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The Verve Pipe's Brian Vander Ark Looks Back on 20 Years of "The Freshmen"

The Verve Pipe
The Verve Pipe
Courtesy photo

When the Verve Pipe performs at the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center this Thursday, it will be the first time in years that founder and lead singer Brian Vander Ark will play a Florida gig that isn't in someone's living room.

"I've been batting people away for the longest time because we haven't been able to get down there," he says. "I've been saying, 'Be patient, be patient.' I get down there every once in a while to do house concerts, but finally everything worked out that we can finally afford to make that trip."

Since 2007, the scribe behind the ubiquitous '90s hit "The Freshmen" has more than 700 "house concert" shows to his credit. It's a brave and strange thing to do, but thankfully for Vander Ark, it's never gotten out of hand.

"There are bizarre experiences," he says. "However, the bizarre experiences never weighed too much towards endangerment. Put it this way — I don't know who's behind the door a lot of times. I walk up with an acoustic guitar, in a rental car, and I have to knock on a door of someone I've been going back and forth on email with. My manager originally didn't like the idea because he thought they would say it was going to be 50 people there and it would just be one lonely woman in a wedding dress or something."

Thankfully, that's never happened. "[One of] the weird things that happened was I showed up to a guy's house in Dallas, Texas, and he said, 'Come on, we're gonna go out on the speedboat.' So we went out on Possum Kingdom Lake, which is this huge, enormous, beautiful lake. And there were six people on the speedboat and I played on a speedboat. That's one of the great ones that sticks out. That's the beauty of it: It's never ever boring."

After the band's debut, Villains, flew to the top of the charts, there was nowhere to go but down — and down they went. The Verve Pipe's second and third records were commercial failures (the latter appearing on shelves mere days after September 11, a dark omen if there ever was one). RCA dropped the band, and Vander Ark struggled to get back into the studio.

Since then, the band, of which Vander Ark is the only remaining original member, bounced back eight years later with a pair of kids' rock albums. It might seem an odd choice, but Vander Ark's reasoning is simple: "What better way to lift the dark cloud than make kids' music?"

Ironically, Vander Ark says doing kid's shows are tougher than doing gigs for adults.

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"I've seen duets go up and after 20 minutes, the kids are bored and the parents are mad. What we've figured out to do is to make it with the most activity and the most fun. For instance, we have a song called 'Cereal.' I pour cereal out of my guitar and onto my face; two boxes of Fruity Pebbles for this song. Kids love it. They run up and eat the cereal. It's hilarious and disgusting."

It's not all child's play, though. Last year Vander Ark celebrated the 20th anniversary of "The Freshmen" and Villains with a live album recorded in Ann Arbor. The legacy of the song is one that isn't lost on him.

"The fact that I was able to write something that tapped so well into the '90s was really luck on my part."

The Verve Pipe. 8 p.m. Thursday, February 1, at the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; browardcenter.org. Tickets cost $32.50.

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