Nine to the Universe: The Expansion of the Viperhouse System

“We members of the viper school were for playing music that was all lit up with inspiration... we were on another plane, in another sphere.”
—Mezz Mezzrow, 1946 As I drove south on route 116 from Burlington, Vermont, I slipped a dubbed tape of viperHouse’s 1997 recording Shed into my tapedeck, and listened as the busy intersections and strip malls disappeared behind me. Beyond the sprawl of Williston Road and past the cookie-cutter housing developments of South Burlington, the farmland of Vermont opened in front of me, with its relaxing, slow paced contrast to the frustration of traffic lights. Spring was just beginning on a warm, brightening March morning as wind and sunlight filled my car, blending with the rhythms, language, and sounds of the city coming from my stereo. As 116 snaked past the right-hand turn to Lincoln, fields slowly gave way to thick, tree covered hills, and I quietly arrived at my destination; Bristol, Vermont.

Like many small towns, Bristol’s two-lane main street is crowded on both sides with old wooden and brick buildings, which house a few small shops, the local bank, and a restaurant or two. The Bristol Bakery is a local stop for sandwiches and coffee, and where I had planned to meet Michael Chorney, the leader of a nine-piece, modern day jazz orchestra.

Michael Chorney is the musical, organizational, financial, and possibly spiritual leader of viperHouse, Vermont’s own roving “spasm band”. Chorney’s ensemble is a living amalgam of urban funk, Afro-Cuban rhythms, Beat poetry, and at times, the unmistakable melodies of Duke Ellington. When I met Chorney, he was vibrant and tired, all at the same time. I found out that the endless logistical and emotional duties of the bandleader can wear him out, but the transcendant experience of playing music with eight of his best friends gives him the look of a proud papa. As we shook hands and sat at a sun-lit table, he eagerly nurtured a mug of coffee and tucked a tuft of hair behind his ear. I asked him how the band is doing, and he lit up, offering me a short synopsis of the last couple of years: “Things are really going according to plan... Up until Shed (the band’s third record) came out, we had focused on building a local fan base and recording, just to get our music fairly well represented up to that point. So then, after Shed came out, the whole idea was live performance, live performance, and we’ve concentrated on that now for... a year and a half.”

Since Shed’s release in November of 1997, viperHouse has been stretching out to audiences in cities that are far from the Burlington scene; places like Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Athens. According to Chorney, the experience of learning how to leave town has been a positive one. “I know a few bands up here who just work locally and they have got a great buzz going on up here, and have finally gone out and realized, ‘Holy Smokes is it tough out in the world!’

“We go all the way down to Greenville, North Carolina. Very far away,” Chorney laughs, as he emphasizes the distance. “And it’s this little town, but our agent said, ‘You should go down. It’s a good market. They’ll like you guys.’ So, we’re willing to give it a shot, but what does it take? It takes the first time going in there on Tuesday night beer night, for a zero-type guarantee, really low money. But they said, ‘There’ll be a crowd there, and they’ll come in, they’ll hear you’. So we go down on the beer night. And then we go down two months later and do our own Thursday night, for a higher guarantee, but it’s still not enough money to even break even with a group this size. But the place is packed, and everyone’s happy. So then we go down the third time, and the show is hopelessly sold out, and we’re making really, decent enough money. But it took those investments, and that’s what we’re doing everywhere.”

“We’re finding that we’re getting a lot of write-ups and reviews in all these towns we’re going to, and they’re all fairly beguiled by the fact that we’re really doing something different,” Chorney smiles. “There’s no easy way to describe what we do. I’ve always been of the mind that it takes... three viper gigs to really get it, to really get what’s going on. First of all, our repetiore is so large, and we build in so much improvisation into each performance that it changes every time. So, by the time you get three you’re going to get a pretty good picture of it.”

Though viperHouse is a “Vermont band”, they are doing so well in the south that they recently sold out venues in Atlanta and Athens on word of mouth alone. Their success in over the last year and a half on the road proves that they’ve come a long way since Chorney assembled the band in 1995, after a trip to Europe during which a sound developed in his head that he just couldn’t shake. On his return to the States, Chorney picked from a pool of musicians that he had met or played with in Vermont musical groups like the So-Called Jazz Sextet, Mr. Dooley, and the Chrome Cowboys, along with students he knew from the Middlebury music department, and arranged an ensemble that could bring to life the sounds that had existed only in his mind while in Europe. When speaking about the group of musicians he brought together nearly four years ago, Chorney acts as much like an admiring father as he does an enthusiastic friend. “When I called the people to be in this band, they as musicians were on the forefront of my mind, but they as people... It may have been a fifty-one percent musicians, forty-nine percent personality chemistry. It’s an amazing group of people. They just have incredible intelligence, incredible compassion... their perspective is just right there.” After bringing everyone together, their influences ranging from Coltrane to Marley to Mingus to Sly and the Family Stone, Chorney decided to waste no time in revealing to the group that he was going to be leading the band.

