Veruca Salt — rock’s greatest soap opera — tell the story of how they went to hell and back only to reunite and unleash their best album in eighteen years. Now they’re looking to the future.
Veruca Salt’s Nina Gordon is sitting in her kitchen getting her hair cut. Her husband walks in, says simply, “David Bowie”. Instantly, she knows. That was January of this year, when the world collectively mourned the loss of the music legend.
“I think it surprised us all how difficult it was to accept that he was gone,” says Nina. “We didn’t know him — although Louise [Post, Veruca Salt guitarist and vocalist] was lucky enough to meet him — but his impact was so huge we were all crushed. My favourite quote afterwards was the person on Twitter who said: ‘This is the only uncool thing Bowie has ever done’.”
Nina Gordon is ruminating on Bowie’s musical signature and legacy, and it’s fitting. Our interview opens with asking the singer to look back at her own career and give her 20-year-old self some salient advice.
“Oh boy,” she begins. “For one, stop being so damn critical of what you look like, because you looked great.”
Sitting alone in her kitchen eating cucumbers (as you do), Nina Gordon rolls her eyes and groans as she looks back and registers her twenty-year-old self. She says, “When we first started Veruca Salt we were in our twenties and pretty narcissistic. You kind of have to be to start a band, no?”
You suspect that the Gordon staring back from old magazine covers would be horrified by the idea that she could be described as narcissistic. But the ensuing decades have softened this still-striking 49 year-old: “We are way more open to each other’s ideas and to kicking them around without being so precious about everything that comes out of our mouths now!”
Excitingly, Gordon has finally come around to the idea of moving forwards with Louise Post, Jim Shapiro and Steve Lack, the original Veruca Salt line-up. It’s surprising, of course, because those of you reading this who have followed Veruca Salt from the beginning will know that theirs has been a difficult story – to say the least.
Across a range of criteria, Veruca Salt were a demonstrably better band than contemporaries like Letters to Cleo or Luscious Jackson. Whereas Letters to Cleo could teeter into overly saccharine pop, Veruca Salt never failed to deliver a hard rock edge. They could be poppy, but they were always in control of it. Having two lead guitarists helped steer the good ship ‘Distortion’, and Post and Gordon were both multi-faceted musicians capable of hard rock one minute (Straight) and melodies the next (Wolf).
In their leads, the band had two charismatic frontwomen, capable of both audience banter and intensity. Everything of that band was channelled into them and their Gibson SGs. The reaction of audiences at their 1997 peak was way beyond anything they had experienced before, their rapidly developing star status offset by videos of the band joking around and having fun.
But in 1998, after one of the “greatest rock soap operas” in musical history with lots of in-fighting and volatility, and one frequently compared to “Fleetwood Mac or Hüsker Dü”, Veruca Salt’s principal singer songwriters, Nina Gordon and Louise Post, went their separate ways. Drummer Jim Shapiro had abruptly left in 1997, closely followed by Gordon and Steve Lack, with Post left alone under the Veruca Salt moniker for two subsequent albums. The band’s star had waned seemingly overnight after the success of sophomore album Eight Arms To Hold You and fights broke out in the fractious atmosphere.
Throughout this time, prospects for a Gordon-Post duo looked extremely unlikely. Gordon, in the post-Post climate, seemed to carry herself like a woman that had all the answers. Gordon demoed solo material in Boston with friends Kay Hanley and Michael Eisenstein from Letters to Cleo and sang on James Iha’s solo album, Let It Come Down. She built a scene of musicians around her before releasing her first solo album, Tonight and the Rest of my Life, in 2000 via Warner Bros. The reality, though, was very different and she wasn’t as self-assured as she seemed.
“I do know that setting out to write a hit song, or make a hit album has never worked for me. Your heart has to be in the right place, and pressure isn’t great for my heart,” considers Gordon today.
Meanwhile, Post recruited guitarist Stephen Fitzpatrick, drummer Jimmy Madla and bassist Suzanne Sokol and signed with Beyond Records, releasing Resolver in 2000. Although Post’s Veruca Salt released a single and video for Born Entertainer, it eventually became obvious that the band was not the same. Later that year, Sokol had split, and Gina Crosley was drafted. Post’s Veruca Salt continued to tour throughout 2001, and she and Crosley also attempted to form a supergroup with Courtney Love, but the project soon imploded.
After an ever-changing line-up that included Stacy Jones (American Hi-Fi), Solomon Snyder, Kellii Scott (Failure) and Nicole Fiorentino (Smashing Pumpkins), the future looked bleak indeed – particularly as IV, the band’s final 2006 album with Post, barely sold, the fluid line-up proving an unstable model.
Single So Weird was released to radio but neither the song nor the album did well commercially. On March 14, 2012, the band announced that they were on indefinite hiatus.
“IV seems like a lifetime ago. Resolver seems like a lifetime and a half ago,” Post tells TGA ten years on. “Without our reunion, there would not have been another Veruca Salt record. I cannot tell you how happy I am that Ghost Notes was made.”
Gordon agrees: “It was a long process. Louise and I weren’t speaking for years, and then we warmed up to the occasional email or phone call. It took 14 years for the ice to fully thaw. But we finally met in person and the flood gates were open again — personally and musically. I think we all could have picked different paths. But our connection to music and to each other was clearly very powerful.”
