The Leeds-based band be­gan with post rock be­fore un­der­tak­ing a re­mark­able ca­reer change, em­brac­ing elec­tronic mu­sic us­ing mod­u­lar gear, synths and soft­ware. Danny Turner chats to Lee J. Mal­colm and Tom Evans about their ex­tra­or­di­nary trans­for­ma­tion

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

tell us about the chal­lenges they faced in drop­ping their gui­tars and turn­ing fully elec­tronic

Tipped by Ra­dio 1 in 2007 as one of the hottest new bands in the UK, Ves­sels flew to Min­neapo­lis to record their de­but al­bum White Fields and

Open De­vices un­der the stew­ard­ship of Grammy-win­ning Amer­i­can pro­ducer John Con­gle­ton, who also pro­duced their sec­ond al­bum

He­lio­scope (2011). Yet seem­ingly at the peak of their pow­ers, Ves­sels risked the wrath of their fan base by mov­ing from their post rock foun­da­tions to em­brace the eu­pho­ria of the dance­floor.

Mo­ti­vated by the sound of syn­the­sis­ers and a com­bi­na­tion of live and elec­tronic per­cus­sion, the band’s third al­bum, Di­late (2015) stripped out the gui­tars and grungy feel of their pre­vi­ous pro­duc­tions. Mean­while, Ves­sels’ lat­est al­bum

The Great Dis­trac­tion goes one step fur­ther to­wards what has been an al­most seam­less tran­si­tion… al­though as Lee J. Mal­colm and Tom Evans ex­plain, the mu­ta­tion was not with­out its chal­lenges.

Your de­but al­bum White Fields and

Open De­vices showed no signs of the elec­tronic band you would be­come. What pre­cip­i­tated that tran­si­tion?

Lee J. Mal­colm: “Ba­si­cally, a lot of what those first two records were about was ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. I know that’s kind of a cliché, but gen­er­ally we were try­ing to make the gui­tar sound dif­fer­ent by ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent ped­als and stuff. The turn­ing point was when we thought to our­selves, in­stead of try­ing to make gui­tars not sound like gui­tars, why not use some­thing that’s not a gui­tar – like a syn­the­siser. That was pro­gressed by the fact that we all kind of lis­tened to elec­tronic mu­sic as well.”

Tom Evans: “Ob­vi­ously, when we started we were a rock band play­ing gui­tars, and that was our in­stru­ment. It was al­ways Lee who would be putting elec­tronic touches on the tunes, and he’s been writ­ing elec­tronic mu­sic since the early 2000s, as have I to a cer­tain ex­tent. When we were do­ing the sec­ond al­bum, the first track we wrote was

Mono­form, and at that point we felt that live dance mu­sic was the way for­ward.”

Was it easy to get ev­ery­body in the band on­board with the change?

Lee: “The drum­mer was an em­pire built on sand ba­si­cally [laughs]. Ev­ery­body was ner­vous about it, of course, in­clud­ing my­self. But once we got the first col­lec­tion of songs to­gether and started play­ing them, we started to re­alise that some­thing could come of it.”

Tom: “It was a very a grad­ual process in terms of how we worked out what our new roles would be and how we’d do it. We’d been try­ing in re­hearsals to make dance mu­sic with gui­tars, but it never re­ally worked - it just sounded like gui­tar mu­sic. It’s only when we de­cided to ditch the gui­tars large-scale that it ac­tu­ally started to work prop­erly, and Lee de­signed a way of per­form­ing us­ing Able­ton Live that al­lowed us to sync ev­ery­thing to­gether.”

How did you adapt to us­ing Able­ton Live?

Lee: “It worked at the be­gin­ning, but the more stuff we had run­ning through it the more it started to let us down - so we had to change the sys­tem again. Essen­tially, we had one com­puter run­ning Able­ton with eight in/out sound­cards and a MIDI hub. Ev­ery­body’s setup was go­ing through it, and we were all us­ing a hard­ware synth and a soft­ware synth. I’ve got an original Korg MS-20 and used to put that through my Mar­shall stack be­cause it’s great for basslines and lead lines, but we soon re­alised we needed some­thing a bit more sta­ble, be­cause if the com­puter went down, ev­ery­body went down.”

