Overview is a series of reviews of short, done bodies of work that are probably out of print–complete discographies that are over. Some people say I should call this an oeuvre-view, some people don’t care about french puns, but everybody should spend an hour trying to track down these albums because they’re worth it. I mean, I found them somewhere and I’m better off now.
It makes sense to introduce Chad Rex’s story as an ancillary to Drag the River’s–he and Jon Snodgrass have been playing music together since middle school, Rex (known to some as Little Chad to distinguish him from Chad Price) played bass on the original Drag the River sessions. Likewise, the two records we’re talking about here were released by Jon’s label Mars Motors. But to limit the two albums Chad Rex made with his own band, the Victorstands, to that kind of discussion would be a major underestimation of two of the best Midwestern rock records I’ve ever heard.
Songs to Fix Angels came out in 2001, the same year as Pneumonia, Love and Theft, and Time (The Revelator). Gravity Works Fire Burns followed in 2006, coinciding with It’s Crazy. and Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers. These albums belong in those sentences. Part of what sets them apart from other country-rock albums we talk about here–and from Rex’s well-served influences Jay Farrar, The Replacements, Steve Earle–is the choice of flourishes. The Victorstands don’t call upon a pedal steel to ground their songs, they’re more likely to spray some piano flurries throughout; honing a similar groove as “Don’t Go Back to Rockville”-type R.E.M. stuff. Again, to limit this band to their influences is a short-sell. The “country & midwestern” template is there but it’s also wide open. Chad’s songs feel like they can go anywhere–like they might throttle the familiar at any moment–or connect two disparate wires and jumpstart the thing–and they do–they follow those esoteric flourishes–pursuing Husker Du or Big Star or Uncle Tupelo with the same veracity–in terms of power trio rigor and songwriting transcendence.
Back to the Breakdown
Rex is playing bass with Drag the River as they tour behind their new self-titled LP. He and Jon were kind enough to talk about these releases with me when they came through Boston with Cory Branan in December. I got to the bar after DTR’s soundcheck–Neil Young’s On the Beach album was playing. “This is such a good album,” I said to Cory as I waited for Chad to finish putting his gear away. “Neil’s the man,” he said. “No,” I said, “this album specifically is the best.” Then he told me about the good time they’d all had in New York the night before and how he’d gotten sick on the bus. I felt like I should’ve asked to get on the guest list; they guy at the door didn’t let me in before paying even though it was an hour before doors even opened.
Chad: I kinda mumble.
9B: Yeah me too. I just wanted to talk about the two Victorstands albums and a little about you and Jon’s relationship. You’ve known each other a long time, right?
Chad: We were in sixth grade, so ’84,’85. We were both raised in St. Joseph, Missouri.
9B: Did you get along right away?
Chad: I don’t know if we got along right away. I met him just hanging around in the neighborhood because he was in a different sixth grade class than me. We were friends through middle school and toward the end of eighth grade we became better friends then we were inseparable through high school.
9B: Is that when you started in bands together?
Chad: I played music–I started playing drums when I was five, guitar when i was eight. Jon didn’t play anything until he was fourteen, fifteen. I talked his dad into buying him a drum set because we needed a drummer. Our friend Steve played bass and I played guitar.
9B: What was the name of that band?
Chad: The Screaming Fetuses. That Steve was Steve Garcia, the first bass player for Armchair Martian.
9B: A lot of people had gone from Missouri to Colorado then? Was ALL in Missouri while y’all were there?
Chad: ALL was in Brookfield, which was about an hour and half east of St. Joseph, around Kansas City. And I think Jon and I were in Kansas City at that time, we were just out of high school and moved from St. Joe to Kansas City when ALL came to Brookfield.
9B: Was Chad [Price] with them then?
Chad: No, Chad hooked up with them in Kansas City. I didn’t know Chad then.
9B: Ok, we’ll hook back up with that later. What kind of music did Screaming Fetuses play?
