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Paradise Found

Two years ago, the Velvet Teen took the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference

"Chris [Walla] introduced us to this guy [who] took us aside and said, 'Just don't do it.' Not only did he say don't do it, but he said, 'The people you're working with, the lawyers you've been introduced to, are sharks. Do not have anything to do with them.' "

"Had we met Beck and Macy Gray that night" at the Ima Robot show, Staples says, "we'd probably be like, 'Stars! Where do we sign?' "

"I'd probably be a Scientologist by now," concludes Nagler. Instead, he's a guy sitting in a small taqueria in Petaluma, dressed in a ripped shirt and wrapping up the second half of his chicken burrito to eat later.

Joshua Staples (right): "We're thankful that we didn't 
go to that shitty Ima Robot show, but went to the 
Death Cab show."
Sara Sanger
Joshua Staples (right): "We're thankful that we didn't go to that shitty Ima Robot show, but went to the Death Cab show."


The Velvet Teen began recording Elysium when it returned from Japan in November of last year (yes, the band is big in Japan). The original plan was to record an EP that would hold fans over until the musicians could reunite with Walla to produce their sophomore effort. They did not stick to that plan.

"We had wanted to produce it more, to arrange things for it, do more instrumentations," says Nagler. So the band called in a string quartet and added keyboards and synth sounds to augment the piano-driven songs. In addition, Nagler found himself writing pages of lyrics. "The first song on the record has over 1,100 words on it," he adds. "That stuff doesn't get written over the weekend."

"They started the process in December," remembers Slowdance label owner Ezra Caraeff, adding that he had hoped to receive a rough copy in January. "I think it was in May when it was all finished."

"The only time you can afford to spend a long time in the studio is either if you're doing it alone or you have an abundance of money," explains Staples. "The latter is never going to happen. But we thought, 'We can spend time on this. Let's make the best record we can.' "

Elysium opens with an epic intro, a pretentious trick on most albums but the ideal mood-setter here: an instrumental three-and-a-half-minute track of found sounds and machine noises that glitch and squirm and tighten before they fade away, leaving only the plaintive chords of a piano, the kind of playing that makes you imagine Nagler on an expansive outdoor stage, all alone, a magnesium spotlight pooled around him and his baby grand. As he plays, somber strings join him -- the lights go up, so to speak -- and we segue into "Penicillin (It Doesn't Mean Much)," and now the spotlight tilts to hit a disco ball, sending chutes of white light raining down on the stage as a waltzing drumbeat drops in and Nagler begins to sing: "To prove your affection, you'd marry my strings / But when I'm called away, do you bury my things…"

As Nagler explains, the album is "about a codependence between two sides who are concealing things from one another." Throughout the record, the singer's lyrics reimagine what those two sides might be -- a pair of lovers, a government and its citizens, organized religion and its followers -- but they're always two sides controlling each other, dangling a glimpse of Elysium, paradise, on the end of a stick. The themes are as powerful as the music, like the grandiose strings that open "A Captive Audience" as if it were Casablanca, or Nagler's piano, which is as urgent and expressive as the most cataclysmically distorted guitars.

Taken as a whole (the only way to take it, really), the album is one huge dramatic arc, culminating with the 13-minute centerpiece, "Chimera Obscurant," and its 662-word climax, in which a concussive fury of pianos and strings and drums sends Nagler's simultaneously grim and cathartic invectives into the stratosphere: "This invite-only disparity party / Has brought enough despair to the already brokenhearted / In the wake of greed, in the name of flowcharting / Leaving broken homes where once were gardens." In case you're wondering, those are just 30 of the 662.

"It's incredibly ambitious," says Caraeff of Elysium. "The whole idea of 'We're recording our own record; we've never done anything like this before,' and then going, 'Okay, now we're going to get a string quartet, and there's this 13-minute song with 1,400 words in it and time changes.' It's way too ambitious. That's like the kind of weird record you make when you have the major label: 'Hey, here's $200,000 to make a record.' "

But the Velvet Teen didn't have that. Nagler and his brother recorded all of Elysium on a PowerBook G4 for approximately ten grand.

Today, having succeeded at going it alone these past few years, the band members aren't itching to sign a big contract anytime soon.

"We're always open to offers," says Staples, "but it's still not the most tempting thing. I mean, we're traveling to Japan and stuff on our own; we can do things on our own. It can only get more profitable on our own. We're not going to fall all over ourselves trying to get major-label attention. If they really want us, they know how to get ahold of us."

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