Van Gogh
By Ronnie

It’s time that everybody knows about Atlanta’s best kept secret. I’m talking about the band Van Gogh, who has overcome overwhelming oddities of both a psysical and prejudicial nature. With a “damn the torpedeos” attitude, they have released 5 albums of their own distinctly melodic version of psychedelic power-pop. It’s a crime that a major label hasn’t discovered these guys yet. Led by brothers Robby (music) and Ricky Heisner (lyrics), Van Gogh has never lost their humour and their love of music. Rock ‘n Roll is not dead…sometimes you’ve just gotta know where to look.

E.C.: You and Ricky started playing in the band The Kopps, later Blitz. What type of music did these bands play? Were there any records released by these bands during your tenure?

Robby: We started The Kopps in 1979 in Jacksonville Florida. It was a mix of covers and originals, kind of a Cheap Trick kind of thing. I was 16 and Ricky and I played guitar and our younger brother (Jamey) played drums. In 1981 we moved back to Panama City and continued the band there. Ricky switched to bass and our cousin (Curtis) took over on lead guitar. We released 3 singles as the Kopps between '82 & '84. We then moved the whole band up to Atlanta and changed our named to Blitz in '85. (A line up change went along with it) The first full length Blitz release was basically a Kopps record then, the 2nd Blitz release was really the new band line up. The style of music was basically the same, just louder. I played guitar as well as Carlos Cabena and Chris Gailfoil on drums (he had taken our brothers place in the Kopps) and Tim McGuire on bass guitar. We release 2 full-length cassettes and 2 singles as Blitz. Ricky continued to write lyrics for us. He's a true poet. He could write the phonebook and make it sound good.

Ricky: I played bass, sang harmony and lead vocals, and wrote lyrics for The Kopps. Stylistically, our music was hard to pigeon-hole even then. We grew up listening to very diverse kinds of music, so our songs tended to reflect that diversity of influences. There were elements of pop, rock, hard rock, and even some progressive elements tossed in here and there to keep things interesting. What kept it all from being too broad ranging (to point of incohesiveness) were the melodies and the harmonies. Robby's always had a gift for writing interesting music with good melodies. I only wrote lyrics for Blitz (although I did sing on one song, on Blitz's "Catch Me Sleeping" album).

E.C.: Van Gogh was initially planned as a solo did the group eventually come about? I know this is the typical cliché interview question, but how did the name come about? Was Warhol really considered? Also, how did the top hats become your sort of trademark?

Robby: I was really tired of loud music and wanted to get back to melody. My biggest influence was the Beatles and I wanted to experiment like that. So, in 1991 I disbanded Blitz to do a solo thing and asked Ricky if he was interested. He was and it has been the most rewarding project yet. We have release 5 CD's as Van Gogh. Know any good lead guitarists????

Ricky: Robby invited me over to his house to help write some songs. Over the course of the next three days and two nights we wrote and recorded several songs. The positive reaction of those who heard the new songs convinced Robby to consider recording a full-albums worth of songs in a professional studio (with various musicians, handpicked by Robby).

As the songs were being written and recorded, and the artwork designed, there was still one small problem: We still had not thought of suitable name for the project. We were looking for a name that would accurately capture and convey a sense of the eclectic elements at work in the new songs. Late one night, after unsuccessfully brainstorming via telephone, we decided to give up and try again the next day. As it turned out, during the night we both had the same flash of inspiration: Van Gogh would be the perfect name for the project. The next time we talked, we were amazed to find we had both (independently of one another) thought of the same name, Van Gogh. The "Warhol sounded stupid" response, to questions about the band name's origin, is just me being a smart-ass (it runs in the family).

Along with the overwhelmingly positive response to our first release (The Final Scene), came an increasing number of requests to hear the songs played live (people kept insisting the songs were too good not to be played live). So -- as much as Robby hated the idea of going through the headaches of putting another band together -- a band was assembled and rehearsed, and in December of 1992 we played live for the first time as VG. It was also the first time I had performed live in over 9 years -- which shows how enthusiastic we were about the songs.

The hats (only Robby's is a top hat -- mine's a Derby), like so many other things associated with Van Gogh, came about serendipitously.... Robby (a long time hat aficionado) bought a purple top hat, with a sunflower hat-band, from a hat-maker at an arts festival. Once he got the hat home, however, he started to seriously question the wisdom of such an impulsive (and seemingly impractical) purchase. But we all kept daring him to wear it on-stage, so he finally said he'd wear it on-stage IF I would also wear a hat (he thought it would look more balanced on-stage).

I decided a Derby was the only kind of hat I could picture me wearing. Much to my surprise, I received a Derby for Christmas of '93. Strangely enough, I hadn't mentioned my decision to anyone -- so it was just one more of the myriad serendipitous "coincidences" that have helped shape Van Gogh. (Interestingly enough -- we get referred to as the guys in the hats, more than the guys in the wheelchairs.)

E.C.: You both (Robby and Ricky) were diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at an early age. You originally played rhythm guitar and bass. Are you restricted to mainly keyboards now? How do you approach songwriting it mainly thru keyboards? I know that Ricky writes the lyrics.

