Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Vanrays: East Van Soul Served Hot - a Spencer McKinnon and Gordon Rempel interview UPDATED

Have two years' worth of socially distanced concertgoing, with bands shielded with plastic, audiences spread out and confined to their tables, or shows flat-out disallowed turned you into a ravenous music fiend, making up for lost time? Are you terrified that the skyrocketing costs of big-ticket items and imperiled state of music festivals will deprive you of the sonic soul food you need to make it through the workweek? Do you feel like now more than ever there is an imperative to get out and support local live music, to help our scene back to a state of thriving functionality and ensure that the music-makers, venues, promoters, and other creatives continue to be able to provide us essential live music experiences, as the economy teeters and the pandemic threatens a resurgence, which could shut everything down again...? 

If so, with apologies to another longtime local favourite, Bison (who are sold out, anyhow!), I have a strong recommendation for tonight, February 11th, 2023: go see the Vanrays and CLONE at the Fox Theatre.

The Vanrays, L-to-R: Brian Barr, Phil Addington, Gordon Rempel, Spencer McKinnon, Andrew Samuel, Eric Lowe, Melissa Lee, Jose Blanco, photo by Carleen Kyle

Fans of Motown (or Daptone), people who love soul and R&B and a touch of funky rock, will plunge easily and blissfully into the deep grooves of the Vanrays. And the choice to pair them live tonight with glam rockers CLONE - another of the best live bands in Vancouver, but occupying a wholly unrelated niche, sharing a bill with the Vanrays for the first time ever - is an inspired, almost diabolically clever touch, because even though their musics have as much to do with each other as pickles and ice cream, PROBABLY a lot of music fans whose explorations have spread wide enough to take in soul have at least a few glam rock records in their collections, too, and vice versa. I interviewed the Vanrays for the Straight a few years ago, back when their first EP came out, and caught them at the Railway (I believe the first show I saw there after they had re-opened, with new rules in place that kept all their windows closed, so the space was unbearably, sweat-drippingly hot, even before the band - sorry, this is a cheesy pun - started to cook). Fittingly, the Vanrays' new album, Put It Out, has more than a few references to heat and fire in its lyrics... as well as songs about the struggles we've all been through, as the pandemic and concomitant lockdown dragged along.

The lead single, "Hard Times," is a case-in-point argument for how effectively soul music can deal with economic desperation and very relevant to the current financial circumstances of many of us, though there are no particular songs about being broke that informed it, singer Spencer McKinnon tells me. "I think some of the inspiration came from listening to Curtis Mayfield's 'Right On for the Darkness,' 'Pusherman,' and 'Move On Up,'" he explains. "I love the horn arrangements and the slow groove and was trying to pay tribute to that with 'Hard Times' and 'Made It.'"

But, Spencer continues, "everything about COVID for a band was 'hard times.' It was hard to get together, and even harder to play live anywhere for any reason. We tried to collaborate on distanced, home-filmed videos but the experience was less than adequate, some would even say 'isolating.' When we finally were able to get together at [bassist] Phil [Addington]’s rehearsal spot in his basement, he had hung sheets of plastic" - so-called vapour shields - "sectioning off the horns, drums, and vocals, basically trying to make it a workable solution. It looked right out of a horror movie." (For his part, drummer Eric Lowe refers to it as Phil's "Silence of the Lambs basement set-up," while keyboardist Gordon Rempel observes that "it kind of felt like playing in one of Dexter's kill rooms"). "We are all glad to put that part of our lives behind us. Onwards and upwards."

Plans for the album had actually begun, Rempel explains, with the recording of bed tracks (drums, bass, some keys and scratch vocals) back in December, 2019, just as news of the pandemic was spreading out of China. "We had planned to resume in February 2020, but we all know what came crushing down on the world then. Not able to rehearse, let alone record, we investigated every online jamming piece of software available, but none seemed to work, especially with a band as large as the Vanrays" (they currently have eight members, and occasionally are joined by guests onstage, more on which below; with original trombonist Leroy "Andy" Pierpont joining them tonight, there will be ten people onstage in total). 

Rempel continues: "Determined to keep the band real, we chose two songs of ours to complete remotely - 'Shake My Hand' and 'Survivors,'" both of which can be heard on the band's Social Distance Demos bandcamp page. "Horns, guitars, keys and more were added to the bed tracks individually, either with home studio set ups or a webcam and a microphone. We all videoed our performances - some 'lip syncing' and some playing live," which Rempel himself stitched together; the video for "Survivors" has that unique "lockdown-mode" Zoom room aesthetic that will stand as a lasting artefact of playing through plague (as will the cross-fertilization of members of the Vanrays and China Syndrome, the China Rays, though I personally would have argued for "Chanrays" as a wittier name; maybe Tim wasn't into it?). With an intent to eventually complete the album, "as restrictions allowed, Brian Barr, our guitarist and sound engineer, along with our producer, Scott Fletcher, resumed recording our parts with as few people in the room as possible." 

