Tag Archives: Ted Leo

Interview with Chris Leo

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):

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Let’s Make A List: An America Is Just A Word Update

I’m happy to announce another addition to the America Is Just A Word roster of voices involved in the book. Chris Leo, frontman of The Van Pelt, will lend his voice to the evolving narrative. The Van Pelt were a part of the post-hardcore/emo scene in New York City in the mid 90s and were quite entrenched in the scene. They were signed to Gern Blandsten Records, buddies with Texas Is The Reason (and happened to give that band their name), and helped progress the general post-hardcore sound in the city. You may also recognize Chris due to a fraternal connection of his… to one Ted Leo, of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (who’s mid-90s emo act Chisel was also signed to Gern Blandsten Records).

The band has recently convened for a handful of reunion shows, so if you’re in DC or Philly, be sure to check them out at the Black Cat (Friday) and Kunfunecktie (Saturday). And stay posted for even more news about the book and the interview process as it continues!

The Van Pelt (live):

Don’t (Touch and) Go

From the looks of a post early in the day by Stereogum, one would have thought it was the end of the aural world for fans of underground music. Although the reports later in the day dismissed the rumors that Touch and Go Records was finished; instead, the still dreadful news that the label will no longer be able to distribute the collections of numerous smaller labels and will be letting go of  20-person staff. Here is label head Corey Rusk’s statement:

“It is with great sadness that we are reporting some major changes here at Touch and Go Records. Many of you may not be aware, but for nearly 2 decades, Touch and Go has provided manufacturing and distribution services for a select yet diverse group of other important independent record labels. Titles from these other labels populate the shelves of our warehouse alongside the titles on our own two labels, Touch and Go Records, and Quarterstick Records.

Unfortunately, as much as we love all of these labels, the current state of the economy has reached the point where we can no longer afford to continue this lesser known, yet important part of Touch and Go’s operations. Over the years, these labels have become part of our family, and it pains us to see them go. We wish them all the very best and we will be doing everything we can to help make the transition as easy as possible.

Touch and Go will be returning to its roots and focusing solely on being an independent record label. We’ll be busy for a few months working closely with the departing labels and scaling our company to an appropriate smaller size after their departure. It is the end of a grand chapter in Touch and Go’s history, but we also know that good things can come from new beginnings.”

This is a big news story in many circles, and not just music fans. Touch and Go will be known for its service of providing and fostering a wealth of great artists, be they Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Slint, TV on the Radio, Ted Leo, Pinback, !!!, Polvo, Bedhead, Naked Raygun, The Meatmen, Yeah Yeah Yeahs…. the list could go on.

Touch and Go logo

Touch and Go logo

In many ways, Touch and Go is a representation of a narrative of a time since passed, having turned from a seminal hardcore zine into a full-fledged independent label breaking some of the hottest oddball bands from the 80s until today… it grew to a tremendous point for a small operation, and without the need for “world domination” ideals and hype-mongering use and abused by what is arguably the other “big” independent American label today, Sub Pop. Despite it’s operation, Touch and Go remained in a low-down mindset similar to Dischord that was more about fostering a community than forwarding some music revolution agenda… no wonder Ted Leo found it to be a great place to call home.

Today’s event is remarkable only because whatever the mish-mash of events – be it the recession or downloading, etc – this is the first big-name, independent label that’s been hit in ways that hasn’t been publicized… meanwhile, it’s nothing but Armageddon talk with the majors. But unlike the majors, Touch and Go isn’t primarily a business, in that it’s all about the benjamins… it still sticks to its guns and original notions of putting out music. The changes at the label seem to be on level with that occurring at newspapers nationally, though with potentially better prospects: during boom-times, these entities grew to enormous proportions to fill a potential want/need, but now that there is no necessary need or ability to cover it, they must withdraw from their growth a little and focus on regrouping and the very idea holding their entity together. In the case of newspapers, it’s keeping the public informed; in the case of Touch and Go, it’s keeping the public artistically and musically endowed.

Obviously, the big loss is to all those labels who no longer have the distribution network and base that Touch and Go has/had. In years past, this could (and did) kill off many a smaller label, as record stores were a predominant method of selling music. However, with the tight network of online sales, the decline of record stores… this part basically writes itself. Still, some of the smaller labels might be in harms way. Perhaps not Jade Tree, the emo label that came to fruition in the 90s and brought emo acts such as The Promise Ring (who inversely helped bring Jade Tree some cred, as an earlier post states), Cap’n Jazz, Lifetime, Jets to Brazil, Texas is the Reason, as well as other bands such as… My Morning Jacket. Perhaps other labels like Kill Rock Stars, Merge, and Drag City may survive on their own. But what about Flameshovel, home to post-emo-ers Maritime? How about Robcore, home to Rob Crow’s 5,031 side projects? What will they do? Perhaps Southern Records, the European label of independent choice that has been helping small time record labels (notably Dischord) with distribution in Europe, could pick up key missing pieces. At this point, it’s too soon to tell… but hopefully, something will come to fruition for these tiny labels.

TV on the Radio – “Dreams” (video):