Chad: I don’t know, it wasn’t really punk, maybe just juvenile rock. The attitude was punk–a song called “I found my moms head in the toilet,” asinine stuff, fourteen year-old kid stuff.
9B: Were you all writing in that band?
Chad: Yeah. We wouldn’t even write lyrics, it was just off the cuff and ridiculous.
9B: What bands were you guys listening to?
Chad: Husker Du a lot. All the SST bands. Dino Jr. Sonic Youth. Jon was really into Sonic Youth. I love them now, but I wasn’t into them as much at the time. The Minutemen. The stuff we’d find at Music Land, the local record store. Pixies. The Cure. The Replacements.
Song for Paul Westerberg to Sing
9B: How easy was it to find that music at the time? Was it the kind of stuff kids at high school would talk about?
Chad: Yeah some of it. The Dead Milkmen, stuff like that. We had two record stores in St. Joseph. Record Warehouse–classic rock and pop music. And Music Land was in the mall–similar to Sam Goody–and you could order from them anything you wanted. So you’d look through their catalogue and if you knew what you were looking for, they’d have it for you the next week.
There was a radio station in the college town of Marionville Missouri that we got in St. Joe and a show called Static & Stereo–that’s pretty much where everyone heard that stuff for the first time. When Sister by Sonic Youth came out, they played that one front to back. College rock. Husker Du. Smithereens. Some people had older brothers who knew about music. A friend of my brother’s, Michael Buck, had a great record collection, and he would turn my brother onto things and my brother would pass it on to me. Everybody bought cassettes back then and we’d burn them for each other. You’d always look for something no one else had and then you’d be the cool guy. Something outrageous like the Butthole Surfers.
[At this point Whiskey Gentry starts to soundcheck. We grab our coats and continue conversation in sub-freezing temps. Fuck Boston. Thanks for sticking it out, Chad.]
9B: What’s there to do in St. Joseph? Jesse James got killed there, right?
Chad: Well, that’s up for… it was probably on the outside of city limits, but they moved the house into town. It’s where the Pony Express started and they’re proud of that, but the telegraph came pretty immediately after the Pony Express was founded and made mail-by-horse pretty useless.
9B: Is it pretty much a suburban kind of place?
Chad: It’s not super small, 80,000 people, 4 high schools, large enough where everyone doesn’t know each other. Segregated parts. Affluent parts. It’s on the Missouri River so they built it from the river out and all the newer nicer parts are away from the river. I still have a lot of friends there and I live in Kansas City now. My parents still live in St. Joe. It’s a conservative Midwestern city.
9B: Did you go into Kansas City or St. Louis a lot growing up?
Chad: Kansas City all the time. St. Louis was farther away. But as soon as Jon got his license we were in Kansas City all the time.
9B: Better shows?
Chad: Better record stores. Where we wouldn’t have to order them. That was a big deal. It was nice to sneak off.
9B: After high school what did you guys do? Did you want to go to college? Keep bands going?
Chad: We didn’t want to go to college, actually, and neither of us did. Jon and I lived in Kansas City for a year and then he moved to Fort Collins. I stayed in Kansas City about 3 or 4 years and then I moved to Fort Collins in ’95 to play bass for Armchair Martian. During those years in Kansas City, I played bass in my brother’s band called Go-Kart when I was 19. I had my own band called Odd Face with friends of mine and we played for a couple years. That was three-piece Husker Du stuff that I wrote lyrics for. I did a lot of solo stuff, I’ve always done that.
9B: Are there any Odd Face records?
Chad: Nope. There’s an infamous 4-track record that floats around and people like it. I recently found a copy of it and I think it’s just awful. I thought I’d look back on it more fondly, but it was just.. .there must be some redeeming quality about it, people love it. I couldn’t sing, some of the writing’s alright. It sounds like a demo recorded in a basement. Our bass player had a fretless bass, our drummer was into Neil Pert. Nothing kinda fit. But the songs were alright. There’s a couple songs I still play acoustic every once in a while.
