The members of the Velvet Marias first got together through coincidence and happenstance. Then, after finding s groove as a cover band, the rock and country quintet discovered it has a knack for writing original songs. Two years later, it has recorded and produced its first full-length, the self-titled “Velvet Marias.” As members juggle music with jobs and family, it helps that drummer Jorge Santamaria, vocalist Sarah Gleason, and guitarist and vocalist Paul Pearce have home studios. Guitarist and vocalist John Ran Smith acknowledges that the band is a high priority. “I put my guitars under the bed back in 1986 and didn't pick them up again until 2001,” Smith says, “So I'm making up for lost time.” Style Weekly joined the Velvet Marias (minus bassist Michael Skiffington, who was on vacation) in their practice space to find out how one song got them this far.
Style Weekly: Tell us about that one song …
Smith: [We wrote it during] the one practice where Sarah was sick and she wasn't here.
Pearce: There was a lot of testosterone in the room. John had this guitar riff that we ended up writing the song around.
Smith: I was messing around with this R&B riff. What you hear at the beginning isn't like our sound usually. It still went to a major chord so it could become country. It had to have a little twang to it to work for us. Whenever I'd be sitting at home writing stuff for myself, I would play the progression. I brought it to rehearsal and Paul sort of popped in, singing lyrics.
Pearce: Some of our rehearsals are like drinking parties. I don't know if this was one of them or not, but we were kind of loose and I started making up verses off the top of my head. I sang this song about peeping on somebody. Watching her comb her hair ...
Smith: He was channeling pretty big.
Pearce: …having a crush on her, getting chased down the street by her little brother. And then he turns out to be the neighborhood dealer, and ends up getting arrested. It starts unfolding like a reality show and I came up with all of it in about 20 minutes.
Smith: I swear all that happened in my town though.
Pearce: It happened in my town too. Then, they end up hooking up. That's what the story is about, this nefarious love affair. We have a few like that.
Smith: When we found that bridge, it just hit. It's always fun when that happens.
Pearce: It's real pop in the middle of it, just three chords and that's all you need in life. I was big on it having a fat hook you can sing along with. That's something we really try to do.
Gleason: When we play this at shows, it gets a lot of audience participation. Everybody is out there singing. People who haven't seen us play before, they hear this song and they'll be singing it before the song's over. It's that sort of song, where you don't have to know every word to sing along.
Pearce: And people say that phrase (“don't mind if I do”) every day, it's just normal.
Gleason: And it makes you feel a little like a badass, too, to be like, “You know what? I don't mind if I do.” (In the song), the girl asks him if he wants to party and he says, “Don't mind if I do.”
Santamaria: One thing I noticed about that song was, when that happened, we had been talking about doing a CD and talking about our original music. That was the first time something that spontaneous happened in the room. It sparked this confidence in each other to say, “You know, we can come up with something really good.” We put it down (to tape), because we didn't want to forget what it was and looking back on it, I feel like it was a catalyst for us to write songs and record. We unveiled them one by one at gigs. We had a guy at Grandpa Eddies who sang that song the whole time. We don't know who he is, we never saw him again, but he knew that song from somewhere. That's the kind of song it is.
Pearce: After that song, we had a couple more that fell into place like that in rehearsal. We'd all bring songs in and they would turn into something else. That's what was cool about it.
Santamaria: Yeah, that's what “Don't Mind if I Do” did for us, it opened it up. The original song (from that rehearsal) didn't turn out to be what we recorded, but it was a really good feeling to say, “We just wrote a song.” I was flabbergasted.
Pearce: And it wasn't that hard. Once it hatches, the song takes on a life of its own.
Gleason: It's not rocket science.
Smith: And you watch MTV or other music channels that (have background stories on musicians) and people talk about writing classic songs in five minutes. And you go, “There's no way.” But there is!
Sarah, when did you hear about the new song?
Gleason: I had heard what was going on, but it wasn't really clear. Jorge came up and said, “I think we wrote something,” and I was like, “Yeah right.”
Santamaria: She was like “Yeah right, you all were down there playing Stones covers.”
Gleason: The next practice, when I had my voice back, I came down and they played it. I said “Oh, look at that! This is all right, this is great.” I figured, gosh, they bucked up, so I better come up with something to be a part of (the songwriting).
Smith: Sarah was trying to do the impossible. She said, “I'm going to write a song a day for a year.”
