Versing Ascends to ‘Nirvana’

On their new record, the band explores self-criticism and problematic faves.

In lieu of a description for Seattle quartet Versing, the website for local label Decency Den simply offers two different definitions for the word “versing.” The first is a romantic, dated synonym for “poem”: “It is conjectured that he had before him some ancient versings of the fight.” The second is slang that was adopted as the result of a misunderstanding of the word “versus” and is used to mean “competing,” as in “We’re going to be versing their team.”

It’s an appropriate name for the band, itself a study in contrasts: That duality of the poetic versus the playful, the intellectual versus the irreverent, courses (or rather, “verses”) through their entire body of work. Sprinkled liberally with art and philosophy references, their music juxtaposes avant-garde structures and atonal, frayed feedback with easy, approachable pop melodies.

The members of Versing met at KUPS, the award-winning student radio station at Tacoma’s University of Puget Sound. After a stint drumming in a stoner-metal project called Sun Eater, lead singer and guitarist Daniel Salas assembled a noise-pop group with guitarist Graham Baker and drummer Max Keyes. Six months later, his former Sun Eater bandmate Kirby Lochner joined them on bass, and the band moved to Seattle and began playing shows.

Artists like Henry’s Dress and Black Tambourine from the twee record label Slumberland Records were an early primary influence for the band. “I just liked how much feedback they used,” says Salas. “A lot of those noise-pop bands are very inspired by the ’50s or ’60s, or sort of garage-rock, girl-group-inspired. So I wanted to do something that had that sound, but [had] weirder song structures or time signatures… where there’s a wave of feedback over everything, but the song is so poppy and pretty. I just like that feeling.” The roster of New Zealand indie label Flying Nun Records, home to Versing tourmates the Courtneys, also provided inspiration via post-punk bands like Look Blue Go Purple, the Clean, the Chills, and the 3Ds.

Salas developed his affection for unconventional time signatures and structures by virtue of his interest in prog-rock: A devout fan of Mars Volta in middle school and high school, he used to pore over interviews with the band and became an official moderator of their message board, the Comatorium (which, he discovered years later, was also frequented by So Pitted member Nathan Rodriguez). “Although I fell out of love with progressive rock at a certain point, I think I always held onto the more experimental side of it,” he says. After this phase, Salas acquired a new appreciation for simpler, more “digestible” pop melodies, which would form the backbone of Versing’s listenable compositions.

Versing’s first record, Nude Descending, came out in 2016. Like their band name, Nude Descending is a double entendre bridging the childish and the cerebral: The title is not only a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase, but also a throwback to Salas’ childhood memories of reading Calvin and Hobbes comics, which referenced the painting in multiple strips. Dadaism, the early-20th-century art movement that Duchamp is associated with and that espoused absurdity and irreverence, plays a prominent role in Versing’s ethos.

Where that release imagined descending a staircase, the band’s second full-length album, Nirvana (out now on Help Yourself and Decency Den), is all about ascending: The cover art displays a staircase, going up. But contrary to its lofty title, the album warps the typical enlightened, one-with-the-universe cliches of psych-rock, wickedly skewering fallacious thinking and fuck-ups. While the title song “Nirvana” was first named for its resemblance to “Heart Shaped Box,” it began to take on a new meaning in subsequent rewrites, referring instead to an arrogant, stubborn sense of self-righteousness that persists in spite of how wrong someone may be.

Salas likens this smug, blissfully ignorant state of mind to the meme that depicts a gradually expanding brain alongside a progression of stances, each more dubious than the next. “Nirvana” frequently accompanies bad takes on social media. “I felt like I see people who act like they’re enlightened in some way all the time,” he says, citing former Google employee James Damore, who was fired for his memo suggesting that biological differences were responsible for the gender gap in tech and who more recently tweeted about how “cool” he thought the Ku Klux Klan’s titles were. “In his mind, he’s up there: ‘I am the Supreme Being, I can see past all the barriers that would normally stop us!’ . . .That’s like nirvana to me, in a way. It’s used to just forgive terrible beliefs.”

Many of the songs on the album are written from perspectives Salas says he “wouldn’t endorse.” “Radio Kinski” is named for actor Klaus Kinski, who starred in many iconic films and was granted a pass for his abusive behavior and violent outbursts on the basis of his prolific career. “I had always liked a lot of movies he was in,” says Salas. “But you read about him and you’re like, oh my God, he’s such a fucked-up person.” The song deals with wanting to confront someone on their behavior but ultimately letting it slide. And the track “Call Me Out” is a call for honest self-examination in the wake of a mistake. “Just seeing people get called out for things and them pushing back against that . . .Never have I seen that happen, and the person is better for pushing back against the people calling them out,” Salas says.

Dadaism defied authority with humor and nonsense and believed that reverence was the kiss of death. As Duchamp once said, “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.” With Nirvana, Versing, too, suggests that the real key to higher consciousness is not a steadfast belief in your own infallibility, but instead a refusal to take yourself too seriously and a willingness to consider your own insignificance.