Robby: I write only on keyboards now. I miss playing my guitar more than I miss walking.

Ricky: Robby and I both played several instruments (although rhythm guitar and bass were our primary instruments, respectively). Robby can still play some keyboards. He also plays percussion, via an instrument called a Zendrum. Robby has an amazing ability to direct other musicians, much like a conductor directs an orchestra. For instance, a guitarist can be simply strum a chord, while tuning his guitar, and Robby will hear it and say, "Do that again"; he'll then say, "Now play B-flat. Now go to F minor." and so on. You have to see it to believe it. It always surprises the guitarist being "conducted".

E.C.: That must have been devastating to not be able to play the music that you create! Yet, your songs are never bitter, in fact are very uplifting. I've noticed the same attitude in your humor (some of the interviews I have read). My jaw dropped when I read the story of how the manager of a well-known Country singer was interested in Van Gogh - and then changed his mind when he saw the wheelchairs. How do you guys keep on track in the face of such adversity?

Robby: No, it's devastating to have other people not be able to play what we write! HaHa. You go with the flow, there is always someone worse off. The wheelchairs seem to be other peoples problem, not ours. SlabFest is the only Atlanta music festival that will invite us out, others don't want to make the stage accessible. We can't complain too much, we have more than some bands ever get. It would be cool to be seen by the music first though. We have good days and bad days and it has nothing to do with our disability, it's usually the monitor mix!

Ricky: Not being able to play anymore can be frustrating, but we're still able to sing and put on a good show. There are a lot of people who have much bigger problems, so it's kind of hard to complain. Our songs cover a wide range of topics. I tend to write about life and all the interesting complexities that go along with living it. We sometimes explore some pretty dark territory, but the fact that people don't find the darker songs depressing tells me we're doing something right.

Our twisted (and very politically incorrect) sense of humor is something that is just a natural part of our personalities. You'd be amazed at the range of negative attitudes we've encountered in the entertainment industry. Sometimes it's a result of ignorance -- but many times it just pure stupidity. It's really our biggest frustration. It's not the prospect of failure that bothers us. It's the fact that the powers-that-be are so bigoted that we aren't even given a fair chance to succeed or fail.

Recently, someone from MTV was shown a rough-cut of one of our videos. They could have said the quality wasn't up to their high-dollar standards (it was, after all, only a rough-cut). They could have said it's not the kind of music they promote. Instead, the person's only comment was that the wheelchairs would scare people off. The positive thing is that the general public gets it. They don't have a problem with the wheelchairs at all. We've played to some very diverse crowds all over the country -- and as long as the music and performance are good, they dig it.

We take heart in the fact that we haven't had to sell our souls to accomplish what we have. We have managed to keep our integrity intact, and still do more than most band's ever get to do. We've met, and received mail from countless numbers of people who have been touched (and many claim their lives changed) by what we do. We've written and released music that we're very proud of. I've been married to Patty for two years (and we've been together for six). Robby and Chel have been together for more than ten years. There's no one we'd trade places with. We're truly blessed.

E.C.: Besides the catchy, melodic songwriting, I would say that Van Gogh's strongest point is the vocals. They've been described as very Lennon & McCartney-esque, but I think they have a distinct quality. I would describe Van Gogh as power-pop with a psychedelic edge. Is that pretty much on the mark?

Robby: Sounds good to me. It's just music with melody. Each CD has it's own flavor, that's the beauty of this band. We have changed members usually on each CD but, now there are guys that have been with us a couple of years. I think a girl keyboardist or lead player would be cool, she could cover higher harmonies and jam at the same time. We love to harmonize. We've thought of doing something acoustic just to be able to hear them better. There is something that really clicks when siblings harmonize.

Ricky: Thank you for the kind words about our vocals. We've always loved good harmonies. I especially love getting a chance to harmonize, one-on-one, with Robby. I wish we did it more often.

Our music seems to defy description. Everybody hears something different. We've been amazed (and sometimes just plain mystified) by some of the things people hear in our music. I think the difficulty is not that the various descriptions are wrong, so much as that they so often seem incomplete -- they describe many of our songs, but there are others that don't fit a given description. Still, your description is one that seems to fit better than most.

I think the fact that we don't just make the same album over and over contributes to the difficulty of categorizing our music. Each of our CDs has explored different musical territory, although we've tried to carry over certain elements (e.g., harmonies, accessible melodies, etc.) from one CD to the next.

E.C.: When I read that Van Gogh was on a Klaatu tribute album I flipped! I loved Klattu's stuff! That was another band that took their love of psychedelic-era Beatles and made it their own. When did you work on the tribute album and where is it available?

Robby: That was a lot of fun, our cut sounds like Ozzy. When we do tributes we usually end up doing something harder rocking than our own CD's. We did a cut for a McCartney tribute CD that was all Atlanta artists also.

