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
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