“If it’s a sample of John Thursday she’s after, his head is already up. I lay her skirt up to her belly and slip her pants down ...”
~Under the Roofs of Paris, Henry Miller
Around the time the U.S. army dragged a Unibomber-esque Saddam Hussein mumbling from his rat hole in central Iraq, one would occasionally encounter Ryan Jensen wandering the wintry streets of downtown Salt Lake City wearing a solid blue T-shirt with the word “VILE” embroidered in stark black letters where a miniature polo player might otherwise go. Jensen was often drunk, but a common theme among many of his distracted conversations in late 2003 was a new project he was planning—something as epic in scope as it would be baffling in content—called Vile Blue Shades. His initial idea was to create a doppelganger band of his then-current project, The Corleones, which would consist of the same members but play art rock instead of punk. When none of the other Corleones were interested and the band seemed to be twitching out the last nerve spasms of its generally self-destructive lifespan, Jensen elicited the help of Joe Guile and Dan Rose, whose schedules had been recently freed by the break-up of their band, The Cronies. The germ began to grow, but slowly.
If not for Jensen’s fortitude, the project would have been stillborn. He, Rose and Guile had grand aspirations and wanted more people to take part, but soliciting membership proved difficult. “We’d sensationalize it,” said Guile. “We’d be drunk at the bar and be like, ‘Hey, we’re starting something new that no one’s ever heard,’ and everybody was like, ‘Yeah, great, cool. Good luck.’”
The earliest Shades demos, which the original members presented to prospective players, were not exactly accessible. Eli Morrison, an occasional Shades guitarist and integral behind-the-scenes man, said, “On the original tracks, Ryan played all the instruments, sung, and done everything himself. It was cool, except he doesn’t know how to play any instruments at all, except for tambourine. So he played drums and guitars and everything, and just because he didn’t know what he was doing, it made for some really odd, crazy, strange stuff.”
But the believers came. Jensen, Guile and Rose recorded a demo that would later become the band’s first official release, Dark Wizard. They used it to recruit guitarist Shane Asbridge (I Am Electric, Lazerfang) bassist Chris Murphy, and guitarist Justin Wyatt (The Corleones). At this point, the group was less of a band than an idea—one that involved an open-door policy under which anyone who wanted to could play, and the conceptualization of three records: a Dungeons and Dragons record (Dark Wizard), a drinking record (Bottle of Pain), and a sex record (John Thursday’s California Adventure).
The band obeyed a demanding practice schedule—9 a.m. on Sunday mornings at the Moroccan— and membership began to boom. “We’d make recordings and demos, and we’d invite people in on them,” Asbridge said. “People were coming in and out while we practiced—they’d come in and get their guitar, and maybe if we were doing something they would sit and make some noise, and then before you knew it, they started showing up on a regular basis.”
Asbridge invited Dan Thomas, drummer for the Red Bennies and Tolchock Trio, to join the band in 2005. “I don’t think Shane had told anyone that he had asked me to play,” Thomas said. “I showed up at the Moroccan one day and a few of the guys were wondering what I was doing there.”
Morrison, who also plays guitar in The Wolfs and Ether, experienced a similarly casual initiation into the band: “I told them, ‘I’m totally hooked on Dark Wizard. You guys have to let me play with you.’ I was blown away because their answer was ‘That’s fine. We don’t care.’ That really took me aback, because I was used to an answer to a question like that being ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ So I was like, ‘Well, that’s cool. I guess if you guys don’t care, I guess I’ll be there.’”
A slew of members accumulated. Jensen’s open-door policy, which he intended to encourage people to come and go, only worked half way.
“Nobody left,” he said. “The revolving door just sort of stopped and everybody piled in.”
The group topped out at 13 musicians before they began firing people. Today, it consists of eight permanent players and two alternates, all of whom are men, and dancer Meg Charlier— whose estrogen, according to Jensen, is potent enough to counterbalance 10 times the testosterone.
With a lineup larger than a manageable orgy, Vile Blue Shades rumbled onto the scene. Writer Coleman Motley of the nowdefunct Gray Matter Magazine reported in April 2005 that “Vile Blue Shades have got scenesters, shut-ins, pansies, hard-asses, girls, boys, transsexuals, and everyone else who knows their ass from their elbow paying attention, whether they want to or not.” By this time, the Shades had officially released Dark Wizard and recorded Bottle of Pain and Obleaske of the Orb, which came out in spring and summer 2005, respectively. They accepted invitations to play live from any promoter or oddball charity event that approached them, provided music for the soundtrack to the 2005 documentary This Divided State, and infected the western US with mini-tours whenever a dozen separate work schedules permitted. In May 2006, they put out We’re Here, We’re High, the band’s first proper fullscale release.