9B: Did you like playing bass better or would you do whatever your band needed?
Chad: For Armchair, Jon called and said Steve Garcia was leaving. I had my band but we were just playing locally and not really getting anywhere. The scene in Kansas City at that time–we were the only band that sounded like that. It was an early-mid 90’s…
9B: Bottle Rockets were sort-of nearby?
Chad: Bottle Rockets had been around, yeah, but there wasn’t a country rock scene there. Son Volt was what changed all that for everybody. Uncle Tupelo was there, but not many people were influenced. Kansas City was more of a heavy rock and Jesus Lizard type rock. And we sounded like Husker Du. So it didn’t really fit.
So I moved up to Fort Collins to play with Jon and we did 2 or three tours and that’s right around the time the first Armchair Record came out. I didn’t play on the first record, but I played on Monsters Always Scream which we made at that time.
Then I moved back to Kansas City. Not sure why. I don’t remember. I think I was just homesick.
Edgar Bergan’s Ghost
9B: Is it colder in Colorado than Kansas City or is it the same Midwestern cold?
Chad: It’s colder in Fort Collins. People pretend it’s not, say it’s a “drier” cold or something.
But we had lost our house in Fort Collins. And nobody had a place to live. I was sleeping on couches. I would sleep in The Blasting Room, on the couch in the reception area. It wasn’t pleasant for anyone. Descendents were on tour, so Steve and Bill weren’t there.
9B: Did you ever record anything overnight?
Chad: No. We did the first Drag the River record there, though, just engineering it mostly on our own. So we would go over there after being at the bar somewhere in Fort Collins and Jason Livermore would set everything up for us so that whenever we came in all we had to do was press record and press stop. That’s as recording savvy as I am in a big recording studio. That was Hobos Demos stuff, that was fun.
9B: Husker Du is a hard band to get a hold of–because everybody says that they like them or whatever but there aren’t a lot of bands that actually have anything going for them that sounds anything like what Husker Du had. A lot of lip service. I think Jon has always been good at somehow getting some of that hard-to-redo sound in there and I hear a lot of it in the Victorstands stuff too.
Chad: Definitely that guitar tone. I learned how to play chords from listening to Bob Mould. The ringing, the G with the drone, the high-note drone. And any time I tried to veer from that, either from just being bored or being tired of comparisons, it just not the same–it just seems like that’s the way I play. Sometime I sit down and try to write a folk song in C Major and use all the bar chords and I end up just going back to the usual chord changes. Armchair definitely more than what I’ve done. But the first Victorstands record too. I had to cover a lot of ground on guitar in that band, a lot like Jon in Armchair. So I tried to make us into a four piece with two guitars so that in the live show I could play a singer-songwriter role on acoustic guitar with the full band behind me. But it was hard to pull off, so we cut it back to three. We are actually a four-piece again at the moment–but with a keyboard player instead of a second guitarist.
Build a Rocket
9B: Is it the same group of guys?
Chad: Jason is still playing bass. But we rarely play. We went a long time without playing any shows at all. In the last two or three years we’ve played two or three shows, though. We did a Replacements tribute show in Kansas City.
9B: What songs did you guys do?
Chad: Valentine, Aching to Be, Kids Don’t Follow, Skyway, and one more, I think. We were invited to that and then we played the night before my wedding about a year and a half ago. We’re playing January in Kansas City. People keep asking us to play.
9B: What goes into your decision to do a show if you’re not such an active band? What makes you say yes or seek out something?