“First rehearsal I was kind of like, ‘Okay guys, I’m going to be bandleader,’” the memory of which Chorney couldn’t help laughing at during our conversation. “I dared use the word, which I never had before. I went on to say, ‘And in that capacity, here’s what I’ll take care of.’ Everyone right away was like, ‘Great.’ People know what’s expected, and what they don’t have to worry about.” Though the arrangement works, Chorney says, it’s not always an easy job. “[It’s] definitely difficult sometimes, in that I either have to play the heavy, or bring up things that even I don’t feel like thinking about at that moment, but that need addressing. It can be anything from, ‘Hey, we’re getting a little late to rehearsals, let’s tighten up there’, to broader things regarding focus or things like that.”

While preserving his original vision for the music was one of Michael’s main concerns for being leader, he also wanted to make sure that the band didn’t end up self-destructing. “I had worked with many groups... and just kept noting the various mistakes, the things that destroy a band, or just tear it apart, and things like that. I mean, needless things, which are usually the result of bad communication or sort of an unclear line of authority. In many situations, there’s not just one person who can say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that’, and still get respect from the group. I’ve engendered that respect from our group because they trust me. They know that when I make a decision, it’s not based on just my own wants or needs, it’s based on what I’m trying to perceive as everyone’s. And actually, more times than not, I sort of aquiese to various ideas that come from the groups that are opposed to my own. I’ll go with those because it’s the healthiest thing.”

Chorney may lead viperHouse, but all vipers contribute to the “omni-genre” sound that has been called everything from “cosmo-funk for the new millenium” to “Sun Ra-meets-George Clinton” to “slick, slinky, and slightly slithery jazz for hipsters of all ages.” Whatever moniker you want to put on viperHouse’s sound, Chorney is correct that it is hard to describe. For all the listeners who don’t seem to be listening, dismissing viperHouse as just another funk band or acid-jazz group makes it clear that they’ve missed the point. viperHouse produces experiential music, and like all improvisatory ensembles, their true meaning lies not only in the confidence of the rhythm section, or floating harmonies of the brass, reed, and strings, but the slow evolution and movement into the unknown that the group is able to achieve as a whole. Michael Chorney has brought together a collective of Vermont musicians with roots in a dozen genres and asked them to share their love for music with each other. When it all comes together, the group calls it viperosity.

“We did a show in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in this funky little bar, just a couple of weeks ago,” Chorney recalls, as he sips his mug of coffee. “And I came off stage thinking, ‘God, that is one of the best, if not the best viper show that people have ever caught,’ and I came to find out that the entire band felt that way. That is unusual. There are so many of us, and usually someone’s sick, or someone’s depressed, or someone’s out of it, or any of the variables you’ve got. Our standards are rising, so it’s getting tougher and tougher, but it was really sastisfying to have that one show in there and have everyone look at each other and go, ‘Wow. Okay, right on.’ That can happen on a song by song, or a set by set basis, and it does, but for a whole night to get the whole damn crew feeling that great, it doesn’t happen everytime, that’s for sure. But, that’s why we’re music addicts. You’ve got to keep going back and see if you can find it.”

As summer begins to warm the air in Vermont, viperHouse is back in town, and they have a mission: to get the tightness and the vibe they’ve developed over the last eighteen months onto tape. Between performing at festivals embracing the new-groove movement like the Allgood Festival and the Gathering of the Vibes, and playing for audiences at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival at the Knitting Factory in NYC, and the Discover Jazz Festival here in Burlington, viperHouse will also be out in Charlotte, Vermont recording a new CD with the help of producer Charles Eller.

“Every time you record, it really crystalizes the piece of music you’re working on. Always does,” Chorney explains. “Even though, this time it’s going to be a little bit different than that. Not all the tunes by any means, but many of the tunes we’re going to record we’ve been performing live for about a half a year now, if not more, so we have a real intrinsic understanding of the tunes. What the touring has done to the sound has been incredible. I mean it really, really, works. We have two CDs worth of material that we could put out right now that’s unrecorded, so it will be great to just select what will be a nice program.”

