Vessels can be described as electronic and post-rock, given their output to date has straddled both genres. Another way to describe them is a ruddy superb band. With five albums (one a collection of remixes) already to their name, arguably their most important release to date, at the time of writing, is due out on September 29th. This forthcoming album is called ‘The Great Distraction’ and features collaborations with some very well known and, more importantly, amazing artists, including The Flaming Lips and John Grant. In something of a coup for TSOFD we were able to corner Tom (pictured front left) from the group and make him submit to some in depth webchattery.
TSOFD: Hi Tom, thanks for taking the time to converse with TSOFD. It struck me whilst listening back over your catalogue there’s been quite a broad range of output, sonically speaking, since the release of ‘Yuki’ in 2007. Do you think the group has always been searching for a specific type of vibe which you’re now more honing in on? Or do you think you’ll always be likely to change and make quite bold shifts in sound?
TE: I don’t think we’ve ever been searching for a specific vibe or sound in particular, though as a project we’ve hopefully developed something that’s recognisably us. We’ve been quite conscious of allowing ourselves plenty of wiggle-room in terms of what we do, whilst still trying to maintain coherence of an aesthetic or sensibility, which fundamentally comes down to our collective taste. Obviously there was a conscious decision to go down a more electronic path after the second album, and this necessitated a change in our instrumentation (from four guitars down to one), but this had been brewing for a while, and we knew already whilst we were recording the second record (Helioscope) that the direction we wanted to go in was live dance music. Hopefully we’ll keep surprising ourselves, and our listeners, with the music we put out in the future as well.
TSOFD: We get clicks from all over the world. It would be good if you could tell our readers what they can expect if they were to visit Leeds in the UK, where your band is based. Where should they head to if they’re wanting to check out some live music. What/where should they be eating before the show?
TE: Leeds has a lovely, welcoming music scene with more bands doing cool stuff than I’m ever aware of at any one time. The heart of the indie music scene is definitely the Brudenell Social Club, which has grown to have a worldwide reputation as one of the coolest (and yet most unpretentious) venues around. I’ve seen mind-blowing intimate gigs there from Four Tet, Low, The Dirty Three and Caribou to name a few, and I’m off to see Mogwai there in two days in the brand new 300 capacity venue they’ve just built to complement their main room which holds about 400 people. I’ve seen Mogwai live about 15 times over the last 18 years and this will be the smallest venue I’ve seen them in by a stretch. For club venues, Beaverworks throws a great party, as does Cosmic Slop, and Canal Mills and Church do quality club nights. Thai Aroy Dee is good for Thai food, and either Maxi’s or Red Chilli are great for Chinese.
TSOFD: Now we’re on the subject of Leeds, can you tell us more about your experiences living there? How has the music scene shaped you and what are your recommends in terms of current music from Leeds we should be checking out? Are you involved in any other music projects apart from Vessels?
TE: We’ve been playing together in Leeds for 15 years now since the early noughties, so it’s shaped us a whole lot for sure. Current cool artists to check out include Galaxians, Paper Tiger, Gotts Street Park, Dulahli, Mayshe Mayshe and Esper Scout. I also play bass in a cool band called Living Body which you should listen to – Vessels collaborator Katie Harkin sings on their record too. I make acoustic singer-songwriter music under the name Peasman, though I’m way overdue putting any new music out in that guise!
TSOFD: Someone hearing your music for the first time, or perhaps seeing Vessels perform live for the first time, will be likely pretty blown away by what they’re hearing. It’s generally a very expansive sound with lots of layers and textures. Your more current releases in particular seem to have a very electronic core. Is there a certain way songs tend to be conceived? Does one person in the band tend to come up with an idea and it’s then put through the Vessels filter? Or is it more a case of people getting together and jamming it out until you pin something down you like?
