There was a moment during the Vile Blue Shades’ last concert in Missoula—at July’s Total Fest, in the Palace Lounge—where the line that separated the band from the crowd was so thoroughly blurred it was impossible to tell who was playing the heavily funked-up rock, who was just dancing to it and, perhaps more importantly, who was in danger of accidentally breaking a stage’s worth of musical equipment. It was a frenzied and delirious atmosphere, and one that’s par for the course with this seemingly amorphous and definitely amoral band from Salt Lake City.
“It’s always a three-ring circus—that’s the only way I know how to describe it,” says guitarist Terrence Warburton, one of 11 current band members. “It’s a lot of people being weirdos, both on stage and in the crowd. It’s hard to describe when you’re right in the middle of it, but I always feel like we’re all part of something strange when we play, like a carnival or a circus.”
That circus mood is a direct result of how the Vile Blue Shades operate, act and sound. The band includes a drummer (Joe Guile), two percussionists (Mike Toretta and Dan Thomas), a keyboardist (Chris Murphy), a bassist (Dan Rose), four guitar players (Warburton, Shane Asbridge, Jeremy Smith and Eli Morrison), a lead singer (Ryan Jensen) and an official go-go dancer (Meg Charlier). On stage, it’s a special form of controlled chaos, with most of the band members rotating instruments throughout the set and a majority of the songs built on the tribal beats of the rhythm section and those four churning guitars. But what’s happening on stage is only half the story; when band members aren’t playing an instrument, they’re freed to join Jensen and Charlier and dance at the front of the stage or in the crowd. The dancing itself is somewhere between risqué (Charlier’s outfit in Missoula included a blood-red bustier, thong and ripped black stockings) and primal (when Guile isn’t drumming he takes part in what looks like entranced pantomiming), turning even the most staid crowds into believers. All together, it’s hard to resist the Vile Blue Shades raucous appeal.
“You know, I can’t deny that a lot of hippies are attracted to our thing,” says Jensen, describing the fringe of their typical crowd but underlining the scope of their lure. “I don’t know why, exactly. I think that’s just because they like drum circles and we have a lot of drums going on. I don’t mind, though—they dance and they’re peaceful. They stink like patchouli, but that’s okay. The more the merrier, right?”
If there’s a ringleader to this circus, it’s probably Jensen, who started the band in 2004. At first, it was just Jensen, Guile and Rose experimenting with a rotating cast of special guests and friends. The constant coming and going was the best Jensen could do at the time, as people were skeptical of his vision for the Vile Blue Shades and how serious he was in pursuing it.
“It took forever for us to get anyone excited about what we were doing,” Jensen admits. “We sort of had a reputation as bad characters, you know what I mean? We got kicked out of everywhere. We were friends with everybody, but we got kicked out of a lot of places. So, nobody wanted to join the band until they could see what direction we were heading with it. They played with us—a lot of the guys in the band now were on our first album—but they didn’t officially join until later.”
The band eventually ballooned to 13 members last year, and is now capped at a still robust but more comfortable 11. And while the band’s size has fluctuated, one thing has remained constant: the sinister reputation that first plagued Jensen. In fact, their albums best embody the band’s bad-boy nature, and follow a certain pattern of debauchery.
“All of our records are somewhat themed,” Jensen says, noting that most of their early records are nearly impossible to find. “It starts with Dungeons & Dragons (Dark Wizard), alcohol (Bottle of Pain), self loathing (Obleaske of the Orb) and then drug abuse (We’re Here, We’re High, which is available on tours). Now we’re moving on to sexual desires.”
The new album, which is still in the mastering and mixing stages, will be called John Thursday’s California Adventure. It’s inspired by the writings of Henry Miller, and specifically Miller’s pet name for a certain part of his anatomy in Under the Roofs of Paris.
“It’s our dance-sex record,” says Jensen. “It’s 100-percent sexual, from beginning to end. That’s what we are as Americans, right?”
Adds Warburton: “The new album is more like what we play live. It’s funkier, for sure. We’re Here, We’re High was more artistically focused. The new one, I think, will be more loose, a little more wild and something you’ll want to dance to.”
With the Vile Blue Shades, anything different just wouldn’t be right.
The Vile Blue Shades play the KBGA Birthday Bash with Japanther, Volumen, Arrows to the Sun and Paleo at the Badlander and Palace Lounge Saturday, Sept. 22, at 8:30 PM. $7/$5 in advance or with costume.