- Tom Vek »
What do you ask a man whose musical voice has been missing from UK music for five years? It's not that Tom Vek revolutionised anything, though it could be argued that he came along at a time when home recording or self-recording was very much being considered as 'the future' and was held up as a prime example of what could be done on a budget. We Have Sound was an accomplished debut, something that sounded unique to him and, thus, garnered a cult following who were subsequently bemused by the sudden silence that followed. One of the DiS boards' jokes over the past half decade has been to muse upon the whereabouts of the mysterious Londoner, who appeared to have disappeared from the face of the planet. Leisure Seizure represents the work of Mr Vek from 2006 'til now and while most would say not a lot has changed, did we really want him to sound any different? The following transcription comes from an interview a few weeks ago in an innocuous coffee shop in Farringdon, London. The man himself is adorned in casual blazer, slicked back hair and prominently rimmed glasses. He's relaxed, friendly, thoughtful and, before I press record, we're talking about our attempts to keep fit including his fondness for squash. Cue conversation...
We'll start with the most obvious question which, unfortunately you're gonna be asked a lot, if you haven't already, which is...
“What's my favourite racquet sport?”
Yes! No. What have you been doing for the past five years.
“I've been working on making an album, I guess which some people don't think should've taken me five years. But I would split it up into taking control of the whole process in terms of finding a location. I had to be my own landlord, equipment repair, equipment purchaser, equipment consultant and recorder/engineer. It may sound a bit stupid but the whole point was to get set-up. There's a lot that can distract you when the pressure is taken off to a degree which, I have to say, played a part in the beginning, because of the nature of how you are supported as an artist which is not necessarily the right way. I challenge anyone to receive five years of their wage upfront and see how it affects your motivation! But I'm proud that I did manage to make it last the length of time that I needed to make music. So it was protracted in the beginning. I was also learning some production techniques that had kind of appeared on the first record but I started with the idea that I could jump straight into that and realised I wasn't quite up there yet. I was putting down ideas and stuff and using them as a way of experimenting with the new equipment. And then I moved studios eleven times. I've always been fascinated by the small print of albums. All the thanks, a whole paragraph of people you've never heard of before. I always loved...and I think it comes back to how much I love fundamental branding and even company names, I think I just like officialisation. So I wanted to establish that all for myself - build my own world and have a studio that someone could visit and it not be a disappointment. I finally found a space I liked at the beginning of 2009 and I think that was when I was finally equipped. But then I also found it was a bit odd because I was so out of that mindset...it was hard getting back into thinking about music. It was only two and a bit years from that point to now which is a normalish time (for an album). I did use bits I'd done before that but the majority of it was done in that period.”
From 2009 onwards?
“Yeah. Because, I like working with something...taking something that's quite kind of spontaneous and quickly spinning it into a song or something without working on it too much. A lot of these early ideas, just because they had come earlier, had lost their sheen. You can do it, and to be honest there's this kind of lull where the older stuff that you've forgotten about, allows you, just for a moment, to act on it until you remind yourself you've already been through all of this and stopped. Long answer but that's it.”
So you weren't working on musical ideas as such between those two time periods, between collecting your equipment and sorting out the studio?
“Well, I was putting stuff down but it's just that finishing thing wasn't happening because...I think it was psychological because I didn't WANT to finish anything. Weird. I think everyone likes the idea of just doing a whole album and just delivering it and you need to be in a fairly comfortable position to do that. I didn't want to have the album dribbling in. So, I was keeping it within...I was getting the impact of starting a track and looking at it thinking 'I know how this could work' and it was weird because I would do something and I'd get it in a position where I could listen to it - usually because I would loop it up for like three minutes - but it was only on a rare occasion where I would play something to someone but then you think it sounds like an unfinished mess. But I still knew what was gonna happen to it. So the stuff that was just okay, I didn't need to do that. That's a two way thing sometimes you DO need to push something through and work on it but ideally a great deal of the stuff did have that thing..the fact I really liked it so much at the beginning which pulls it through all the way is the most exciting spark that you look out for. But I think that has a lot to do with your mindset and confidence in general. If you did a lot of work on it and you go 'what's the point', like anyone, and you get more existential about it, not a lot can happen in that environment, so it was important that I made sure I was happy where I lived and was seeing a lot of my friends and, in a way, trying to connect with London a little bit. I was very proud that I was declared a London musician. And then, when you lock yourself up in a room and be all like weird and introverted you're like 'I could be anywhere paying less rent, living cheaper'. In other words I love London.”
