VHS or Beta is a band that first formed as a five-piece in Louisville, Kentucky in 1997. Their music combines elements of dance, house, disco, and rock. While their first two EPs (1998's On And On and 2002's Le Funk) found some chart success, VHS or Beta became better known after releasing their 2004 debut album, Night On Fire, which included hits like “Night On Fire,” “Alive,” and “No Cabaret!” It even landed them an opening slot on Duran Duran's 2005 North American tour. In 2007, they released their sophomore album, Bring On The Comets. After four years, the band was reduced to just two of its founding members, Craig Pfunder (vocalist and guitarist) and Mark Palgy (bassist). They relocated from Louisville to Brooklyn, New York, where they recorded their latest album Diamonds And Death. The album is a shift away from more straightforward pop and rock sounds, and is instead built on more traditional dance and house elements. It was released in 2011 on Chromosome/Krian Records.
One of the great things about doing a phone interview with a musician is that you're able to speak to them when they're most at ease. Case in point: VHS or Beta's lead singer and guitarist, Craig Pfunder. When we called him up at his new digs in Brooklyn (the band recently made the big move from their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky), he was in the middle of watching the viral video of the two little girls singing “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj. There's just something oddly endearing about a 35 year-old musician who's also been sucked into the adorableness of this video. As our conversation moved away from the merits of this video, we got down to discussing the journey that has led VHS or Beta to their latest album release, Diamonds And Death. They've come a long way since first forming as a five-piece dance rock group in 1997: multiple EP and LP releases, opening for Duran Duran, and even forming their own independent record label, Chromosome. Along the way, the group was reduced to just two of its founding members, Craig Pfunder and bassist Mark Palgy. Musically, they've shifted away from more straightforward pop and rock sounds. Instead, they've built an album based on more dance and house elements. Read on to find out more about the evolution of VHS or Beta, straight from the source.
Band of the Day: Question: For someone who's never listened to VHS or Beta before, what would you say is the most ideal listening situation?
Craig Pfunder: I think there's two parts to that. It's really kind of an interesting visceral experience listening to it on headphones, in a very personal environment. We're making records that are aimed toward the dance world, but on an emotional level and not just purely disposable dance hits. On the other hand, I think we're like an 11 o'clock band, when you've had a couple cocktails and you've allowed the day to be put behind you and you're able to just have fun!
Band of the Day: You guys also do a lot of DJ nights, as well as performing live and obviously recording in the studio. Do you feel more at home in one situation over the other?
Craig: I would have to say that they are so completely different. I mean, those touch on who you are as different parts of a person. The studio can be a very fun place, but it can also be a very meticulous place. You're there to get things out emotionally with music, to just have fun and do it. Live or DJ-ing, your main focus is to keep the attention on the dance floor. They're both places we feel pretty comfortable, because we've been doing it for so long, but they're just so different. It's like saying to your waiter, “I can't decide between the fish or the steak.” They're both meals, but they're both just totally different things.
Band of the Day: Your latest album is called Diamonds And Death. Can you explain the title a little bit, or the concept behind this album?
Craig: Well, I wrote a song called “Diamonds and Death,” and Mark [Palgy, bassist] was in the studio one day and was like, “I really think we could use that song title as the name of the record!” And I said I really like the way those words fit together—there's some alliteration going on there. There's a duality, as far as two things feeling very separate, which I think the band has always had a thing with—whether it's dealing with the name, or the fact that we're in between two genres. Now we're two people, and it's interesting how these things kind of coincided.
Band of the Day: And what about the cover art? What was the inspiration for that?
Craig: I think both Mark and I were going through a lot of things, having moved to Brooklyn. It was the first time that Mark moved away [from Louisville], and it was the first time I'd moved in sixteen years of my adult life, and leaving friendships behind but going into this new place. When I moved to New York, that winter just got super brutal. At times, New York can feel very isolated, sometimes you feel that you're in this bubble. The cover art kind of conceptualized the idea of isolation, with the help of [local artists] T-Bone and Aljax. I took the cityscape picture from my rooftop, and then they integrated it within their own artwork that we'd already collaborated on.
Band of the Day: Speaking of moving to Brooklyn, was there a moment when it really clicked that it was home for you?
Craig: That happened when my girlfriend and I broke up, I think. I moved here and within a couple months, I ended up getting into a relationship, and that relationship ended at the beginning of Spring here. And then I just really discovered my personal relationship with the city, and a lot of things happened for me this summer—emotionally and kind of, like, life-wise. There's so many reasons why people move to a place like New York, and getting out of this relationship allowed me to do a lot of the things I wanted to do that I didn't do when I got here.
Band of the Day: What was your catalyst for getting into music in the first place?
Craig: There was no real catalyst, there was just the fact that when I heard music, it made me feel like nothing else did. Like some kids just wake up, and all they can think about is, like, taking apart and putting back together a model car that their parents just bought them. And eventually they end up being engineers or mechanics. I think, not to be existential or weird, but I think sometimes people have callings. Fortunately enough for me, at a very young age, music was sort of my calling. I knew what I was actually good at, and what made me happy. Now I think being a 35 year-old that's playing music in an industry that seems to be collapsing, I'm still doing it because I love to do it.
Band of the Day: So what's your own personal measure of success when it comes to music, if it isn't money?
Craig: I think it's interesting because you can look at everything the band has done. We've toured the world, we've played to packed rooms, we've played with bands like Duran Duran, and we've sold a decent amount of records along the way. And we're still relevant enough that people like you still want to do interviews with us (laughs)! But I think there is sort of a middle class area of bands. They're not selling out massive stadiums, but they're able to maintain themselves, and we kind of fit into that. But your perspective changes once you've done a certain amount of things. It's never to a point where you think, “I've made it, I'm done!” We're definitely not here based on money. But through merit, through life accomplishments and achievements, I think we've been successful throughout the years.
Band of the Day: Ok, so I don't know if you know this already, but tomorrow is supposedly the end of the world...again! So what would be the last VHS Or Beta song you'd want to perform, and where would you perform it?
Craig: I'd have to play “Bring On The Comets” because that's kind of what I wrote that song about! I think the worst part of death is that it doesn't happen to everyone at the same time. Imagine if a giant Earth-size ball hit the earth, and everyone was gone at the same time. There would be no one left to mourn any loss, it would all just be gone in a flash. There's something really interestingly kind of beautiful about that, because the idea of mourning my friends and loved ones is kind of unbearable...not that I think about that all the time (laughs)! But I think I wrote that song in kind of a superficial way about two people falling in love during some sort of apocalyptic comet-type storm (laughs). It's so silly, but it would be so blissfully weird for everyone to have, like, their ending moment at the same time. Oh, and I'd have to perform that on the moon, that way I could stay alive (laughs)!