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Rock and Roll (Part Two)

I’m in the tidy bathroom of the House of Vanity in south Arlington, home of Shaun Brennan, singer-guitarist for the rock trio Vanity Champ, peeking into his medicine cabinets. There are two in here, and they’re big suckers. Instead of being jammed with the illicit pharmaceuticals so near and dear to the rocker lifestyle, they’re packed with a vat of peroxide, a startling profusion of hair dyes, and shelf upon shelf of styling gels and pomades.

“Hey, why do you think we called ourselves Vanity Champ?” says the 26-year-old Brennan when I confront him with my discovery back in the living room. As I throw myself on a rather beat lounge chair (“Cat puked on it last week,” I’m informed later), I ask the million-dollar question: “Are you the vainest band in rock ‘n’ roll?”

“I hope so,” says Brennan, who has the kind of MTV-ready looks—tall, thin, tattooed—that just scream rock star. The other Vanity Champers are pretty easy on the eyes, too. Bassist Artie Swell, also 26, is dapper in his long sideburns and pressed pants, whereas drummer Jay Chaos, with his neat goatee and all-black outfit, looks like a refugee from the new-model Metallica.

The members of Vanity Champ are refreshingly forthcoming about their efforts to create the proper image for themselves. “When we started out,” says Brennan, “we got tagged as a glam band, because we wore makeup and glitter. But musically, we were something else altogether. Glam to me is Stooges or Mötley Crüe, and we don’t sound like that. We want to align our image with our sound, which has gotten heavier. What we’re going for now is a look that is slick, sophisticated, and black. If glam were to grow up, it’d be glamorous, and that’s what we are.”

In the three years since they left Arlington’s Jivebomb, the Vanity Champers have done a lot of growing up, releasing two CDs—1998’s raucous SuperZoomMagnaCrush and 2000’s slicker-sounding Tranquilized—and working up enough new material for a third. Jivebomb fell apart, says Brennan, when guitarist Jimmy Sinn pawned Chaos’ drum kit and singer Charlie King’s sound equipment. Fortunately, the drums were borrowed—one of four borrowed kits that Chaos has misplaced, lost, or had stolen from him recently.

Even their own version of the drummer’s curse hasn’t soured the Vanity Champ boys on rock ‘n’ roll. They’re definitely lifers. Brennan, who was “raised by hippies” at a kind of semicommune in Bloomington, Ind., “grew up surrounded by music. As long as I can remember, I wanted to rock.”

Brennan moved to the D.C. area when he was 9, going through a heavy breakdancing period (“Nobody did a better turtle,” he boasts, jumping up to show off a few slinky moves) before joining Arlington’s skate-punk scene. He met Arlington native Swell at a post-high-school party some friends threw to celebrate Brennan’s moving to Richmond.

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Unlike Brennan, Swell didn’t always want to rock. As a child, he set his sights on vaudeville. He bought a ventriloquist’s dummy and spent his after-school hours juggling and riding a unicycle. But after his ventriloquism skills failed to jell, Swell decided he “wanted to play keyboards, like the guy in A Flock of Seagulls.” Instead, he wound up playing bass in a succession of bands before settling in with Brennan—who, after some wild times in Richmond and Philadelphia, had come crawling back to Arlington for a new start—and Chaos in Jivebomb.

Chaos, who at 31 is the band’s elder statesman, casually tosses off Spi¬nal Tap-isms (of Bon Jovi, he says, “If you can get past their music, they’re a great rock band”), used to race import cars (he decided to give it up after “coming through a turn backwards at Summit Point”), and recently proposed to his girlfriend from the stage of the Black Cat (“I called her up on stage,” he says, “and the entire crowd went nuts”). Originally from Quakerstown, Pa., Chaos spent many years in the trend-hopping Philly band Dexter Love. “We started as a total hair band. Leopard-skin spandex, teased and frosted hair, the works. Then we heard the Chili Peppers and went in that direction. Then Jane’s Addiction came along, and there we went.” In 1996, Dexter Love moved from Philadelphia to Washington (“Due to some pressing problems with the law,” says Chaos, “leaving Pennsylvania seemed like a good idea”) and soon became the informal house band at U Street NW’s Velvet Lounge, where the group is still remembered for its dead-on cover of Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song.”

Although the band doesn’t play “Mountain Song,” Vanity Champ has established a reputation for its tumultuous live shows, which have tended to be full-blown glitter-trash spectaculars, with ranks of burning votive candles, near-naked female dancers, and the boys in the band dressed to distress. Things seem to be changing, however. The band’s new image places kickass sonic acrobatics over visual hi-jinks. The punk-trash sound of the band’s early stuff—think KISS or the Runaways—has evolved into something closer to that of the Stone Temple Pilots or Smashing Pumpkins, but with a heavier bottom end that reveals Vanity Champ’s abiding love for the post-Sabbath stoner rock of Kyuss and Spirit Caravan. As a result, you’re less likely these days to see Brennan appear in a bikini top or Chaos playing drums in a John Wayne Gacy clown get-up.

Vanity Champ has been honing its sound with frequent practices, which are held in the basement of the House of Vanity. The band is able to practice three nights a week in a quiet residential neighborhood—at volumes that would drown out the sound of a small plane crash—because the house next door is occupied by several members of a large salsa band that practices four or more nights a week, often with extended families in attendance. In this neck of south Arlington, the rule seems to be jam and let jam.

Of course, jamming costs money, and the members of Vanity Champ all have day jobs. Swell—who’s engaged to a venture capitalist—is one credit shy of earning his psychology degree at George Mason University and works for an Internet start-up. He and his fiancée are planning a “May elopement” and are getting ready to buy a condo in Arlington’s Ballston area. Chaos manages an auto-detailing shop in Rockville. And Brennan, who remains the band’s sole eligible bachelor, delivers organic produce in the D.C. area. “You should inform your readers,” he says seriously, “that most of the food they eat has been touched by my hands.” (Brennan’s rock career has already cost him one customer—Brendan Canty, the drummer for Fugazi, whose regular produce orders ceased immediately after Brennan gave him a copy of a Vanity Champ CD. “I guess he didn’t like it,” Brennan says.) The band is still in debt from its first two releases—Swell maxed out his credit card to put out SuperZoomMagnaCrush, and Brennan’s mom funded Tranquilized (she also did the disc’s art design)—and is looking for somebody to finance their third.

These days, believing in rock ‘n’ roll is about as anachronistic a proposition as worshipping the Golden Calf, but these guys believe—they really do. Just listen to the story of what brought Chaos here from Pennsylvania: “I was in Philadelphia, looking at a map of this area, and I asked myself, ‘What kind of town do I want to move to?’ And then I saw it: Rockville! And I knew that’s where I was going. So I drive down and buy a newspaper, and right off I see there’s a house available on Rock Road. Rock Road! In Rockville! I had to do it. So everybody in Dexter Love moves in and we start practicing and right away—bam! bam! bam!—this old guy’s pounding at our door. He says, ‘I live next door, and I just want you to know I’ve been hearing loud noises coming from this house for years.’ It turns out we’d moved into Joan Jett’s old house!”

That’s no coincidence, folks. That’s destiny. —Michael Little