THE VELDMAN BROTHERS (J., Alex and Sam) first started making music in 1991 — just when the infamous “Seattle sound” was turning the small Northwestern grunge scene into an international movement. They never dreamed that years later they’d enjoy a rep as one of the most accurate and entertaining tribute bands specializing in that movement’s poster boys, Nirvana.
Touring across the U.S. (and into Mexico) as Nevermind, they’ve got the look, vibe, tone and attack of Cobain and Co.’s over-the-top brand of explosive, Pixies-inspired neo-punk down about as pat as one might imagine. They even use identical gear and instruments to capture the feel and sound of their heroes.
I caught up with singing guitarist J. Veldman (Kurt) in Chicago after a string of NYC dates to find out what it’s like to live by night in another man’s shoes.
First off, your bio says this band formed near the start of the Seattle grunge movement - does that mean you all were in an original band around the same time as Nirvana was breaking?
J. Veldman: Yes siree. I started a band with some high school friends of mine in 1991. We wanted to play the next year’s talent show and all the while were trying to figure ourselves out as a band. During that time, Nirvana began to emerge out of obscurity.
Whose idea was it to start this tribute act?
J. Veldman: It all started as a joke. A fluke. Our band has always written (and we still write) original material, and we still do. Whenever we noticed that our crowds weren’t reacting, we’d throw in a few Nirvana songs to at least reach some ears with something familiar. So basically, it was my idea.
When was your first performance as Nevermind? What was the venue like, and what sort of response did you receive?
J. Veldman: Our first show was at my high school in 1992 when we were called Plasma. But, as the Nevermind we are today, the debut wasn’t so grand! The very first official show was in a basement. It was meant as a “one-off” show at this kid’s Halloween party. It was Halloween of 2005 and we just thought it would be kinda funny to dress up in clothes that Nirvana would wear to accent the music, and it kinda worked. Once we saw that the kids were moshing to our set we had a feeling we were on to something.
What if anything has changed about the band’s shows or the way you market and present yourselves since then?
J. Veldman: Over the years, we’ve added stage props similar to what Nirvana used during their final tour of 1993-1994. Their acoustic MTV Unplugged show is performed when we feel like implementing it into our set. We’ve been keeping up with the rarities of Nirvana’s music whenever some kind of posthumous release gets into the hands of the masses. So, we like to change our sets up a bit and we always try to dig even deeper into Nirvana’s catalog.
We even flesh out songs that were really just demos — like the song “Do Re Mi” which can be found on the With The Lights Out boxed-set. We’ve also been extending our wardrobe to match the different eras and looks Nirvana went through. As far as marketing goes, the best thing for us was to finally get an official website and a MySpace page. The latter definitely helped us out since going full on with this thing in 2005. Back in the early years of playing in bands, we all had to rely on pieces of paper called “flyers”. I don’t know if those still exist, but word of mouth was the other popular technique to spread the word. MySpace has been the best way to let Nirvana fans know when we’re coming to their town. Reverbnation.com is also a great website for us.
Do you feel coming from the same area as the band you’re paying tribute to has helped you more accurately represent their music?
J. Veldman: I think that Generation Xers can connect with the subtle things that were part of the Sub-Pop culture back in the early ‘90s. I can make a joke about something like Pepsi Clear and most kids won’t get it. But the adults will know what the heck that stuff was. (laughs) And, for the record, it looked very disgusting. Kurt was never very accurate from song to song, so I think that if you over analyze what he was doing then you’re losing the magic of what made Nirvana so special. It was those sporadic moments of either improv or changing the dynamics slightly that made the band so interesting to me. Their performances were always different to my ears. The only advantage I have of growing up within that era of music is that I can still remember seeing Nirvana live, so I’m lucky for having that experience. I try to do my best to capture that at our own live shows.
Have any of you ever been involved in a tribute band of any sort before this?
J. Veldman: Never. We were always struggling to bring our original material into decent venues but Chicago has this sort of monopoly of promoters and club owners. There’s a real lack of support, except for one venue called The Abbey Pub. Thus far, they’ve been the only ones who seem to truly understand the musicians’ need for support.
Did you have second thoughts initially about doing this — for fear people would see this as somehow less legitimate than doing your own original music, or even being in a cover band that didn’t necessarily dress up and act just like a certain group?
J. Veldman: I felt that way in the beginning, when my friend Rocco kept urging me to do the tribute thing full on. Then I started to have more fun traveling and touring different parts of the country as a tribute band and I really, really enjoyed entertaining people. It’s like Halloween every night that we play.
Was there a fear some hardcore Nirvana fans would look down on you guys?
J. Veldman: There was and is never any fear with that. The few that have looked down on us weren’t even born then or were not even really conscious enough to appreciate the band’s music during the time that Kurt Cobain was alive. Generation Xers get it. They really do. But sometimes these teens “think” they know what Kurt Cobain or Nirvana would say about this, when in fact they really have no clue. That just tells me that they really don’t understand the spirit of what we do. Those people are the same ones that hide behind their computer monitors at home and send hate mail to people they don’t like, but would never say those kinds of things directly to people. So far, I have yet to have one person come up to me and tell me to our faces that we suck. There’s no fear though. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. And thus far, people really dig what we do. Which is why we are constantly on the road.
What has been the feedback you’ve received from diehard fans of the group?
J. Veldman: It’s been very supportive and beyond positive. The deeper we reach into Nirvana’s back catalog the more positive feedback we get which is why the only “hit” on our MySpace page is “Lithium”.
Have you ever seen a show by another Nirvana tribute band? If so, what did you think of their performance compared to your own, and did it make you rethink or alter anything about your own band?