TE: Lee is definitely the visionary and the main composer in the band and always has been, but we used to collectively jam things out whilst recording with a single mic, then sift through the recordings and develop the tunes from there. This worked for the first two records when we were in our twenties and had loads of spare time to work through this fairly time-consuming process, but now we’re well into our thirties and life/families/etc are more demanding of our time we’ve been essentially learning to perform the tunes after they’ve been written – mostly by Lee, partly by me, and all put through the Vessels taste filter to ensure we’re all happy and all suggestions have been taken into account. In fact Lee is such a prolific composer, it’s often a matter of us all choosing which of his pieces we want to pursue and finish as a Vessels track, though sometimes he writes a tune which he knows is destined for this project, which was the case with ‘Deflect The Light’ – though we’d never have guessed at the time that The Flaming Lips would end up helping us finish it!
TSOFD: Those in the know will be impressed by the fact John Congleton’s produced not one but two records by Vessels. What was he like to work with? Some groups prefer to get things down track by track whilst others prefer to record more as a band. Which do you guys prefer and was this your approach with John Congleton? Anything interesting of note you can tell us about the recording process?
TE: John’s great to work with, really a true pro, and it was amazing to record the first album in Pachyderm studios, where Nirvana recorded In Utero (which was my most cherished album as a teenager). We recorded those first two records essentially as a live band with overdubs, which is ideally where we’d like to get back to if time and money allows – we did a live session for a video the other week and it felt really good to be laying things down together as a five-piece again. On Helioscope, the track ‘All Our Ends’ ends with a jam we recorded with Tim on vibraphone, Lee on theremin, Pete on banjo, me on guitar and Martin on water harp, which is a weird instrument that often gets used on horror soundtracks and creates a really eerie tone. We then overdubbed our French mate Baptiste chatting some random stuff, and later lied in an interview that it was the ‘famous philosopher Baptiste Goujon’ – years later we met a guy doing a philosophy PhD who’d read the interview and had been searching far and wide for this mysterious philosopher who he’d never heard of before… Possibly the only time we’ve ever played the media like that, but instead of causing a stir that made us hugely more famous, we just fooled a single PhD student into searching the internet for something that didn’t exist. Never accuse us of not being niche…
TSOFD: ‘Dilate’ arguably heralded a move away from a guitar-based approach but this is simplifying things a bit perhaps as the interest in electronica is evident earlier on in your work. When recording the newer material has the emphasis on more electronic sounds meant a lot could be done simply using computers or ‘in the box’? Or was it still important to go and pay for proper studio time and record through a traditional set up? Was the transition away from post-rock a case of having to suddenly change quite dramatically and use lots of new gear for gigs or did it all evolve quite gradually?
TE: Most of the last two albums were recorded by us during their composition, both in and out of the box, though we enjoy working with hardware much more so with an emphasis towards that. In general, the more time you can get away from looking at a computer screen the better, and the more hands on you can be the more expressive the music will turn out. We’ve recorded live drums for most tracks as well to help bring them to life and keep them sounding like a band rather than entirely electronic compositions. The transition from guitars was definitely dramatic and required an entire overhaul of our setup, and also means that unfortunately we can’t physically perform any old tunes even if we want to. We’ve considered working live remixes for some, but it’s time consuming and we’d rather be pushing forward with new tracks rather than revisiting old ones.
TSOFD: The new album, ‘The Great Distraction’, is out at the end of September (2017). Looking at the collaborations which have occurred and will feature on the album (The Flaming Lips and John Grant to name two of them), it must be quite an exciting time for the group. How did the collaborations come about? The band has made a slow but steady climb in terms of popularity. Has it been quite deliberate to build in this way or has it all just happened without paying too much thought to it? Do you look at the situation and think about the well known names attached to the release and pinch yourselves or are you simply taking it all in your stride and seeing it as a natural development due to the years of effort and quality of your work?