Their absence from each other’s lives was something both singers touched on in the confessional songs of 2015’s reunion album Ghost Notes. It was a step away from the scathing songs the two had written previously about each other when flying solo. But today, both parties are accommodating as well as convivial, and entertain the interrogation about the years spent apart with cheerful frankness.
“I don’t think either of us ever had a problem with exposing ourselves. I think you have to be a bit of an exhibitionist to be a good songwriter,” smiles Gordon knowingly.
Post and Gordon emerged from that period out in the proverbial cold after their ill-fated attempts at commercial success. Now that they have re-engaged with one another, and re-assembled the original line up, their collective star is very much in the ascendant again.
When the video for Museum of Broken Relationships was released in advance of Record Store Day, 2014, it was a surprise and fans were delighted. The black and white studio-shot video showed Nina Gordon, Louise Post, Steve Lack and Jim Shapiro performing together for the first time since 1998. The band once more cohered into fantastic musical shapes, powered by inspiration, serendipity and humility — it couldn’t have happened without Gordon and Post working hard at forgiveness.
Behind the scenes, Post shared an idea for a song that would become Ghost Notes’ final track, Alternica. The song harks back to the alternative music scene that spawned the band. It was from this point on that the Gordon-Post coupling brought forth new song ideas — and the difference they made to the sound was immediately evident.
“It was magical and felt like no time had passed,” says Gordon. “Our voices sounded exactly the same together and in an instant we were filled with regret for letting so much time go by. But we also felt like we had been given back a precious gift that had been stolen from us.”
Best of all was Prince of Wales, a dreamy, bewitching song with an insistent guitar motif and soft-to-heavy build that quickly came to define the new Veruca Salt. Not far behind were The Gospel According To Saint Me and Eyes On You. Gordon contributed Black and Blonde, a song first intended for her 2000 solo album. Drummer Jim Shapiro and bassist Steve Lack also appeared inspired by the arrival of the new songs, contributing to the album’s overall sound.
Ghost Notes was finished inside a year – astonishingly fast given the time they spent apart.
“The whole album is about our friendship, our band, our break up, and our reunion,”says Gordon. “The song that resonates the most for me is Empty Bottle because when we wrote it, and when I hear or perform it, I can practically taste the innocence of our young selves starting a band together. It’s palpable — it was a moment of beauty and power just on the verge of heartbreak. I love it.”
After years of experimenting with different line ups, it was clear that Veruca Salt stood a better chance of subverting alt pop-rock if they worked within its strictures. Much like Seether, their first stand-out single, the band conveniently had written a song so bewitchingly memorable that it necessitated that shift back to what they did best. In the canon of their earliest work, Museum Of Broken Relationships was a game-changer.
Whatever previous musical detachments had gone before it, it was clear that the band were no longer in denial of their skills as a unit. In the studio, they recorded with Brad Woods again, who had recorded American Thighs, because, as Gordon admits: “It was the most natural thing we could have done. Our band was being reborn, and we went back to the beginning.”
With Ghost Notes, the band had an album they could be truly proud of.
“Without wanting to sound like my narcissistic 20-year-old self again, I was very happy with the album,” laughs Gordon. “You could fiddle with changes forever, but you have to let go at some point or no one will ever hear it. So when I hear some of the songs, I hear parts that I would love to add now, that I didn’t think of when we were in the studio. Just overdubs or another harmony part, or a guitar part. Occasionally there’s a lyric that I wish I could go back in and change, but it’s all little stuff.”
On Laughing In The Sugar Bowl, the lyrics ‘She’s the flame and I’m the glow’ are as near to telling us they had found what they were looking for. Even the Veruca Salt signature-style Gibson SG guitars were back.
“I love my SG Melody Makers because they are cool looking, they are very lightweight and with the right pick-ups in them, they can sound super heavy. My Pelham Blue Melody Maker is like a dear old friend. I can’t imagine why I’d play anything else,” laughs Nina.
Twenty-two years after American Thighs was released, a new generation of fans have been swept up in the same wave of creativity that the band invoked 20 years before. The whip-smart pop of the Nineties got a 21st century update. Lauding their music of late are new grunge group Skating Polly, who recorded a song with the band last year fresh off the back of Ghost Notes.
“Our good friend and label dude (Matt Messer from El Camino) told us about Skating Polly and suggested we get together and write. They are crazy-talented,” Gordon states. “Rock is rock. No matter how many times people claim it’s dead, it never is. And women need to rock as much as dudes do, so frontwomen with heavy guitars will always be here, thank god.”
Veruca Salt version 2.0 are back — albeit with a lesson in hindsight — and developing at an astonishing speed. Initially purveying an idiosyncratic blend of rock, pop and grunge, it has taken them until 2016 to arrive at the gateway to hitherto uncharted territory off the back of their most notorious album. Now, they’ve moved on from the chaos of their lives and the band are engaged as a group: witty, caustic, sincere. Finally, they can get on with being a band and any conventional notions of success. 2016 alone sees them doing more songwriting and live gigs, alongside a podcast and a musical.
The musical shift might have happened naturally, for each member, but whether the impact would have been as far reaching is doubtful. As is often the case with insurrections, Veruca Salt are stronger than ever, and twenty years on, Gordon has some sage advice for herself: “Lots of compassion for myself and others… and not as many cookies.”
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