FOUR-LANE SUBURBAN HIGHWAY
The future rock stars in Versus stops for pork chops on the way to stellar insanity.
Versus, The Pacific Ocean, Mood Elevator — With records on Caroline and Merge, Versus has been cranking out catchy, engaging, melodic indie-rock anthems since 1991. The Pacific Ocean — Edward Baluyut of Versus and Connie Lovatt of Containe bring “delovely boy-girl indie pop.” Local faves The Mood Elevator open with their own brand of jangly power pop and harmonies.
— a Gold Dollar announcement for Friday, May 12, 2000.
Sounds like a fun show, right? With minimal promotion, around 50 people showed up, hands in corduroy pockets, messy-haired heads bobbing, absorbing every nanosecond of the kind of rock you write home about.
A friend and I walked into something special that night at the Gold Dollar. It wasn’t necessarily a rare haunt for the two of us, but that night it had transformed into something new and exciting, a Versus clubhouse of sorts. Or perhaps a high school reunion we had just crashed. When we walked in, eyes bluntly shifted our way, as if everyone was wondering who we were, squinting their eyes, “Was she the girl from biology or the one who got drunk and fell down the bleachers at every home game?”
A week ago
“Oh, you were there?” asks Richard Baluyut, a singer and guitarist for the New York-based band, about the early summer show. “Did you see my parents? They always go there.”
I did see his parents. Suburban Detroit natives, they try to make it out to most of the shows the band plays in the area.
“They always give us suggestions, how we should change a song. ‘Oh that one’s too long. That one’s too loud. You should do more quiet songs like Yo La Tengo.’”
I actually sat next to the couple at the Gold Dollar, intrigued by his mother, not to mention the empty seat next to her. She was an older, stately dressed Filipino-American woman, seated next to her husband, dressed in similar stateliness. Not your typical Gold Dollar patrons, to say the least.
The brothers Baluyut (Richard and James) of Versus aren’t your typical indie-rock heroes either. For one, they grew up in a Bloomfield Hills mansion, raised by parents who wholeheartedly supported their sons’ music. Versus’ fan base and reputation has grown slowly but consistently over the past nine years and the Baluyut parents have supported their sons’ music along the way.
Richard moved to New York for college and ended up forming the band there with a few friends. James moved to the city after graduating from the University of Michigan and starting playing with Versus. The lineup has changed over the years, but at this point, it’s Richard on vocals and guitar, James on guitar. Patrick Ramos (also from Bloomfield Hills) on drums and the lovely Fontaine Toups, originally from Texas, on bass and vocals. At times, the band has included the third Baluyut brother, Ed, who is in another band, the Pacific Ocean, with Connie Lovatt who, with Fontaine, also makes up Containe. Phew.
The number 13
Reason number two that Versus are indie-rock anti-heroes: They really like sports. Richard and houseguests were watching Olympic basketball (loudly) during our phone interview. “It’s pretty dumb, but it’s better than soap operas,” he said, a little embarrassed. He also told me that Patrick is a Red Wings fanatic and that the band’s most recent release on Merge, Hurrah, is about goodbyes and a certain field of dreams.
“The album was kind of inspired by the closing of Tiger Stadium,” he admits. “I actually took a couple trips out there last summer just because it was closing and that was around when we started recording the album. So who knows? It’s just very sad.”
The Shelter show falls on Friday, Oct. 13, but Patrick sees it as a sign of luck.
“I’m superstitious, but in a good way. I love 13. It’s my favorite number. I don’t know, maybe because everyone else thinks it’s unlucky or maybe because it’s (former Detroit Tiger) Lance Parrish’s number.”
“Don’t go to wherever Richard (Baluyut) told you to do, to all his hot chicken places,” advises Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo. In a discussion about road food during an interview for chickfactor magazine, not surprisingly, Richard’s taste buds came up.
Anti-hero reason number three: Richard and James really like meat. James likes red meat “because of the taste, I guess. I wouldn’t want to be endorsing red meat, I don’t think. I hear it’s not very good for you.” Richard is a fan of the other white meat.
