Discovering new bands in this day and age is much different from how you went about it 25 years ago. Turn on a computer, open a web browser, click a link to an mp3 or a MySpace page and voila, instant discovery. One could argue that there are actually too many bands out there to discover these days. You name it, every style of music you can think of is being made and quite well and finding it as as easy as clicking mouse.
Rewind 25 years and finding out about music took a bit more effort. You actually had to tune into radio stations, read black and white photo copied ‘zines, and rely on your friends who were cooler than you. Even that was no guarantee you’d hear anything that really caught your ear. It was kind of left up to chance back then, you might see and an album cover looked super cool in a record store causing you to buy something sound unheard, or you might go to a gig and the opening band you never heard before would blow you away. It was that kind of random discovery that often times made the music that much more special.
What new music might an 18 year old kid find, arriving in a small college town in West Virginia? If it was the early 80’s there was a wealth of music to discover, especially when the drinking age was still only 18. Morgantown is the home to West Virginia University, so not your typical small town, but a small town nonetheless. The University had a college radio station that played the cool college rock of the day and Morgantown, thanks to it’s relative proximity to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Washington, DC offered a perfect tour stop for a lot of bands touring the east coast. The student population at the university was made up mostly of West Virginia residents had a fair number of kids coming from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other places on the more urban east coast. These factors combined for a perfect storm of influences at the time to create quite an impressive music scene in this small town of about 25,000 people.
The kids of university professors mixed with blue collar kids in the small confines of a little bit of flat space next to the Monongahela river providing the fertile turf for growing a music scene that transcended upbringing and any stereotypes you may have of a small town in West Virginia. One such band that exemplified all of that transcendence was Velez Manifesto. It was in the heart of the 80’s when bands like Joy Division, Depeche Mode, New Order, the Cure and the Smiths were the big names on the college charts. If you were a rabid music fan into those kinds of bands at that time, chances are you dug a little deeper to discover the less fawned upon and darker side of post-punk music like the Chameleons, the Sound, Comsat Angels, Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire and the Birthday Party.
That is exactly what the four guys in Velez Manifest did. Taking their cues it seemed from the dark, goth-tinged bands of the time Velez Manifest were born. Tom Moore, singer and guitarist of the band having grown up in Morgantown was heavily immersed in the music scene having cut his teeth in previous bands: Eddie Haskelll, the Excuses and Human Remains. In Eddie Haskelll, Moore played with Bob Cotter who later sang for th’Inbred and guitarist Robert Bowers. Moore tells the hilarious story of how even at a very young and tender age they had something going on: “One day Bob brings over some really stupid looking but scantily clad vixens. My mom pulls up to the driveway, and these silly chicks say, ‘We’re with the band'”
After Eddie Haskelll disbanded Moore formed the Excuses,with Owen Davis, Dan O’donnel, and Alan Blosser. The Excuses were a punk rock cover band that often played gigs at Mateo’s which at the time was a biker bar, but would later be rechristened the Underground Railroad and become legendary in Morgantown punk and post-punk folklore. When the Excuses decided that they wanted to start writing their own thrash-pop songs instead of covers they renamed themselves the Human Remains. Human Remains eventually broke up with Owen Davis going on to start another band Gene Pool and Tom taking a break from biker bars. West Virginia punk rock was not for the faint of heart, Moore mentions fights and fleeing into the night with instruments in hand to escape brawls, so a break was likely needed.
Velez Manifesto were born some time in 1983 when Moore hooked up with his long-time friend Sei Peterson. The two initially were more interested in just making music for themselves, but quickly they realized that what they were doing shouldn’t be kept in the basement and added Jimmy X (Matterer) on keyboards and Greg Carte on drums. Carte was also in Gene Pool and later Scott Fetty would take over the drums in the permanent Velez line-up.
By this time the biker bar Mateo’s was now the Underground Railroad and had gained a reputation as a good place for a gig if you were a touring punk or hardcore band. Kim Monday, owner and operator of Frozen Sound studios remembers bands like Chili Peppers, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Glass Eye, Husker Du, and New Potato Caboose playing the Underground. He also recalls the local sene being full of bands like Gene Pool, Swiss Army Tractor, Small Axe, The Larries (soon to become 63 Eyes), The Duty Brothers, th’Inbred and Velez Manifesto opening for these more known national bands. Moore says that there was really no competition or animosity in the Morgantown music scene except for when it came to opening for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flaming Lips or Husker Du.