Gordon, for his part, "recorded a ton of [his] keyboard parts in [his] garage and sent them in to Brian and Scott to integrate in." The end product is "A long cry from that Stax style live off the floor thing we had envisioned," Rempel admits, "but Scott Fletcher's wizardry saved us!"

The Vanrays at the Roxy, by Sharon Steele

While some artists did okay supplementing meagre opportunities to play live with livestreaming, McKinnon observes that "even before COVID," that model of performance did not work well for the Vanrays."We played Tractorgrease and had technical issues with the audio," McKinnon recalls, while Rempel remembers an outdoor live show that got streamed, "but there was no real prep work or separate mix, so it was a bit of a technological disaster that we’re hoping not many saw. Nothing can replace feeling the kick drum in your gut that you get from watching a live show. and performing without an audience in front of us felt stupid." 

Like those Zoom-room videos, one COVID-related song of the band's, "Shake My Hand," probably will lose some meaning if and when memory of the pandemic is allowed to fade. It started as a "filler song" to address Eric's observation that "we didn’t have enough faster songs with a good beat that’ll keep 'em on the dance floor," Spencer explains. "I rattled off a song in character about a guy that shakes your hand, which seemed pretty unsavoury during COVID. Even now when someone tries to shake my hand, I think, 'Hmm, is he trying to shake me down? Why is he not using his elbow?' It will be some time before the handshake is once again in vogue, if ever. Thanks, COVID."

Not everything on the album is COVID-themed, mind you. Seeing the references to fire on the cover and lyrics to "Put It Out" (and "Up in Smoke," too), I wondered if any of the band members had been impacted by the various fires that cleared prime real estate around Vancouver, inciting my more cynical friends to speculate about nefarious development schemes. Nothing so juicy was intended, McKinnon informs me - the lyrics are "really quite self explanatory: 'You take a fire girl and you put it out/ You take desire and conspire, turn it into doubt/ You take a heart, fill it up with pain/ Then you’re making up but sure enough you do it again./ You’re a natural born killer, killing ’s what you do/ Takin' hearts all apart in your high heeled shoes.” …

The proper way to see the Vanrays

One of the nicer surprises on the album, meantime, is hearing the female background vocals on "Hard Times." Reading the liner notes for the album, I thought it sounded like there are more females singing than just Melissa Lee - the band's "resident graphic designer," Rempel calls her,  as well as their saxophonist. She does contribute background vocals, backed by Eric and Andrew, the other two members credited with vocals, but it sounded like there was more than one female vocalist. Then I looked deeper, and was pleased to see that the co-vocalist was none other than Shelley Preston, of Preston and Fletcher, EddyD & the Sex Bombs, and Bang, among other projects. 

Spencer McKinnon: "We were very honoured to have Shelley and Melissa sing back ups on the album. Due to COVID safety  protocols, Shelley recorded them from her home studio. She is such a pro! I cannot say enough about how great it was to work with both of them. What attention to detail, what EARS they both have. Both Scott and Brian really went above and beyond to make this a recording the Vanrays are very proud of. Shelley will be joining us on Saturday night at the FOX."

[There's still a great story about Melissa, however, about the design of the cover, which - flashing forward a bit - Spencer would tell me at the gig itself, after this article was first published. It's too good not to insert: apparently when he first saw the design that Mel was proposing for the cover, his initial reaction was "could you make the dog look a little less like Yoda?" Then Mel showed him a photo of her dog, which she had traced for the cover art, and "It was exactly her dog" - a 13 year old chihuahua named Puppy. Apparently Mel designed her own outfit for the show, as well, which was pretty darn cool!]

Put It Out will be available at both the merch table tonight and at select record stores around Vancouver, coming out on vinyl on Phil Addington's own Bonerattle Records (he is also the proprietor of Bonerattle Music, on Commercial Drive and I would hazard a guess that the album will be available there, too). There will also be "other swell swag such as CDs and t-shirts," McKinnon adds. "We even have matches that match the album design by Melissa Lee."

It's been as weird a time for the Vanrays as anyone else, returning to live shows after so long. "The strangest event was last year’s Bowie Ball in February," Rempel tells me. It was "the first full house" since lockdown measures lifted, and "everyone was nervous after so long without seeing so many people." But the band is eager to "be done with the isolation," McKinnon adds, "and to play live and feel the interaction with the band and audience again: "I may be naive or idealistic about the state of things but I just want it to be over…is it over? Don’t tell me it’s not over." 

You missed the show, but you can see a video clip I shot of "Heap of Ruin" here...!

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