MUSIC | Art Vandalay dances with your demons


Don’t tell anyone, but in his secret identity, singer-songwriter Art Vandalay is PR rep Brandon Henry of Red House Records. (He’s not, by the way, the only Red House staffer doing double duty—steadily gigging folk artist Mother Banjo is head Red House flack Ellen Stanley.) Vandalay’s CD debut, Dancin’ With Your Demons, works. It’s well-crafted folk rock, at times pure mellow magic.

Art Vandalay comes backed by Brandon Henry’s modest, yet interesting track record. He started playing guitar at 15 and hasn’t put the instrument down since. Along the way, he’s picked influences from a little known band called Cross Canadian Ragweed, an instructor who taught him songs by the likes of Tom Petty, Foo Fighters, and Smashing Pumpkins, and has pursued a passion for songwriting. In 2004 he joined the trio Nothing of Consequence, playing places like Acadia Cafe and the 7th Street Entry. After three years, he bailed to join up with the duo Gumption Trap. As Art Vandalay, he’s joined on Dancin’ With Your Demons by Mother Banjo (banjo, vocals), Calvin Plocher (drums), and Ben Cook-Feitz (keys). Henry wrote everything, plays guitar, bass, and percussion, engineered the CD, and is his own producer. Not much chance the work is going to be misinterpreted.

“I Been Down” is a fine lead-off tune, calling to mind The Byrds’ version of “Wheel’s On Fire,” tough-chugging rockabilly with a real sweet edge. The lyrics are solid with a chorus that goes, “I been down/ down to my last thread/ Dancin’ with the demons in my head/ Dragged across your river bed/ I been down.” The aforementioned mellow magic comes courtesy of “Way It Goes,” one of those perfectly melancholy gems: poignant enough to put you in a mood, briskly upbeat enough to keep you from feeling sorry for yourself. Here’s the bridge. “My idle hands lead to idle thoughts/ Lovers dream and thieves get caught/ But I know/ It’s just the way it goes.” John Sebastian used to write like this for the Lovin’ Spoonful, and anyone who remembers songs like “Coconut Groove” and “Didn’t Want To Have To Do It” will love this cut.

There ain’t too many ways about it. By any name, the guy’s good. To catch him at a club near you, consult

Art Vandalay. You felt some need to come up with an alternate identity. Care to explain yourself?
I was in a band before and when we were trying to come up with a name I suggested Art Vandalay and the Architects. No one liked the name. So when I started doing solo gigs I decided to adopt the name just for fun.

Some of the best songwriters get bogged down sometimes in one song sounding too much like another in their repertoire. You keep your material fresh, distinct from cut to cut on the EP. What’s your secret?
I try and listen to a lot of different styles of music and take in as many influences as possible. Stuff that takes me out of my usual element. I’m really into bossa nova and the gypsy jazz genres, but I’m also getting into a bit of soul music. The majority of my CD collection is roots-Americana and indie rock. When I’m writing, I try and throw in hints of those influences wherever they might fit. If I’m playing a song and it just feels like every other song I’ve written, I try and spice it up with one or two jazz chords or a vocal hook. Often that leads to the song taking on a new feel but still holding on to the original vibe.

You wrote, sang produced, engineered, and mixed Dancin’ With Your Demons. Not real trusting of others to capture your sound, are you?
Well, I didn’t have money to pay anyone to produce, engineer and mix everything. Plus I have most of the equipment and know how do it. Why not go ahead and do it myself. [Also], I didn’t want to be on any time schedule. I figured doing it on my own would be best. That being said, it took a long time to do everything and by the end I was so fatigued I think in the future I would like to include more folks in the whole process. It was a good learning experience for my first album.

How did you come by the acumen to produce, engineer, mix, sing, play? Anybody with an overblown ego can take charge. You do it to strong effect.
I took my time and wasn’t trying to make everything perfect. Just as long as I was happy with the way it sounded, I figured other people might like it too.

After all the smoke cleared and you had yourself a product, sat down and listened to it, how’d you know it was ready to go? Especially handling all those hats—what told you the project was ready?
After I listened to the mixes for the millionth time and I couldn’t pick out anything major I thought needed to be fixed and I was happy with it. Then I gave it to friends for some fresh ears and took their suggestions of anything they could pick up on. Once I was happy with it, that’s when I knew it was done. There comes a time when you have to tell yourself you’re done.

How’d you go about picking musicians to record with you on this disc?
I picked musicians I had played with and thought were cool people to hang out with. Calvin was in a previous band with me and I like his style. He’s a jazz drummer so he knows how to work the kit. Ben is an excellent keyboard player, we’d played a few shows together and we see eye to eye on a lot of stuff. Mother Banjo and I have played shows together for a while. My first real show was with her. She’s sung on “I Been Down” and “Slow Painful Death” countless times and our voices just blend together in a cool way that fit the vibe of those songs.

Who are your songwriting influences?
Tom Petty is my all-time favorite. He has a way of making simple songs sound so cool. He’s a genius. Cross Canadian Ragweed is a band I used to be really into. Their song “Jimmy and Annie” inspired me to start writing. Lately I’ve been listening to this guy out of New York, David Berkeley. His songs have such great imagery and interesting melodic hooks. His Live at the Fez album pretty much lived in my CD player and on my iPod for a solid year. Nick Lowe, Jeff Tweedy…Wilco, Eliza Gilkyson, John Prine, Jimmy Buffett, Dave Grohl.

Singing influences?
Many of the same. I really like Jeff Tweedy’s vocal style. It has a nice. gritty texture. It fits with what he does. I like it when singers are a little less polished.

What’s next?
I’m starting to record with Gumption Trap and will hopefully have something done by the fall.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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