A Method to La Madness

by Nate Langworthy - Friday Apr. 5th, 2013

Listen up kids: Even if a rock star is what you want to be when you grow up - with all the chaos and hedonism that membership in this profession implies - patience is still a virtue.

Being true to yourself and your aspirations; being selective about your path - knowing yourself well enough to forgo enticing, but lesser opportunities. These things are likely to bear fruit from the most unlikely of circumstances. 

Lots of unlikely circumstances (along with a great deal of elbow grease) have Kasson native Kurt Vatland on the verge of an acclaimed album release and national tour. More importantly, his newest project La Madness plays exactly the kind of music he has dreamed up over the last decade.

It’s undeniable the guy knows just what he wants. Vatland dreamed up a genre (Indie Grind Blues) to describe his music. The music of La Madness fuses blues/rock with grunge along with some of the polished, West Coast sound that Kurt found during his time in Southern California. The elements are tied together by Kurt’s never-say-die spirit and the groove fashioned by the band members he hooked up with upon returning to Minnesota.

La Madness will bring their Indie Grind Blues to Rochester on Saturday, building up to next month’s national tour in support of their first studio album, “Chances Are”. Kathy’s Pub will play host to Vatland and company with Twin Cities grunge rockers, The Jelly Project, starting things off at 9pm.

A suggested donation to Disabled Veterans of America will be the cover Saturday at Kathy’s. La Madness has taken an interest in doing what they can to worthy causes through their music.

“We need to give back because so many have helped us. We do a lot of sinning too, so we’re just trying to get back to even,” Kurt says, only half joking.  “But really, my dad was in the service, I think we all know someone who’s been killed or wounded overseas. Doing just a little bit to lend a hand to those veterans is something that’s totally worth it for us.”

DIY Rock w/A Little Help From Friends

In February, Vatland brought people together from the music and fashion communities to bring the Twin Cities Rock The Catwalk, a unique show Kurt had thought up that featured runway models strutting the latest fashions to the sound of live local rock bands (while raising funds for Treasured Chests, a Twin Cities breast cancer awareness organization).  La Madness played the show and promoted it beforehand on the KARE 11 morning show. The event “was off the chains” according to Kurt, and is now being planned to recur as an annual event. The manifestation of Rock the Catwalk pretty neatly encapsulates Vatland’s gritty yet flashy persona.

“I just want to merge music and fashion. I want the people into rock music to see a fashion show and the people into fashion and hair to see some local rock bands,” said Vatland, who also works as a stylist at Spalon Montage in Edina. “People told me it wouldn’t work. I say ‘Why not?’ I know the people to do every part of this. Just put your idea out there and if it’s a good one, people will usually come out of nowhere to make it happen.”

Vatland likes his rock in equal parts grit and glam, and has been meticulous in designing a sound and style that fits this ethic.

Bridging this dichotomy, Kurt has coupled an ability to leverage national contacts in the music and fashion industries with an us-against-the-world mentality and the resourcefulness of knowing just who, among the ranks of his friends and supporters, will be perfect for the jobs that need doing when creating and promoting a band.

“We’ve done this with no management and no label,” said Vatland, who puts in time as the band’s songwriter, front man, agent, and more. “It’s caused a stink with promotion people here and nationally just being like, ‘Who the fuck are these guys?’. We’re just in Minneapolis kicking dirt right now, but if you make a big enough pile people start to take notice.”

Fellow Kasson native, Jessica Zelinske graces La Madness merchandise
Fellow Kasson native, Jessica Zelinske graces La Madness merch.

For their album cover and merchandise, the band decided to feature an “It Girl”. Kurt turned to Playboy centerfold and Rochester resident Jessica Zelinske. Kurt and Jessica had known each other for years growing up in Kasson.

Dean Kujawa, a former band mate of Vatland’s from the band Black Box Found in Los Angeles called out of the blue, offering to print La Madness merchandise through his company, Risk Vs. Reward Clothing.

Even from the earliest days of La Madness, the merchandise has looked professional, with Kurt trading his services as a hairstylist for slick designs and merch.

“Looking at our stuff, you’d think we were supported by a major label,” Vatland said. “But it’s been a lot of people helping out here and there. We’re very blessed.”

“It’s kind of been lightning in a bottle lately. There’s a lot going on and it could go in about 50 different directions.”

The band and sound engineer Colt Leeb are putting the finishing touches on “Chances Are”, named after a debacle in an Indiana strip club.

“It sounds great already,” Vatland said. “We’re just dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.”

The band released the single “Misery” earlier in the year. Its success has gone beyond the band's expectations, getting radio play in the Twin Cities and Southern California. It's also selling on iTunes like firearms after an Obama press conference.

