The phrase "Straight to VHS" was originally a film term implying expediency because of a decided lack of quality - as in a newly-released movie would bypass distribution to national theaters and, at top speed, be relegated to video store VHS bins.
As for the New London punk/garage trio called Straight to VHS, neither the "quick" or "sucky" implication is accurate. The band - guitarist/singer/songwriter Jon Young, bassist Tony Chagnon and drummer Jay Silva - scored immense local popularity when it formed five years ago. An early, self-titled EP, produced with raw energy by the iconic Matt Potter (Fatal Film et al), exploded on the local scene and sent shockwaves through the region.
But subsequent expectations that they'd channel the talent and energy and rocket to a national profile have been painfully derailed by a succession of complications.
Simultaneously, each of the three members faced problems with crumbling romantic relationships - some involving children. Too, Chagnon was battling an on-again/off-again substance abuse problem. It was a derailing element from a musical standpoint, but it also caused great personal tension since Chagnon and Young had been close friends since childhood.
Ultimately, Chagnon - now sober - told Young his heart was no longer in the band and he left. It took more time and energy to find a replacement whose personal chemistry and distinct musical acumen fit, but at last Tim Donnel joined the ranks and, once again, Straight to VHS righted their course.
Only now, at a CD release party Saturday in New London's Bank Street Cafe, will Straight to VHS finally release "Rewinder," their debut album. That the album was actually recorded more than two years ago is another part of the story, but the important thing is that, at last, the band has a chance to reharness momentum and, perhaps, fate.
Straight to VHS' music is glorious, jittery and hook-clustered with driving melodicsm - all contained, like test-tube'd plague, inside punchy two- and three-minute songs. The music he writes seems to reflect Young's urgency. At 36, his commitment is more iron-clad than ever, fueled not just by his self-assurance as a leader and writer, but also, perhaps, by a sense of time running out.
Last week,Young sat down to answer a few questions.
You've made no secret of your desire to to "make it" as a musician. After the delays you guys have gone through, do you feel any additional urgency now that you're 36?
I've played music all along, but I don't think I actively started thinking about it seriously 'til I was 25 or 26. When I was 31, it really hit me: this is what I love and what I'm best at. I thought, well, maybe I'll be crushed, but I'm going for it. I sat down and made a plan: I'm going to be in a band and make a living. No more screwing around. I decided to go full ahead and jump into it.
Sometimes, the pursuit of artistic goals sort of precludes things like a business plan. Obviously, you have to have the band and the music - the "art" part - but what do you mean when you say you organized a strategy?
Well, yeah, there was the band. Straight to VHS was my first all-out effort to be a leader and implement all of the things I'd learned over the years; all the ideas not just about the music, but creating a buzz. We played live, we got that first EP out. People liked it. There are phases you go through. I had a master plan and went down the check list. To my surprise, it worked.
There were a lot of problems you guys went through that short-circuited the momentum. Ultimately, Tony - one of your best friends - decided to leave the band. Talk about how that affected you, not just musically, but emotionally.
Tony and I grew up next-door neighbors in Ashaway. When we started playing music, it was like a brotherhood. We'd practice all day every day and it wasn't ever work. It was like we were supposed to be doing it. For the longest time, Tony was the singer and the leader of our bands, and it was good.
In Straight to VHS, when we sort of shifted roles, it was still fine. It was magical. Musically, we never had to explain anything to each other. You wonder, how do I replace that? But, yeah, it's not just music. The chemistry - the fun you have - you can't just expect that to happen. Here's this crazy punk rock band and we've been making each other laugh for years.
You might find someone else who can play, but maybe he's, like, a serious guy. That obviously doesn't work. It was amazingly lucky to find Tim. He'd originally tried to help out recommending other musicians - and then he said, hell, I'll give it a try.
The early reality that all three musicians had relationship troubles, and Tony had substance abuse troubles, obviously short-circuited the band's progress. But what did it do to you as a songwriter? Some artists might use that distress as a creative inspiration. Others might find it an emotional barrier.
There were a lot of things going on that you have to deal with. With respect to Tony, he was going through torture. I couldn't help as much as I wanted because of my own problems. Over that whole period, as it turned into months and then years, I was freaking out. I had this growing urgency, but I couldn't write because of the uncertainty. I didn't know whether we'd have a band or who was in it. We'd finished recording the album but I didn't have the money to mix it - and I wasn't sure there would even BE a band. Ultimately, it did work with Tim, and we've gotten back on track. At that point, you can look back, creatively, and say, "Well, you've got to suffer a bit. It goes hand in hand with the process." But that didn't help when it was all happening.
Yes: "Rewinder" will be released this week and the band's together and healthy. What do you do now to get back to that master plan checklist?
Jay and I are trying to start our own record label. In addition to VHS, he also plays with the Weird Beards. We want to release albums for both bands and then push. The idea would be to get a loan, maybe re-release the EP on vinyl, and use the early sales to put it back into the label.
We've got new material - so do the Weird Beards - and get back into the studio. Move forward. Maybe record other acts; get an art department and market merchandise. The whole business plan.
Ultimately, you've got to play music. That's the whole idea. I could see touring with the Weird Beards and going to different towns. Expand the territory and meet other bands and network. We've learned so much from how Rich Martin and Sean Murray go about things here in New London.
You're in a good place, then.
Yeah, finally (laughs). I'll take a deep breath after the release party. You know, it's not about big success, now. That would be nice, but I obsessed so long about the band and this record and what it could mean. Now, I want it done and over with - not in a bad way - but to ride the momentum and get to the rest of whatever I'm meant to do.
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