Local music feature: Van Dale

Joel Oliphint

What does it mean to be Dale?

In conversation with power trio Van Dale at Dick's Den, the following items were dubbed “so Dale” by singer/bassist Joe Camerlengo and drummer Tim Horak: Miller High Life; cockroaches in the wall; a slightly busted microwave that takes twice as long to heat a burrito, and yet the burrito is still worth it; a man who greets earth's immolation with a shrug.

Dale can also be a state of mind. “Tom Petty's attitude is very Dale,” Horak said.

“It's the idea of being slack-jawed — like Xanax as a person,” Camerlengo said. “You don't know if you didn't make it all the way, or if you're so far past it that you're over it. But you're definitely not on board with regular reality. … It's not that you're dead, but you don't know if you've ever been alive.”

“It's like when the Supreme Court justice was trying to define pornography: ‘I can't define it, but I know it when I see it,'” Horak said. “Something is either Dale or it's not, and you know it right away. It's just become this modifier.” 

The journey to Dale began in 2012, when Horak attended a release show for one of Camerlengo's solo records,Les Tres, at Kafe Kerouac. “They covered ‘Tired of Sex' by Weezer, and it was perfect,” Horak said. “I was thinking, man, that would be cool to be in a band together that sounded like that.”

Soon after, at a Rumba Cafe show in which Camerlengo and some friends covered the Flaming Lips albumTransmissions from the Satellite Heart, Horak tracked Camerlengo down outside the venue and asked him if he wanted to start a band. He didn't get a “yes,” but he didn't get a “no,” either.

“I kept not knowing what to say because I was in too many bands,” said Camerlengo, whose resume includes local acts This is My Suitcase, Mary Lynn, Brat Curse, Sam Pellegringo, Blanket Boys and more. “He asked me four different times on four separate days. The approach got less and less tactful. Finally he was like, ‘I'm renting this storage space. I'm putting my drums in it. Just make a time to be there, or I'll tell you when I'm gonna be there, and you don't have to do anything but show up.'”

The two convened inside the storage space's four aluminum walls and in no time had a song. The next practice, another song emerged. Immediacy and spontaneity ruled the sessions. For most songs, Horak showed Camerlengo a guitar riff he'd come up with, then Camerlengo would take over on guitar while Horak hopped behind the kit, and from there the hooky alt-rock tunes seemed to write themselves.

For lyrics, Camerlengo drew inspiration from a children's picture-book version of the Dutch dictionary titled “Van Dale.” “It's in Dutch, so to me it's straight-up gibberish,” Camerlengo said. “The illustrations on every page have bizarre, next-level imagery. I saw it and was like, ‘I can write an album with this book. I'm going to open it and look at one of the pages, and we're going to just write the song.' So every lyric on every song on our first album is an interpretation of what this book might say on that page.” 

“Imagine somebody staring down at a book that's open on an amp, playing in real time and singing to themselves, and I'm just playing drums,” Horak said. “Then Joe's like, ‘All right. I got the song.'”

Bassist Travis Hall of Way Yes entered the Dale briefly, then exited. Eventually, Van Dale recorded nine tracks with Adam Smith at Musicol Recording and released its exceptional, fuzzed-out, self-titled debut album in 2013. The bandmates say Smith's studio wizardry has become an essential part of the Van Dale sound. 

“He's a genius,” Camerlengo said. “The reason the guitars sound the way they do is because Adam mixes it. He has to always make our records. If he doesn't like our band at some point, then we're just not a band.”

Van Dale began writing a new record almost immediately after the debut, and Hall signed back on as bassist. For sophomore effortOf the Valley II, which the band will celebrate with a release show at Used Kids on Saturday, July 8, Van Dale ditched the Dutch children's book for “Sesame Street” and a new concept: the valley.

“Somebody took a Bert and Ernie coloring book and manipulated the image,” Horak said. “It's Bert looking in a mirror, and he sees his own reflection, and his reflection has a speech bubble that says, ‘Enter the void.' And Bert is walking full-steam right into the mirror. That was a big inspiration for the valley. You're looking at yourself, and you have to reconcile a lot of things with yourself. … ‘Enter the Dale, enter the void, go into the valley.' That's how we got to the new record.”

While that may sound abstract,Of the Valley II is actually a personal record. The sludge-y guitars and layers of fuzz remain, but Horak provided Camerlengo with conceptual writing prompts that correlate directly to a dark period in his life.

“2013 and 2014 were bad years for me,” Horak said. “I was legitimately depressed, so it permeated the music and the lyrics.”

“One day I was at practice and said, ‘Tim, what is ‘the valley'? And it was the darkest shit I've ever heard anybody say so casually,” said Camerlengo, who was also going through a rough period. “He was like, ‘It's when you think you know what you're capable of, but then you realize you may never actually be anything you thought you were.' … It was this stream of dark consciousness, where you look inside yourself, and you don't know what you saw, but you're not proud of it.”

BetweenVan Dale andOf the Valley II, Adam Smith relocated to (wait for it…) Dale, Texas, so the band instead recorded with Shane Natalie of Good Shade at Shout Out Loud Prints, but Smith still mixed the record. Just after recording, Hall again exited the band, and around the same time Lisa Brokaw joined Van Dale on vocals and guitar (Camerlengo switched to bass). Brokaw moved to Columbus about three years ago and hails from (wait for it…) Vandalia, Ohio.

Van Dale already has its next album written. TitledThe Visitor, it's based on Horak's experiences with sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that leaves him aware of his nightmarish surroundings and yet physically unable to alter it. Which, in the end, sounds pretty Dale. 

Used Kids Records

6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 8

2500 Summit St., North Campus