Gleason: I'm still doing it. I wrote two today. I had been kind of piddling at writing and once “Don't Mind if I Do” happened, then Paul and I started working together more. I'd go over to the Shed, which is Paul's studio, and I'd say, “OK Paul, here are some lyrics. Or, “I have this melody in my head for a song” and I'd hum it. Three songs are on the new album where we did that. That's the cool thing, because of that song, I realized this lyric-writing thing is not that hard. I write on napkins; I write on receipts all day long. Until I got a little digital recorder, I'd record lyrics or hum melodies into my cell phone! I don't know chords. I don't know music at all. But now I know I can come to them with a melody or lyrics. I'll have this country or folk thing in my head with a very basic melody and then, all of a sudden, it's turned into a rock opera.
You don't have background in music?
Gleason: No, I just started singing a couple of years ago when the band started.
Santamaria: One night we were at karaoke at Stratford Grill. She sang with a friend ours the song “Simple Man” [by Lynyrd Skynyrd] and I was like “Hmmmm. ...”
Smith: She brought the house down.
Santamaria: I brought her into Vintage [an old garage band] to do some guest spots. Around that same time is when I got together to play with John [in the Velvet Marias]. One night he brought over Jessica [Salomonsky] from Sister Sweet on bass, just to mess around. We didn't know the lyrics to “Voodoo Cadillac” (by Southern Culture on the Skids) and I said, “Sarah can sing them, have her come down.” So she came down and sang. After that, they leaned on me for weeks.
Smith: We decided we didn't want to play if we didn't have her.
Santamaria: I knew this was an opportunity for all of us to create something really special.
Gleason: They had to teach me along the way.
Santamaria: The great thing about Sarah, in her writing and in her lyrics, is that she's rooted in this old country stuff she listened to with her dad and grandpa in bar rooms and honky-tonks. She throws it out there and that's how she comes up with ideas. It fits so well with this band.
How has this shaped the direction of the Velvet Marias?
Pearce: When we first got together, we were playing a mixed set of covers that was dominated by Lucinda Williams songs, which Sarah sings to a tee. After awhile we were getting kind of bored with it, that's why we started to write. The vocals still tend to go in her direction. She's prettier than the other two vocalists. And she's better than the other two. But we have three voices and I think that sets us apart. We also have two guitarists. I play the metal sounding guitar and John plays the honky-tonk sounding guitar.
Smith: The honky-tonk is stuff we had to come back to. I really didn't want to be there as a teenager or in my 20s when we were playing punk. But there's a connection between punk and country that becomes very clear to you later on. When we started writing, I found that the music that was intriguing me the most was the stuff that had that old country sound.
Gleason: Both have emotion and feeling packed in their songs. Punk gets you moving, I like to say it's got ass behind it. We play music that tells stories that has a little ass behind it.
Pearce: But they're not our own stories. They're just stories we make up because there's all these people out there that do the things we sing about. They get drunk, get pregnant, peep on their neighbors.
Did you see Lucinda Williams when she played Charlottesville?
Gleason: Yeah, we went to see her at the Pavilion. We cover “Drunken Angel” and I've only heard her actually sing it twice [on CD]. But, I never heard her sing it live and when I did, I cried. Involuntarily, tears starting flowing.
Santamaria: We have some really die-hard fans, some that come to every single show. One guy came up to us after a gig and asked, “Are you guys going go to see Lucinda?” I knew if I didn't get tickets, Sarah was going to kill me. He goes, “I'd like for you to be my guest.” He got us in the VIP section to see Lucinda Williams and we were shocked. He said, “I'm honored that you're here with me,” and we didn't know what to say. That's the kind of community that has surrounded us. It's been a warm reception.
What is your most memorable show in Richmond?
Smith: The extravaganza at La Dif for the Easter Seals.
Pearce: We played down in their warehouse, but the power kept going out. Warehouses usually have 60-amp fuses everywhere for power tools and everything and we were popping them every five minutes.
Smith: We had all these people dancing. ...
Gleason: And when the power went out, but they wouldn't let us stop. So, we started playing songs we'd never played together. They started doing “Werewolves of London” and I sang “Sweet Home Alabama” overtop, like a duel. Then they made me sing Patsy Cline's “Crazy” a cappella.
Smith: It was such an elegant party all night, but we kept blowing things up. They loved it and we had fun. We took lemons and made lemonade.
What is one thing about the band that most fans don't know?
Pearce: We have a strict setup ritual. The stage is immaculate. I haven't taken a dust-buster to it yet, but it's going to happen.
Santamaria: We pride ourselves on being the MacGyvers of the Richmond music scene. We can fix anything.
Smith: Except for the fuses at La Dif.
The Velvet Marias will play a CD release party on Feb. 26 at the National, along with special guests the Bopcats, the Chiggers, the Deaves and the Santamaria Bros. Doors open at 6 pm. Tickets are $10 in advance, $13 day of the show.