By Ian S. Port
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By Gil Riego Jr.
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"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."
That changed with Shelverton and Bringetto's next project, Seventeen Queen. An attempt to create music with more overtly pop sounds and arrangements, the band was short-lived but prophetic. When Buffa rejoined his friends ("It just made sense," says Shelverton), they changed the name to the Audience, which in turn became Vue.
The Death of a Girl, released by Berkeley's Gold Standard Laboratories, is Vue's most recent offering, and its best work to date. Featuring three tracks recorded in the summer of last year (with local producer and ex-Vain frontman Davy Vain) and two tracks from an early single, it illustrates just how far Shelverton, Buffa, and Bringetto have come from Gilman's skate punk aesthetic. In fact, the supreme irony of Vue is that for all of its members' punk cred, the band completely eschews that genre's breakneck tempos, crunching chords, and mosh-inducing rhythms. Instead, Girl features the amphetamine-fueled lust of the Stooges-like "Child for You" and "Hush Your Head," while the title track is an eerie, organ-driven dirge that recalls "From Her to Eternity"-era Nick Cave.
Buffa's guitar lines are linear, reverb-laden, and decidedly un-punk throughout, while Shelverton sounds genuinely unhinged à la Iggy, Cave, and the Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce. "I'll taste your strawberry lip gloss again and again/ I'll kiss off all the perfume all around your neck," he slurs on the plodding title track, before it explodes into howling noise. By the end of the almost seven-minute song, the singer sounds spent and defeated.
That's rarely the case on the band's self-titled debut for Sub Pop, recorded over the past year in two sessions, one with Vain and the other with Northwest producer Phil Ek (best known for his work with Built to Spill), and released in February. Filled with bouncing beats, angular guitars, and Shelverton's attitude-infused vocals, the album references three decades of eccentric rock, conjuring ghosts almost too numerous to mention, including Diamond Dogs-era Bowie, Bauhaus, the Stooges, the Birthday Party, Gallon Drunk, the Fall, and long-lost L.A. neo-goths (and one-time Sub Pop act) Plexi. Exploding immediately with "White Traffic," a pummeling three-minute manifesto, the album swerves indiscriminately between glam (the Keith-inspired "Angel's Alright," and T. Rex-flavored "Cotton Kisses"), atonal art rock ("Nothing Left But You," "Talk to a Model,"), and pure garage pounding ("The Shame," "We Were Here"). There's even an ambient instrumental. One has to speculate about Shelverton's, Buffa's, and Bringetto's record collections, and in what warehouse they're stored.
"The fact that they can play something and make it simultaneously sound like Television or the Gun Club or Duran Duran or even Nation of Ulysses is pretty admirable," says Sonny Kay, punk veteran and proprietor of both Gold Standard Laboratories and Oakland's Bottlenekk Distribution. He first encountered Buffa, Shelverton, and Bringetto seven years ago, when his hardcore band regularly shared bills with Portraits of Past. "As individuals, it seems to me that they're all coming from totally different angles," says Kay. "It's so precarious, everything is so chaotic when they come together. In a way that adds a weird element of excitement to what they're doing, an element of chance."
But Kay can see a time ahead when Vue will need to focus on a singular sound, or risk being the master of none. "Right now they're kind of riding this fence between this full-blown, almost rock operatic, traditional, classical-type rock band, and this uppity, guitar pop band. I think they could conceivably do both pretty well, but I think that sooner or later they're going to have to make a decision about which way they want to go."
The problem is that Vue's pluralistic approach is part of what makes it Vue. The band members themselves eschew any allegiances to one genre or another, preferring instead to be inspired by an album, a song, or a single hook. But this approach elicits accusations that their music is dated. "A lot of what's written about us says 'good retro rock,' and I don't think we're retro rock at all," says Shelverton. "I think we're modern in that we reference a lot of things."
Buffa contends that despite his enthusiasm for various sounds and styles, the band's music has always contained a central, unifying theme. "There's a certain mood or sound that's always present in all of it," he explains. "It may have changed in its form or direction, but it's stayed the same entity."
It's an entity that's had to make its way to Austin in a battered, leaking van that two weeks ago stalled in the middle of Haight Street -- a minor distraction on the road to the next show and the next record. And despite their youth, their impressive past, and their release of two bracing albums within six months of each other, Shelverton and Buffa seem to be almost incapable of comprehending their achievements. "I think we have the potential to do a really, really good record," Shelverton confides. "I'm always looking forward. It's hard to rest on what little laurels you have."
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