“Hello Vertigo,” the debut album on RCA Sid Flips by Papa Vegas, is the sound of something new. It’s the work of a band that values and pursues rich songcraft, emotional and introspective lyricism, and powerful, dynamic playing. It’s an album that deploys a litany of sources and influences into a fresh and engrossing sound. A sound whose potent, widescreen sweep elevates songs such as “Long Days,” “No Destination,” “Mesmerized,” “Resolve,” and the fiery first single, “Bombshell.” And the results are nothing less than arresting.
Joel Ferguson — chief songwriter and frontman for the Grand Rapids, Mich., quartet — was about 10 when the music bug bit him. “I saw a clip of Kiss on television,” he remembers, “and I thought `Wow! What is that?! That looks like fun,’ even if it wasn’t the music I chose to listen to.” Rather, Ferguson favored “songwriter-based” music from an array of favorites that includes Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, Sting and the Police, James Taylor, the Smiths and Tears For Fears — though it was a Depeche Mode concert that first stoked his own interest in writing.
“I was so blown away by the vibe and atmosphere of the concert and the crowd, and then I was just taken aback by Martin Gore’s dark kind of spooky pop,” says Ferguson, who started out playing drums before also picking up guitar and keyboards. “I came home from that concert the next day and sold my drum set and bought a sampler and started trying to write songs.”
Ferguson and guitarist Peter Dunning first came together during the early `90s in a hometown band. After that group broke up, Dunning went on to play with others while Ferguson assembled what would eventually become Papa Vegas, recruiting bassist Mick Force and drummer Scott Stefanski, and bringing Dunning into the fold at the end of 1996.
This particular lineup was the one that jelled, not surprising considering Ferguson and Dunning’s previous association. “I try to bring in some of the keyboard sensibilities, Depeche Mode and some of that, and Peter brings in the heavy, rock-oriented guitar thing,” drawn from influences such as Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and Queen, Ferguson says. “It’s a good mix that sounds like nothing except us.”
Papa Vegas’ first recording was a five song EP on the independent label Sid Flips. The EP and Papa Vegas’ strong live show attracted the attention of RCA Records, which signed Papa Vegas and then agreed to let the quartet head off to a small town outside of London, England, for three months of woodshedding at a rehearsal space next-door to a farm Paul Weller had recently purchased.
All of the band members agree the experience brought the material into sharp focus for the subsequent recording sessions and yielded a wealth of new songs in addition to the tracks from the EP they wanted to re-record.
Recorded with producer Don Gilmore (Eve 6, John Doe, X), “Hello Vertigo” is the work of skilled, experienced players whose vision is of a sound, not just a group of songs. “Every guy in the band throws his flavor in,” explains Dunning. “Joel comes in with the spark, and we all add our ideas and the songs just develop.” And as “Hello Vertigo” proves, it’s an effective process that’s yielded bold, exciting results.