In the old days, The Veldt's vibe might not have been so mellow.
On a warm weekday afternoon, most of the band—a longtime Raleigh cult favorite whose pioneering distortion-soaked soul went tragically overlooked amid the rise of indie rock—sits on cushions around a low, worn wooden table in the downtown apartment of cofounder Daniel Chavis. A breeze rattles the blinds, and a twelve-string acoustic guitar leans against the wall. The Veldt vocalist sips white wine from a coffee mug.
Drummer Marvin Levi reclines across the table, while Danny Chavis—Daniel's twin brother, younger by about five minutes, and The Veldt's guitarist—speaks through the speaker of a cracked cellphone from his New York apartment. Only producer and programmer Hayato Nakao is missing.
"We do what we want to hear since there's no pressure on us, no record company behind us," Danny says.
But it hasn't always been this way: during the eighties and nineties, The Veldt was signed to and dropped from a string of major labels. Capitol Records shelved an entire album, and the music that did finally emerge seemed forever hamstrung by the illogical demands of handlers and industry types.
Nominally, The Veldt was and, again, is a shoegaze band, their soul-shaped hooks rising through a layer of heavy, honeyed amplifier roar. But the tag makes the members roll their eyes; they've been making this kind of music since 1986, many New Waves ago. Releasing this music as a black, Southern band didn't make stardom any more certain, either.
"We saw people like Vanilla Ice rapping and we were like, 'You could market this white dude but you couldn't market us?'" Danny recalls.
But The Veldt isn't trying to focus on the past.
After the band's long and vexing original run from 1986 through the late nineties, the Chavis brothers embraced electronic textures as the duo Apollo Heights. In 2001 and 2011, they reunited as The Veldt without any major-label baggage or demands.
In recent years, a fresh crop of listeners has caught up to The Veldt's sound. In February, a piece in the British newspaper The Guardian argued "the mix of shoegazing rock and moody soul they pioneered has been adopted by the likes of the Weeknd and Miguel," citing one pop producer's longtime love of the band as evidence. Two weeks later, Wax Poetics announced the band's "triumphant comeback." In April, The Veldt will issue a sterling EP, The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur: The Drake Equation, to be followed by the full-length Resurrection Hymn. Big tours are falling into place.
Thirty years after The Veldt's beginnings on Franklin Street, it seems like the band's moment may be arriving.
"Now the sound is back to what we kind of left off from, what we had been doing. The new generation is just discovering us," Daniel says. "They're not always asking us stupid questions. They don't ask me about being black or that bullshit. They ask what was the sound like. What was it like to live back then and meet all your heroes?"
I asked The Veldt some of those same questions, as well as to share their twisted, unlikely timeline in their own words.
DANNY: We started playing at the Chapel Hill Teen Center. Then we started playing house parties and a lot of fraternity shows, which was a big part of why we were successful in Chapel Hill.
MARVIN: There's always been something crazy about how frat people enjoy soul, yet they don't always socialize with the people who provide that music. There were some frats who actually did socialize with us; to this day, we'll see them in New York or anywhere else. They liked The Smiths. They loved The Cure. Some of them knew music.
DANNY: A lot of people have a misrepresentation of the fraternity thing in Chapel Hill. There's people who did love music, and they got a bad name from the stereotype.
MARVIN: We've played at some weddings for these guys. They've asked us to come down to the beach, play their socials. We'd all get thrown out—them, us, everybody.
MARVIN: We were on Capitol Records. There was some miscommunication with our manager, a lawsuit. We settled the suit for an amount we can't disclose and went to...
MARVIN: We went to Mammoth. We settled the suit with Mammoth and went to Polygram.
DANNY: We were in limbo for about a year.
MARVIN: We toured with The Jesus and Mary Chain, with 24-7 Spyz. We stayed busy.
DANIEL: I wasn't working then. We made more money by ourselves than we ever made at any label. We played all the time. We played those frat parties, and we played a lot of dancey stuff. We had never been a dancey band, but we knew that people would come to have a good time. We got weary of that after playing with The Jesus and Mary Chain. We didn't want to play that kind of dancey music anymore.
