NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - The afternoon's biggest laugh in this San Fernando Valley rehearsal space comes upon mention of an online description of Veruca Salt's breakup as one of ...
"'... rock's greatest mysteries!'" Nina Gordon, the band's co-frontwoman, shouts with glee while the other three band members, who have just completed an afternoon's fierce rehearsal a few days before going on tour, laugh along.
"So funny," says Louise Post, the other singer/ songwriter/ guitarist.
Gordon did leave abruptly in 1998 following a monumental blowup with Post that torpedoed what had been the rising fortunes of this melodically hard-rocking Chicago band, though Post continued to use the moniker with different musicians over two more albums. The two women insist the clash had nothing to with music, but beyond that, if you're waiting to learn the juicy details, keep waiting.
"Nina and I had a defining fight fallout that we just couldn't get past," says Post, in her large-framed sunglasses and off-the-shoulder gray shirt. "And that was that. And that's very private."
"It's all on the album," says Gordon, her long, straight hair streaked blond as she wears a fatigue jacket over a T-shirt that reads, "It's holy, and everybody knows it" - a quote from the reunited band's new song, "It's Holy." ("I have a love of bands wearing their own T-shirts," Gordon says.)
The album, yes - there's that and a whole lot more, in the early weeks of the original foursome's first tour together since drummer Jim Shapiro, Gordon's older brother, left following the recording of the band's sophomore 1997 album, "Eight Arms to Hold You." The who-did-what of the breakup may not be for public consumption, but make no mistake: Intense feelings about the split and surprising reconciliation are the fuel driving these 40-somethings' return to musical unity and the spotlight.
"We never anticipated it, so it's been just this incredible gift to be able to play together again, and there's so much joy in it," Post says. "It's like getting a chance to do a do-over."
Much has changed on the bandmates' personal fronts since Veruca Salt was providing an exclamation point on a progression of breakout Chicago '90s rock acts (Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Material Issue, Liz Phair ...) and providing a crunching, empathetic soundtrack to many a college student and twentysomething. Gordon and Post both are married with young children (two for Gordon, one for Post) and living in the Los Angeles area, while bassist Steve Lack is married and living near San Diego, and Shapiro, who has a young daughter, is the sole original member still based in Chicago. Gordon and Post moved out west within a year of each other in the early 2000s but say they didn't see each other once between 1998 and 2012.
"Over the years there were a couple of occasions where we had to talk for sort of business-y type reasons, and then, I guess with the advent of email around the turn of the century" - Gordon puts on a mock-announcer's voice for these last words, cracking up Post - "we would just send the occasional friendly email like on each other's birthdays."
"There were like big apologies made during that time via email," Post says. "Mainly via email, wasn't it? And then that kind of turned into just saying hello here and there."
The bond they'd broken had been a powerful one. Introduced to each other by Chicago-area native actress Lili Taylor in the early 1990s, Post and Gordon began collaborating on songs, albeit ones they wrote mostly separately, and eventually recruited Lack and Shapiro to form a band named after the spoiled brat of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
The two women were out front with their intertwining high voices and fat, buzzing Gibson guitars while Lack and Shapiro, a multi-instrumentalist just learning the drums upon the band's formation, powered the rhythmic attack. They signed to Chicagoan Jim Powers' independent Minty Fresh label and entered the studio with producer Brad Wood, who'd recently recorded Liz Phair's acclaimed debut, "Exile in Guyville," with the intention of making a single.
A single did emerge from the sessions - Gordon's "Seether" backed with Post's "All Hail Me" - but so eventually did an album: "American Thighs" (the title a quote from AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long"), which Minty Fresh released in 1994.
"We made this super lo-fi first record because we were lo-fi," Gordon says. "I barely knew how to play the guitar. None of us had ever made an album before."
Success came quickly nonetheless: "Seether," which matches heavy riffs with a buoyant hookiness, took off on college/ alternative radio stations and became an MTV staple after Geffen acquired and re-released the album, which went gold. This all happened during the period when the commercial mainstream was embracing "grunge" and "alternative" (Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain had killed himself in April 1994), prompting much consternation over which bands remained authentically authentic.
Some in the rock press reflexively compared Veruca Salt with the Breeders, the alternative band fronted by Pixies bassist-turned-guitarist Kim Deal and her sister Kelley, in part because female-led rock groups were (and are) such a rarity. There was also some sniping about Veruca's apparent ambition, but it's not like the band had pretended to be anything other than what it was: a hard-charging yet catchy guitar band fronted by two confident, headstrong women writing about their feelings and lives.
