Ross Vander Werf was tired of being a hired gun. After years working as a musician in Iowa in gigs both covetously cool (he toured as the bassist for former major-label act and all-around excellent anglophile rock band the Envy Corps) and seriously square ("I played bass in many a wedding reception country band"), he relocated to the Twin Cities at the end of 2008 with one goal in mind—to finally follow his own muse and front a band.
"It was always a challenge lingering in the back on my mind," admits Vander Werf. "Could I rise from bass-player-ville and succeed in writing and singing my own songs? I knew way too many people living in Des Moines who would sit around bashing all these other people's efforts at making music and then go out and play a bunch of Journey covers. I didn't want to grow old and be one of those guys. I wanted to contribute something of my own."
That something is Usonia, an impressively eclectic indie-rock trio that finds Vander Werf occupying center stage for the first time, flanked by talented multi-instrumentalists and co-writers George Hadfield and Zach Carroll. Their self-titled debut album is a sublime slice of headphone-friendly pop, confidently encompassing everything from jagged-nerve new wave (the album-opening stunner "Trailer") to white-boy soul-rock with enough sass to make Hall & Oates burn with envy (the taut and funky "It's Your Night"). It's clearly the work of guys who know their way around tricky time signatures and fancy chord changes—Carroll and Hadfield have also logged plenty of time as live musicians for hire—but never once veers off into overly showy playing.
"I think that's something that comes with age," says Vander Werf, who is in his early 30s. "None of us are that old [Carroll and Hadfield are in their mid-20s], but I think you get to a point where you understand what belongs in certain musical situations and what doesn't. Just because you can do something doesn't necessarily mean you should. It was really tempting to go crazy and over-the-top with all the arrangements, but at some point you realize that's too much, which is something I learned from playing in jazz combos. With this record we really tried to find a middle ground and craft parts that are challenging to us and make us happy but are also accessible to the listener. You can't spray your hose all over the ladybug."
And indeed they don't. Usonia's debut is an immaculate recording that bears the marks of its constructive self-scrutiny in the studio well. There are cleverly layered harmonies and ear-tickling keyboard overdubs aplenty, but also enough rhythmic oomph that the bells and whistles don't come at the expense of more visceral aural pleasures. It's not the kind of record a band knocks out in a few days using Garage Band.
"We purposefully really took our time," recalls Vander Werf of the long road to Usonia completing their debut. "We essentially spent two years just getting to know each other and figuring out how to push each other's buttons musically. We wrote a good 50 tunes; some of them were more finished than others, but they were all up for grabs when we decided to actually make an album. The recording [which took place in Iowa at the Envy Corps' studio] ended up taking us a while, too, and got broken up into a bunch of sessions as we kept changing things. By the time we actually did finish tracking everything we had lived with the songs a long time. We were pretty certain about our moves on the recording. The record sounds deliberate."
Deliberate perhaps, but also dizzyingly ambitious. Only rarely does the local rock scene generate a record this polished, and one that clearly swings for the fences in terms of possible mainstream appeal (it's easy to envision many a Semisonic fan falling hard for Usonia if given the chance). All of which begs the question: How big does Usonia dare to dream?
"We've talked about that as a band since we first formed," admits Vander Werf with refreshing candor, considering that indie musicians all too often seem loath to cop to their world-beating ambitions. "How do art and commerce deal with each other? What are we looking for? The best answer I can give is we want both. We want to be Radiohead. I want my cake and I want to eat it, too. We would like to be musically respected, critically acclaimed, and sell a jillion records [laughs]. What can I say? Those are the kind of goals I have and I'm not afraid to admit it."
USONIA play a CD-release show with the Envy Corps, the Arms Akimbo, and Breanne Düren on SATURDAY, APRIL 9, at THE FINE LINE MUSIC CAFE; 612.338.8100