Tom: “Yeah, in­clud­ing three-fifths of the band and the drum­mer’s click, which hap­pened at sev­eral gigs and left us pretty red faced. Now we have three lap­top sta­tions run­ning all the synths and we’re sync­ing that off MIDI clock. But since Able­ton Link came out, it’s changed ev­ery­thing.”

Ini­tially, you must have cul­ti­vated a fol­low­ing that was used to lis­ten­ing to a cer­tain type of mu­sic. Were you con­cerned that you’d lose that early mo­men­tum you’d gained?

Tom: “100%. We don’t take lightly the love and sup­port that peo­ple have shown us. It’s mas­sively hum­bling and half the rea­son why we do it. One half is be­cause we want to make mu­sic and ex­plore stuff to­gether, and the other is the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship you have with the peo­ple who lis­ten to it. It was a mas­sive con­cern, and I can’t speak for ev­ery­body, but per­son­ally I was ter­ri­fied about how it would be re­ceived. There was one guy who’d come over from In­dia to see us play in Lon­don and had a mas­sive Ves­sels tat­too down the in­side of his fore­arm. He told me he was ter­mi­nally ill and that one of his dy­ing wishes was to come and see us play. Then he said, ‘I don’t know what this new record’s about, but I can’t get on board with that mate. I want the Prog Ves­sels’. The grav­i­tas of what you do does hit home in sit­u­a­tions like that. I think we prob­a­bly lost some peo­ple, but gained oth­ers as well.”

Lee: “As much as we’re go­ing on about the im­por­tance of pay­ing re­spect to the peo­ple who sup­port you, at the same time you’ve got to keep one eye on the fact that if you don’t keep mov­ing, learn­ing and pro­gress­ing then you get bored your­self. If we hadn’t have made this change, we prob­a­bly wouldn’t have kept go­ing.”

You ev­i­dently took to it like a duck to wa­ter, but the one artist I find you com­pa­ra­ble to is Jon Hop­kins. Was he an early in­flu­ence?

Tom: “Yeah, he’s great. It’s a strange one, be­cause he’s an in­flu­ence but at the same time we were kind of mak­ing mu­sic like that any­way. There’s another guy called Ri­val Con­soles, who’s a mate of ours, and we’re kind of in a sim­i­lar headspace. I think a lot of that has to do with hav­ing a sim­i­lar mu­si­cal her­itage.”

Lee: “Jon Hop­kins has been play­ing one of our tunes, Are You Trend­ing, in his DJ set for about a year I think. One artist we like is Alex Banks. He’s from Brighton and did a track called Phos­pho­rous that’s the ab­so­lute tits. You should check it out!”

The new al­bum, The Great Dis­trac­tion, is prob­a­bly your most tech­nol­ogy-heavy to date. What as­pects of the sound have you tried to push, tech-wise?

Lee: “Tom might have a dif­fer­ent an­swer, but I’ve been mak­ing elec­tronic mu­sic for a long, long time and have just started get­ting into the mod­u­lar world now. Trig­ger­ing things us­ing CV is what I’ve been ex­plor­ing to cre­ate more in­ter­est­ing sound de­sign work. We’ve pretty much al­ways used hard­ware for nearly ev­ery­thing we do, and I think a lot of the push has just been tak­ing what we learned from the last al­bum, Di­late, and ex­plor­ing more of that. We recorded that with Richard Formby who pro­duced Ghost­poet, Dark­star and Wild Beasts, and he’s got a mas­sive mod­u­lar setup. Dur­ing the pro­duc­tion of

Di­late, we spent a con­sid­er­able amount of time re-amp­ing stuff and send­ing things back that I’d made through his setup. I learned quite a lot from how he works and his ap­proach to syn­the­sis.” Tom: “Lee’s been build­ing up his mod­u­lar setup through­out the course of mak­ing this al­bum, and as he was get­ting more toys started chuck­ing bits in here and there. Some of the vo­cal chops were done us­ing a Ra­dio Mu­sic Mod­ule and Mutable In­stru­ments’ Clouds to cre­ate stut­ter vo­cal chops and in­ter­est­ing sound­scapes. We’ve also got a lit­tle MIDI Roland JP-08, which is one of the bou­tique Roland mod­ules.” Lee: “We’d been us­ing the Jupiter plugin for so long and it was such a go-to in our pro­duc­tions, but it was too un­sta­ble to use live, which was a right pain in the arse. In­stead, we’re us­ing an old Roland SH-32, which was knackered but still works.”

