An Interview with Verdun's (and PCRM's) Dr. Neal Barnard
BY RYAN A. MACMICHAEL
HERBIVORE

Dr. Neal Barnard's a familiar name to anyone that keeps up on vegetarian nutrition and the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine's fight against the fast food machine. But what you may not know is that in what little spare time being a doctor allows, Dr. Barnard plays in one of the more unique rock bands in the DC area.

Verdun takes standard rock sensibilities and mixes in a heavy dose of Vietnamese folk instrumentation and vocals. Their self-titled debut CD is a warm, inviting blend that's as complex and strong as Vietnamese coffee. The structure of Vietnamese music allows Barnard, who wrote many of the songs on the album, to stretch the limits of guitar-driven rock in the direction of world music without ever feeling like the combination is forced. Stand-out songs include the beautiful "Song to a Sparrow," the molasses-ized version of "Purple Haze," and "Dream of the Black Horse."

Dr. Barnard took some time during his busy book tour schedule to chat about music, Vietnamese culture, and how vegetarian pho and music are a lot alike.

When people think of doctors, they certainly don't think of them in the same category as rock musicians. Are people surprised when they hear Verdun, and hear that a PCRM doc can rock?

Well, thanks for putting it that way. The fact is, I have been playing music since I was a tiny child, and I had bands during medical school and residency. Other people had kids or sports, but music was my oxygen. Sometimes it did lead to surprises. Once, when I was a resident, my band was playing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, and a young patient of mine with a psychiatric disorder happened come to the club and walked into the dressing room. She was quite surprised to see her doctor in a band. And when I got back to the hospital on Monday morning, one of the supervising doctors took me aside and said, "I'm very worried about Suzanne. She seems to be hallucinating! She thought she saw you playing in a punk band-I think we'd better increase her medication."

But I have to say, much as I love music, there is too much work to do to allow me to indulge in it very much. Our work at PCRM is what takes 99.999% of my time, and music gets that little other bit.

Are people who know you through the band first similarly surprised to find out you're a doctor?

Yes. Musicians are much more comfortable with an ex-convict or a drug addict. It troubles them to find out you are a doctor, and being a medical researcher is even worse.

What's the origin of the band name?

Verdun is a city east of Paris, and the site of one of the fiercest battles in history. To me, the name evokes the combination of incredible beauty and tremendous conflict.

How did the band meet?

I was looking for musicians who could lay down a strong undercurrent of driving hormonal rock, and then overlay it with very light and delicate sounds. Mike Stetina, our drummer, is great with complex rhythms, and Jon Best handled the bass. Our singers are Ngoc Hoang and Martha Roebuck. They are just angelic. Also on the record are Bau Nguyen, who is brilliant in both traditional Vietnamese instruments and modern Western instruments, and Bob Gray, who is an incredible saxophone player and guitarist, and has been a good friend for many years. And finally, Carter Melin and Sam Dorsey played cello and classical guitar.

Rock and Vietnamese folk music... where'd the inspiration come to blend those two styles?

When I was a medical student, I lived in Arlington, Virginia, which has a large Vietnamese population, and I fell in love with the traditional music. Since it uses a pentatonic scale, it easily morphs into rock and blues.

You mentioned in another interview that you don't refer to your music as "fusion." How do you successfully find the balance, the right combination of genres, ethnic influences, and personal style while remaining true to each without watering them down?

I wasn't trying to be true to tradition. The music was determined entirely by what I wanted to hear, and it generally went in directions of its own. One of the songs on the record, Dream of the Black Horse, comes from a beautiful traditional Vietnamese song. However, Verdun's version is very high energy with lots of drums and slashing guitar, and it then abruptly breaks to the original song for just a minute or so, before returning to the caffeinated version. The original lyrics tell of a man decorating his horse and carriage for his wedding, but Verdun's version tells the story from the horse's point of view and is dreamy and rebellious.

I was actually a bit worried about how people familiar with Vietnamese music would take it, but Ngoc and Bau were very supportive, and several Vietnamese musicians have written to me in very kind ways since the CD came out. So that suggests to me that somehow raucous drums and slashing guitar really can mix with traditional instruments, if it's done properly.

Of course, some songs are not Asian at all. We did "Purple Haze" in a very slow 7/4 time, and Martha sings it very delicately, which is exactly the opposite of what anyone expected to hear, but it works. And "Song to a Sparrow" is the opposite: a very delicate song about love and the tragedy that life always turns out to be.

The "Purple Haze" retooling took me back at first -- the change in time signature threw me off, but I really liked it. What other artists most influence your songwriting?

Actually, I don't start with what I would like to play or what I would like the lyrics to say. I start with what I would like to hear, as if other musicians arrived and began to play. The trick is to hear it and write it down; that's what drives the music. So perhaps you might blame Freud as my biggest influence. Musically, John McLaughlin's use of time signatures, Laurie Anderson's and David Byrne's sense of humor, and Miles Davis' reticence have influenced my approach to music.

Who else do you listen to that you enjoy, but doesn't necessarily influence your own music?

My current fave is Phi Nhung, a wonderful Vietnamese singer. When she uses traditional instrumentation, her songs are gorgeous. Also Patricia Kaas, Alain Souchon, and Noir Desire from France.

About your Vietnamese influences, I've gotta say, I thought I was the only American who listens to Vietnamese music at work. What draws you to it?

Many traditional Vietnamese songs begin with a plaintive and soft vocal line that is very beautiful. The songs themselves are often in what sounds to Western ears like a minor key, which is part of why they are so moving, and the instruments are wonderful.

What are your thoughts on current digital rights/file sharing issues?

Much of the music from the Verdun CD is freely available on the Web. If music were my livelihood, I might feel differently, but for me, it is just a very rare moment taken away from my real work. We've tried to do it well, and if someone else likes what we have done, I'm delighted.

Northern Virginia has no shortage of Vietnamese restaurants, but it's really hard to find vegetarian pho that doesn't have beef broth or that isn't watered down. Do you have a favorite eatery for veggie pho?

A menu is like music. If you don't find what you're looking for, start fresh. Make your own.


Dr. Barnard's eighth book, Breaking the Food Seduction (St. Martin's 2003), is now out in paperback. In addition, he is the principal investigator of a major study funded by the National Institutes of Health on the effect of a vegan diet on diabetes. The PCRM recently launched The Cancer Project, a nutrition program for cancer prevention and survival, as a subsidiary, and its inaugural television program has aired recently on the Wisdom Channel. The group continues to work to reform federal diet guidelines, school lunches, and nutritional habits in general.

You can buy Verdun's self-titled CD on Amazon.com or CDBaby.com. Find out more about Verdun at VerdunMusic.com.