Interview with Daphne Vandervalk of Brainspoon

Written by Joseph Henderson.

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BRainspoon @ the Crest

I appreciate that you would like to discuss where Brainspoon is and where Brainspoon is going rather that delving into the band’s history, but I was surprised to learn that Brainspoon has been around since 1997. Would you mind telling us a little bit about the band’s origins?

Brainspoon began as an idea Chris Diez and I had. He was a drummer and I was a singer, and we’d been married for several years, and yet we hadn’t played music together. Chris convinced a guitarist friend of his to jam with him and come up with some music, and I began writing lyrics to it. We did demos of some of these songs and eventually got another friend to play bass with us for our first couple of gigs in 1999. The song “Skeletons in the Closet” is a survivor from this era, and is on the “No Damage” album. We went through the usual series of people joining the band and quitting for sundry reasons. The most significant former member was Geolyn Carvin, our first female guitarist, who had been in the Raunchettes and done a stint with the Groovie Ghoulies. She played with us for five years. We first met Tom Underhill at a gig Brainspoon played with his other band, Spidersuit, in 2000, and he became our “fan photographer” for a period of time. When our then-bass player quit a couple years later, we went straight to Tom and asked if he would play with us. We were thrilled he agreed to join Brainspoon.

When Geolyn left in 2005 to pursue other interests, we were unsure what the future of the band would be, mainly if we would still have a female on lead guitar. It had become part of our identity, but Geolyn seemed impossible to replace. However, a few months later I found an ad on a message board from a female guitar player in Oxnard looking for a band to join. When Chris and I met Michelle Balderrama, she had a Samick guitar and a mini-amp…and a bunch of great songs she had recorded on her 8-track in her bedroom. She had never played in a band before, but had huge talent and potential which we recognized right away. We spent the first year with her recording the “No Damage” album, because I got pregnant and couldn’t do shows. But it was perfect – she had time to build up her gear and her skills, and we made a great album in the meantime.

 

BRainspoon @ La Cita Bar

At least to me, a big part of Brainspoon’s signature sound comes from you and Michelle’s harmonies. Did you two sing in harmony originally, or did this evolve with time?

The harmonies were something I built up with Geolyn, and were an even more prominent part of our songs in those days. They are always a major part of our recordings, but nowadays for our live shows we focus more on rocking out than on stressing out over our harmonic blend. A lot of the time we just sing the same thing together, and it works out really well.

Michelle is younger than the remainder of the band. Is there ever a generational gap between Michelle and the rest of the band?

The rest of us are so immature that the age gap means nothing. No actually, the music does bring us together. I think most “generation gaps” have more to do with culture than anything else. Since Michelle listens to music from previous generations, the gap for us is nonexistent. Plus she pays her studio rent on time, proving her maturity is well beyond her years.

Are any members of Brainspoon grizzled punk rock veterans? Did anyone play in other bands? Are any worth mentioning?

Tom was in the Earwigs and the Last, and still plays with Spidersuit. Chris played in Luck of the Draw for a long time. Brainspoon has been my only band except for when I played bass in Thee Stranded in 2003. This is Michelle’s first band.

For the lack of a better term, I have described Brainspoon’s music as “garage punk.” Is this an appropriate description?

Sounds good to me! It’s all just rock ‘n’ roll.

What does the name “Brainspoon” mean?

When I was in my late teens, I wanted to be a taxidermist. No really. I was serious about it, and got all these “how-to” books. One of the tools of the trade is a “brain spoon.” I saw that in a book and thought it sounded so punk rock. I told Chris I thought it would be a great name for a punk band, and he agreed. So for a long time we talked about it – our imaginary future band, “Brainspoon.” So, years later the band came together, and there you have it. The name existed several years before the band did. Some people don’t like the name. They can stick it.

I have yet to capture a “Daphne kick” with my camera. Is this signature move random, or does it manifest itself during certain songs?

My kicks are like exclamation points - they usually come at the end of a sentence. No they don’t, I just made that up. Yes, there are certain songs where the kicks are predictable, and if you come to enough Brainspoon shows you’ll begin to know exactly when one is coming. You just have to cope with the curse of “digital delay.” Capturing my kicks on camera is like the Holy Grail for photographers, except that the kicks actually exist. I don’t know about the Holy Grail.

One exciting thing about seeing Brainspoon perform live is watching you and Michelle (and Tom to some degree) flinging your long hair around with wild abandon. Has this always been part of the show? How did it come about?

