Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Envy Corps

February/March 2011

The Envy Corps are free. Lead guitarist Brandon Darner remembers the exact moment of their emancipation. On Oct. 16, 2008, the Des Moines-based quartet was about to play Schubas, in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, when an e-mail came through on Darner’s smart phone: Universal subsidiary Vertigo Records was releasing the band from its major-label record deal. The guys high-fived each other.

The last few years have been a roller coaster for the band. When the Envy Corps released their debut album, Soviet Reunion, in 2004 on local indie Bi-Fi, they were just another group from a central Iowa scene best known for Slipknot. Within only a couple of years, they were living in London, touring the U.K., and recording on a big-label budget, all poised to live their rock’n’roll dreams. Darner now calls it more of a “rock’n’roll nightmare.” These days the Envy Corps-- Darner, singer/guitarist Luke Pettipoole, guitarist/keyboardist Micah Natera, and drummer Scott Yoshimura-- are back on their own, back in Iowa, and ready to make up for lost time.

It’s a wintry Saturday afternoon, and Darner is sitting in a booth at downtown Des Moines restaurant and bar Hessen Haus telling me about the Envy Corps’ upcoming album, tentatively titled Until It Culls You. The band split up the recording of the work, taking unlimited time to experiment on vintage equipment in the bands’ own studio in the Dogtown neighborhood, while also recording the more straightforward stuff at ARC studio in Omaha with Saddle Creek mainstay A.J. Mogis.  But there’s another, more important difference between this album and its predecessor, 2008’s Dwell: This time the Envy Corps have total control over their artistic creation.

“I really wanted to make an Envy Corps album that was us making it not thinking about how anyone would react, just purely making music that we want to make,” Darner says. “It’s just us doing what we want to do, and I think it’s going to take people by surprise, but I think it’s our strongest work.”

Darner joined the Envy Corps in January 2005, shortly after Soviet Reunion. He had previously been singing in another band, To My Surprise, with Slipknot’s Shawn Crahan. That group’s major-label debut came partly through Crahan’s industry connections-- which, it must be said, did lead to three surreal weeks in Hollywood recording with super-producer Rick Rubin-- and this time Darner was determined to blaze a trail without Slipknot’s help.

Soon the anthem “Rhinemaidens” was nabbing airtime on local radio, but it wasn’t until April 2006 that the Envy Corps self-released the first EP with their new lineup. Around that time, the band co-headlined the Des Moines Music Coalition’s first annual Gross Domestic Product local music festival. Pitting Envy Corps head to head against now-defunct pop-punk band the Lifestyle, the night became something of a milestone for the group.

“There were something like 1,100 or 1,200 people in our room at Hotel Fort Des Moines when we played,” Darner recalls. “It was such a moment. We knew it was going to be good, but we had no idea it was going to be like that.”

The Envy Corps quickly realized that to make the kind of the music they wanted to make-- ambitious, big sounds, string sections-- they would have to be on a major label. Record labels kept knocking on their door, promising to fly them to L.A. for a showcase, but then calling at the last minute to say it was going to have to be next week. The band members were growing frustrated.

Then one day they got a MySpace message from Jonny Simon, A&R executive at U.K. label Vertigo.  Darner got the message around 3 or 4 a.m., found Simon’s number on Google, called him, and figuring the band had nothing to lose, asked him to come to Iowa to see a show. Simon promised he would, but when he confessed to having lost his passport, the Envy Corps assumed they were getting just another major-label run-around.

“I was totally ripping into him, like, ‘I don’t have time for this, man-- you’re either in or you’re out,’” Darner recalls. “And [Simon] was like, ‘No, honestly, I really lost my passport!’ He’s texting me these things like, ‘I’m in London, I’m driving to Manchester to get my birth certificate”... He was sending me pictures of his birth certificate, this kind of stuff.”

Simon did manage to arrive a few days later, for what Darner remembers as one of the Envy Corps’ best shows ever, at Des Moines’ Vaudeville Mews. After the show, Simon sat down with the band in the space between the Mews and neighboring restaurant the Royal Mile, and he declared his intentions to sign them.

The Envy Corps moved to London, toured nonstop throughout the U.K., received positive notices in influential music magazine the NME, and for a few months, everything was fantastic. They even had a champion in Simon-- “it was like a family,” Darner says. But ultimately Vertigo is owned by Vivendi, a French conglomerate, and decisions come down to numbers on a balance sheet. The release date for Dwell was pushed back from April 2007 to August 2008. “There were probably, literally, like eight solid release dates,” Darner says. “Momentum would build for a release date, and they would move it, and all that momentum would die.” Members of what had felt like the Envy Corps’ family started getting shuffled aside to work on other projects. Simon eventually lost his job. Meanwhile, according to Darner, the label refused to pay the band so that they could pay their touring crew-- or even so the band could pay rent for the London house where the label was theoretically putting them up.

The problems weren’t all music-related. Darner, who has a congenital heart defect, says he let his medication lapse a bit when the band was busy in England. He developed a blood clot. The band was playing a residency at London venue Monto Water Rats. This particular night, in August 2007, American band Mute Math was set to headline. The Envy Corps were sound-checking. Darner took a sip of water, and it dripped out of his mouth. Half of his face was paralyzed. “I tried to play a chord on my guitar, and my hand was just like Jello,” Darner says. He had suffered a stroke.

Darner bounced back quickly, but money disputes with the label began to take their toll. The label asked them to shoot a video, but still had not paid for three or four tours-- about $80,000, according to Darner. The Envy Corps were set to play a showcase with a then-rising band called Vampire Weekend, but first they were going back to Iowa to make the video. Worried they would return to London to find their house barred shut for lack of rent money, the group stayed in Iowa from October 2007 to May 2008, and missed what could have been a crucial break. “Even then the label shorted us about $20,000,” Darner says.

The Envy Corps’ next album was still unfinished as YellowBrick went to press. But to Darner, it’s as much about what it’s not-- a product of major-label compromises-- as what it is. And what is it? Darner describes Until It Culls You as “a left turn”-- “groovy for the Envy Corps, like, riff-oriented”-- noting there are ’70s influences, ’60s influences, and “subtle Michael Jackson influences, but it doesn’t sound like Maroon 5 being influences by Michael Jackson.” He also expresses a growing frustration with traditional pop choruses.

Lyrically, Until It Culls You touches on themes of alcoholism and divorce drawn from Pettipoole’s own life, the singer says later via e-mail. “I view vocals like another instrument, almost like Sigur Ros would, so during the demo process I’ll record gibberish for scratch takes to get another idea of the vowel sounds and meter I want to use,” he explains. “I really respect someone like Fiona Apple who really spends time crafting complex rhyming schemes, and I’ll try and emulate that to a degree. In the end both the lyrics and the actual sounds I’m making with my mouth are of equal importance in matching the mood of the music.”

Most of all, Until It Culls You is a new chapter for the Envy Corps, Darner says. “We really can’t go back to doing songs like ‘Story Problem’ now.”

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