What remains of Varnaline, Versions One and Two, is now sitting in boxes in frontman Anders Parker’s closet. After the dissolution of the Zero Hour label, Parker became keeper of the remaining copies of his band’s early recordings, which he now sells online and at shows; he will continue until he runs out. At which point Man Of Sin (1996), Varnaline (1997), A Shot And A Beer (1997) and Sweet Life (1998) are likely gone forever.
There’s a chance that his new label, the Steve Earle-helmed E-Squared (currently partnered with Danny Goldberg’s Artemis imprint), may save him this future indignity and reissue Varnaline’s old records. But Parker, who is the group’s sole constant, and who has presided over a series of shifting lineup changes that has seen Varnaline go from a solo act to a trio and back again more than once, isn’t even sure what Varnaline is anymore.
“It’s kind of weird even talking about it, because I don’t think that exists anymore, that band,” he says now. “Not that that’s bad. It’s not bad at all. It’s good, I think.”
Songs In A Northern Key, Varnaline’s newly released E-Squared debut, is an alternately wintry and warm-hearted record that recalls both prime Son Volt and the rawer, quieter ruminations of early ’90s lo-fi acts ranging from Sebadoh to the Red House Painters. It’s the most determined and solid thing Varnaline has ever done, at once a return to and quantum leap from the group’s four-track origins.
Varnaline began when Parker started singing into a tape recorder in his Portland, Oregon, apartment in 1995. The resulting record, the noisy, acoustic-leaning Man Of Sin, was released virtually as-is the next year. This incursion into bedroom-tape-like Sebadoh territory lent an imprimatur of coolness to the record that Varnaline would not see again. (It also didn’t hurt that, between Varnaline albums, Parker toured and occasionally recorded with the now-defunct indie/prog/experimental outfit Space Needle, which put out several defiantly strange offerings, chief among them 1997′s The Moray Eels Eat The Space Needle, on Zero Hour.)
Parker says his debut’s lo-fi sound was borne out of necessity, not the strivings of an underground rock arriviste. “It wasn’t so much that [bands like Sebadoh] were doing it on four-tracks, it’s more like it’s important to make music, and you can do it through these means, and it’ll have power and immediacy and it’ll do what you want it to do,” he recalls. “And you don’t have to pay for an expensive studio, or jump through hoops to get it done.”
After Man Of Sin was finished, Parker enlisted his brother, John, who plays bass, and Space Needle/Reservoir drummer Jud Ehrbar as full-time members. Parker, born and raised in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Ehrbar had met during their early days on the bar-band circuit. Parker had played in countless now-forgotten classic rock outfits, and even did time playing drums in a Jimi Hendrix cover band.
“We drove to Alaska and played the bars there. We played every place imaginable,” Parker remembers. “We would play classic rock-type stuff, with weird things thrown in as well. But I always wanted to write and to do something on my own. I was always writing, even then. Jud was one of the guys who went to Alaska with us, and we always talked about getting back together someday.”
The trio’s first recording together, the shiny, ambitious Varnaline, set a pattern of advance and retreat that the group has followed ever since. A stripped-down bedroom tape was always followed by a sweeping near-pop record, which was always followed by a stripped-down bedroom tape, as if the band was constantly being surprised and cowed by its previous ambitions. “A lot of it is learning what you like and don’t like through trial and error,” is the only way Parker can explain it. “[Listening to your old records] and thinking, ‘If I had that to do over again…’ That’s why I don’t go back and do that a lot.”
Though it was ostensibly their first outing as a group, Parker wrote virtually every track on Varnaline alone, a pattern the continued on all subsequent releases. “Even when we were all [living near each other], we were never the kind of band that wrote together a lot or practiced together a lot, for better or worse,” he says. “There were never any major creative differences. We definitely arranged things together, but the songs were brought into the studio completed, or close to it.”
Varnaline was followed by 1997′s dark, eight-track recording A Shot And A Beer, which Parker recorded alone over the course of a long winter in upstate New York. It was an exceptionally thorny and internal album, and response was mixed. After Man Of Sin, Varnaline never found much purchase with either fans or critics, who, if they wanted lo-fi indie country-rock, more often turned to Palace.
To Varnaline’s credit, they never acknowledged — or even seemed to notice — such deficits. Sweet Life was, predictably, a big, acoustic pop recording virtually made for adult-alternative radio, on which Parker’s ruminative compositions were fleshed out with e-bows, strings, and the occasional trombone. Despite the presence of neo-country songs like the now-infamous “Fuck And Fight”, Sweet Life, like much of Varnaline’s output, could just as easily be compared to an alt-country record reconfigured by the Moody Blues, which it often was.
Parker recorded Sweet Life in a church in the Catskills with his brother and Ehrbar (as well as Breeders/Dinosaur Jr. producer John Agnello), and it’s as close to a full-out band effort as Varnaline ever got or likely will ever get. But by that time, life on the road was already beginning to wear. The trio was selected for a prestigious second-stage slot on the 1996 Lollapalooza tour, an unhappy experience, as Parker remembers it.
“It’s not easy to keep a band together, especially when people aren’t getting paid very well,” he says. “Even when they are, it’s an extreme life, the travel specifically. Musicians gripe about this and that and it may sound weird, but it is an extreme thing, to have to fucking hump your own gear and strive and all that. It takes its toll. Lollapalooza was probably the most grueling tour, hands down. I don’t want to tell you it was some great thing. It was bullshit, I thought.”