At a table in a coffeehouse somewhere in Madison, Wisc., sits a heavily bearded man who goes by the name Valient Himself. He's deeply engrossed in a fantasy novel by an author, George R.R. Martin, who he believes "blows Tolkien out of the water." At some point during the half-hour telephone conversation, Valient Himself will talk about the fact that he and the rest of his band mates in Valient Thorr are not Earthlings, but rather hail from Venus. They're just forever marooned on our planet, he tells me.
But that's just a brief sidebar to a conversation that's almost completely focused on the current political landscape. Himself is well read (in areas other than just fantasy) and educated, holding a master's degree in fine art and even more well opinioned, offering his take on a number topics, including his band's raging new metal-lined bar-rock album, The Stranger, but also throws out lines like this with almost no prompting: "You've got these tea baggers - they're so right wing that they're breaking away from the other assholes because they're not asshole enough for them."
In an alternate universe, or maybe back on his home planet, Himself would be a hell of a talk radio host. This political fury isn't restricted merely to interviews, but has rather made up the bulk of the band's lyrical content. Valient Thorr's records have always been pumped full of political and social messages, and the band's wild-ass live show is a perfect vehicle for the messages of protest. On The Stranger, the band's fifth full-length record and second produced by legendary producer Jack Endino, Valient Thorr maintains the punk-fueled rock and roll foundation that has gained them so many fans across the world, while talking a less on-the-nose approach to spreading their message.
"It's not as in your face like, 'f**k you, George Bush.' It's more analogies or vignettes about how things are. It's more personal situations to think of," says Himself of the new album, his voice rich with a twang that reflects the band's Earthly home state of North Carolina.
So what we have here is a band, a loud unruly one at that, that openly and with a straight face claims to hail from another planet, yet delivers finely tuned political messages. It seems like there would have come a time when Valient Thorr, in all their mostly bearded and trademark vest-wearing glory, would have had to decide to either embrace the weirdness of the back story they created or get serious and lend some backing to the band's messages. Rather - and somewhat impossibly - the quintet decided to successfully do both.
"Our music is heavy as shit, so getting people to listen to it and they read about it and realize this guy is unleashing some serious themes," says Himself.
Over the past five years, the band has become one of the more loved acts on the touring punk and hard-rock circuit, partially because until very recently they only left the road for a few weeks each year, logging as many as 300 shows annually at the peak of their time on the road. That schedule has slowed, albeit only slightly, and the band continues to tour - as they did for seven weeks this summer - in Europe where they have plenty of followers. Himself takes a stab at why the band might have more appeal overseas than here at home.
"I think it's because people over there have their priorities straight. People over here are into pop garbage and 90 percent of them buy their music at Wal-Mart - that's why you still have these radio stations playing Smash Mouth. That makes me want to strangle somebody," says Himself, letting out one of his only laughs of the entire interview.
This isn't to say the band has floundered here in the States, because they've done just fine for themselves, touring with big acts like indie-metal crossover heroes Mastodon, among others.
Before leaving the coffee shop and walking a few blocks back to the venue where his band is setting up for that night's gig, Valient Himself answers the query that's been tugging at me for the past half-hour: Why would a guy who claims to be from Venus be so adamant about commenting on the politics of an alien world?
"We had to make this our home and if we don't want our new planet to turn out like our old planet we better say something about it," says Himself.
Sure, I'll accept that answer.
Valient Thorr, Red Fang, Kandi Coded
8pm Saturday, October 9. Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. $10. Show also includes the premier of the snowboarding film, Cheers.