Black Celebration

Vast revives the darker side of pop

Vast's Jon Crosby, captive in London doing rounds of press, has a right to be a bit worn-out — he's just finished his 27th interview of the day. "You're my 28th," he says, in his flat California accent via a trans-Atlantic phone call. After sparring with famed British music weeklies like NME and Melody Maker, talking to Creative Loafing may not seem so exciting, but Crosby is willing to sit through the obligatory "tell-me-about-your-influences" questions if it gives him the chance to talk about his band's sophomore album, Music for People. A cocksure attitude doesn't always yield a great interview, but it makes for confident songwriting, as Vast's latest can attest. The songs, haunting and often string-drenched, have more in common with British music of the late 1980s and early 1990s than with any of the bands coming out of California in the year 2000.

Luckily, Vast's sound isn't outmoded by its flourishes of spiraling guitar licks or Crosby's warble, which falls somewhere between a young Ian McCullough (Echo and the Bunnymen) and Peter Murphy (Bauhaus). Crosby released his 1998 debut album, Visual Audio Sensory Theater, under the name Vast, but now shares billing with three bandmates, all of whom are classic MTV babies. "I was only 14 when Achtung Baby came out," Crosby admits. "I love bands like Depeche Mode and Metallica and Nine Inch Nails, too." The 25 year-old Crosby rates Achtung Baby as his favorite CD of all time, so it's fitting that similar bits of that U2 album's fire should erupt in several of People's tracks, particularly "What Else Do I Need."

Though a mix of Metallica and U2 probably sounds to some like a frightening combination, Crosby's odd cross-section of influences comes together surprisingly well on Music for People. "Land of Shame" and "We Will Meet Again" are dark without entering into Goth territory; the band's percussive, rough edges give Vast's songs an urgency and thrust, but never tread into Trent Reznor's world of synthetic droning beats.

"My co-producer, Blumpy, would say, 'Let's not make it too perfect.' There are so many variables in the studio. I never had to second guess him," Crosby says. "The songs are already aesthetically pleasing. For me, producing and arranging are just icing on the cake."

Refreshingly underproduced — and to pleasing effect — are the string arrangements of the New Bombay Recording Orchestra, with whom Crosby and Vast recorded several songs in Mumbai, India. Although he wouldn't characterize the work of the Indian string players as inferior to that of American or European violinists, "their bowing techniques and musical approach can be completely different." The instrumental "Lady of Dreams" is a perfect marriage of Crosby's Gen-X tastes and the Indians' Eastern, tonal origins.

Recording in Mumbai was an eye-opening experience for Crosby, who spent much of his childhood in rural Humboldt County, California. "India was beautiful and scary at the same time," he says. "It was so different." And unlike many rockers before him, Crosby was not on a spiritual pilgrimage when he made the trip East. "I just wanted to do something different, musically," he explains.

Beyond Crosby's love of Metallica, U2 and the New Bombay Recording Orchestra, he's also crazy about John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, whom he reveres as "one of the most simple and poetic songwriters" out there.

Lyrically, Crosby probably won't make anyone forget the Dylans and the Lennons of the world any time soon, but he's obviously paid attention to words — they consistently give his darker songs a backbone. "I don't have anything, because I don't have you" (from "I Don't Have Anything") is about as simple and elegant as anything on Music For People. "Where can I go to feel like I'm alive again," he implores on the same tune. These lines are typical of Crosby's soul-searching verses, yet somehow he manages to balance these often desperate words with uplifting melodies, as in "Blue" or "A Better Place."

Crosby's tunes are already garnering mainstream radio play across the U.S. and in Britain, but in Atlanta, he's so far had to settle for Georgia State's WRAS 88.5, which has put a couple of the album's tracks into medium rotation. As for the crowds that might greet him at the Cotton Club Wednesday night, when Vast opens for another of Crosby's favorite bands, heavy hitters Queens of the Stone Age, Crosby has no clue. But he isn't going to let any preconceived notions about his band being moody and poetic get in the way of a rockin' show: "Image is important, but I don't take it that seriously."

Vast plays the Cotton Club Wed., Sept. 20 with Queens of the Stone Age. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.