Chad: Everyone has different projects and families. I had to talk myself into the fact that the Victorstands would just have to be a hobby, where we would be able to practice and play a good show in town or open up for somebody good, play with good bands, have it be fun. No one really wants to go on tour. I still have other ideas, that I would put another band together. I’m writing stuff all the time and I’m writing right now. If I do make another Victorstands record i should probably do it soon. Maybe I’ll do one more with them and then do solo stuff. The second Victorstands record was basically just me playing drums, bass, and guitars. People came in and helped. Those sessions were all done in my friend Garret’s house. He’d set up a home studio and we were testing it out. We spent 9 months on it, working on the weekends and testing all the machines. It was a great learning experience and I wasn’t charged to make a record. There was no way I could’ve made that record in a recording studio. I would’ve had to have done it in a week or two. And we spent a lot of time on it. All done in Pro-Tools. I think it came out sounding really well because we went to Austin Texas and had it mixed by Eldrige Goings. He did an amazing job, made it sound 10,000 times better. It’s a really dry record. We tried not to overuse the effects plug-ins and stuff.
Blind the Moon
9B: Both those records came out on Mars Motors? Jon’s label?
Chad: Yeah, Jon and Eric Flash. I talked to Flash a little about doing a download-only record–because I can record stuff at home and send it to him. It’s easier for me not to think about record labels, though. I’d love to have a hard copy, but we’ll see.
9B: Ok, so you’re moving back to Kansas City and how long until the Victorstands came together?
Chad: I had it put together before I even got back. I called Jason and Matt, who was the first drummer, and… No, wait I’m completely lying. They called me because they needed a guitar player. They were playing under the name Drag the River.
Chad: Yes, because Jason is Chad Price’s good friend, they used to play together. So I think the name was up in the air. Jason found the name from another band named Drag the River. Jason saw the name somewhere. So in a weird way Drag the River is actually named after another band. So I went and played for them with Jason singing and playing guitar, then we switched it around. I played guitar and he played bass. I had songs from over the years. We played for a couple years, put out the first record. In the meantime, my brother came in to play drums. So there’s actually two drummers on the first record. Matt on the softer stuff and my brother on the heavier songs. My brother’s still the drummer, Jason’s still on bass.
9B: You seem to still be writing all the time–what goes into your decision to record stuff or not? Since you moved back to Kansas City, what’s been the relationship between music and the rest of your life?
Chad: I do have a full time job in the kitchen at a bar & grill and the only reason I’m out with Drag the River now is that I have enough good will that when I told them I was going to go out on four or five tours that they didn’t fire me, which is good because I would’ve left no matter what. I wanted to come out again and they needed somebody on bass. Otherwise I have a very loose schedule. I spent some years not recording, just writing. Now I record stuff at home. I just got married, concentrating on that. I haven’t drank for a year and a half.
9B: Was that getting in the way?
Chad: Yeah, looking back it did. Kept me lazy and lethargic. It was nice to get out of that kind of rut. As far as decisions to play shows–I swore off playing acoustic shows a year ago because there are just too many people in Kansas City doing it. It’s hard because it’s ingrained in me to never turn down a show, but i’m just concentrating on my life and I don’t want to force myself to play songs.
9B: Was staying away from shows a decision that had to do with keeping yourself away from situations where you would drink?
Chad: No, it had do with just easing out of that part of my life in general, letting a hobby be a hobby. I wanted that weight off my shoulders for a little bit. I can’t go to a show without wanting to play in a show, so just trying to unlearn that was a challenge. I had to be able to learn how to be an observer. And it’s really weird still.
9B: When did you first start to notice that–like in high school?
Chad: Yeah, oh yeah. And I still enjoy seeing bands, but maybe there’s some sort of A.D.D. thing going on where I can only concentrate on what the guitar player is doing and not the song as a whole.
9B: Do you write only on guitar or?
Chad: I write on acoustic guitar and an electric piano that I don’t know how to use very well. I know some chords so if I can tap out a melody on the high keys it’s always a cool way that it works out. I have a drum machine on the piano which is probably the best part. Because if I’m writing on guitar and I turn the drum machine on, I can write something a little jaunty or different. If I’m left to sit on the couch and write, it’s gonna be a slow song. And I have a lot of those, and a lot of those recorded. But I don’t want a mellow record right now. I said if I make another, I’m gonna have to make some sort of summer pop record. Hard-driving driving around music. Way too much mellow music coming out. The slow ones are the easiest–well not easy, but it’s what I go to. And it all comes out sounding like a Jay Farrar solo record.