MARVIN: After that Capitol thing, we went from Chicago in a minivan straight down to New Orleans and started these shows with the Cocteau Twins—from New Orleans to the Gulf and then Florida. We were going from the soundboard to the stage, up a series of steps and landings. On one of the landings, someone said, "What are niggers doing opening up for the Cocteau Twins?"
DANIEL: I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, before the show, we've been asked why a black band is opening for the Cocteau Twins. You're just about to see." We did our set.
DANNY: We got a standing ovation. There's a CD of that somewhere.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- The Veldt's Marvin Levi, left, and Daniel Chavis
MARVIN: We put rebel flags on our amps. Tom Petty had a gigantic rebel flag backdrop, and he had Lenny Kravitz open, so we covered the stage with rebel flags.
DANNY: We were supposed to be doing a major tour with Cocteau Twins in Europe, but Mammoth didn't let us. They wanted us to stay here in the United States.
DANIEL: We had just had it, tired of it. I called my A&R guy and said, "Look, we've just been offered the whole of the European tour with the Cocteau Twins. I'll turn twenty-seven in Berlin if we do it." He was like, "Nah, you guys are doing pretty good here."
MARVIN: It stopped right there. We got dropped.
DANIEL: They said "No, we need to break the record here first. They follow America." Every time we said "Europe," they were like "No, no, no, no, no." You know the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs? We were the No No Nos.
MARVIN: Danny wanted to move in a new direction because we weren't playing anything except, as he would call it, "barre-chord barrages." It was getting too rough, not enough focus. Daniel was with his family. Danny had a family. They wrote these songs and made this record that became Apollo Heights.
DANIEL: If you listen to the Veldt EP and even Marigolds, we brought a lot from Public Enemy. They had these interludes. We were going to go in that direction anyway with a full record.
DANNY: We had been playing the same songs for quite awhile and technology and everything was changing, moving in a more electronic vibe.
DANIEL: We did that in London and they had the A&R girls come in: "What? Hip-hop beats over music? No one does that."
MARVIN: We got that from Richard Thomas, the drummer from The Jesus and Mary Chain. When we were in Kentucky on tour, I went on stage with him and Daniel, and I was like, "What's going on with the sampler?" He showed me how to play it, because I was a terrible drummer, and that was it. We came back and asked Polygram if we could get a sampler.
DANNY: Apollo Heights went on tour with TV on the Radio. They had a heart attack, because they thought we were idiots.
DANIEL: Me and Danny were always smart-mouths, picking on them. Indie rock changed to be this politically correct shit. We were a rock band. We were not eating patchouli or hummus backstage.
DANNY: These were different people.
MARVIN: Another nation.
DANIEL: Dave Sitek is a good friend of ours. He did remix for us for a song called "Disco Lights." They're really on our side.
DANNY: I was beginning to hear more and more about that term, shoegaze.
DANNY: We've finally been able to get our music out the way we want to because we don't have anybody in our way. We never really changed.
MARVIN: Ain't a damn thing changed. We got back together in 2011 and played in Raleigh for the first time. We had one reunion in 2001 for the Cradle's fifteenth birthday and then we had another reunion April 13, 2011. We started playing more.
DANIEL: I was back and forth. I like coming home. One thing I have thought about: since Raleigh has grown a little bit, it's a perfect opportunity to make a stake living here.
DANNY: We went to Canada with this group called B-17 to play this place called The Silver Dollar. There happened to be this journalist that was a fan. The guy we met there from The Guardian, Mike Doherty, loved it. It sounds clichéd, but we went to Canada and people loved it. You can't give this shit away in New York. First of all, there's so many egos and people here. There's a lot of people trying to find themselves, find different things. You get lost. You become apathetic. It's good to see the reaction we've been getting. We didn't know we were supposed to stop.
DANIEL: We didn't get that memo.
DANNY: What else am I supposed to do? Along the way, we've lost a lot of people. We've lost friends who didn't really see our vision. We understand that people have lives, so it's not a bitter situation. The idea of stopping never came into our minds.
DANIEL: Jim Morrison was right: "Music is your only friend until the end." I thought he was joking and then, damn, I'm divorced. Wow, music really is my only friend.
DANNY: I just chose to keep doing music. I've lost wives. I've lost girlfriends. One thing I didn't ever lose was my desire to do music. You cry for a while. You're depressed for a while. You have to get up and do what makes your blood flow.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Better Early Than Never"