The whole London thing is quite interesting because I have a thing about a connection between creativity and place and how much it might feed into your work.
“What thing? Like you agree with it?”
Yeah I think there's something massive to it, but I like to ask individual musicians, writers, whoever really how much it affects what you actually do. So...how much did it affect what you do?
“I think in a big way actually, yeah. It's like this mean but cool friend; you pay for your friendship with it. I always think that like most fundamental reasons people are attracted to cities, it does scream of potential and opportunity. It also has this sinister quality; it's unpinned by this grotesqueness which is also quite attractive in certain ways. I still love the fact that you can still feel like you have the space though...every now and again I'll be walking through Soho or something and then walk down Carnaby Street and have it all to myself. That's such an amazing experience and that's why you're there. You put up with all the business to have the weird times when all these buildings and things that were established long ago, you can now have your own time with it. I like that. The evenings are very moody. It's great.”
I mean it's where I was born and hopefully where I'll settle eventually. I have other places to go first of course.
“I also like travelling to a degree. There's a frustration that you can't really put yourself right into the centre of IT but I do like going in and out of London. We live east enough that there's a little bit of journey and I kind of actually like that. It means you can leave it. You don't want to be in the centre all the time.” It's a bit extreme. “Well you can't be objective about London when in the centre.”
When you listen back to your album – I don't know if you do this...
“I listen to it a lot, yeah.”
Ah, that's good because a lot of people don't.
“It's weird. It's so indulgent and I'm entitled to that indulgence. I hope it doesn't sound convoluted but I do listen to it to make sure it's good enough. Coz when I'm first doing something I have to want to listen to it. That was, I think, the answer to a question I was asked earlier: “When did you realise it was all coming together?” It was when I wanted to listen to a track outside of the working environment. Quite selfishly, I am my own audience. I don't make music for anyone else. I like to think that's the artistic prerogative. I listen to it a great deal and as I work on it more and more I start listening to it and obviously I was listening to it very specifically while mixing it on headphones. Then when its finished I listen to it again for pleasure. Right now it sounds good. Now that we're in the position where I'm intrigued, or kinda coming to terms with the fact that hopefully a great deal of other people are going to listen to it as well, I listen to it and try to be quizzical myself. I put something else on my iPod and then I really wanna quickly hear one of my tracks and compare it. Ultimately, quite innocently, it's because I like listening to it.”
Well good, because it is a great listen.
“Yes I recommend it!”
Is it hard..? No, not hard, that's not the right word. Did you make a conscious effort to sound like yourself?
“It's a good question. I think that it's more of a process of not sounding like something that you consciously relate to being something else. You start with something and dig away everything you either don't need or sounds like something else or is not necessary to do. There's a lot of music that I like that I think someone has done really really well. You take influence from that but there's no point in me doing exactly something like that. I don't really know what the feeling would be like to actively say my music doesn't sound enough like my music. So, I come at it from another way around. There are a couple of tracks started later on which started from a very different place and I though 'This sounds wildly different, this is great!' Or you just think I like this and I work on it and it ends up sounding more and more like my brush strokes. I'm not that qualified. I have friends who do music professionally and they do music for ads and stuff and they can answer a brief and I wouldn't know where to start. It would just sound like another one of my songs if they asked me t do that.”
Why do you think that is though? Is it because you weren't trained or just the way you've learnt music?
“Yeah, because I'm literally only skilled in what I like and want to do and is easy enough for me to find interesting. It was so much of a past time that it's just about filling those things in. I didn't study any syllabus so there's this very thin vein of skills running through it and I can go off in any direction and immediately I'll hit a wall of something that I need to find out what to do. Sometimes it's kinda frustrating because I have no ability to jam or improvise or anything. That's what the writing process is like for me; it's the exploration and then the chronic naïvety towards what I'm doing. It's funny when we come to translate the songs to a live setting. The guitarist is like 'that's an e major seventh'. And I'll be like 'I thought I'd made that chord up actually.' I mean that's a joke but I only have my references and my exploration as my palette anyway. It's the classic ignorance is bliss ting. My laziness keeps me there I think, my lack of true conviction to be pushing the musical envelope. You can debate whether people have explored the edges of music anyway. I'll never claim it as my responsibility to do that. If you believe in an artist you believe in how they apply themselves to everything. The best thing is to be working hard at what you like doing and if you make sure you throw yourself into what you like, you can't complain.”