J. Veldman: I never have seen a Nirvana tribute band play in Chicago, which is kinda why we started ours. I know there’s a few out there scattered across the U.S., but I’ve never seen any of them live. Comparisons can kill the spirit of what a tribute band is supposed to be. It creates a negative environment and causes people to argue in pathetic ways. For example, I saw a fan compare us to another band recently and I couldn’t help but laugh, because both bands didn’t even write the music in question. Now this girl is trying to start some kind of lame “tribute band war”, and that’s just dumb. We’re not concerned or thinking of any other tributes because I know they all love Nirvana as much as we do.
Isn’t there a bit of peculiar irony in meticulously copying a band that was to some extent known for not being very exact or meticulous about their own live performances? In other words, is it not on some level inherently silly to recreate chaos as a sort of a stage play?
J. Veldman: But chaos is so beautiful when it works. It’s also very hard to recreate. That’s why we don’t over-rehearse the material. The worst thing you can do is premeditate the subtle moments. The music should come out naturally without over thinking it. We play it as we remember it. In order to pull it off you need to have the right tools and know how to manipulate those tools.
What sort of rehearsals go into crafting such a precise recreation of a particular band? I’m assuming you study bootlegs of live shows and TV performances by the group in addition to their official back catalog. Do you guys videotape yourselves and watch it afterwards to see if your stage moves and mannerisms match the original musicians?
J. Veldman: We’ve listened to many different live versions of the songs. I wouldn’t say that we study bootlegs. We’ve listened to live bootlegs and enjoyed them as fans. But we’re not really conscious that we’re studying those songs. It’s just an instinct thing. As far as stage moves go, I need Paula Abdul to tell me if my kicks are at the right angle. (laughs) Actually, we do watch the videos of ourselves but we’re mostly listening to the audio. The music is the most important thing. We do try to move like we’re drunken retards, but I think that just comes out of us naturally.
What’s the hardest part about replicating the intensity and emotion that Nirvana was known for laying out in concert, and which much of their legend is based on?
J. Veldman: The hardest part has been trying to find a green cardigan. Yeah, the clothing has always been difficult.
There’s so much about Nirvana’s music that was not just dour, but fairly steeped in a very personal sort of upset, anger and depression. Is it hard to go out night after night and conjure up those sorts of emotions when they’re not actually coming from your own life experiences?
J. Veldman: The great thing about Nirvana is that people can look at the lyrical crossword puzzle and they can define it in their own way. It becomes your vision, your art, your emotions. Kurt was very generous to share his gift with the world.
Knowing what we all do about the untimely death of Kurt Cobain, are you at all concerned some folks may find what you’re doing to be insensitive or in poor taste?
J. Veldman: I’m one of the biggest Nirvana fans you’ll ever meet. My vinyl, cassette and CD collection is vast and expensive. I’ve been collecting this stuff since I was a kid — and I still collect Nirvana records to this day. If someone were to be offended it would be me. But I’m not offended when I hear other bands play the music. I miss the music so much that I want to be able to hear it in a live and loud setting. A lot of people feel the same way.
What’s the biggest compliment that’s ever been paid to your group?
J. Veldman: It was from a 16-year-old kid who told me that he learned how to play guitar because of me. I’ll never ever forget that. When I read that message I was like “Wow. I made some sort of difference.” We’ve also had people who saw us at the House Of Blues in Cleveland say that we were the best band they’ve ever seen in concert.
Because Nirvana burned out after only a few years, they’ll essentially always be a young man’s band. How old are you guys now — and how long do you think you’d be comfortable continuing to perform Nirvana’s music in this manner?
J. Veldman: We’re in our early twenties to early thirties. My siblings and I will continue to do this as long as our fans keep wanting us back in their town.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about professional tribute bands?
J. Veldman: That we don’t write original music. Those people are stupid because they never ask “Hey — do you guys write your own music?” Instead, they say stuff like, “Why don’t you write your own music.” That’s my chance to make them look like assholes when I then give ‘em the website of our original band!
Have any of the surviving members of Nirvana ever seen your group? If so what did they think? Also, do they have any sort of official stance on tribute acts such as yours?
J. Veldman: I’ve hung out with Krist (Novoselic) and met Dave (Grohl), all in different years, but the thought of my band never entered my mind. There’s so many more important things to talk about with them than our tribute band. It’s also very rude to tell someone you admire that you are trying to look and sound like them. It’s like me meeting your mom and then telling her that I impersonate her when she’s not looking. It just isn’t polite to tell someone that you are imitating them. There are a lot of great tributes out there to many different great artists. If it entertains ya and pleases your auditory senses then why not enjoy it?
Are there any Hole tribute bands out there, and if so, have you guys ever considered hooking up for a double-bill tour?
J. Veldman: I would love to hook up with a Courtney Love. But I haven’t heard or seen a Hole tribute, nor do I know if one even currently exists. I would love to, though, because then I can finally get a baby doll that looks like Frances Bean and we can stroll around the set as if we were at the 1993 MTV awards. Actually, there was one band from NY that was a tribute to Hole, but they were all guys! It was a total drag thing, and I would have loved to have that band open up for us but they broke up. Currently we are one-third of the “Sounds of Seattle Tour” which features two other bands. One of them is called “Ten” and they pay tribute to Pearl Jam. The other is called “Hungerstrike” and they pay tribute to Temple Of The Dog. So far we’re all having fun with this.
Nevermind - A Tribute to Nirvana
Where: Locos (downtown)
When: 11 pm, Fri., April 18
Cost: $8 for 21+ only w/ID