Ringing a dinner table set with steaming vegan pasta and expertly cooked green beans, the Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band looks just like a quintessential, nontraditional American family, complete with three white 20-somethings and a black 15-year-old boy. There are jokes about Lady Gaga and ?uestlove, and regular interjections of absurd hilarity that only a teenager forced to spend a majority of his time with people nearly twice his age could dream up. "Maybe someday I could drum for Justin Bieber," says Marshall Verdoes. "He's hotter than I am, though."
Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band With Yuni in Taxco, The Head and the Heart. Mural Amphitheater, Seattle Center, 684-7200. Free. All ages. 5 p.m. Fri., Aug. 27.
Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band's composition—a man, his wife, his friend, and his adopted little brother—definitely doesn't fit with the standards of rock-'n'-roll normalcy. There are no drug-fueled tirades, no groupie-filled harems. Their music might have all the trappings of an aggressively rhythmic and melodic rock outfit, but their makeup tells the real story.
In 2006, songwriter and frontman Benjamin Verdoes received full custody of his younger brother Marshall—though a second adoption never technically took place, Benjamin has written consent to care for him from his mother—and brought the sibling/son to live with him and wife, Traci Eggleston, who now doubles as MSHVB's keyboardist. Bassist Jared Price rounds out the quartet.
By taking Marshall in, the trio entered a complicated relationship that rotates among sibling rivalry, musical collaboration, and, most important, parental guardianship. "The roles confuse us every day!" Eggleston says.
The roots of the band Marshall would go on to name lie in a promise: He could play in a band as soon as his skills developed. Introduced to percussion early—age 3—Marshall got serious around 8, and now studies on a scholarship at the Seattle Drum School. But even before he moved in full-time, Marshall was ready to emulate his brother's work with then-project In Praise of Folly.
"He was already with me pretty much constantly, coming to stay a couple days a week, and I would take him to all my concerts," Benjamin said. "It got so he was really into the idea of being in a band. We would jam, and he'd always ask me when we were going to play a show—so I made the deal with him that if you work hard and get good enough, we can."
And develop he did. Hunched over his kit, the 15-year-old makes it look easy until he pulls out the stops and lets loose. At a basement show during the Capitol Hill Block Party, the development of his skills and the increasing complexity of the rhythms he's capable of become clear when the band breaks into material from their sophomore record, Where the Messengers Meet. If it weren't for the staccato report of drums and the echoing shimmer of cymbals, there'd be no way to tell where the blur of his hands begins or ends.
Benjamin, who works as a substitute teacher, has the additional responsibility (or as he puts it, luxury) of home-schooling his younger brother. Able to ensure Marshall gets a real grasp of the subjects—recently, John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and geometry—Benjamin is excited by the progress he's seen in the two years they've studied together. Schooling doesn't stop during tours either, despite Marshall's best efforts and his latest prized possession, a portable DVD player. The entire band holds group reading discussions in the van, and as a writing exercise, Marshall keeps a tour journal filled with entries dating back to their first show.
While band practice and tour schedules make any semblance of an average teen day-to-day impossible, watching Marshall duck across the street to a friend's house for a movie proves he's much more of a normal kid than it might seem. His excitement for a driver's license is evidenced by the model cars on his windowsill, and photos on the wall depict the biological siblings—a younger sister, 11, and an older one, 25—whom he often visits in Stanwood. "I have to do that," he emphasizes.
But next to his Barack Obama poster and impressive tower of a CD collection that ranges from hip-hop to classic rock, one wall in his normal teenage bedroom is a reminder of his unusual lifestyle—a multicolored tessellation of MSHVB gig posters and a corresponding tour map littered with metallic stars cover it.
Food—particularly Southern fare—is one of Marshall's favorite aspects of touring, and the Sticky Fingerz Chicken Shack in Little Rock, Ark., tops his list of restaurants.
"I don't think I'm better per se, but I think I am better off in some ways," Marshall says of his nomadic lifestyle. "It's a paradox. There are some teenager things that I'm missing out on, like sports, but in return I get to travel a lot, and it's awesome to be able to explore the world at a young age. I've met some awesome people too, guys like Tom Morello, TV on the Radio, Mos Def—a bunch of my idols."
Though they try to keep a straight and narrow path for their young protégé—the band always keeps their green room dry, among other things—MSHVB's older members are glad Marshall has the good sense to turn down offers of marijuana and late-night trips "to Kinkos, for a pack of gum."
"It's something that I can handle, and what's cool about it is learning how to talk to people who are older and learning how they do things," Marshall said. "I'm kind of in the middle, so it's a little like multitasking—and to be a drummer, you kind of need that."
About to tour in support of Messengers, MSHVB is moving on as a quartet after the stress of a full tour schedule forced the departure of guitarist and longtime friend Matthew Dammer. Fortunately, the new material—a layered and moody concept album that follows two faceless characters through the seasons and their tensions within a secluded community—was written with a four-piece in mind.
"The band started in a whirlwind that was this beautiful, fun thing," Benjamin says. "We were just in over our heads, in a good way—it was something we'd always wanted to do, but just didn't understand the depth of what we were getting ourselves into. I certainly think we can all relate to [Dammer], and I never faulted him."
Taking advantage of the shakeup to dabble with new ideas and "remind themselves that playing music is fun," the band is looking forward to hitting the road—draining though it might be. While they don't have the autonomy of other groups, the MSHVB bandmates appreciate how close they are. And when it comes down to it, the whole band is looking out for the kid behind the kit.
"First and foremost, above all, I think if we all had to pick something that was most important about the band, it's Marshall," said Benjamin. "The music is what we do as a band, but I think aside from that, the primary focus is really taking care of him and making sure that he's successful. There's a great level of perspective we all get to have, beyond just being four dudes in a band—this whole other reality that drives what we do."