“(Our mother) has been known to make steak in the morning,” James says. “Like, the first meal. Like get up and eat steak. Or pork chops. It happens. That’s a very real possibility. I think usually when we’re there we get up at noon. So for her it’s already lunch. But it’s a pretty heavy meal to start with. We usually counter that by having a late dinner.”
April 26, 1966: Richard is born.
February 6, 1972: James is born.
14 years later
“When I was in high school, Ed taught me a few chords on the guitar. My two brothers, they were always in bands. I was just around them. It’s hard to escape the noise,” James says.
A short while later, James started taking piano lessons.
“I was pretty old when I started piano. I was a freshman in high school. It was just really to learn about music, not to play. I was supposed to have a recital, but I skipped out on it because I was at the level of a 6- or 7-year-old. I thought it would be embarrassing to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” at a recital when there were 10-year-old virtuosos and prodigies. So I was never an accomplished pianist. I always pretended to be in bands or was in one. We’d just record and write. That’s more of what I’m interested in. I’ve never really been a great player or anything, ya know? I like writing songs, though.”
They’re quite a modest bunch when you consider New York City has claimed the band as its indie-rock darling. Versus has recorded for such respected labels as Teen Beat, Caroline and Merge. Each album bursts through its respective shrink-wrap with chill-inducing pop anthems such as “Yeah You,” “Blade of Grass” or “My Adidas” on Hurrah, which hit the streets Oct. 3.
Blistering distorted guitar, heart-racing bass and frenzied drumming take turns with fuzzy blanket harmonies, straightforward, can’t-get-rid-of-this-goofy-smile pop and calculated art rock. Their stage show is simple yet mesmerizing. There’s little banter between songs and what there is of it is a bit awkward. Is it a joke? A response to a misinterpreted audience request? A deep thought? But once they start playing again, there’s nothing like that aura of concentration and magic that surrounds each musician. Fontaine’s tiptoe rocking style of bass playing is trance inducing and Richard has this unbreakable and enticing sense of calm amid the noise maelstrom.
Richard met Fontaine through a friend. “She was part of this goth dominatrix thing. Well, I don’t know about the dominatrix thing, but she eventually started wearing normal makeup and we started playing.”
Before Versus, Richard led a band called Flower. Toward the end of its existence, Fontaine joined the group as a singer and guitarist. After Flower, Richard and Fontaine were in Saturnine for a short period of time and then formed Versus with Ed. After a few shows with three guitars and a drum machine, Ed moved to the Philippines and Fontaine moved to bass. When Ed came back, he started drumming for the band.
Numerous tours, EPs, singles, full-lengths, compilation tracks and B-sides later, Fontaine and Richard have remained constant. The lineup has changed; labels have changed; the sound has gone from heavy guitar to heavy keyboard to twang and back again; but the overall anthemic quality has remained the same. Hurrah, the latest album, has been described as the band’s furthest straying from its original sound, but it also could be described as the most indicative of how the band really plays.
“When we’re writing songs, we’re always striving to attain this perfect sound,” James explains. “And it’s not that we’re not anymore, but I think it’s a little more relaxed. These are just the songs that came off with no effort. Whereas before, we’d specifically craft everything. These are the ones that we just kind of let happen. It’s strange because this record doesn’t really sound like Versus, but it’s the most ‘us’ probably that has ever come out of us.”
Almost every lineup change has included at least two Baluyuts. Brothers and bands seem to go together like bread and butter as much as oil and water. The Baluyuts go through the same ups and downs as other famous brothers in bands such as the Kinks, the Black Crowes or Oasis.
“All three of us have been in the band at one point in time or another,” says James. “It gets to be kind of, um … The only thing that being brothers offers is a certain understanding, a certain communication. There are also a lot of problems too. I have a very older brother-younger brother relationship with Richard, for better or for worse.”
Richard describes working with his siblings as extreme. “You can really hate each other more than you could with someone who’s not your brother, but there’s a lot more musical rapport. The highs can be very high.”