"We naturally wanted our whole lives to be in bands, and we wrote songs, and we played, and there was a little bit of an aspect of, 'Look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me,'" Gordon reflects. "Having to deal with seeing yourself, photographs all the time and videos all the time and approving photos and all that other stuff that you'd think would be easy became very difficult, and there was a lot of infighting about that kind of stuff."
Post recalls angst over the choice of the second single because "Seether" was a Gordon song, and the label and management were split over whether the follow-up should be Post's "Victrola" or Gordon's (and Shapiro's) "Number One Blind."
"Nina and I were always 50-50 everything," Post says. "That doesn't define us anymore, but at the time it was so important. So I remember thinking: But it would make sense that 'Victrola' would follow up 'Seether' because people are going to think you're" - addressing Gordon - "the lead singer of the band." ("Victrola" wound up following "Number One Blind," and neither reached the heights of "Seether.")
Rather than figure out a way to work out these issues internally, the band turned over such decision-making to a major management company, Q Prime, which was representing such heavy hitters as Metallica and Def Leppard.
Says Shapiro: "I feel like one of the strange sort of distorting effects of how quickly it all happened was instead of being like, 'Oh, we're a band, we have songs, we're good, now we have to go forward,' it was like someone handed us this super-valuable thing and said, 'Don't drop it. Don't mess it up.' It created this backward set of priorities where all of a sudden it was like we can't (mess) up this thing that's already going well instead of 'Let's try to do well.'"
The big-league push intensified with "Eight Arms to Hold You" (the Beatles' original title for the movie "Help!") as the band enlisted Metallica/ Motley Crue producer Bob Rock.
"We wanted to be huge," Gordon says. "We wanted to sound huge. We wanted our boots to be huge. And we wanted a really polished sound. We wanted lots of harmonies, lots of overdubs. So we went to Maui and lived in this palace, like this incredible house with tennis courts and a pool and whatever. ... We made a record in a way that nobody makes records anymore except for, like, Beyonce and Jay Z."
Although "Eight Arms To Hold You" didn't become a blockbuster, it charted higher than "American Thighs" (No. 55 vs. No. 69 on the Billboard 200), Gordon's "Seether"-referencing "Volcano Girls" became another rock-radio hit, and the band performed Post's intense "Shutterbug" on "Saturday Night Live." By that time Shapiro was gone, saying now that he was uncomfortable with his drumming "learning curve" being played out in public rather than his contributing more to the band creatively.
"I really felt like there was no place for me in this process anymore," says Shapiro, who went on to front his own band, Ultraswiss, and later to play bass for the Hushdrops.
"He played all these other instruments before drums," Post says. "He never intended on being the drummer in a band fronted by his little sister and her annoying friend." All four members laugh.
"That's totally not it, but there's something there," Shapiro says in a beautifully contradictory sentence.
But even amid the unrest and an acknowledged lack of communication, Post and Gordon had begun meeting at Post's house to work on the third album's batch of songs. Then everything exploded.
Some of Post's songs wound up on the emotionally raw 2000 Veruca Salt album "Resolver," the first of what she now derides as the "Starship" phase of the band, which also included the album "IV" (2006).
"Had I called it something else, had I been Louise Post solo, at least I would've been calling it what it was, but now I feel like it was adding insult to injury to myself," Post says. Meanwhile, Gordon put out two Bob Rock-produced solo albums - "Tonight and the Rest of My Life" (2000) and "Bleeding Heart Graffiti" (2006) - that aimed for a more adult singer-songwriter feel. Post-split, neither party reached the level of popularity they'd attained together.
By the late 2000s, Gordon's and Post's careers were taking a back seat to more personal matters, even as the estranged friends were communicating again.
"I had my daughter after Nina, so I had some questions," Post says with a laugh. "When I was pregnant, I was like texting Nina like 'The amnio was great,' or emailing, and she was championing me and the pregnancy. There was just such good will between us and love. I found myself thinking, God, I'm relying on Nina right now more than anyone, and it was so odd, but it was also kind of perfect ...
"When life really mattered, you know, nothing else did. I'm about to (expletive). How did that happen?" Post wipes away tears beneath her sunglasses.
As for those aforementioned apologies, Post says: "I definitely made an apology, made the apologies. I remember vividly doing that, and I remember some coming from Nina too, I think maybe as a response to that. And yes there were still elephants in the room, and when we got together to actually see one another, there were more made, deeper ones _"
"Deeper elephants," Gordon says with a laugh.