Ricky: Yeah, we've been Klaatu fans since the late seventies. I have all their albums on CDs (but their first three are my favorites). I think the tribute CD, "Around The Universe In Eighty Minutes", came out in '99 (we did a pretty heavy version of the Klaatu song "Older"). It came out on Canada's Bullseye Records label. Info about where it can be found, is probably available through the Bullseye website.

E.C.: Your web page mentions a documentary that is in the works for a fall release. Tell me more about it. Who is doing it and how will it be released?

Robby: It will be two parts. One on "the Brothers" growing up and the second on our music history. I was our music that made the bond between me and Ricky, not our disability. It will be called "It's about the music". It's just a chance to tell it like it is. We are in a unique situation and it's a pretty wild story. We "Van Gogh, inc." will produce it ourselves then get sponsors to release it. It will go to video as well as to PBS or we'll go house to house playing it and not leave until they buy one.

E.C.: Tell me about the new album. You've done 5 albums now. Do you feel that "Gravity" is your strongest yet, the most representative of Van Gogh?

Robby: I wanted to do a Tom Petty / Sheryl Crow kind of a record. I think it's our most mainstream as far as radio friendly goes. We don't try to top the last CD, we just turn down a different road and see where it takes us. We don't play the "follow what's hot" trends, we're too old and you don't want to see our bellybuttons! (leave that to Miss Spears)

Ricky: "Gravity" is definitely our best yet, due largely to the fact that Robby had total control over how it was recorded and produced. On all of our previous albums, there were always other cooks in the kitchen (so to speak). We're still very proud of our other releases, though. There's nothing we've released that we're ashamed of (thank goodness). We've always set very high standards for our music. We tend to be our own toughest critics.

E.C.: Tell me about your live performance schedule? How many shows does the band do, say in a year? Your bio mentions some TV performances - tell me about these.

Robby: We were doing over 45,000 miles on the road each summer then quit live shows for about a year and now have just started getting back out there again. The shows are a lot of fun especially with "our" lightshow, sound and crew. I don't like the "no soundcheck" kind of shows. If we are going to suck, I want it to be our fault, not because the house soundman was too busy drinking beer than mixing monitors.

Ricky: Up through 1999 we were averaging 45,000 miles a year performing. We cut back because we just got tired of the constant headaches of inaccessible stages, rooms, and transportation. On top of that, the airlines were constantly damaging our chairs, and hurting us physically. So we've gotten more selective.

E.C.: You've done two video's for the new album, "Light by Braille" and "Sweetness". Has Van Gogh done videos in the past? Are they conceptual or just straight performance videos?

Robby: We have done 6 so far and it is a mix of styles. We are looking for aspiring directors who want to experiment. We have our own video gear now as well as recording studio and lighting company. We don't sit around waiting on someone to do things for us. Get out there and do it! We don't even drive, what's your excuse!?

Ricky: Robby's becoming the Spielberg of video editing. "Ligh By Braille" is a performance video. "Sweetness" is conceptual (for lack of a better term).

E.C.: I cant believe that a major label hasn't snatched you guys up yet. Especially when you have crap out there like the new ELO album! That (ELO) album is just shite and the new Van Gogh album runs rings around it. That's gotta drive you crazy. Or is that even an aspiration of the band, to get signed to a major label. Because there is always the possibility that with a major label- you would have to sacrifice some of the control over your music?

Robby: Major labels are chicken shit. Rock & Roll used to be about taking chances and setting trends, now? Look at it, so sad. It's scary when "new country" is getting more exciting. Labels, managers, agents, lawyers all think we will scare people off with our wheelchairs. They think this has to be handled different than a "ordinary" rock band. That's not the case, it is just a "ordinary" rock band. Not SPECIAL. They will overlook, drug addicts, alcoholics, suicidal self absorbed egomaniacs but, be afraid of a wheelchair!? NO BALLS. These chairs are to us what Kiss' makeup is to them. If someone was smart, we'd all be rich! .....uh, no, it doesn't drive me crazy at all. We are always exploring ways of getting our music out there. Movies, compilation cd's, what ever we can do. We do a lot of merchandising (see this day of the computer you can do a lot Worldwide on your own. We own 100% of anything we've ever done.

Ricky: It is a mystery! But with the attitudes we've encountered within the music industry (see answer to question #4), it's not surprising. I does drive me crazy though. Labels spend a lot of time and money trying to convince the public that crap is candy. Yet they ignore the good music that's out there. The only positive thing about being on a label is that they have the money and the clout to get our music heard by a much larger audience. 80% of the music business is controlled by 4 or 5 huge corporations -- that includes radio, t.v., newspapers, and magazines as well -- which makes it next to impossible to get the exposure a band needs to really be commercially successful. But you are quite right, there is always the danger that a label will force you to make creatively detrimental changes. In fact, the history of music is littered with stories of bands/artists who were signed to recording contracts, then forced to change their sound and/or image, only to have it bomb (after which, the record label blames the band, and drops them). A record deal would be nice -- but we won't sell our souls for one. I'd be happy to sell enough through our website to pay the bills.

Click here to visit the official Van Gogh web site