It’s been far too long since I last featured an interview featuring a musician that will be in the book America Is Juat A Word.
Along comes Chris Leo to correct that error. Before his brother Ted Leo stole the hearts of the indie crowd in the aughts, Chris was making waves with his band The Van Pelt. Formed while a student at NYU, Leo codified a particular scrappy sound that crops up in many an emo song, with his speak-singing vocals mapped out across slow-churning, intricately composed post-hardcore instrumentation with a signature melodic, reverberating/bell-like quality to its guitars.
Leo’s words will offer a look at the New York mid-90s emo scene, a surprisingly overlooked area of the time, especially considering New York is usually seen as a mecca for any and all musics. The Mid West seemed to be where it was at in the mid-90s, but Leo’s band was offered as vibrant and engaging a sound as any other.
Without further ado, the interview:
What made you want to pick up an instrument?
Chris: “In 6th grade they were starting a band at my school. The band leader went through the pros and cons of every instrument to an assembly in the auditorium. He said, ‘well…the trombone is a very unpopular instrument’. I chose trombone.”
How did you first get involved in the New York music scene? Was it simply out of the convenience of being a student at NYU or were you previously involved in the music community in New York?
Chris: “I grew up in northern NJ before I went to NYU and between my older brother handing me Vision, Gorilla Biscuit, and American Standard 7″s for guidance, an all ages matinee club called ‘The Pipeline’ in Newark right down the street, and skateboarding videos like Speed Freaks, I was inducted at an early age.”
What was it like balancing the life of a student while dealing the the usual rigors of performing in a band?
Chris: ” It was like this: student teaching every morning during the day, NYU by night, girlfriend and/or band after, girlfriend and/or band at various New England college campuses by weekend, working at record stores in between. Too much, college was a blur. There was much more living before and after.”
I know there was a choice between two names for the band: The Van Pelt and Texas Is The Reason? How did you come up with both those names and why did you decide to go with The Van Pelt?
Chris: “Neil suggested Texas is the Reason from a Misfits song about it being the reason Kennedy is dead. The Misfits singing about the Kennedy’s felt aptly similar to the type of mountain we were trying to tackle…but then there were all the NYC bands from the 70’s and 80’s where all the members had the same last names (or at least that’s how we’d refer to them, ‘Look, there’s Tommy Smackdown’ or, ‘Hey, Bobby Epilepsy, whadda ya know!’) and seeing as Van Pelt was a good Dutch name from New Amsterdam we opted to be brothers.”
How did you guys end up on Gern Blandsten?
Chris: “My band before The Van Pelt, Native Nod, was on Gern. No one else other than every major label wanted to touch us. We had only big contracts or Gern to choose from. Looking back, no matter how much a major could have raped us, they could never have raped us as badly as Gern did. We each received $50 and a vegan pizza before a tour from Charles at Gern over the course of our existence and since. Never one statement ever on how many records we’ve sold. When we’ve asked, both casually and through the lawyers, he’s refused to produce. If we had gone with a major at least we would have seen enough bread to get two or three vegan pizza pies each at we would have at least been able to find our catalog in used bins.”
Chris Leo (live, solo set):