On January 27th, 1997, Michigan-based band, The Verve Pipe, released its third single from their second studio LP, Villains. That song, “The Freshmen,” was a stone cold hit. The track, which has garnered some 18-million YouTube views to date, peaked at number-five on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped Villains earn Platinum status. “The Freshmen,” which was written by the band’s front man, Brian Vander Ark, tells the story of a rather devastating love triangle. It also boasts some very quotable lyrics, which, as luck would have it, Vander Ark was able to pluck from the world around him. We caught up with the musician to talk about how he started writing, how his years in the army influenced his work, what “The Freshmen” did for his career and much more.
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When did you first come to music and how did you decide to invest time in it?
I was a huge fan of Harry Chapin growing up and James Taylor and Cat Stevens. But Harry Chapin, in particular. The storytelling songs were the songs that I loved the most. And I loved the fingerpicking style. When I first picked up the guitar, I was more interested in picking with my fingers than I was the strumming. So, I learned how to fingerpick. And I learned how to play all the songs and I went and got a gig at the Holiday Inn bars. When I was 16, I was playing the Holiday Inn circuit, playing for the old drunks in the bar. At the ripe old age of 16. So, someone would yell out, “Play James Taylor, I’ll give you a dollar.” And I played James Taylor for a dollar, that kind of thing. That’s how I got my start.
Well, I was fortunate that my parents were cool enough that they let me do it, you know? And pursue it. Because it was five nights a week in the lounges, so five one-hour sets, five nights a week. It was pretty decent money when you’re a kid. That was – most of my friends were working at McDonald’s. So, that was a major thing and being able to hone my skills and really work on playing the same songs night after night and incorporating a couple of my own songs, as well. It was definitely a way to get my chops up for sure.
How did you start writing, how did you start refining that muscle?
The real writing didn’t come until I joined the army. I joined the army- I was in from 1983 to 1987. And I hadn’t even been in an airplane yet in my life. So, I didn’t really have any experience to draw from for my songs. I didn’t go into the army specifically for the experiences to be able to write but I found that, god, I had these profound experiences when I was in the army for those four years. I worked on the border of Czechoslovakia out in the middle of nowhere and so I wrote songs about that. Just the experience of being around different cultures, I’d been in Europe at that kind of thing. So, that raised the bar for me as a songwriter exponentially. And I really got much, much better about stories. I could write about places I knew finally, rather than be just some young kid. But when I got back out of the army then things started really taking shape.
Did you bring your guitar with you in the army?
Sure! I had my guitar with me. In fact, my guitar was a source of punishment always. Because they would take my guitar away if I was insubordinate, or whatever, late for formation. I’d get my guitar taken away. They knew – they were like my parents, they knew that was a sure-fire way to teach me a lesson. I had it more than I didn’t have it. But it got taken away quite a bit. I wasn’t that good of a soldier!
When it was taken away, did you find yourself writing songs in your head?
Absolutely! I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I used to have a tape recorder, too. And one of those old fashioned recorders. Mine might have been army issue, I know my notebooks were army issue notebooks. But I would sing ideas in it and I’d get my guitar back and try to work it out.
I love that confluence of creativity in the army. That’s not something I’ve thought about or heard about a great deal. But that’s really interesting. And thinking about you writing without the instrument – that must have been tough?
Yeah, well, the melodies have always come easy. The lyric is always the tough thing because, you know, I like a linear story. And I try not to be too ambiguous about things, either, lyrically. So, I work and work and they’re all these puzzle pieces, these lyrics. But melodies have always come pretty easily to me and they usually stick to me. So, just getting my guitar back and being able to put it together to record it in my jam box was a real treat.
What was the process for writing “The Freshmen”?
The melody came to me probably in 1989 or 1990, well before the song became a hit. But I started humming the melody and then I had this idea of a short story that pertained to me and a friend of mine who had dated the same girl and kind of went back and forth with her – I dated her for a while and then we broke up and he dated her and then I dated her again. And then one of us got her pregnant and she had an abortion. Neither one of us knew who the father was. So, that’s where the truth ends. And poetic license took over and had her commit suicide. But she didn’t in real life. So, the very heady, very tragic story – a little over-tragic, you know. But I felt like the melody and lyric had come together pretty easily. Everything rhythmically was working.
But I was missing two elements. I worked on the song for six months, I think. And I was missing two elements after six months. And that was: I didn’t have that they were freshmen. I didn’t have, “We were merely freshmen.” And I didn’t have, “She was touching her face.” I used to work at a sporting goods store at the time and I was going to be late for work and I remember noodling around. I was playing the melody and I had the melody for “We we’re merely freshmen,” the ba-da-da-da-DA-da. And I was singing things around it like, “Gotta make some breakfast! Gotta quit my day job!” That kind of thing. And I’m sitting there and MTV is on and the volume is low, or down completely. And I look down at the coffee table, like, “What can I do here, the last line, I need this.” And I look down and there on the coffee table is copy of the VHS tape of the movie I rented the night before. And that movie was Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando called, The Freshman. And I was looking at this thing and it finally dawns on me like, “This is perfect!” It’s a couple of guys who were in college and you’re sympathetic to them because, you think, you do these kinds of things in college. And it was the perfect thing, the perfect moment.
