There is a certain amount of dissonance in this DK's Donut shop, listening to Bill Vaun talk about pop music as Modest Mouse's weird, lovely, 2004 crossover album Good News For People Who Love Bad News plays in the background.
The dissonance suggests something that might be called the Modest Mouse Question: a hard-to-describe feeling that leads one to wonder if Vaun, self-proclaimed "Boise's Best Unknown Persevering Musician" and aspiring big-ticket songwriter, recognizes these songs from an album that basically conquered the airwaves five summers back, and whether this question is fair just because the guy is old by rock-and-roll standards, but, still, he doesn't mention the album, which is fairly blasting in this dinky place. It's the question that asks if the name Modest Mouse means anything to this guy who, for the last 32 years, has been trying to break into the music business, and who, at 48 years old, thinks he is on the verge--and you kind of really want to believe him--of doing just that.
But about this Boise's Best Unknown Persevering Musician. Find anyone who can snatch this title from Vaun. He's been writing music and playing in front of crowds since 1977, when Isaac Brock was a diapered pain in the ass, back when the 17-year-old Vaun helped form Boise's first punk band.
"We must have been [first]," he says over coffee, early on an August evening. "We got this [band] going around 1976. It was thrash, hard, grinding, lots of distortion, very noisy but kind of consistent."
Since then, Vaun has played in different bands, as a solo act, has played in China, toured the Dakotas--(" ... we were playing Ramadas, Holiday Inns, a real lounge sort of thing, but we were pretty successful ...")--and is now a regular in Sun Valley's coffee shops and bars.
He plays guitar and sings. He writes songs by humming melodies into a recorder while he drives. He's got a storage shed in Boise filled with nothing but songs he's written. Three decades worth. These are reasons enough not to give up. When your work takes on such actual, literal gravity, how do you abandon that part of you in a pile somewhere?
"I'm not giving up on my dream. It doesn't matter if I'm 50 or 60 or 70--well, it does; I don't want to die. But I want something to happen pretty soon. And I think it will. We're right on the precipice."
It's hard to tell, of course, just where this break will come from since Vaun himself plays the actual details like pocket Jacks. But if the break does come, it will likely be thanks to the exposure Vaun receives from a radio station just west of Chicago, Ill.
WestSideWill is an Internet radio station out of Napersville that plays only unsigned artists. Since last October, WestSideWill has featured one of Vaun's songs every week on its broadcast. Every Thursday, they play new songs that have been submitted via the Internet. And every Thursday, Vaun is there.
In fact, he's there so often that he's earned himself a WestSideWill nickname--"Mr. Nasty," the origins of which are a bit convoluted and insider-y in the frat-house sense, but it suffices to say that the name springs from the hour the show airs (late), the level of humor usually associated with that hour (potty) and the frequency of Vaun's appearances (damn-near ubiquitous). The important thing about this nickname is that it's a symbol of just how much of a figure Vaun has become on the Thursday shows.
The show's DJ, the Nooge (a guy who sounds exactly how you'd imagine someone who calls himself "the Nooge" would sound), quickly recognized Vaun's commitment to his craft.
"It's refreshing to see someone who cares so much about what they do," said the Nooge, via e-mail. "It has gotten to a point where the show doesn't feel complete without Bill."
After 35 songs, Vaun finally cracked WestSideWill's top 10 list. On Oct. 2, his song "MoneyMoneyMoneyMoney" hit No.1 on the syndicated show.
Though the quality of Vaun's songs vary--and he'll say as much--they are all marked with a sense of maturity. As the Modest Mouse album builds to the closing climax, a question arises: Mr. Vaun, does maturity sell in today's music business?
The question seems to strike him unawares.
A record sits in front on him on the table, an actual vinyl record that he cut back in Carter's last year in the White House. The record, with its white sleeve, pumpkin orange label and earnest 1979 sans serif font, resists any allusion to the resurgence of new bands releasing vinyl. But music is, always has been, the battleground of youth. Is it crazy to think that the songs Vaun has written and the songs he will inevitably write will find an audience large enough to support him as a full-time songwriter?
Even the Nooge, who heaped praise on Vaun, has his doubts.
"Bill makes music that isn't going to fit into everyone's tastes," he said. "But he does make music that some people enjoy. He probably won't 'blow up' and have 10,000 fans overnight, but thanks to his efforts, he will grow his fanbase slowly but surely."
Nothing, of course, has been "overnight" for Vaun. Thirty-two years of playing. A lifetime of writing. The record with the bright label peeking out of its sleeve sits before him like a broken sundial.
"I'm not giving up," he says. "I'm the entire band, right here. Unless I die, the band doesn't go away. And if somebody tries to take my name, I'll just sue 'em."
Listen to Bill Vaun at myspace.com/billvaun.