The hair flinging has gained momentum over the last couple of years, probably because our newer songs rock more, which calls for fling. People find it entertaining, which provokes more hair flinging. If my hair ever gets wrapped around Michelle’s guitar tuning keys and it tears out part of my scalp, it would be the ultimate in crowd-pleasing punk rock entertainment, but after that I would probably not fling as much. I hope that never happens.

Why do you sing with a microphone stand?

I humbly follow in the footsteps of other mic-stand singers such as Steven Tyler and Joey Ramone. That straight stand has been with me since gig one. It helps me keep my balance during high-kicks and hair flings. It’s my one piece of gear. Please don’t take it away from me. Plus, you never know when I may need to crack a head with that hard base.

I have written in Sparkplug Magazine that Brainspoon is a “female fronted” band. Due to the dynamics and the interplay between you and Michelle, at least to me, the two male members of Brainspoon seem to fade into the background when the band performs live. Do you agree with this statement? Are Tom and Chris happy playing a supporting role in the band?

As Tom often jokes with humor and wisdom, “It’s all about the girls!” Tom and Chris both know a good thing when they’ve got it, and being in Brainspoon is a good thing. Michelle and I get highlighted during the shows, but really, 90% of what a band does is off the stage, and we are a genuine team in our working relationship. We love our boys. We could not function at all without our awesome rhythm section.

When Brainspoon performs “Saint” live, you and Michelle have a stylized vocal “battle” which devolves into you two on the floor strumming Michelle’s guitar. What does this all mean? How did this all come about?

It’s gang warfare interpretive dance. Like most of what we do onstage, it started to happen without a plan. When something we do spontaneously at one show gets a great crowd response, we just keep doing it and it grows and takes on a life of its own. It means whatever the viewer wants it to mean.

When I first met the band, I thought that you guys were a bunch of hard drinkers downing rum and cokes until I realized that these mixed drinks were actually “mocktails”! Am I the only snotty person, Bass in hand, who makes fun of Brainspoon’s drinking proclivities?

It’s funny – we’re not teetotalers at all, except maybe Chris, who rarely ever drinks. I think we just don’t drink as much as most bands do. For me, a performance is a form of work I want to do well at, and I just don’t function that well under the influence. I am happy to have a drink at a wedding or a company party, when I’m not expected to remember any lyrics or balance on the edge of a stage. But I will gladly accept a Mike’s Hard Lemonade anytime.

Brainspoon @ Redwood Bar


I appreciate that Brainspoon does not hold itself out as a Christian band. However as the band’s lyricist, I see a Christian worldview which permeates some of the band’s songs, i.e., “Got to Give.” Is this a fair statement?

I should note first that Michelle writes lyrics too, so they’re not all my words or my worldview. She wrote “Lost in Time” and “Soul Hits the Sun,” and it’s possible to read something into those songs that’s not really there. “Got to Give” is my writing, however, and it has a spiritual essence and perhaps does express my worldview indirectly. However, I’ve always wanted to be careful not to make my bandmates uncomfortable or force them to represent something they don’t believe in. Brainspoon is not a Christian band, it’s a rock and roll band that happens to have Christians in it. We understand that our purpose is to entertain people who come out to have a good time and enjoy themselves. Since I get annoyed when I go see a band and they try to foist their ideology on me, I will not do that to others. When people get to know me personally, well, that’s when they’ll get to know what I’m all about. I think that’s when it matters, and I don’t hide what I am.

I understand that you sing in church in Sunday morning. What do other members of the choir or worship team think about having a “rocker chick” in their midst?

Most of them have no idea that I am in a band. They just know me as the chick with the hip hairstyle. I don’t fling my hair or do high-kicks in church. That would be interesting. Maybe I should bust a move sometime and see what happens.

When I began going to punk shows in the eighties, the scene was openly hostile with regard to matters of faith, i.e., The Germs’ song “No God.” Perhaps, it had to do with the fall of several televangelists who were clearly not practicing what they were preaching. Do you think that there is more openness to people of faith in today’s underground music scene? Could it be due to either post-modernity or due to an increasing number of people in recovery?

