Slept on Soul/The Veldt – Afrodisiac LP
By Michael A. Gonzales
Twin brothers Daniel and Danny Chavis, who co-founded their rock band the Veldt in 1987, have shared their varied musical tastes since they were kids dwelling in North Carolina. Raised in Apollo Heights, a subdivision located in Raleigh, both boys sang in a Baptist church choir before becoming wayward teenagers in the early ‘80s. Future lead guitarist Danny began playing along to his granddaddy’s B.B. King records when he was thirteen while singing bro Daniel wailed soul songs in deep-wooded juke joints with the funky cover band Isis, performing funky hits by Slave, Rick James and Prince for a hard drinking audience.
However, with the mutual discovery of “shoegaze,” a sometimes dreamy, other times harsh, style of distorted feedback fueled guitar-laden rock music the boys heard booming from the college station WKNC, they began listening to the genres aural architects My Bloody Valentine, the Cocteau Twins, A.R. Kane and countless others. Loving the delirium and freedom heard in the music guided the brothers towards starting a band together. First calling themselves Psycho Daisies after a Yardbirds jam, they became the Veldt when Daniel recalled the title of a strange Ray Bradbury story he’d read in high school.
“I can remember seeing the name in these thick black letters and it just struck me,” Daniel says thirty-one years after the Veldt played their first gig at a hardcore show in the basement of a local church. “We didn’t call ourselves the Veldt immediately, but over time it eventually changed.”
As the Chavis boys began slipping further into the shoegaze wonderland, they also embraced the digital sampling techniques of Marley Marl and the Bomb Squad. Having joined musical forces with drummer Marvin Levi and bassist Joe Boyle, their music became more spacey and atmospheric. While their East Coast rocker friends from Living Colour and 24-7-Spyz were playing music with a harder edge, the Veldt strived for a sound that was, as critic Simon Reynolds once described A.R. Kane, all about, “daydream and distortion, rapture and ravaged.” However, no matter how avant-garde dada free jazz crazy their music became over the years, the twins always stayed true to their red dirt roots.
Although the Veldt’s soulfulness could sometimes be hard to hear within the shoegaze trappings of blaring guitars, floods of feedback and a kaleidoscopic collage of eerie electric sounds, the juxtaposition of the band’s spooky auralscapes with Daniel’s splendid voice conjured quick-cut images of post-soul along with those chitlin’ circuit venues where he once crooned like a moonshine gulping Teddy Pendergrass. No matter how futuristic space-age cyberpunk the music became, Daniel’s vocals was the gravity that kept us from floating away completely.
After a few years of practicing, performing and perfecting their sound, the Veldt signed with Capitol Records in 1989. According to a MTV profile of the Veldt on 120 Minutes the following year, the band had “the big time stamped all over them.” During that era they befriended Cocteau Twins aural auteurist/guitarist Robin Guthrie, who was also signed to Capitol Records, and convinced him to produce their debut. Guthrie was also instrumental in getting the Velvet the prized slot as their opening act during the Cocteau’s 1990 “Heaven or Las Vegas” tour.
“Robin became a great friend of ours as well as the band,” Danny says. “He was a big, big influence; I put him up there with Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. Robin had a way of layering guitars that has a complete sound to them that reminded me of soul songs you might hear on the quiet storm. Couldn’t you imagine that sound behind Luther Vandross? To me, a song like ‘Superstar’ has a shoegaze feel to it while Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ is quintessential shoegaze record.”
While the Veldt was on the road and recording material, their label began having internal issues and the group was released from their contracts following an executive shake-up Capitol Records. Luckily, the Veldt were dropped during an era when other left of center musicians of color were being signed to major label deals as with Lenny Kravitz (Virgin) and Eye & I (Epic), so the band was hopeful.
Still dwelling down south, the Veldt released their EP Marigolds on Stardog Records in 1992. While the opening track “CCCP” was stuck somewhere between late-punk and early-Smiths, the cinematic crime theme for an imaginary movie “Tinsel Town” and the morose last track “Willow Tree” showed a band that wasn’t afraid to dig deeper as they explored dreamy rhythmic regions, spray painted multicolored melodies with guitar strings and delivered vocals with a sullen soulfulness, even if the listeners didn’t always understand exactly what Daniel was saying. At the same time, the Veldt band was also auditioning for the bigwigs at Stardog’s parent label Polygram, making more than a few trips to NYC to showcase before finally being signed in 1993 to Mercury Records.
Although the brothers were hoping that Robin Guthrie would once again be behind the boards, Mercury balked at the idea. “The label was trying to get us to work with producers that had worked with Led Zeppelin or the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Danny recalls, “but, those people didn’t really appeal to us. I basically had to go and do a presentation of the bands that we were really diggin’ so they could understand.” Finally they were paired with Brit producer Ray Shulman; a former bassist with ‘70s progressive rockers Gentle Giant, he’d also produced the Sugarcubes (Björk’s first group) 1988 debut Life’s Too Good and Candleland (1989), the solo outing of Echo and Bunnymen lead singer Ian McCulloch.