9B: Did you listen to the new Son Volt from this year?
Chad: Yeah, I listened two or three times and I liked it. And the one before was good, too. But I think that sometimes when a band has such a good first release, it’s impossible not to level everything else against that.
9B: Yeah, and there’s nothing like “Windfall.”
Chad: Yeah, and it’s not even like he’s in a slump or anything because the new ones are good. But Trace, that record changed everything in the midwest, that was a music-changing record. Every band immediately hooked onto that, anybody who had been a fan of midwestern bar rock or Tom Petty or anything. There were bands that had that jangly southern stuff in the 80’s, but Son Volt just put it all together and everybody caught on for better or worse. It influenced my sound a lot.
9B: Were you guys into Uncle Tupelo much or not until they were done-ish?
Chad: Oh we heard of Uncle Tupelo because they were playing Kansas City before we were even old enough to get into bars. I remember them playing and my brother worked the door, so we got to hang outside during soundcheck. Jon was a much bigger fan of Uncle Tupelo right out of the gate. I liked them, but I never freaked out about them. I could talk about Son Volt all day, though. I think he’s a masterful lyricist.
9B: Have you ever met him? [Jon walks outside and joins in.]
Jon: Frozen brosefs.
Chad: He just asked me if I ever met Jay Farrar, but you’ve met him right?
Jon: Yeah we had the same shoes.
9B: Do you write anything besides songs?
Chad: I write lyrics by themselves often, but not anything else like books.
9B: What do you like to read?
Chad: Strictly biographies. Reading one on Harry Truman, the Brooklyn Bridge. I can’t concentrate on novels anymore.
Jon: I’ve been reading lately…we used to say I love the short story because I like a long nap…but I’ve been so hooked on those David Sedaris books because they’re short, and the Flannery O’connor short stories too. And Elmore Leonard.
Chad: Any rock biography, I’ve read em all.
9B: Do you have a favorite?
Chad: There’s a really good Aerosmith one.
Jon: Have you read Warren Zevon’s?
Chad: The one his wife wrote? It was ok.
9B: Did you read Bob Mould’s?
Chad and Jon: Yeah it was alright.
Chad: Sometime I have a problem with autobiographies. I really want to know more techie stuff, stuff that publishers wouldn’t want in the book. Like the Pete Townsend autobiography–I just want to hear why he started playing the A-chord like that.
Jon: Send him a tweet!
9B: What made you guys book a tour in Canada and New England in December? I guess it’s cold in Colorado, too.
Chad: Because it was warm when we were thinking about it. We were like “ah, we’ll be fine.”
Jon: To be honest, there’s less competition so you can get a pretty good shake.
[Soundcheck is over, so we go inside to avoid freezing further. Chad graciously exits and I finish up the interview with Jon.]
9B: What did you and Chad do around town when you were kids?
Jon: We rode skateboards and played Nintendo. We met each other at the Convenient Food Mart. Drank Mountain Dew and listened to Husker Du.
9B: Were you guys competitive as songwriters at all?
Jon: Maybe when we were kids, but definitely not now.
9B: Who’s a better drummer?
Jon: … me. Nah, he’s a good drummer. He taught me how to play guitar, taught me the chords. I learned how to play music with him.
9B: What’s it like still playing with him?
Jon: Oh it’s great. I would play with him for the rest of my life. We keep talking about putting out the stuff from this old rock band we used to do.
9B: Do you remember what they were called?
Jon: Yeah, it was called Hotsy. [Jon does jazz hands.]
Chad writes awesome songs and sings them real good. Let’s hope his discography isn’t actually over. I would love a hard-driving summer record.
Find the two Victorstands records at iTunes and Amazon and emusic.