“VCSR existed between 1978 and 1984. We weren’t a band or a group so much as it was a collective. We never had an official release but recorded over 60 reels of tape from which cassettes were mixed down for our own use or to give to friends. Tape #4 is one of these raw reels recorded in 1979 and 1980.”
– Bil Vermette
Two immediate thoughts popped in my head when I heard VCSR for the first time: timelessness and structure. The first is obvious. The sounds surrounding VCSR’s first official release, set for July 7th on Permanent Records, were put to tape over thirty years ago. It’s a rare moment when I hear a work of music transcend its active years.
The latter came to me after a couple of listens and speaking with Bil. VCSR was not a meeting between well-trained musicians with a pension for the experimental. They were a collective of like-minded individuals influenced by the German Kraut scene, ambient, and the avant-garde of the late 60’s/early 70’s.
This caught me off guard. During my talks with Bil via email and phone, I almost forced conversations about album themes, song structures, and sound philosophies. The truth is VCSR was a triumph of creative circumstance. An extraordinary collaboration between individuals who meld ideas of sonic exploration and improvisation to the extent that what they created could only happen with these players, in that time, and in that place.
Whether intentional or not, Tape #4 is rich in structure and texture. It’s organic, pure, and above the “open to interpretation” cliché. Instead, Tape #4 invites the listener to discover his/her own sonic experience and leaves the interpretation open to a world of philosophies.
A Conversation With Bil Vermette of VCSR
SPACIAL: Can you provide a little background on the VCSR Collective? How did it come about and what were some of your early influences?
Most of the people came from Oak Park River Forest High School [in Illinois] and were all into doing some sort of creative artistic things: music, painting, etc. The music was usually some form a free-form Jazz.
In 1972, the local record store started carrying imports, among these were recordings by Faust, Cluster, Tangerine Dream and Amon Duul II. This influenced most people into thinking that they could make that kind of music and had a great influence on me as well.
Of the more serious members playing music Dave Palmer played woodwinds (flutes and saxes), Emmon Page played guitar, steve Dirocki played guitar, Eve Sokolai played bass, Chris Demonk played bass, Randy Jezerski played bass and percussion and John Vignola played guitar and synthesizer (an Arp 2600). There were others including Maurice Woods, who played saxophone but also was into recording techniques. I met Dave, who had moved across the alley from me in 1977. He had a stack of records and I noticed that we had similar interests. He mentioned [he and the other members] jammed and that one of them had an Arp2600 which piqued my interest. I sat in playing piano usually just banging on one note with an echo.
Eventually we moved from honks and squeaks to more ambient spacey and even melodic music again with the different influential backgrounds. There are very few recordings with all 5 of us on it, usually some live thins, most of [the recordings] being some combination of the group.
SPACIAL: What was the song writing approach as the VCSR Collective? Was it a collaborative effort?
Just about everything we did was improvised up until late 1981 when we started playing live more and purchased the Roland TR-808. Usually, someone would start playing something (a bass line or riff) and everyone would just start adding what they though t may work. With the TR-808,we started programming the rhythms and the sounds that would go along with them. Dave & I preferred the old way while Emmons, Randy and John enjoyed the composing with the Tr-808. We started to try to get people to dance in our shows and maybe get a record deal.
SPACIAL: Fast forward 30+ years, Permanent Records is releasing archive material of VCSR on July 7th. How does it feel to revisit these songs and give it a proper release?
When I visited Randy on Orcas Island in Washington state in 2010, I saw that he had many of our old reel to reels. I asked him to send me the digital files and listed to most of them after 30 years. The cassettes I have are mixed down versions and it was great to hear the original raw tapes again. I gave Permanent several of these tapes and they liked number 4 (no real order at all, just how randy digitized them).
We used to sit around and discuss making a record but could never come up with a final product (45, EP LP with one side dance/industrial, the other spacey).
Everyone is excited to see this getting released and looking forward to doing some things as a group as well.
SPACIAL: You mentioned the introduction of the Roland TR-808 kind of set VCSR on a more dance/industrial path and you hoped to put together a record one side spacey and the other more danceable. I can definitely hear it when playing “Intro I & II” and “Ice Age Disco” back to back. Did this influence the track placement on the Permanent Records release? Is there an aesthetic or theme to the record?
VCSR stood for Voltage Controlled Silent Regions. The Voltage Controlled was the dance/industrial & the Silent Regions was the “spacey” side of us. The LP is an entire reel-to-reel tape (7″) recorded between 1979 & 1980. There is no chronological order. Permanent just decided that this was their favorite.
SPACIAL: 2010 was the first time you heard these songs in 30 years. Whether it be time, age, or experience songs can take on new meanings. When I listen to old tracks I’ve recorded it’s like I’m stepping back into the song writing process or moments that influenced that process. Any comments on your reaction after listening to these songs for the first time in 30 years? Do you see your work differently than when you recorded them in the late 70’s/early 80’s?
We did not see ourselves as musicians, just people who played music. We did what we could with our limited technical abilities and equipment available to us. I’m pretty amazed looking back on it now how well we pulled it off. We did not do many overdubs. Most songs were recorded live onto one track and no re-dos if a mistake was made.
I still consider what I do as “Bil Music” I have just gotten a little better at technique perhaps. Also the equipment has changed and I find myself with not as much time to work on new sounds as I used to. In those days we had to program every sound on each of our synths as well as constantly keeping them in tune.
SPACIAL: VCSR will be playing Chicago Psych Fest at The Hide Out on August 15th. What can we expect from the VCSR live performance? Will it be an analogue or digital performance? Can we expect more live dates for VCSR in the future?
I still don’t know what to expect. The best thing about us for me was the improvising so we will probably do that mostly. I’m still debating what to bring to the performance but John is bringing a laptop and Dave plans to have samples and a Mopho.
I would love to do more shows. Dave lives in Rhode Island and Randy in Washington State so it may be catch as catch can.