Local rivalries aside, Velez set to making a name for themselves. The band began to build a significant following in town, doing packed shows at the Underground Railroad and garnering play at U-92, the University radio station. Back then a band didn’t send out mp3’s or a CD. You either had the cash to make a record or you resorted to cassettes. Velez Manifest relied on the lo-fi latter, but that didn’t stop U-92 from playing them. The station transferred their songs to tape cartridges in order to play the band’s songs on the air.
By this time the band were hitting on all cylinders, getting together with Kim Monday at his Frozen Sound studios out on Van Voorhis Road to record. Monday recalls:
The thing that really sticks out to me though was the recordings. You could tell there was something going on with those guys. I recorded the band live with a “scratch” vocal to capture as much energy of the band as possible. The reason I didn’t keep the vocal was that I didn’t have a good isolation room for Tom to sing in so the drums and guitar amp sound would be in the vocal mic as well. Almost every time it came to doing the “real” lead vocal…. I’m not sure I can express this properly. I would get as close to a final mix as possible and sit in the control room with the rest of the band, Tom would start to sing and magic seemed to happen. I remember “Heart of Steel”. “The Boys Are Coming Home”… it gave me goose bumps. I know the business of music is wacky but those guys should have been huge.
The songs were so good that without the band’s knowledge, the music director at U-92, Pat Ferrise sent one of their songs, Dark Clouds to Columbia/Epic Records for consideration to be on a compilation the label was putting together of the nation’s best unsigned bands. Dark Clouds ended up making it onto the compilation called Epic Presents the Unsigned Vol. 2 and for a time everyone held their breath that the band would make the leap from best kept secret in the Mountain State to major label band. Alas, nothing came of the opportunity with the label never pursuing the band any further. Moore reminisces, “We made no money, nobody cared, I got drunk for a year.”
He may be right about two of those three, but people definitely cared. At least people in Morgantown. They cared because the band were that good. I recently asked a friend of mine who lives here in Seattle who lived in Morgantown when Velez was around about the band. He immediately started singing one of their songs. That isn’t just an anecdotal occurrence, everyone I contacted for this story had fond memories of the band, 20 plus years later recalling what an amazing live band they were and how they seemed to be on the cusp of really making it. From their sessions with Monday, the songs just sound big, and you can tell the band were in a zone when they were playing together. The tight drums and driving bass reminds me of early Hunters & Collectors with that band’s juggernaut of a rhythm section. Combine that with Velez’s, judicious and effective use of keyboards, and the chiming guitar and you had a band that was able to create huge atmospheres of sound. Moore had a killer voice and a knack for dramatic melody which didn’t hurt and made the songs all the more memorable.
When nothing seemed to come of their major label dalliance, the band seemed to run out of steam and the inherent transience of living in a college town pulled the band apart with Moore and Peterson moving to Baltimore. Peterson and Moore would be in a few more bands together as well make music on their own. In the mid 1990’s they formed Plow and put out two shoegaze, dream-pop records on Hat Factory, one self-titled and the second called Ice Cream Flares and Rocket Sounds. Peterson currently plays in Hearts by Darts who have an album out on Peapod Recordings.
Unfortunately, by the time I arrived in Morgantown for my freshman year of college Velez had left town. I remember playing their carts on U92 and thinking that they sounded way too good to be a local band. Looking back I think I can probably say this was the first of many eye opening experience I had at the University. Up to that point I thought great music was made in far away places like New York, Los Angeles or London. Velez Manifest and other Morgantown bands like Tooling For Bovines and Lack-a-Daisy were the pin pricks that burst my naive and insular world view bubble.
mp3: Dark Clouds
mp3: Pop Song
mp3: Heart of Steel
mp3: The Boys Are Coming Home
mp3: Crack In My Face
mp3: Blue Air
A big thanks to Tom Moore, Scott Fetty, Kim Monday, Pat Ferrise, and Scott Weimer for answering my questions. Additional thanks to Scott for the Velez photos and Perry Newhouse for the Underground RR flyer.