Interview with Verdun's (and PCRM's) Dr. Neal Barnard
RYAN A. MACMICHAEL
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
and Vietnamese folk music... where'd the inspiration come to blend those two styles?
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.
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
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
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.
else do you listen to that you enjoy, but doesn't necessarily influence your own
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.
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.
are your thoughts on current digital rights/file sharing issues?
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.
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.