Tom: “I’ve also bought an Elek­tron Ana­log Keys, which is a game changer. To­tal re­call on an ana­logue synth in a dig­i­tal shell; it’s pretty fan­tas­tic. We also got one of the ARP Odyssey re­makes, which is amaz­ing for basslines.”

Of course, it’s not just the sound that’s changed, but pre­sum­ably the themes you write about no longer ap­ply. Or is it a case of sim­ply ex­press­ing them through a dif­fer­ent vo­cab­u­lary?

Tom: “There’s def­i­nitely been a dif­fer­ent ap­proach, and I had a dif­fer­ent aes­thetic in my mind for this al­bum. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s a lot colder and a bit more un­for­giv­ing. I don’t know whether that’s a true rep­re­sen­ta­tion of where we’re at in our lives, be­cause we’re all mid-to-late 30s and your pri­or­i­ties change and your out­look is more cyn­i­cal, but you’re also more con­tent. It’s a strange time in your life to call upon in­spi­ra­tion.” Lee: “The sec­ond to last track on the al­bum, Ra­dio De­cay, did have a spe­cific con­cept. It’s kind of about the last sig­nals from a planet that died a long time ago, and the beauty and sad­ness that comes with know­ing that you’re not alone, but also find­ing out that those peo­ple died thou­sands of years ago be­cause it’s taken that long for the sig­nal to travel across the cos­mos. I guess that’s a re­flec­tion on get­ting older, mor­tal­ity and the idea that noth­ing’s fi­nite.”

Pre­sum­ably, the cre­ative process has changed a lot since you first started too. Do you still jam to­gether as a five-piece and evolve ideas from those ses­sions?

Tom: “We’d love to be able to jam to­gether more but life gets in the way, so it’s ba­si­cally been Lee writ­ing most of it with me chip­ping in now and again. When we’re all to­gether in a room, it be­comes about learn­ing how to play the new tunes or re­hears­ing them for gigs.”

Lee: “We’re al­ways watch­ing the clock. Even when we’re look­ing to have a bit of free time and try out ideas, we’re usu­ally feel­ing a lit­tle bit stressed out and guilty that we’re hav­ing fun. But then some­times you just jam out a lot of old cob­blers don’t you?”

It sounds like there’s a ton of ef­fects on what­ever you’re us­ing?

Lee: “Ev­ery­body’s got dif­fer­ent stuff, so there’s pro­duc­tion stuff and live stuff and they crosspol­li­nate. In terms of the live setup, it’s ac­tu­ally quite sim­ple. I use an original Korg MS-20 and a Roland Sys­tem 1M and just use a re­verb and the de­lay in Able­ton on the end of my chan­nel and mess around with the de­lay time. But Tom and I will also use Able­ton’s Looper, be­cause that’s where a lot of the lay­er­ing comes from.” Tom: “I run hard­ware, like the Ana­log Keys, through a Kaoss Pad for live ef­fects. I like the hands-on per­for­mance as­pect and that’s what they’re built for. Sim­ple, in­tu­itive and you can choose an ef­fect and be ex­pres­sive and per­form it slightly dif­fer­ently ev­ery time. The prob­lem with elec­tronic mu­sic, and the thing we’ve al­ways been aware of, is that it’s gen­er­ally per­formed by a geezer be­hind a table and you never re­ally know what he’s do­ing. To be hon­est, a lot of

There’s def­i­nitely been a dif­fer­ent ap­proach, and I had a dif­fer­ent aes­thetic in my mind for this al­bum

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