“The problem,” Morrison said, “was that the band had put out these records, but they had only issued them in really, really low numbers of copies: 30, 20, a dozen. The editions were preposterously low on those early titles. Like the Dark Wizard thing—it was awesome. It came with this 28-page book and all this stuff, but they only made somewhere between 25 and 30 of those records.” Morrison, a venerable veteran of facilitating local releases, took it upon himself to gather and combine the Shades’ three early albums, have them remastered, and re-release them in conjunction with Pseudo Recordings in fall 2007. That disc, called Triple Threat, was the last anyone had seen of a Vile Blue Shades record … until now. Sometime in October, depending upon an array of confounding factors, Missoula, Mont., -based record label W�ntage USA will release a vinyl LP (with digital downloads) of the long-awaited Vile Blue Shades sex record, John Thursday: California Adventure. The majority of the album’s music is imbued with funky dance grooves. Eerie, airy ditties are interspersed throughout the A-side, but the second half consists almost entirely of tracks that will sexify the listenership as much as freak people out.
Jensen said composing the lyrics for an entire album about sex forced him out of his comfort zone—the realm of personal, debauched experience from which he has drawn material for the entirety of his vocalist career. For John Thursday, he had to create. “When I wrote Bottle of Pain,” he said, “I wasn’t trying to make up something. It was almost like diary writing. But when I was doing John Thursday, I was seriously trying to come up with fiction. I don’t have enough sexual experience to fill a fucking record. Are you kidding me? I’d have herpes by now.”
For coital inspiration, Jensen turned to one of the most intensely pornographic pieces of literature from the 20th century: Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. The novel is essentially one long jaunt through brothels and bars in the French capital. It’s guided by “John Thursday,” the name by which the book’s narrator refers to his own penis as he describes the vulgar and abnormal penetration of dozens of Parisian women and their daughters. Jensen said his choice to portray sex in his lyrics as something profane was the result of a familiar Utah upbringing under which everything sexual is unspeakable and downright dirty.
“If it’s dirty, why exclude the dirt?” he said. “Sex is bad? Guess what else is bad: I’m going to stick it in your asshole. But don’t worry. I’m going to take it real slow. Oh. My. God.”
The process of creating John Thursday accorded to the all-toocommon Salt Lake City trend of taking forever. Initial recording began in early 2007 with former Shades guitarist and longtime Shades producer Jeremy Smith. It came to an abrupt halt, however, when Smith, according to several band members, chucked his audiorecording equipment out a three-story window. The band regrouped and approached local producer extraordinaire Jud Powell, whose meticulous methods delayed the record’s release dramatically, but also made it the best-sounding Shades effort to date.
Enemies of the Shades complain that the group is a glorified hippie jam band in denial. While the concept behind John Thursday’s music involved funky grooviliciousness from the get-go, members scoff at claims that its sound defines them, and are planning a full-frontal onslaught of weirdness in their new material to silence the naysayers. “The whole idea for John Thursday was that it would be a dance album,” Asbridge said. “Now we have to get our weird back. We will. That’s in our nature. It was more out of our nature to do more funky stuff.”
The band’s proclivity for the bizarre is a natural sum of its parts. Its founding fathers are all outcasts—addicted, as Jensen would say, to chaos. These tormented-poet types have attracted established musicians who lend their considerable talents to the Vile vision, but lead otherwise normal lives. This dichotomy—between the freaks and the players—fuels the Vile Blue Shades machine.
“Even when [the original members] are not as in control as they could be, everybody else in the group is loyal to them,” Thomas said. “It’s almost like working for a president’s administration— you’re going to be in some department doing something, and you may not have oversight directly from the Oval Office, but you’re going to adhere to a certain set of principles and ideas that would be consistent with what they want to do.”
Armed with a new album, a new record deal, and under the banner of “Bringing back the weird,” Vile Blue Shades marches into the future. One part concept, one part chaos, the swarthy 11- part apparatus will storm the experimental frontier and vanquish its foes: the normal, the boring, the benign. The secret to victory, however, lies not in grand designs or ideals, but in the quirky little nuggets that exist inside all of us.
“The only way to create original art is to just be yourself,” Jensen said. “There’s no one else like you, ever in existence. You are you. That’s what I mean by bringing back the weird—just doing something your own. There’s nothing more weird than being yourself.”
Vile Blue Shades will headline SLUG Magazine’s Localized on Friday, September 12th at the Urban Lounge. Fuck The Informer and comedian Travis Bird open the show. All proceeds benefit Sean Hennefer.
VBS, Utah Art’s Festival June 2008. Photo: Ryan Powers