A similar situation exists with Jamiel and Chris Dado of My Paper Moon, a three-piece, high-energy rock trio based in the Royal Oak area. Jamiel and Chris also grew up in Bloomfield Hills and went to the same high school as the Baluyuts. The Dados are a bit younger, however, so they’ve mostly just heard stories about the Versus brothers. Friends of Jamiel and Chris used to play basketball with Richard, Ed and James when they were in town and those friends also were in a band that would play shows with Versus every once in a while.
Chris and Jamiel describe the interaction between brothers in bands in a similar way.
“I’m playing with my brother and Vito (Brooks), who’s a best friend of mine that I’ve known since I was 15, but it’s like I’ve known him forever,” Chris explains. “He’s like another brother. You have a really strong connection at some points, but at other points, there’s a lot of tension. You can get on each other’s nerves, but that’s natural, especially if you’ve been around someone for most of your life or your whole life.”
Jamiel points out that the dynamics between brothers in a close and concentrated situation like a band can be hard to understand (or take) by other band members.
“It can be pretty intense for other people in the band too, people who play with brothers,” Jamiel says. “I would probably say that other people have a problem with it more so (than we would).”
With a certain level of promotion, or by some change in the wind à la Mary Poppins, Versus could be a very big band. Or at least big enough to fill a medium-sized venue in their hometown. Who knows when and if that wind will blow, or even if they’re ready for it or want it? You get a feeling while watching Versus play that, more so than any other so-called indie band, the members are happy where they’re at. They wouldn’t mind really if more people got into their music, but they’re not arrogant enough to shove it in your face. They’d still work just as hard crafting the perfect sound connections even if they only sold five copies of each album. There’s a sense of contentment in making good music, playing it and being able to eat because of it. Versus has been doing it for almost nine years.
The band has played for the bigger crowds, touring with Sleater-Kinney, Superchunk, Tsunami, even at Lollapalooza. But Richard prefers playing Versus shows at smaller venues as opposed to the opening slots at larger venues.
“When you open up, you play for such a short period of time. You can never eat dinner because you’re playing so early. Stuff like that. People wanna see us if they’re gonna come see us. If they’re there, they want to be there, whereas, sometimes when you’re opening, they come to see theirband. But it’s mostly just being able to eat dinner,” he laughs.
Richard does confess, however, that it’s his dream to play St. Andrew’s. I giggle slightly after hearing this, but only because that seems so feasible. I’d consider Cobo Hall to be dreaming, but St. Andrew’s, that seems like such a piece of cake for them, at least in a few years.
“It’s just never happened,” he says quietly. “We’ve played places that are just as big, but the greatest shows I ever saw were there. Like the Cramps when I was in high school.
“I’m comfortable where I am now, but it would be cool to be able to play the big places. We probably could try, but I like the place to be the proper size. So it’s kind of fun for everybody, not just us. But then again, I like to go to shows where there’s no one there.”
Home is where the heart is
Although three-fourths of the band is from the Detroit area, Versus is not a Detroit band. Detroit audiences for the band’s performances are usually just a few friends and a few fans. A subdued sense of abandonment comes up every once in a while in conversation about the band. Music fans in the area see Versus as a New York band. Versus started in New York and New York has been very good to Versus.
Still, memories flood when Richard and James are asked about their hometown. A few years ago when Zoots was still around, you could count on a Versus show around the holidays when the guys were in town. They’ve also played a few local festivals including an Oakland University show at the Magic Stick where Richard performed solo as Whysall Lane. When asked what he misses about Michigan, Richard says it’s his teams, especially the Tigers. He also misses the convenience — “Office Max, Office Depot, Office Rocker, four-lane suburban roads,” he lists wistfully with a tinge of sarcasm. He also remembers spending countless hours at the Bloomfield Hills Denny’s.
“The Denny’s used to be the big hangout in Bloomfield Hills. Then they put a curfew on it. It was probably the only Denny’s in the whole U.S.A. that wasn’t open 24 hours. It was because the town of Bloomfield Hills didn’t like the kids hanging out there.”
Maybe some kids are reading this story at that same Denny’s right now. And maybe they’ll check out the show. And maybe they’ll tell their friends and their friends’ friends.
Richard asked when this paper would come out so he could tell his parents to pick one up. James told me to say hi at the show.
“Hopefully, some people will show up,” he said.
Yes, let’s hope.