Visiting Van Dale

Joel Oliphint
Van Dale and a visitor

Around the time that Columbus rock trio Van Dale was putting together its sophomore album, Of the Valley II, an old friend of drummer Tim Horak posted a photo of himself on Facebook. It was a black-and-white, low-res shot taken for a temporary ID at a courthouse.  

At first the photo is so bad it’s funny. But the longer you stare at it, the more the guy’s blank expression becomes creepy. His eyes look dead. Above his blurry face is the word “Visitor.”

“We were all like, ‘Well, that’s the third album for sure,’” Horak said recently at a North Campus bar, seated with bandmates Joe Camerlengo (vocals/bass) and Lisa Brokaw (vocals/guitar). From there, the theme of visiting and being a visitor began to work itself into the DNA of Van Dale’s third (and quite possibly its best) album, aptly titled The Visitor.

To make the full-length, the band returned to Musicol and brought Columbus ex-pat Adam Smith up from Texas to again record and mix the album, which incorporates all the ’90s-evoking fuzz and crunch of the band’s first two albums with some of the best hooks to come out of the city this year. The Visitor is also the first Van Dale record to fully integrate Brokaw, who also plays with Camerlengo in Blanket Boys and previously helmed 2018 Band to Watch Grunge Dad.

During the songwriting process, the “visitor” concept sometimes came to life in surprisingly literal ways. One day during band practice, at the end of a long hallway in the dingy, moldy basement of a Downtown storage facility, a man dressed in shorts, T-shirt and blue socks appeared in the doorway.

“He’s like, ‘How do I get out of here?’” Horak said. It was a confusing question, given that the entire space is a grid, but Horak obliged.

“Tim gave him directions in a very logical manner,” Brokaw said, “and then the guy’s exiting words were, ‘Have a nice life one day.’”

“We were like, ‘Whaaaat? Have a nice life one day? Did the Dale gods send this prophet to us?’” Horak said.

“Tim was like, ‘We gotta drop what we’re doing right now and home in on that vibe. We gotta go there,’’’ Camerlengo said.

Camerlengo grabbed his phone, hit “record” and asked what just happened, and Horak’s explanation appears as track 10, “Visitor,” on the new record, followed by the closing song the group wrote on the spot, “Have a Nice Life One Day.” 

Around the same time, Horak was also struggling with sleep paralysis, during which he was aware of his surroundings but unable to speak or move. In those moments, Horak would sense that a shadowy, unwelcome visitor was attacking him. The episodes stuck with him.

Sometimes, though, the “visitor” was more conceptual. “I was talking to Tim about all our new stuff and I said, ‘We should sound like a band covering Van Dale,’” Camerlengo said. “Like if some outsider said, ‘I’m Van Dale,’ what does that sound like? Being Dale, but not being me in Dale. Being some other part of it. Being a visitor to the Van Dale sound.”

The concept is a perfect fit for the Van Dale oeuvre, which the band is loath to strictly define. “Dale,” in fact, is an adjective the band has fully integrated into its vernacular. It’s a combination of being detached, numb and so utterly dark that all you can do is half-heartedly chuckle. But as nebulous as “Dale” is, the idea of being a visitor on earth — walking and talking and living and dying while feeling like you don’t belong — is quintessential Van Dale.

Like the creepy “Visitor” photo of Horak’s friend, all three bandmates know right away when they’ve found something Dale. For the band’s debut album, the trio took inspiration from a Dutch children’s book. On the second record, Van Dale drew from the David Lynch film “Eraserhead.” While writing songs for The Visitor, the band was smitten by a book about ponies.

The Pony Club World is a decades-old book Camerlengo found in a Little Free Library near his house. It’s filled with black-and-white photos of young girls taking care of ponies, along with bizarre text that Camerlengo would star and underline, writing notes such as “Dale AF” in the margin. 

“People can do without me,” reads part of a caption on one page. “I don’t think I’ve ever been away without leaving something behind” reads another, which Camerlengo repurposed for the track “Numbskull.” “Once they get inside of you, the people you meet, they won’t leave/I don’t really think I’ve ever been away,” Camerlengo sings over layers of fuzzed-out guitars, sometimes swapping “away” with “awake.” 

“I write songs for Dale about things I don’t understand, and then by the time the album comes out I’m like, ‘No way I said that!’” Camerlengo said. “I write the lyrics, I sing them on the album, then I listen to it and realize, ‘That’s about my life.’ Nine months later I’m like, ‘They did get inside of me, and then they didn’t leave!’ I was speaking my straight-up truth as simple as I could! And if I had realized I was doing it, I never would have done it. It’s making yourself forget that you’re writing anything. That’s the place you have to go to write anything honest.”

For Horak, Van Dale albums are also vehicles for dealing with his emotional baggage. “I’m not emotionally mature or developed at all, and I’m just realizing that now, which is very frustrating. But at least I’m realizing that and trying to change,” he said. “The band has been a way to discover some of that stuff. With The Visitor, I’m glad it’s coming out. It’s therapeutic to get these things out there and to think about things you did when you were writing the songs. Maybe you regret some of the stuff, but the song is still there. It prevents you from burying it: ‘This song exists; I associate these memories with it; I was probably being a shitty human, so I need to deal with that.’”

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