As far as control goes, as you say, you seem to have built your own world in which to create, but it extends to your artwork as well. That's all yours. It's stupid asking how important it is – it seems to be extremely important – but how easy is it to keep complete control of everything you do?
“It's easy because anything that someone else doesn't have to do for you is gonna be fine for them. That is surprisingly easy. I think I'm more kind of arrogant and I have more of a punk approach to the artwork than I do to the music. It doesn't matter at all, in a way. It's a very double edge thing because I studied it, I think I have more confidence because I know what I'm doing. It's a pretty indirect process and I find it completely completely free because a good artwork isn't gonna make my album better or worse. That world is fascinating of that. Some of my favourite album covers are poor but from albums I adored.”
Give me a couple of examples.
“The only one I can think of is my favourite album cover which is Soul Coughing's second album Irresistible Bliss which is a weird montage of nonsense but I do think it is amazing and it has inspired me. On its own artwork still can have design merit and it can be unfussy. It can be not vulgar and not screaming for attention, it can be meaningful. I mean, we would have art school debates in the bar - these kind of existential debates – like does it matter at all or what is the point if you're advertising an awful product. You can design something to pull the wool over someone's eyes but you are completely helpless besides lending an experience to something. But then again you can argue you're just a cog in a big thing and it does make a huge difference and if everything is working then, there must be a name for it, you're in one of those roles where if you're screwed, you're screwed anyway but if it's going well you can push it up to that next degree that makes truly valid, inspiring and brilliant artwork. It's always good to look in that direction. Iconic covers are only covers of iconic albums bar the very odd exception which still become cult records.
Okay so I don't like throwing people's lyrics back at them, ever. It's very rare that I do but I need to ask: 'World Of Doubt'; is that autobiographical at all?
“I think that's just condensed rhetoric. The lyrics are...I like writing in soundbytes. All those sentences, particularly that track which is pretty much continuous verse, each sentence is almost a self contained soundbyte and then I just try to put the ones that sound most similar together. It's just meant to be suggestible nonsense really. That track particularly and that's one of the most wordy songs I've ever written because it's like four verses. Usually I conform to a very strict grunge arrangement of only having two verses max...”
...And a chorus that repeats forever.
“Yeah exactly, which is good and which I like. That one is really influenced a kind of scene in the 90s of music, American stuff, which all had that vocal delivery, almost like some sort of sarcastic speech, sort of a rant. Cake are a big influence on that track. That's what I liked about this song but then it becomes it's own beast because of this relentless drum break and the sub bass which, mainly when I think of that song all I think of is the sub bass notes.”
As far as sounds go, are they all self-made?
“Yeah, that's the thing; there's two rules in my music. The first is I perform everything and the second one is there are no samples. That's funny, it happened on the first album and also on this one, I'd use a dictaphone quite often to record ideas and I'd start off that a lot and that's what makes it sound like it's from somewhere else or it's on vinyls. I was reading a track by track review that said there was like a sample of some girls singing and that made me chuckle because I knew it was me. It never started as a manifesto and I love sample-based music, like I love DJ Shadow. That's the ironic thing. I'm so influenced by that and I think it was just because I don't have a big vinyl collection at home. It was easier for me to record something and re-use it than dig in some crates. I love that sound. It goes to show that he can re-appropriate other peoples music and make his own as well so its like his music is just as much his as mine is I reckon.”
Do you have a favourite moment on the album or is that too much like choosing between babies?
“It's a little bit like that even though it's a clichéd answer. I'm very much into the outro of 'A Chore'. I tend to not to write outros; they're are a more exotic thing on my tracks and it really wraps that song up. The track 'Seizemic', I can't really describe 'Seizemic' at all. I don't even know where it came from and I like it massively as a result. There's some humming in that song - stereo humming - which I wouldn't normally put in a track. It's nice when that sort of thing happens. I know what this track needs: humming. I have to say I could almost go through minute by minute and pick out bits.”
