Ari Vais, originally Arkadiy Tiberevich Vais, embarked on a fascinating journey from escaping the Soviet Union as a child to finding his artistic voice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His love for music, particularly the Beatles, ignited his passion for writing, leading to a blossoming career. From fronting the ‘90s group Humbert in the vibrant Northampton music scene to forming the quartet the Pelicans and later The Campbell Apartment, Vais carved his niche in the alternative rock world. Despite declining an opportunity with Fountains of Wayne, he continued to evolve creatively, producing albums like "Insomniac’s Almanac" and "IN!". After a relocation to San Francisco, collaborations with Fountains of Wayne guitarist Jody Porter, and a transformative period marked by marriage, divorce, and a new record deal, Vais released "Curmudgeon" in 2020—an album that captures over two decades of his power pop virtuosity, earning recognition for his storytelling prowess and unique musical voice. Coming January 2024 the band is offering up another album of power pop gems titled “Under The Influence Of Love”, here’s what Ari had to say about it:
1. How did the band form and what does the band name mean?
It formed around 2003 in NYC, it was always a power trio even after I relocated to SF in ‘09. So the songs live sound quite a bit different than on the recordings, but what’s missing in terms of lush arrangements is made up for with intense energy. Think Nirvana but more pop. I was a drinker at the time and visited frequently, especially if I wanted to impress a date, at this hidden speakeasy of a bar in the basement of Grand Central Station. Ordinary door, no signage so you’d have to stumble upon it or be told of it, but once you step inside, the sexiest bar ever, like Eyes Wide Shut but without the perviness. It used to be Andrew Carnegie’s office, the safe is still there. Best cocktails ever, dim lighting, velvet, the works.
2. Previous musical projects? How'd you first get into music?
I’ve been making music, recording it, releasing it, and playing shows for 35 years. I was born with the gift of melody, have worked very hard at my craft, and feel that I am at my peak now. When I immigrated from Soviet Moscow to Hollywood, and then immediately Cambridge, MA, I discovered The Beatles, and my life would never be the same. I started writing songs soon after, around age 11.
3. First concert that you ever went to?
We were fresh off the boat immigrants with no English, but I used to call up radio stations to be “caller 10” and win stuff. So I won us tickets to see Little River Band, pleasant enough and on some hokey outdoor rotating round stage maybe on Cape Cod, and, much more sinisterly and hilariously, to see Aerosmith during their debauched heroin years at their annual New Year’s Eve show at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. We had no idea what to expect, we had amazing seats, the crowd was straight from hell, and we refused cotton for our ears from the security guys, because immigrants don’t like attention, we feel like targets and helpless with no English. The lights went dark, the crowd went apeshit, the opening band started their sleaze-hard-rock at a truly deafening volume. I was in 5th grade and had my mom take me, we were frozen in horror when the drummer threw his drumstick into the crowd, striking my mom in the head. People pounced upon her for the precious souvenir and she thought a grenade had been thrown and people were trying to save her. Then we got the fuck out of there, with the same security people pointing and laughing as we exited into the Boston night. Baptism by fire, innit.
4. What's your writing process like?
Every song is different and I’ve probably written and recorded about 120 of them now. But there are some common links. Often a trauma will happen, earlier in my life it had to do with losing a girl, and the song would write itself. Other times (you have to have an instrument in your hands to write songs, not just talk about it or think about it), my fingers would find something weird and interesting on the guitar or piano. Not knowing music theory nor how to read music, I’d build off that chord until I had a nucleus that I would simply have to complete. The words come last. To make non-crindge worthy lyrics - that’s a pretty low bar to set - so I try to make really good, smart lyrics. I am often playful with words, and having learned English after age 10, I have a different relationship with this beautiful language than I feel native speakers do. Not unlike Nabokov, who wrote in English and Russian, but his English prose is unique in a way where clearly he studied and practiced the language. It’s a lifelong practice and there is no ceiling as to how good one can get at writing prose or, in the case of lyrics, short-story-poems.
5. What other artists or songs inspire your music?
Oh where to start. Other than The Beatles, I love Big Star, The Velvet Underground, Bowie, Schubert. Harry Nilsson, Ween, Weezer, Eels, Wilco, The Kinks, Liz Phair, Nirvana, Fountains of Wayne and Squeeze. I love XTC and Black Sabbath, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies and The Breeders. Badly Drawn Boy, Elvis Costello, The Sex Pistols and The Clash. The Police, Joe Jackson, The Strokes, Grandaddy. I’ve been inspired by all those artists, and could continue naming influences for hours. Billie Holiday and Chopin. NWA, Wu Tang, and yacht rock. Dead Meadow. Guided By Voices, The Replacements, Husker Du, The Lemonheads. And of course, Pavement, probably first and foremost, Pavement.
6. What's the live experience like and your philosophy on playing live? Do you think the music live should be identical to the recorded version or should it be its own thing?
I’m not wild about bands that sound exactly the same live as their record sounds. Having said that, when the group is incredible, like The Pixies or The Strokes or Dinosaur Jr., it’s just fine to replicate on the stage what you’d hear on the album. For me, personally, because my songwriting is so multi-layered, with counter melodies, 3 part harmonies, melatrons and glockenspiels, acoustics and electrics, jangly and fuzzed out, it’s a pretty radically different experience from my life shows because The Campbell Apartment has always been a power trio. So we rely on the raucous energy and catharsis of Nirvana, Husker Du, Motorhead, ZZ Top, The Police. It’s quite a flattering thing, the power trio live. But really different from my almost orchestral pop punk recordings. I always want to add a second guitarist and have three part harmonies live, but bands are hard. I’ll take what I can get. Plus as a front man with only 2 other guys with you onstage, it’s a powerful, undiluted feeling of rock stardom.
7. Has the band toured? What has the touring experience been, best shows? worst shows?
We toured England and Ontario, as well as from Western Mass., through Boston, and all the way down to DC and Richmond. Having played probably thousands of shows, they’re all kind of a blur. Opening for Fountains of Wayne was a rush, When I first started playing music in college, and did my junior year abroad in the UK, I opened for big bands like Bronski Beat, Throwing Muses, Violent Femmes. I used to do a cathartic, solo acoustic version of “Heroin” by Lou Reed and all the bands I’d be opening for would come out of the green room to watch. That was cool. There have been many shit shows too, because I used to lead a wasted lifestyle and not respect my talent or life. Now that I am 3 years sober, the live show is what it should be, professional. The Replacements’ whole thing was self-sabotage, but they had amazing songs and energy. That doesn’t really work for everyone.
8. What's up next for the band?
“Under The Influence Of Love” is such a good record, the best thing I’ve ever done, that I expect to make a living from music, probably from songs being placed in ads and shows and films. I’m certainly well known enough in the industry, influential and critically acclaimed. But I am absolutely not famous in any manner. That’s what’s next for TCA.