The impetus to get together in person came two years ago when dreamy '90s band Mazzy Star was playing at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. "Everyone's tweeting and on Facebook and saying, 'Oh, my God,' I'm at Coachella, and Mazzy Star are playing for the first time in 15 years, it's incredible,'" Gordon says. "And it was the first time that I ever got a pang, like a real feeling of 'Oh, I want to do that. We need to do that.' ... So I emailed Louise and said, 'OK, Mazzy Star are playing Coachella after 15 years. Shouldn't we be?' And she wrote back, 'OK, yeah, let's have coffee' or whatever. So we ended up meeting for dinner, and there were lots of tears, lots of regrets."
With Gordon already in touch with her brother, who says he literally hadn't touched his drums since 1997, Post visited Lack, who says he had sobered up from "various drug and alcohol problems" and had been pursuing his surfing obsession.
"I asked Steve point blank, if it happened, would he consider playing with the band again?" Post says. "He said, 'I never knew what my answer would be if I were to be asked this, but yes, I would.'"
"Circumstances kind of forced me a little bit," Lack says with a laugh, noting that he hadn't played bass in years. "It's a drive to come here (to the Los Angeles area), but really the thing I look forward to is playing again."
All four eventually met in a restaurant and closed the place down catching up and offering "round-robin apologies," Gordon says.
Before Gordon and Post sang together again for the first time in Gordon's basement, they say they hadn't been writing songs much anymore. That quickly changed.
"All of a sudden, I felt the need to write a song," Gordon says. "And it really is amazing because this always worked this way back in the day with Louise, like if she'd bring in a song, I'd be like, 'Oh, I gotta go write a song.' We just kind of inspired each other and the same is happening again."
"Not to diminish the importance of the people I played with," Post says, "because there were really quality people I played with over the years and people who cared a great deal, but in terms of having a partner and someone I adore, respect, cherish and who's my mirror - my inspiration and my mirror and shares that energy with me - there's nothing like that."
"We split up because of personal stuff," Gordon says, "and the music was always something that we shared and loved, and from the moment we met up again and sang, it was just incredible to hear my voice with Louise's voice again. I think only people who have experienced that kind of a creative connection can understand how powerful it is. It sounds like just words, but it's a really big deal. It's a really big deal: to have that, to lose that and then to get it back again."
Unlike in the first go-'round, the two of them are writing together now and getting input from the whole band.
"I think a lot of the content in the new songs is about our feelings surrounding the breakup, regrets about the breakup, the thrill of getting back together," Gordon says. "It's really not so much about our individual lives the way it used to be."
Coming full circle, the band cut a deal with Minty Fresh to release another 7-inch single, this time for Record Store Day 2014, and it called upon Wood, now also in Los Angeles, to produce; he said yes immediately. And once again what started as a single grew into a full album.
"There are so many similarities to 20 years ago that I've almost stopped keeping track - good and bad, the circumstances surrounding it," Wood says. "The band is mercurial. It's just the most intense band I've ever worked with, and I'd mostly forgotten that with the passage of time."
The intensity, he adds, comes from all four of them: Gordon and Post treating their lyrics "incredibly seriously," all of them playing harder and probably better than before.
"I don't feel like I'm recording a band of old farts who are trying to sound young and hip," Wood says. "I feel like I'm recording a band of adults who are confident in their abilities and have something to say. There don't seem to be any ulterior motives. They're pleasing themselves, and they're so stoked to be together. I don't think many bands sound like them and rock as hard as they do."
Says Post: "We're all flawed human beings, but we're trying to do it right this time, and we're still the same people, although evolved hopefully, in the same band. And the magic is still there."
The band performed on "Conan" in May (they say they were happy to have been invited but wish they'd been playing together more beforehand) and has released videos for "Museum of Broken Relationships" and, more recently, the gleeful, fan-footage-filled "It's Holy." They still must decide what to do with this new, as-yet-untitled album in a musical landscape that has changed much since they last recorded together. No longer tied to a label, Veruca Salt wants to figure out "the smartest way to do this," as Post puts it.
Their main focus for now is not business strategy but rather playing together, for themselves and their fans.
"We're still in the honeymoon phase," Gordon says. "We still have that kind of feeling of, 'Oh my God I can't believe this is happening.'"
"When we first met up again, it was really hard not to dwell on the regret because it just felt like we lost all this precious time," Post says. "Now that we're actually doing it again and we've made a record and we're about to play our first show, it doesn't feel as tragic to me. It feels triumphant. It's like it doesn't matter what happens, because we're playing these clubs, and most of them are sold out, and we're playing together, and that's enough. It really is."