrow I'm moving out of somewhere and into the van," explains a nonchalant Jonah Buffa, sitting in a Mission coffeehouse. It's raining hard on a Wednesday night and Buffa, guitarist and co-leader of San Francisco's Vue, is counting change on the lacquered tabletop. After several minutes, he's finally got enough for a mocha. As he stands to place his order, it becomes apparent that he's immaculately dressed, albeit for a starring role in Todd Haynes' glam homage Velvet Goldmine: Bedecked in a (fake) fur-lined coat, tight-fitting, bell-bottom slacks, and perfectly shaggy coif, he's the epitome of the cute, stylish, nascent rock star. His image was even more perfectly honed on the band's recent self-titled full-length CD for taste-making Seattle label Sub Pop.
Vue is about to climb into the band's leaking van to embark on a short tour, the terminus of which is this year's South by Southwest music conference, the mother of all such events. For now, Buffa doesn't need a place to live. "People are attracted to the band because we're doing so much," he explains in a tone that's more quietly confident than boastful. "But at the same time, they don't understand the energy that we put into it. I think it's ruined a number of people who've come into it because they've been overtaken by it. They come in thinking, 'Yeah, I'm gonna be a rock star and make a lot of money,' and it totally takes them apart, 'cause they don't get that it's a lot of work, and that you'll be impoverished, and that it's gonna ruin your social life."
Vue -- founding members Buffa, singer/ guitarist Rex Shelverton, and bassist Jeremy Bringetto, along with keyboardist Jessica Graves, and new drummer Raphael Ohayon, all 24 -- is what happens when three hard-working, intelligent, and ambitious kids from Half Moon Bay discover the Birthday Party. And Bowie. And the Damned. And a million other theatrically oriented rock bands many have long since relegated to the dustbin of history. So how did three childhood friends growing up in a quiet Northern California surfing town morph into a dark, swaggering, stylish rock band that's rapidly being embraced by tattooed kids from here to the Bowery?
"Through skateboarding, in a way," says Shelverton, dressed in snug bell-bottom jeans and a shirt unbuttoned to his chest. He's remarkably thin, with an unruly mop of black hair that continually threatens his vision, and there is black ink all over his hands -- the result of his day job as head printer at Oakland's punk-friendly Iconography Press. "We were into heavy metal, so we kind of took the heavy metal-skate punk route into it -- like Misfits and Minor Threat, and then Gilman Street."
"We all went to Gilman, like, every week," adds Buffa.
"We wouldn't even know who was playing," says Shelverton. It was the Gilman Street Project, the all-ages Berkeley punk club and launching pad for such legendary outfits as Operation Ivy, Rancid, and Green Day, that gave Shelverton, Buffa, and Bringetto their first hint that a life of music was not only possible, but practically inevitable for fans of their magnitude. "Seeing bands on that stage made it seem so attainable," says Shelverton in the slightly spacey manner that betrays a coastal upbringing. "It seemed like we could do that. It wasn't like some other big rock concert. It was like, 'We could do this.'"
So inspiring were the trio's trips to the East Bay that Buffa soon quit taking guitar lessons. He also stopped listening to Guns N' Roses, AC/DC, and all the other hard rock outfits he'd once emulated, preferring instead to devour records by bands -- lots of bands -- with considerably less commercial appeal. In 1993 he departed for another surf mecca -- Santa Cruz -- to attend college. When Shelverton, who'd started a band, arrived soon thereafter and began looking for another guitarist, the choice was obvious. "Even before we got together, Jonah spent, like, a thousand dollars on equipment, just to come to practice," says Shelverton, laughing, while Buffa stares at his mocha, slightly embarrassed. "We just clicked. And that was it." Bringetto joined his boyhood friends later.
The band was called Portraits of Past, and it stayed together 3 1/2 years. Comprised of Buffa and Shelverton on guitar, Bringetto on bass, a revolving cast of drummers, and another high school friend on vocals, the band made a name for itself first as a hardcore act ("We were playing really extreme, Napalm Death-y screaming stuff," recalls Shelverton), and then as one of many groups within California's emerging emo scene.
Portraits of Past released a single and a full-length album before calling it quits. According to Shelverton and Buffa, its demise was largely the result of their dissatisfaction with the often narrow-minded scene in which they dwelled. In fact, both now consider their time in Portraits of Past as significant not for the music they created, but for pointing the way to where they are now. "We broke up because we were getting defined as a certain kind of band," says Shelverton. "We couldn't play songs that sounded like Pavement, or songs that sounded like the Rolling Stones."