Catching Up with Vee Dee for a Chat About Public Mental Health

Vee Dee playing the Empty Bottle, 2008, photo by <a href=
Vee Dee playing the Empty Bottle, 2008, photo by Rob Karlic
posted Wednesday Apr 29th, 2009

The long-running Chicago underground act, Vee Dee have just released their long-awaited second album on Criminal IQ. We recently sat down with Nick from the band to talk about their much anticipated double LP, and got some background on the band that's been turning heads and bending minds for the last ten years around Chicago, and some of the underlying influences behind their ominous vibrations.

Could you talk a little about the history of Vee Dee?

Nick - I came up in Chicago in the 1990’s, and as an underage kid going to shows then. I sat through tons of shitty pop punk, ska-punk, emo-core or whatever else just to see whatever garage or rock ’n’ roll band would that would play. I’ve always been into real rock ‘n’ roll and other types of music that Chicago just didn’t really have for years. Yes, in the ‘60s there was The Shadows of Knight and The Buckinghams among others, but we always had to have strings or brass on all our records. I identified with more Killed By Death-type punk and old garage rock and psychedelia. I met Dan Lang, VEE DEE’s bass player, in roughly ’99, 2000 (ed. note- Dan & Nick's pre-Vee Dee band Stabcats played one show at Fireside in 1999 before meeting their first drummer Nathan Webber). He had been in The Brides who had singles on Rip Off and I thought, “Great! Here’s someone who gets it.”

Once Vee Dee started, we played with a lot of bands that became synonymous with Horizontal Action Magazine and that scene. It was a cool time. It felt like what I had read the early punk scenes in L.A. or San Francisco or New York were like, because there were all these bands doing original, no-compromise kinda punk that did not get much local media attention. But we were all doing it because we loved the music and we just played in shitty crap bars. There was just a spirit in the air at the time. But Chicago’s and indie town, so flashy, dirty, messed-up garage rock kinda bands got scoffed at, or at least they did then. Now I feel Chicago’s on the map for good amateur rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s in part due to the HoZac folks and the bands of that time.

The new album’s called Public Mental Health System, is it about America’s mental health system?

The album is called Public Mental Health System because, really, in America, such an institution does not exist. From my own personal experience, needing any kind of mental help or feeling unstable or depressed is looked-down upon. I have had to struggle with a strong depression most of my life and often felt isolated or ashamed. I realize this is part of the nature of depression; it clouds one’s thinking- kind of isolating yourself in your head. Over the years I’ve been on anti-depressants and engaged in talk therapy, and have seen how the health care system works in the U.S. I have been with few health care providers, and I’ll tell you, most of them do not want to cover, or will charge more, if one has ever taken or needed to take any kind of psycho-active prescribed drug. This flies in the face of reality, because while there is this social stigma against seeking mental help, millions of people in this country are on some type of drug to deal with depression or ADD or whatever. Health care providers see these mental issues as “pre-existing conditions” and make coverage more costly. Yet we as a people often don’t see mental health as having any correlation to physical health, but the brain is IN the body- it functions as part of a whole with the rest of our systems. Mental health should be respected, it should not be stigmatized and getting help should be easy for people who need it. I believe mental health, and health in general, should be provided as a public service in this country. It’s a quality of life issue, I believe, and it goes along with the notion of LIFE, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Would you say that, in 2009, there is still a taboo when openly discussing mental health problems?

No, but I do think many doctors over-prescribe anti-depressants and such because I feel the real reason many people feel detached or isolated is because of our modern Western society. Society does not reflect what it means to be human in many ways. Our impulses and desires are put through years of filtering and emotional and primal restriction. It’s a wonder more people aren’t crazy, really.

Everyone seems to be on, or know someone who’s on some kind of mood altering drugs. Are you an advocate of them being handed out so quickly and liberally by physicians up and down the country in the US?

If drugs work for someone’s mental state and they are able to function and keep their head above water, great. But I also think there are many other ways to help with those problems. Meditation, herbal remedies, exercise. Whatever works for someone, I would say I advocate. The album title reflects my own experience but it also can be seen as a function of the album itself. Listening to it, reading the lyrics, the vibe of the whole thing could be your public mental health system. Even though you probably had to buy the record! That’s why I wanted gatefold packaging- plenty to read and ingest along with the music.

Was Public Mental Health System created to be a concept album about mental health?

It wasn’t created to be a concept album. It came out of a growing collection of songs we had been writing since Furthur, of which there were enough for a double record. I have always been a fan of double albums, and I looked at them as quite extraordinary. The large volume of music, the gatefold cover- it really gave you a slice of the artist’s world. It started as a dream to create one with Vee Dee, but unlike many double albums, there is no real filler or throw away stuff just to fill space. I felt there was enough material to warrant a double.

As far as a concept, all the music came from the band and me. Lyrically I began to see a kind of overall viewpoint that was both personal and a reflection of the world around us. Remember too, this is a Bush-era recording, but even with the hope of the new administration, most of the issues addressed still exist. I also think calling it a concept album is not entirely correct. It all came from us, so it is our concept, our music, our approach. But I hesitate to call it a true concept record because that was not our overall intention.

So, would you describe it as being a more personal album than Furthur?

It is a more personal record, definitely. Furthur had a lot more light-hearted or straight forward songs. Public Mental Health System is much more poetic. It is full of symbolism lyrically. Musically, it is more exploratory, we wanted to stretch out and not worry about song length. At the same time, I made sure there were no wasted notes or any kind of compromise with the music. I am hoping that people who hear it feel something from it. That is ultimate goal of art, to communicate some greater aspect of being human, being alive. I hope some one hears it and says, “Hey, I can identify with this,” or “I see where these guys are coming from.” I mean, there are so many records and bands that made me excited to play music, to try and say something or move someone with music. I’d like to think Vee Dee is part of that ongoing dialog.

What are you hoping listeners of the new record will take from it?

I guess my hope for it is that people will enjoy what they hear. I would love it if at least a few people really dig it and feel that they are not alone in the world. I would like to do some touring for the album. It is difficult since our drummer has been traveling for weeks at a time for his job, but we’ll definitely get out there as much as we can. I’m proud of the record. I put my heart and soul into it, I really did. It means a lot to me and I’m happy it’s out. I’d like to think folks will see the sincerity of the project and appreciate what we’ve done.

Speaking of which, there were some hints of Vee Dee’s more psychedelic songwriting on Furthur but nothing compared to what you wrote for Public Mental Health System – would you talk about what inspired you for this latest stuff?

Over time the band became increasingly inspired by psychedelic music, as well as, early ‘70s heavy jams and, among other things, free jazz and spiritual jazz. We still had our garage punk rock core but we got into a heavier sound. We didn’t want to slavishly imitate or start wearing bell-bottoms or some shit. I wanted to do like a kaleidoscope of music we were into. Like, “this song is Black Sabbath trying to play folk rock,” or “Sun Ra playing with The Users,” you know, try to keep it weird and interesting. I guess what we’re about is playing our jams and pushing ourselves and enjoying making music. Probably the same as any other musician or band out there. We’re not interested in mass popularity or crossing over because we’re too rough sounding for all that. We’ll just keep doing this as long as it opens our third eyes.

Check out Vee Dee's brain-frying tunage HERE and pick up their monstrous double LP right HERE.