TE: Definitely a bit of pinching involved, but yes it’s nice to feel that we’re making progress. Vessels is 12 years old now, so we have accumulated listeners steadily across that time without ever having a hit record or being a ‘buzz’ band. It certainly wasn’t deliberate, and we’d have taken the opportunity to build quicker if it had arisen, but we’ve just been working hard and making the best music we can for a long time now, so it’s always nice when people respond positively to what we’re doing. This is also the first album we’ve released on an international label, so it’s nice that people across the world will be able to get our physical releases without having to import them.
TSOFD: You release a lot of music on Bandcamp and the forthcoming release is already there awaiting pre-orders. We’re fans of the site. It seems to represent a means of giving money as directly as possible to artists who also seem to have more direct control over their page than they would with platforms such as iTunes and Amazon, companies which don’t always cover themselves in glory regarding their business practices either. What are your thoughts regarding this age of digital music and streaming we’re living through – would it make you angry if you knew people were downloading your music illegally for example or do you just see it as part and parcel of the times we’re living in? Without being too nosy, have Vessels found ways of monetizing the music which means you don’t have to be too reliant on album sales? What advice would you give to people starting out? Obviously nobody should be going into this business looking to be a millionaire but how have Vessels made enough money to at least stay afloat? Afloat. Vessels. Ahem. See what I did there?
TE: Yeah I think Bandcamp is ace, and holds an important place in the democratization of music. I wouldn’t be angry if someone downloaded our music illegally, but that general cultural assumption that music should be free has made it very hard for musicians, who have always been at the bottom of the food chain in this industry anyway. Generally the musician is the last to get paid, and this is due in no small part to the fact that many of us aren’t doing it for the money so would do it anyway. We’ve been lucky in that our track ‘Elliptic’ was used in the Chinese advert for Remy Martin cognac which has paid for us to keep going these last few years. It would be great if album and ticket sales alone were enough but those days are gone unfortunately. Maybe if all music listeners were subscribed to a streaming service then musicians would start earning money again but we’re not there yet! My advice to anyone starting out would be to work hard, never assume you’re entitled to anything and be happy to take other jobs in music besides making/performing it. You can always do that as well, and will often make connections and learn more about how to improve your art by doing related things.
TSOFD: Vessels headlined the BBC Introducing Stage at Glastonbury in 2011. Festivals are quite a big deal in China and something a lot of bands have in their sights. Have you been doing the festival circuit this summer? Let us know if there’s any festival experiences you’ve particularly enjoyed, what’s on the horizon and and whether you hope to be back at Glastonbury before too long.
TE: We didn’t really do the circuit this summer as our album release came too late so we missed the promotional cycle, but we hope that next year will be a full summer calendar. We actually played Glastonbury again in 2016, on the Glade stage, which was great fun. A memorable festival show we played was Tauron in Poland, which was one of the biggest crowds we’ve played to, and Colours Of Ostrava in the Czech Republic is a pretty jaw dropping venue in an old steelworks.
TSOFD: China’s music festivals are arguably the focal point for music that’s current so it would be great to see you over here playing some day relatively soon. So, with that in mind, finally, we’re based in Hangzhou, China (which incidentally is twinned with Leeds). What do you know about this part of the world or what does China mean to you, even if it’s just enjoying the cuisine? Has the band ever toured in Asia or do you plan to in future?
TE: My wife’s parents are from Guangzhou and Hong Kong and are great chefs so I know the food well! I’ve still yet to visit there but that part of the world is in our sights for 2018 Vessels gigs for sure. Maybe all the Chinese cognac fans will know of us subliminally, ha!
We sure hope so! Hangzhou doesn’t have a huge gig-going public it must be said but it’s growing and there’s definitely an interest in electronic music here in particular. If Vessels ever make it to Shanghai we’re just down the high speed train track – pencil us in, if only for a DJ set! Thanks again for your time Tom and best of luck with the new release.
Find out more about Vessels by visiting their website.
Photos by Imogen Love.