Somebody once quipped, "If the Beatles had come from Atlanta, they would have sounded like Van Gogh." [Sure it's ridiculously hyperbolic -- but it's a great compliment!]
Hailing from the Southeastern U.S., and led by brothers Robby & Ricky Heisner, Van Gogh is a band like no other. Although "confined" to wheelchairs, Van Gogh proves that doesn't mean they can't soar. With Ricky writing the lyrics, Robby composing the music, and both brothers singing lead and harmony vocals, Van Gogh has put together a body of work that is a striking testament to the triumph of creative passion over industry bigotry. Here's a short version of their story so far....
The seeds, of what would become Van Gogh, were planted in 1991 as a studio project of Robby Heisner’s. Having disbanded his hard rock band Blitz, Robby was eager to explore more subtly intricate musical territory. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.
Getting together with his brother Ricky, several songs were written and recorded. Songs that reflected their diverse musical influences, yet blended them into a coherent musical direction. And even though both were extremely excited about what they had come up with, they weren’t sure that anyone else would share their enthusiasm. They needn’t have worried, however, as the positive reaction of those who heard the new tunes convinced the brothers that they were indeed onto something special.
So the decision was made to produce a full-length album. But as the songs were being written and recorded, and the artwork readied to be sent off to the printer, there was still one small problem: They had not yet come up with a suitable name for the project – a name that would accurately capture and convey a sense of the eclectic elements at work in the new songs they were writing.
Late one night, after unsuccessfully brainstorming via telephone, they decided to give up and try again the next day. As it turned out, during the night (and independently of one another) they both had the same flash of inspiration: “Van Gogh” would be the perfect name for the project. (Apparently it never occurred to them that naming their band after an artist who saw little or no commercial success in his lifetime was kind of like naming a new cruise ship Titanic.)
Along with the overwhelmingly positive response to their first release (The Final Scene), came an increasing number of requests to hear the songs performed live. So, in December of ’92, Van Gogh performed live as a band for the first time. And by 1998 – as word of mouth and media reports spread the news of the high quality of their CDs and live shows – Van Gogh was traveling an average of 45,000 miles a year, doing performances in such diverse places as The International Art & Soul Festival (in L.A.), the Riverbend Festival (in Chattanooga), the Atlanta Arts Festival, and a lunchtime concert in front of the New York Stock Exchange (during a working week day, no less). They’ve played everything from stripped-down acoustic sets, to large outdoor festivals, to full blown theater extravaganzas (so much for just being a studio project).
Along the way they developed their onstage personas (kind of the Statler and Waldorf of rock & roll), acquired an intelligent lighting system, built a first rate home studio (where their last three albums were recorded), filmed several videos, have been featured in numerous television, radio, and magazine stories, as well as writing songs for independent films, extreme sports videos, and a host of other artists and performers.
The infamous hats they wear onstage, combined with a sharp, self-effacing (and very politically incorrect) sense of humor, created an atmosphere of dark comedy that could be a bit of a shock to those who might be expecting a telethon gimmick or novelty act. They lay waste every stereotype or misconception, but they never failed to win over even the most skeptical of audiences. No one has ever said, “They’re pretty good, for guys in wheelchairs.” That’s because the music stands on it’s own merits. The fact that they never failed to win over an audience is a testament to the quality of their performances. That the brothers have actually been accused of “not really being in wheelchairs” only reinforces the fact that there has never been a band like Van Gogh before.
Never interested in making the same album twice, no two Van Gogh albums sound the same. There are always elements that are unmistakably Van Gogh – but how those elements are expressed is a wide-open field of play. When it was discovered that guitarist Steve Stone played mandolin and banjo, Robby insisted on incorporating them into some songs – likewise, when he found that Ed McLennen played flute and sitar; and upon learning that drummer Scott Robertson had a sampler. So each album has its own character, as elements of classic pop and rock are combined with more modern influences to create what can only be described as "Van Gogh music".
Van Gogh is a band of contradictions. Paradoxes abound. There was a fun, almost tongue-in-cheek playfulness about their live shows – but there is a seriousness, lurking just below the surface of their songs, that belies a willingness to peer into the darker corners of the human psyche.
Their gift for combining dark lyrics with upbeat, happy sounding music – and vice versa – means nothing is ever exactly as it appears (which always makes for a more interesting, and rewarding, listening experience). But the subtle complexities of their songs never get in the listener’s way (due to their belief that, first and foremost, a song has to be listenable – otherwise, it’s just a waste of time). They’ve proven themselves to be more than capable of balancing artistic vision and commercial sensibilities. All of which is to say: they take their music seriously, but not themselves.
Van Gogh is busy writing a song for a movie that is currently in production. They are also in the process of finally making their albums available online for download, as well as for licensing in movies, TV shows, and commercials. Also, a documentary may be in the works (where's Martin Scorsese when you need him?). And although they are no longer able to perform live, Robby and Ricky (the world's grumpiest optimists) still have hopes that there will be at least one more Van Gogh album recorded and released (they certainly have the songs – now, if only they can find the breath). So stay tuned,...this story isn't over, yet.