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"Our timing's always been a little fucked," says VHS or Beta singer/guitarist Craig Pfunder with a sigh. Seven years ago, they were indie dance-rockers before there was such a thing; three years ago, they were '80s revivalists when it just sounded reactionary.
But at least they still have a career. When the quartet released their Le Funk EP in 2000, it was noteworthy not just for being the best Daft Punk record ever made by an indie band from Kentucky, let alone one that just a few years before were an art-damage band going to Slint shows and playing their first Chicago gig with Melt Banana. But it was also because their first album was released on VHS tape, for godsakes.
Yet the whole time Pfunder and bassist Mark Guidry were going to raves and clubs, fascinated by the weirdly catchy dance music they were hearing. "Punk to us was more of a spirit than a sound," he explains. Inspired by DJ Sneak and Paul Johnson mixes, VHS became a live dance-music set, two years before the Rapture and Bloc Party—bands who'd do the same and get all the credit. "We heard all the filter pans and the snare buildups and tried writing to that in a more organic way," says a shrugging Pfunder.
Le Funk was so outta nowhere that when Pfunder mailed a copy to then-chic Manhattan club Centro-Fly asking for a gig, the promoters thought somebody was playing a joke on them, sending what was obviously a French filter funk masterpiece and saying it was by a band from Kentucky. "We were made fun of when we first came out with Le Funk," Pfunder remembers. "Then we started hearing the Rapture and !!! and knew somebody would get big doing this."
So far, it hasn't been them.
To their credit, VHS or Beta were the first American band signed to Astralwerks in 2003 (where they still are), home to their European DJ heroes. The resulting disc, Night on Fire, wasn't the Le Funk follow-up anybody wanted it to be. Pfunder signed without having sung a note since his noise days. His Ian McCulloch/Robert Smith wail didn't suit the frog-disco sound, so he went in a more toned-down, dour and, by default, '80s direction to match his voice, with lukewarm results. "I got real sick of hearing we sounded like the Cure or Duran Duran," he says and sighs. "It was just lazy criticism."
Night gave VHS or Beta time to mature as a band, even if it slowed their ascent. "The bands who opened for us got way bigger than we did," he laments. "We took the Bravery on their first tour. The Scissor Sisters actually opened up for us when we played New York!"
As the band momentum slowed, Pfunder and Guidry picked up work as the VHS or Beta DJs, playing records by the acts that eclipsed their early sound—the Justice/MSTRKFT stuff, "plus older stuff like Paul Johnson and Cassius."
With Bring on the Comets, Pfunder doesn't try to keep up with the indie-dance kids. The record bridges their Phoenix [the French disco-pop band]-from-the-sticks beginnings and the less-cutesy (if less-fun) terrain of Night on Fire. Pfunder's guitar is sick; the layered Gang of Four churn on the opening "Love in My Pocket" is subversive pop genius, while the more wistful "Bring on the Comets" and "Fall Down Lightly" recall the best of Republic-era New Order without just rehashing it.
"Burn It All Down" gets saved from being a Killers homage with the line "You bring the bread, I'll bring the wine/It's the end of the party one last time," while "Can't Believe a Single Word" has that hands-in-the-air charm of Le Funk distilled into a solid, sing-along riff that Andrew WK's kicking himself for not thinking of first. It's more Jackson Browne than Justice, that's for sure.
"I like that people can hear different things in it," Pfunder says, responding to the Browne comparison. "It's not fair to the record to try to sum it up as any one thing, and that's what we like about it."
And they can afford to.
It's a minor miracle an obscure indie band from the too-cool-for-school Louisville scene has made it this far jumping genres every record. On the other hand, Pfunder knows he's one lucky break—a meaty soundtrack placement, a decent tour slot, that little oomph in visibility—from the big(ger) time. He still speaks with the wistful disenchantment of his Sonic Youth youth. But on the night of a DJ gig in Louisville and days before Comets drops, he puts things in perspective: "I'm just glad we have a record coming out Tuesday."