Good questions. I don’t know that there is more openness to people of faith in today’s scene, but there is definitely less overt hostility. The reason is both good and bad. I think there was a big trend in the ‘80s to be anti-Christian because Christianity was a social force that was part of cultural life. Most people I knew growing up had a religious identity, and went to church as kids because their parents brought them. This was the church that the kids of the ‘80s rebelled against. Most of the people from the younger generation I meet have little religious identity at all and many have never been to church. Religion has so little influence in their lives that it’s not even an entity to be resisted. I think that’s pretty sad. I agree that it was the televangelists that really blew it. Additionally, it is also likely that recovery is softening the hard stance that some people had when they were younger. We grow up and realize we don’t know it all, we don’t have all the answers and we didn’t have as much control over our lives and our destinies as we thought.


Back in the eighties, roles were very stifled. One could not pick and choose his and her own reality. A “good” Christian that sings in church on Sunday morning would never sing in a garage punk band in dive bars on Saturday night. What do you make of this? Do you find any contradictions between these two roles? If so, how you harmonize them?

I brought a lot of that ‘80s baggage with me at first in this band. I shed it over the years bit by bit like an ugly sweater. At first it was really hard. I got endless pressure from Christians who were completely perplexed that we were not doing a “Christian” band. The idea was completely inconceivable. It’s just unheard of. If you are a real Christian and a musician you just do Christian music, and it’s as simple as that. But that idiotic restriction for some reason doesn’t apply to other fields. Should every Christian visual artist only create Christian art? Should Christian directors only make Christian movies? Should Christian actors only act in Christian plays? Do Christian computer programmers only write Christian software? Why are Christian musicians singled out to make only Christian music? That would mean you’re stuck hanging out with Christians only all the time. BORING!

We just wanted to make really good music and hang with the real scene. I enjoy the freedom I have to get a little edgy sometimes. I used to experience cognitive dissonance, like I lived two different lives, because I kept having to explain myself over and over. But gradually I realized that my discomfort came from other people’s suspicions, not from anything I was doing wrong. Yes, I can go to bars night after night and never get sauced. I am who I am. My wild onstage persona is just that, a persona, just like Alice Cooper’s, who for the record is also a Christian.

I am assuming that having a husband and wife in Brainspoon promotes a certain stability in the lineup. However, does it affect the band’s dynamics?

Yes, the two of us have been the core of Brainspoon and the root of its longevity. We try to keep our personal squabbles separate from band time. When we’re working with the band we shift into a kind of co-worker mode. But being in a band gives us something more to argue about in our marriage. Like song lyrics. We have some real loud fights about song lyrics.

I understand that you and your husband have children? What do they think of Brainspoon? Have they seen the band play live? Any “cool parent” points earned?

We have a teenage daughter who grew up with us being in this band. She didn’t think much about it until she was old enough to start coming to the all-ages shows. She’s a cool kid, she’s into good music, and she realized she had cool parents once her friends started telling her so. Our younger daughter has only seen pictures and videos of us so far.

The other day, I posted a YouTube video of L7 playing before well over 100,000 at an outdoor music festival in the early nineties. This was a time in which seemingly any band with a female who could play a few barre chords was getting major record deals. Do you harbor any disappointments that the musical landscape has changed so dramatically?

While those ‘90s girl bands finished kicking open the rock ‘n’ roll door for bands like us, I actually feel better that we’re doing what we’re doing now, instead of riding the wave of a trendy movement. We stand out more. But even knowing the chick factor gives us a visual advantage, Michelle and I wouldn’t want to be successful in the music business because we were females. We would rather be successful in spite of being females, just because we are good. People hear our album and they think I’m a guy singing in that low voice. They hear Michelle’s awesome guitar and they think that’s a dude playing. Then they see a show and there she is, setting the stage on fire all by herself. That’s exactly where I want to be: breaking the last barrier, competing in the same field. We don’t want to be a great “girl” band. We want to be a great band.

What are Brainspoon’s aspirations? What’s next for the band? Do you plan on touring? Are you going to record another CD?

We have a lot of new songs and we want to record a new album. Hopefully that will begin in March. We are way overdue on making a video, so we’re brewing up ideas on making something cool and low budget. Touring would be awesome, and we hope we get to do it in the near future, but to be honest we’ve been having a blast playing the Los Angeles scene with great local bands lately.

How can people get in touch with the band and order a copy of Brainspoon’s CD “No Damage”?

“No Damage” is available on CD Baby, and you can listen to previews of all the songs on there: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/Brainspoon. We are on Facebook of course, and can be contacted by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

 

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