Then the “She was touching her face” came right after that on MTV. Like I said, it was on in the corner, and it was the Divinyls video for, “I Touch Myself.” She was laying back, touching her face. It makes it sexy. And I was like, “Oh my god, this totally fits in this puzzle piece here.” And it doesn’t really mean anything according to the song but, of course, that’s one of the most quoted lines – especially now with COVID and people saying not to touch your face. And I got it right in that song. So, those were the two last puzzle pieces. Then I remember I got so excited about it that I had a show a couple nights later and I played this song before I was ready to play it. I didn’t have it memorized enough and I messed up all the words. But I got the “she was touching her face” and the “for the life for me” and at the end of the song, I had so many people come up and say, “What was that song about her touching her face.” So, I knew then that I had something here. From there, it just took off.
You sang the song with this rugged vocal. What did that do for the blend with the lyrics and the story you were telling?
Well, the first time we recorded it, we recorded it for Independent Records before we got signed to RCA. And it had a very Harry Chapin-esque tone to it. It was very deep and it demanded attention. And I never really liked that version. When RCA picked us up, they said, “Hey let’s re-record this and make it more of a modern rock version.” And then we recorded it again and we recorded it like a Chris Isaac tune. It was like a whisper sing. It supposed to be like I was gently telling it. I took the exact opposite approach. And it was six-minutes long. So, we decided this isn’t going to work either. So, we recorded it a third time and that was the time that it ended up being more growly, halfway in between the two is what it ended up being. I don’t quite sing that harsh now. But I think that entire Villains album is pretty much the common thread, it gives that edge to it. That’s what everybody was happy with at that time for sure. It fell right in line with the rest of modern rock songs at that time.
Yeah that period is very interesting in American music. Post-Cobain, pre-Justin Timberlake, in a way. There were a lot of jam bands. Rock ‘n’ roll is figuring itself out to a degree. And you and “The Freshmen” were very much in the middle of that. What was that moment like for you and how did you enjoy fame at the time?
When I look back on it, if I were to be completely honest, I mean, of course you love the – it’s not so much that you love the fame. You love everything that comes with the fame. You love the free-bee’s. Ironically, you get all these free-bee’s when you’ve already got everything you need. You got the money finally. I could have used all the free-bee’s back before. So, you like the little things like that. You like being on MTV, going on 120 Minutes, you like going on Letterman and Leno, those kinds of things. If you’re looking for any kind of experiences – just like the army was for me. Doing David Letterman, doing The Tonight Show, was another experience to write about, you know? And to have. Those are the treasured moments of it. We’ve all heard the pitfalls of fame. It just becomes a cliché. But I like to think about the times like that, which were the memories. In my office, in my studio and see these photos and go, “Wow, I really have had a pretty good life so far.” Especially with this song. That’s the way I choose to look at it, you know?
How did the success of that song affect your writing today?
I can tell you that, you know, I’ve never really been completely happy – I was pretty happy with the song then. But over this many years and putting out this many albums and writing this many songs, I realize that it’s a pretty weak narrative. I mean, it’s a little bit too ambiguous. But that’s one of the things that made it a hit song, everybody could take something from it. I think now, writing, to me, is much more in the vein of trying to find a clever way to say something but also try to speak from the heart and wear the heart on your sleeve. Just trying to say things in the simplest way you can say them. These are the things that I’ve learned over time. So, yes the bar was raised for “The Freshmen” as far as being a hit song. The band isn’t in the position to get played on the radio. We don’t have the chase what a radio hit single might be now. We don’t worry about it. We can write and do what we want to do. And we have a nice group of fans that support us for each album. So, I think lessons I learned as a songwriter are the ones where I say, man, the “she was touching her face” line doesn’t mean anything. I wish that it meant something in the song and I hadn’t just taken it and thrown it in there because it rhymed. So, these are things that I think I’m much better at now. Unfortunately, what you’re better at now does not translate into sales. Does not translate into radio hits and that kind of thing. But I have a really good life because of the song. It still pays the mortgage. We can still tour and stuff. There are still people who come out just to hear “The Freshmen” and that’s fine too.
I love the idea of a song paying the mortgage but you can still go to the corner store and get a cup of coffee. I think that’s a great position to be in. It reminds me of this author I used to read a lot, Charles Bukowski, whose books sold really well in Europe but he lived in Los Angeles.
You know, I turned so many people onto Love is a Dog From Hell. I mean, I thought that was a great book of poems by Charles Bukowksi. That was during that time, too. That’s funny – this is the first time I’ve actually made that connection about the darkness and the whole thing. That’s funny! I appreciate that you’re a fan, as well.