“Ray was cool,” Daniel says. “He had produced records that sold well, but had also worked with A.R. Kane, so we had the best of both worlds.” Relocating to England, they recorded with Shulman at Orinoco Studios for a month. “He was easy to work with, very subdued. He wore sweaters all the time and he had nothing nice to say about the record company; he thought they were idiots.”
A year later, the Veldt’s full-length debut Afrodisiac was released on February 8, 1994. Having developed their sound from the Marigolds daze a few years before, the Veldt had finally come into their own, sounding bigger and deffer as they showed the world what they learnt in the studio with the Cocteau Twins and on the road with the Jesus and Mary Chain, who also did a guest remix of Afrodisiac’s sole single “Soul in a Jar.” The original version, with its big beat drums and roaring guitars, could stand on its own, but the Jesus and Mary Chain aptly dubbed the “Drug Store Mix” sounded like the Bomb Squad were shooting dice with Kraftwerk as they puffed blunts on the Trans-Europe Express.
With its metaphysical lyricism, Daniel wrote the “Soul in a Jar” after reading Dante’s Inferno on a Trailways bus coming from New Mexico after the Marigolds tour. Daniel says, “I asked myself a question: “’Why is having a soul so important to both God and the devil?’ It’s as though your soul is a commodity, simply a soul in a jar.” The Jesus and Mary Chain remix opened with a jarring celebration of electronic noise, but it stayed true to the flavor of the Chavis bros while also making it off-the-Chain chaotic.
“They did us a big favor remixing that song,” Daniel says. Diggin’ in the Crates producer Diamond D also provided a remix of the “Soul in a Jar” that was also included on the album, but funny enough the Chain’s work sounded more hip-hop. “To me, was more creative and experimental.” Although videos were released for both the original and the Chains remix, neither twin was impressed with the final outcome of the former clip. “The label didn’t do what we wanted, which was to make it more gothic,” Daniel says. “We wanted it to be spooky, maybe shot in a church, not me dancing around.”
A second single and video was slanted for Black pride power pop track “Revolutionary Sister,” but never happened. “That was a ‘80s era type song written back when there were no bitches or hoes in songs, just good shit and cool women listening to a Tribe Called Quest,” Danny says. Despite the fact that “Revolutionary Sister” was a cool track, musically it didn’t show the Veldt’s strengths in same way splendid “Heather” and “Last Call,” my two favorite tracks on Afrodisic.
“The whole album should’ve sounded like ‘Last Call,’” says Daniel of psychedelic tour de force. Indeed, his brother agrees. “We have a pop sensibility, but we also have a loud sensibility that can be heard on ‘Last Call and ‘Heather.’” Daniel wrote the lyrics to “Heather” while thinking of a childhood friend who was run over by a car and died when she was ten while Danny composed the music as a homage to A.R. Kane. “They always have these long drawn out soundscapes like that,” Danny says. “I also picked up a lot of guitar stuff from Robert Smith of the Cure.”
Soon after the release of Afrodisiac, the group was sent out on promotional tour with The Smithereens and, afterwards, was handed their walking papers from Mercury. Danny says, “One of the executives at the label told us, ‘You’re a little too unique.’ That’s what he said, and our manager at the time acted like he didn’t know what he was doing. It was a mess.”
Great things were expected from Afrodisiac, which was featured in Rolling Stone magazine and praised by Billboard, but it somehow failed to connect with the proper audience. Although today we can link it sonically with post-millennial alternative folks of color that the music inspired including early TV on the Radio, Saul Williams, the Weeknd and any number of Afro Punk guitar kids, back in the pre-internet nineties the community was more fragmented and not as easy for corporate record company connection.
Of course, a label might sign them, but when it came time to sell’em, labels often used the excuse of, “we didn’t know how to market them.” Promo folks blamed radio, radio blamed publicity, writers blamed editors and in the end, the band simply got screwed. “The Veldt was too Black for some people and too white for others,” Danny muses years later. “Record companies know how to market white boys sound Black, but if a Black band doesn’t have a traditional R&B sound, then they don’t know what to do with them. That’s what happened to us.” Briefly changing their name to Apollo Heights early in the millennium, they put out the slamming album White Music for Black People, which featured the hauntingly beautiful single “Everlasting Gobstopper” in 2007
Twenty-two years after Afrodisiac, the Chavis brothers are still making noisy music together. Calling themselves the Veldt again, the twins perform and record with bassist/programmer Hayato Nakao, who they’ve worked with since 1999. This year they will be releasing new music including the EP The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur: The Drake Equation (Leonard Skully Records) in March and the full-length Resurrection Hymns (SonaBLAST! Records) later this year.
Although the Veldt’s music has always been respected by their peers, historically they have been either forgotten or unheard of in the first place. Neither the 2014 shoegaze documentary Beautiful Noise or the recently released five-CD box-set Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze 1988-1995 mentions them or their contributions to the sound. “We don’t think about stuff like that,” Danny laughs. “We never aspired to be rock stars, we just want to make enough money to pay our rent.”
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com.