Leeds post rockers Vessels play a three date Irish tour later this month. Siobhán Kane spoke with guitarist Tom Evans about their soon to be released second album Helioscope.
Vessels formed in and around five years ago, bonding through a love of interesting, layered soundscapes, and musical experimentation, creating an exciting kind of music, that is often referred to as post-rock, but in truth is as influenced by the Def Jux label as it is Slint; the common ground being the epic nature of the scale and ambition of their work. Their 2008 record White Fields and Open Devices set out a skeletal thesis of their progressive, mainly instrumental sound, which shares much in common with Battles work in terms of complex but accessible composition, evident in tracks like ‘Yuki’ and ‘Two Words and a Gesture’ which make great use of eerie, weird dance beats, and at turns elements of metal and lo-fi folk.
However, this year’s Helioscope incorporates other influences such as electronica to give an even more rounded out feel, and also illustrates their quite astonishing and sophisticated musical talent; Tim Mitchell’s drumming in particular is something to behold, and the eerily haunting collaboration with Jacob’s Stories Stuart Warwick on ‘Meatman, Piano Tuner, Prostitute’ is another highlight. Perhaps the centrepiece of the record is the majestic ‘The Trap’ because it distils so much of what makes them interesting; the strangely beautiful melody, the seamless time signature changes, and the sense of timelessness about the whole thing, which translates to atmospheric, and rather mammoth live performances; Siobhán Kane talks to Tom Evans of Vessels.
You evolved out of the band A Day Left, and then released your own EP and started heavily touring; do you think you were prepared for the amount of work it was going to take? Four out of the five of us played as A Day Left for about three years from 2002-2005. We had a singer, and we were doing a heavier and less experimental thing than we are now. We wrote a few good tunes, and plenty of bad ones, but it was a necessary part of our development, I guess, to get some of the cheesier influences from our youth out of our system, and to realise that we really didn’t want to be making that kind of music anymore. We’ve all been playing in bands for long enough to know how much work it takes, and we’re just glad to be playing music that we all believe in enough to feel that the work is justified.
How did you all meet, and how early on did you start playing instruments? We met in Leeds, just through mutual friends and music enthusiasts, back at the start of the noughties. We’ve all been playing since our early teens, except Lee who started drumming when he was five or something ridiculous. We always try and push ourselves technically, just to keep up our standard of playing and so as to not get sloppy, but we try and avoid being technical for its own sake. I’m a firm believer in the practice of playing one right note over a hundred unnecessary ones.
How did you find working with John Congleton, and how did that come about? John is such an interesting producer, from Smog through to Modest Mouse, were you very aware of just how much he has done? How did you find the process? He’s great to work with, really down to earth and funny. We actually just asked him out of the blue through Myspace, and he listened to our stuff online, liked it and said yes. He’s made literally hundreds of albums, but the two which really made us want to work with him were The Appleseed Cast’s Peregrine and Explosions In The Sky’s The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. We made both of our albums in America in two week-long sessions, which is tight, but we rehearse the material heavily before going to record, so it’s manageable.
Had you really achieved the kind of sound you were hoping for on White Fields and Open Devices working with him? Did he guide you in certain directions that you hadn’t imagined? Fundamentally, he just captures a very authentic and spacious sound, and while he uses the occasional bit of tasteful studio trickery, he doesn’t overproduce anything, which is great. There were definitely a couple of moments listening back to the mixes of White Fields and Helioscope when we were pleasantly surprised by something he’d done that we weren’t expecting.
He also produced your second record; weren’t you thinking of working with another producer, but then bumped into John again by chance when he was working with Clinic? Well, nearly right. We were thinking of recording in the UK with a different producer, mostly for financial reasons, but we did want to work with John again and he was keen to do the record as well, so we met him to discuss options while he was in Liverpool with Clinic, and he offered us a good deal to record with him in his Dallas studio. Plus it makes it more of an event for us – going on a little adventure to make the album – so hopefully some of the excitement of it seeps through into its sound.
How do you think Helioscope has progressed your sound, did the process differ from your first record? It has become more groove-based and less chin-strokey, hopefully! We were getting bored of standing around po-faced on stage, and wanted to play stuff with a bit more bounce. The writing process differed from the first record in that rather than building all the songs from jams like we used to, we instead recorded all the ideas into demos and messed with their structures on the computer, more like the process of producing electronic music than extended prog-jams.
All of your songs are so individually distinct; do you approach them all as small compositions? All little steps in what you regard as the Vessels ‘sound’? We just like to have as broad a scope as possible for the tunes that we put out. There is definitely a boundary though, as several compositions get shelved or left for side-projects if they don’t really sit with the rest of the music that we’re making at the time. We always talk about putting together an album as one long piece of music, but the pieces need beginnings and ends in order to feel like you’ve actually finished them, and they end up as distinct tunes.
Who would you count as influences, was there very much a kinship of influences when you formed the band, or is there one of you that perhaps is obsessed with Ethiopian hip-hop? Some influences we share, some we don’t. We’re all big fans of Mogwai, EITS, Oceansize, Do Make Say Think, Caribou, Fourtet, Cinematic Orchestra, DJ Shadow, Low, Moderat, James Holden, Nathan Fake amongst many others. Martin and Lee are both very into their minimal techno, Tim digs his Americana, Pete is quite into jazz and I’m a big fan of female singers like Hope Sandoval, Beth Gibbons and PJ Harvey. We all like a bit of quality hip-hop as well, like Blackalicious or El-P.
The artwork for Helioscope is very beautiful; did you have a strong sense of what the artwork should ‘feel’ like for the record? Not really, it’s all Luke Drozd’s vision, but it was a nice bit of synchronicity when he sent through some ideas for the album which included the hand with the magnifying glass setting fire to the city, and I had the word helioscope banging around my head as a potential title, so they seemed to slot into place with each other nicely. Also, we recorded the album in the heat of a Texan summer, so the sun theme felt appropriate as well.
A few of you have other projects, could you tell me a little about those? Lee makes huge amounts of awesome techno and electronica under his full name Lee J. Malcolm, and should have an album coming out later in the year. I play acoustic music under the name Peasman, and make silly electronica under the name Peatronica. Pete wrote the soundtrack to an award-winning animation called ‘The Astronomer’s Son’ which came out last year, and he also does his own project with vocals, solo guitar and effects.
Vessels Irish tourdates: Thursday 24th February – Speakeasy, Belfast + Kasper Rosa Friday 25th February – The Workman’s Club, Dublin + Stuart Warwick & Enemies Saturday 26th February – The Quad, Cork + Stuart Warwick