The new project will be viperHouse’s fourth recording in as many years. Their prolific output includes: viperHouse in 1996, the live album Ottawa in September 1997 (a benefit CD to replace gear stolen from the band’s van), and the disc they’ve been touring behind for a year and a half, Shed, released in November 1997. Chorney insisted that he wanted to record the group as much as possible right after they formed to get the music out, and that follow-up recordings, especially to a good album or a good tour, can put too much weight on what is essentially, according to the bandleader, “a simple recording”.

Considering the level of regional and even national success that viperHouse has had touring, the next step for many groups would be to try to get a single into rotation for airplay to help them break into a larger national market. In viperHouse’s case, that single would clearly put Heloise Williams, the band’s lead vocalist and flautist, into the spotlight. “We’ve got some really great songs right now,” Chorney explained. “The first recordings featured Heloise more in the way the old jazz bands did, like a featured vocalist with the orchestra. Our approach is still that to some degree, but we’ve certainly got more really solid songs that are going to go on this CD. Surely, a song getting a lot of radio airplay would have an effect on the group. But as a degree of success, I’m measuring our success, number one; always in musical terms. Then number two; can we keep playing this music, and afford to? So in that light, getting moderate radio airplay, helping fill up halls here and there wouldn’t hurt us. But as far as a long term thing, down the road, much longer than what that one instance might do, what will determine our success is just how pure we are in terms of approaching our music and our whole relationship with music as individuals and as a group.”

Some recent exposure that may or may not effect viperHouse over the long term involves Burlington’s own arena-swimmers Phish. viper-diva Heloise Williams sang back-up on Phish’s last studio album The Story of the Ghost, and on stage with the band during a performance in November 1998 at the Lawrence Joel Veteran’s Coliseum in Winston-Salem, NC. After the show, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio sat in with viperHouse at a club across the street from the Coliseum, and literally hundreds of aquatic fans followed. As for the possibility of a large new crossover audience, Chorney says that the vipers have easily put things in perspective. “The band got over that really quickly and said, ‘Look, they’re going to come, they’re going to hear our music, they’re going to come back if thay want to, and they’re not if they don’t.’ That’s fine. Just as many ears as we can get it out to, we’re glad to turn on those who are willing to go there.”

Another shoot-or-miss chance at a much larger audience is still to come, when MTV will use the music of viperHouse on the new season of the station’s wildly popular show The Real World. As for Chorney’s vision for the vipers on the tube, his first comment was; “I think I’ve watched MTV maybe twice in my life. I really have no interest in doing a video at all. Unless it was something very, very bizarre, like perhaps a documentary on bowling in Cleveland.” Chorney’s impression of MTV came across pretty clear, but as for the fact that viperHouse’s music is slated to appear on the music channel, he was grateful and honest. “This fellow who is kind of the A&R [for The Real World], for want of a better description, approached us because he really liked our music. He really seemed to genuinely like the music, he wanted to get it on the show, and because he was coming from that point of view, it was like, ‘Sure, man.’ I mean, he was responding to the sounds, and that’s fine.”

As our conversation started to wind down, Chorney was as positive and energetic as when we first met, mentioning that he was going to go find the new Brooklyn Funk Essentials album and enjoy some down time before the band went out again. He joked that some of his glowing commentary about the band may be filtered through rosy colored glasses, but then reconsidered. “I really couldn’t feel better. It’s coming on four years pretty soon, so we’ve definitely crossed the line. I think the three year mark is where bands either continue or break up. And it’s been tough lately. We’ve taken some hard hits with incredible resilience. One of the advantages of this many people is that, if someone’s energy is flagging, someone else can kind of compensate for that energy. There are just a couple of sparks in the band that are really great as far as keeping spirits up without being false about it. Right now, the whole situation has matured a lot in the last year with the touring and things we’ve enjoyed. It feels solid as ever under our feet, which is good, because it’s not solid at all!”

The future of viperHouse may be hard to predict, but it seems as bright as the light in bandleader Michael Chorney’s eyes and smile that appears on his face when talking about the band. They’ve successfully and diligently made the move out of town, stuck together, solidified and expanded their sound on the road, and they’ve even got some independent label interest for their next album. In a town where bands have a tendency come on hard like a rainstorm, saturate the area, and disappear, viperHouse has the power to play on into the next morning. Whether they’re funking up the hometown crowd in Burlington, or stretching the sonic outer limits in Tennessee, you know that the nine of them will continue to explore the universe together, to places unknown, and take thousands of us with them for the ride.

J. Matthew Bushlow interviewed and wrote about guitarist Charlie Hunter GC issue 12.