Following up a hit album often spells trouble. This career phase reveals whether a band has long term potential or if they are simply wannabes trying to avoid the inevitable plunge back to obscurity. And when the band in question is The Verve Pipe, the troubles would only seem to multiply. Having sold a few million copies of their debut, Villains, on the strength of the hit singles, "The Freshmen," "Photograph" and "Cup of Tea," The Verve Pipe seemed unlikely to take success in stride. Known for their inter-band squabbling, and roundly assailed by the critical press, the group -- vocalist and guitarist Brian Vander Ark, lead guitarist and vocalist A.J. Dunning, bassist Brad Vander Ark, keyboardist Doug Corella and drummer Donny Brown -- hit the charts, made their cash, and hightailed it back to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
After some R&R, the band began writing and recording, first in Michigan then at Manhattan's Hit Factory, then Right Track, right around the corner from BMG's New York office. Rumors circulated that the label forced The Verve Pipe to stay in the studio until a "hit" emerged. One producer came onboard, only to be replaced by the "militant" Michael Beinhorn, who has worked with Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hole, and Marilyn Manson. The band wasted more time blowing up amps and dealing with Beinhorn's scathing criticism.
But with their release of their second album, The Verve Pipe have turned trouble into triumph. A lush, layered recording, The eponymous disc features unabashed melodic gems ("Hero," "Headlines," "Generations") that demonstrate major maturation and growth. The album's cover art depicts a filleted frog with innards exposed, and appropriately, The Verve Pipe wear their hearts on their sleeves. Guitarist A.J. Dunning finally gets to reveal his plentiful arsenal of precision and poise, from raging buzzsaw guitars on "Supergig," classic rock rave ups in "She Loves Everybody", ballsy blues shimmies for "Hero", delicate finger picking in "Kiss Me Idle," and fuming acid rock slide on "La La." The Verve Pipe sound like a band on the rise again, sophomore slump be damned. Guitar.com spoke with A.J. Dunning from his home above the Grand Rapids garage where The Verve Pipe still rehearse.
Guitar.com: The new album shows growth, better production, good songs; the band is really carving out its own sound. And there are so many different guitar sounds.
A.J. Dunning: A lot of it has to do with [producer] Michael Beinhorn and the way we tracked this record. This band has a tendency to work out of each other's back pockets. But this time, whoever was doing their thing, we left them to their devices alone with Michael. We didn't really run interference like we can be accused of doing. Guitar-wise, with the exception of a couple tracks, I did all the work. Each of us was able to establish a relationship with Michael and he directed the traffic. When it came to crunch time, the studio turned into a little ant farm. All the solos that I did were me out in the live room running everything direct into a Tascam D88. Simultaneously, everybody was able to concentrate on what they wanted to contribute and it has made for a stronger record.
Guitar.com: There is much more diversity in the guitar sounds.
Dunning: Michael is a bit of a genius when it comes to that stuff. He knows what he wants to hear.
Guitar.com: When I've heard the band play live, it's clear that you are an excellent guitarist. That didn't come off on the first album. It can't all be the producer.
Dunning: That is true, but I am referring to sonics. As far as the playing, I found out early on that Michael is a huge Billy Gibbons fan. I love Billy Gibbons. It was good common ground for us. Rhythm tracks consisted of four to five different signal feeds, two or three different amp setups and a couple different direct setups.
Guitar.com: Is The Verve Pipe one of those bands that thrives on tension?
Dunning: Not only that, but this band has an uncanny ability to rise to the occasion. Every time we have had to come across in a big way, whether at a radio convention or on national TV, we've always risen to the challenge. The last album was recorded as a band playing live in the studio. And we've always been accused of being a band that is not an easy first lesson. We didn't set out to make this album dense, but we are hoping that it is the kind of album that will still matter in ten years and still sound fresh.
Guitar.com: There were rumors that BMG had made the band return to the studio until you came up with a hit.
Dunning: That is the hubbub around this record and it is absolutely false. Two years ago we began pre-production with Jack Joseph Puig, who was initially going to produce the record. We loved Jack, but we didn't see eye to eye. After that, we spent more time writing and searching out another producer. We contacted Michael, [but] had to wait while he was finishing up Marilyn Manson's record. Combine that with Michael's perfectionism and that rumor developed, but it's false. We made the record we wanted to make, with no interference. The media always wants to start rumors if they think you've been away for a while.
Guitar.com: Did you set out to experiment more this time?
Dunning: Definitely. On the last record, 80 percent of the guitar was cut with a Fender Vibra King and a little stompbox. We spent five minutes getting a guitar tone. That is evident when you listen to it.
Guitar.com: And the leads?
Dunning: For the lead stuff I was doing my own thing. But the other weird thing about the rhythm tracks is that I sat in a copper ferrite cage to eliminate RFI. And Michael likes to treat the room; he'll actually bring a big military canvas tent into a room to deaden it. I was out of the cage into the live room for all the leads. Signal path was into the Arp 2600, out of that into a big rack of Surge gear, then a line to the floor so I could use whatever pedals I wanted, then a TC Fireworks unit, then digital into the Tascam D88. Now this was all after we had blown up amps at the Hit Factory, and at Right Track . So I ended up sitting in the cage for close to two weeks playing the same song ("She Loves Everybody"), ten hours a day until we got the original tone back. That is how crazed it was.
Guitar.com: How did you blow off steam?
Dunning: It's always easy to go out and drink. But a couple guys in the band like to go out more than others do. I'm a private person.
Guitar.com: Did Beinhorn and Donny go at it? They got a great drum sound.
Dunning: Yea, they did (laughs). Michael is notorious for being really hard on drummers. And Donny is never satisfied. They had their moments. Michael is a real direct guy. Case in point: I might try something off the cuff, and he would stop tape and say "Save it for your solo record." Or after Brian would be in the control room all day doing vocal takes, Michael would come in and listen to his stuff, look at him and say, "Do you want to make a record or not?" He can be brutal. At first it was Michael vs. the band. He is a little militant. It got to the point where we all respected him. We wanted to make him happy.
Guitar.com: Did you come into the band at the peak of your technical powers?
Dunning: We all came to this band embracing the singer-songwriter esthetic. So there is room for nary a solo and that is fine by me. It's about supporting the vehicle, and being a team player.