So when you put tracks together, is it piece by piece or something that flows from an original idea or centre point?
“Increasingly it's more using samples and loops. Occasionally something happens in a more linear thing. Weirdly enough 'A Chore' kinda came across like...that noise in that song was developed from something so different, a completely different song in its own right actually. Once I arranged them pretty much ion song length, the drums are pretty much live and the bass is live so that has more of a linear thing to it. Other tracks will be written in chunks and beats squashed together and I suddenly decide to change the arrangement. But then again, weirdly, the ballad of the album 'Close Mic'd', even though that's so electronic, that's a live performance which is what I find captivating about it. The story is I was working on this piece of equipment I got which I really liked. It's like a a cross between an (Akai) MPC and a 303 or something. You can do quite a lot of performance on it which I really like. One of the issues with electronic music is how predetermined it all is. I tend to record all the electronic stuff as audio as well which means you can't do anything with it. It's all about the noise, not about the midi note and the million synths I can manipulate. Which is just because it makes my life easier. I'm always thinking in blocks and stuff. It's a more modern approach using an editing machine as an instrument. Repetition does have an effect. The third time the loop goes round, the mind changes.”
A lot of people STILL think making music that way and the repetition extracts the soul from music.
“I think if the drum loop sounds good, you need to bash people round the head with it! There are a couple of tracks on the record where the one drum loop goes all the way through and the acid test really is I'm listening to that all day - and if I'm still listening to it at the end of the day - then awesome. I think The Neptunes had an enormous role in popularising that and DJ Shadow as well.“
Are you a fan of extraneous noises, things you didn't mean to happen and letting them happen?
“Yeah. Massively. That's what you look for in a way. The thing is there is an element of artistry and consideration in knowing what to do with these things. Also some of the most amazing sounds going on in some soundcheck right now are never gonna be recorded but you know...I don't wanna be too extreme about it. I remember getting too extreme about principles last time. It's a pretty relaxed process but I've just utilised what was handed to me that day, at the time and I can account for. And then you put some hard work in. And if it's good, great. It's kinda being fatalist about it.”
Finally, rather than asking whether you're bothered about success, I'd like you to define it for yourself in terms of this record.
“It's a tricky question and it does jar, the reality of it being a career. Particularly with the climate of music and how people experience it and the sheer amount of talented people out there who may or may not be getting the chance to be a part of it. It sounds tacky I guess but the album's already a success because it's finished and it's made and there's this genuine point which I think is important for any artist to realise where nothing is actually a possibility - an absence of art is at one end of your scale. There's no point in doing it if people don't like it and that's the gamble that you take so it's hard. It's not meant to be merely consumed, it's not really its purpose. What is afforded of you as an artist is when your creative output is held up by people as an influence on their lives. It's gonna be viable for a career for me only if people find it enjoyable to have in their lives, which I like the idea of, because it is all meant to be thought-provoking and aspirational while avoiding melancholy. I've grown up a bit and I feel not as keen as being miserable or plunging an emotional depth. I almost like that abstraction and the reality of aesthetic modern art that people get pretty upset about. You know, using pretty colours. Ultimately, I think, I'm a bit of a visceralist. A couple of years ago there was this amazing piece by Roger Hiorns (NB: appropriately titled Seizure) where he filled a council flat with copper sulphate crystals and I appreciated the visceral, fundamental impact of that and I think – sort of why I like drums so much, which obviously I think dubstep is pushing to an incredibly successful degree in terms of how visceral THAT is - this doesn't have to be challenging. It's not something that has to be a chore to listen to.”
Leisure Seizure is out now. Tom Vek plays live on the following dates:
13th June - Manchester Ruby Lounge
14th June - Glasgow Classic Grand
15th June - Birmingham HMV Institute Library
16th June - London Heaven
18th June - Brighton Concorde 2
- Drowned In Manchester #10 – Festival Preview Spotify Special
- In Photos: Bestival 2011 @ Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight
- Tom Vek announces November tour dates
- Leeds Festival 2011 - Drowned In Sound's Saturday Blog
- In Photos: Reading Festival 2011 - Day 1
- Spotify Playlist: Drowned in Sound's Songs of the Year (So Far)
- Watch: New Tom Vek video for 'A Chore'
- Disappearing & keeping it all in...DiS meets Tom Vek