Early Career and California Years

Vatland cut his chops in music during the 90s grunge era, playing house parties in the Rochester area. He put together his first band, Velveteen, while a student at St. Cloud State University. They often would play shows in Rochester. Velveteen later relocated to Minneapolis, disbanding when Kurt was ready to take it to another level.  The band recorded an album while contemplating relocation to California.

Kurt ended up springing for southern California as a solo artist. He fell in love with surfing and made many connections between San Diego and Los Angeles, becoming one of about a dozen singer-songwriter members in the Acoustic Alliance and getting regular airtime on the Listen Local radio show. He also notched some credits to his name, recording a version of the Blind Melon song Pull on 20 Stories Below, a tribute album to the iconic 90s band. Vatland feels that Blind Melon remains the most underrated band of the last 30 years and plays a yearly vigil at the gravesite of the band’s late front man, Shannon Hoon.

Vatland recalls meeting an immense amount of talent in SoCal, and adopted San Diego as an additional hometown, but he just never found the pieces there to compliment what he wanted to do musically.

“People were always saying ‘Dude, you need to start a band.’ I was always trying but everyone wanted to play something else.”

Rough Landing

Vatland returned to Minnesota after leaving SoCal and a stint in Houston, Texas. Having had a few setbacks in accomplishing his goals, Kurt felt that his days as a musician were behind him and he took jobs doing hair and tending bar.

With some coaxing from friends, Kurt got back out gigging in bars and clubs around the Twin Cities. He had an itch to make the music more full, to find the compliments to his music that he could not find in SoCal.

 “It was like the death of a girlfriend when I stopped playing music. When I started playing out a little bit again it felt like when you’re afraid to love a chick because you’ve been burnt before even though she could be the best thing to ever happen to you.”

Armed with a number of songs that had not yet seen the light of day, Kurt began honing in his sound and planning to release an album.

 “I never planned on living this long anyway, so I was like 'why not?’.”

The Seeds of La Madness

Through mutual friends, Vatland met up with drumming phenom Aaron Willey, currently just 21 years of age. By complete stroke of luck, Vatland’s neighbor turned out to be Riggs Kessler, a guitarist trained at Berklee Music in Boston, who agreed to sit in and play leads. The two friends Kurt had brought in initially to complete Vatland’s acoustic album (which was to be entitled La Madness) quickly realized the songs had so much more energy in them and decided Kurt needed to plug in his electric guitar and rock.

After just a few rehearsals the newly formed band was recording their first tracks with Minneapolis sound engineer Bryan Mengy and found themselves opening for national acts at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown.

“We’re a really fortunate band. The people who have supported us really care and we’re just very, very grateful for that,” Vatland said.

The idea from the start has been for La Madness to become a national act. Vatland describes his relationship to Minnesota as one of the love/hate variety. The metro area isn’t large enough that a band can play a show every day without burning out and it lacks the variety of acts that can be found in larger cities. Even so, Kurt believes the best place for La Madness to start out is right here.

“I’ve kind of got a chip on my shoulder, especially being on the outside looking in in California for so long. It’s like shouting “Hey assholes, I’m right here. I’m not in New York, not in Los Angeles, not even in Houston, but here we are turning heads and we’ve got all the support we need. Here’s our record, see you soon.’ It’s a great scene, there’s so much talent. There’s something about it, maybe not as flashy but there’s some grit here.”

After the album release and tour, there is plenty of fuel for La Madness to continue for years, with Vatland having another three albums worth of songs written at this point. Hopefully enough to keep them on the road for awhile, which Kurt is very much looking forward to.

 “I’ve always wanted my job to include waking up in the morning and having to ask ‘what the fuck city am I in?”

A notable stop on the tour will be Whiskey A Go Go, the Los Angeles club that Vatland’s primary musical influence, Jim Morrison and The Doors made famous (or infamous).

Vatland largely credits his bands' current position to the experience that he and Kessler have gained in their years playing music.

For now, Kurt Vatland and La Madness are just fine amongst the stars of First Avenue v. the stars of Hollywood's Walk of Fame
For now, Kurt Vatland & La Madness are just fine amongst the stars of First Avenue v. the stars of Hollywood's Walk of Fame

“We’ve been there and done that. I’ve got a lot of great credits but I’ve never made a million and I’ve fallen on my face a few times,” he said.

Becoming a millionaire rockstar is not something that Vatland sees in the cards for himself, but he can front exactly the kind of band he wants to front and make people take notice in the process.

“We’re underdogs. We’ll head to the bar and go drink for drink with you. Bands get labeled as this or that, we’re just like, ‘Let’s just get up there and play’. That’s part of that the grunge music of Nirvana and people can see that and they react to us. Is it the music? The way we look? I don’t know but we are doing something different.”