Bloody gremlins. I’m not talking about the 1984 film of the same name, of course – rather, it’s the technological kind. Vessels know all about those, since gutting your band from the inside and remaking basically everything about it will inevitably lead to some complications, and it seems we can’t be spared them for even a moment. Who knew adding two people to a Skype conversation could be such a difficult task? On a Wednesday evening in mid-February, it seems that Murphy’s Law has decided to kick in. Everything that can go wrong is indeed going wrong, and there’s audible relief on all sides once things settle down somewhat. “I’m on my phone, so apologies if the quality isn’t all that great” Tim Mitchell (drums) chimes in once we’ve established that everyone (myself, Mitchell and Tom Evans) is accounted for. We’re finally getting a chance to have a virtual chinwag about Dilate, the quintet’s much-anticipated, and slightly delayed, third LP, arriving more than a year after album track ‘Elliptic’ turned up on a teaser EP, meant to ease older fans into their new sound, a sound crafted with the help of producer Richard Formby. He’s not known for producing post-rock-turned-live-electro bands, is he?
“Working with him had a lot to do with the fact he was in Leeds, to be honest” Evans admits, the band opting to keep it local, a marked shift from their approach on the first two records. “It was quite sporadic. [For] the last two albums [White Fields and Open Devices & Helioscope], we went to America [with John Congleton] and recorded those in two weeks, while Dilate was put together over the course of quite a while. We did the Elliptic EP with him [Formby], then decided we really liked working with him. It was convenient, and we could be flexible with it, which was kind of necessary in the end.” Evans reckons the album’s been ‘given a nice personality’, and no wonder – as it happened, the band’s new direction was right up Formby’s street. “He’s got this big modular synthesiser that he’s been putting together over the years; we integrated that into a few of the tracks we did, since he was happy for it to be put to use. He has a history of interest in electronic music.”
“That was one of the nice things about that, wasn’t it?” Mitchell takes over. “I have to say I never actually met him – like Tom said, the way this album worked was different from the previous two, and by the time we needed someone to produce and mix it, getting someone local like Richard in was easiest. From what I’ve heard of what he’s done elsewhere [working with the likes of Ghostpoet and Wild Beasts], it was nice for someone to come at it with a sort of… warmer sound. We’re a live band - he’s worked with live bands before, and also has that interest in analogue synthesis, so that combination worked well. I mean, I haven’t seen his studio… that would have been nice.” It’s a wonder they were able to let the album go at all; I ask if they could have just ended up tweaking bits all the time, and Evans is in agreement. “The classic curse of digital music technology is that you can just keep going back to it, tinkering and changing and stuff. Richard mixes analogue – you use your ears, get it right, mix it down and then it’s done. You can’t go back to it. It’s refreshing.”
It may have been a refreshing process, but it was a rather protracted one, too: “I only went up to Leeds once, I think – to record some drum parts – and half of those ended up on the EP!” Mitchell reveals. “We were changing our way of working, from being a post-rock band recording live drums in the studio to being… a live techno outfit, whatever you want to call it. [People] don’t really record music in that way anymore; we’re trying to fuse those two ways of making music, and it’s still up in the air as to how we’re going to do that. We recorded some stuff that sounded a bit like old Vessels, and [that] went on the EP--“then he vanishes. I was about to get some tantalising info about Lee J. Malcolm playing drums on the new stuff too. Damn it. While we wait for Mitchell’s phone to get its act together, I ask Evans where the band are as regards playing the new stuff live.
“We can play basically everything on the album now, but there was a lot of retrofitting; we’d recorded everything for the record before we’d quite arranged the nitty-gritty of how we were going to perform them live. We have everything sorted now, and we’re starting to tentatively work on brand-new stuff that won’t even be on the record.” There’s a surprise! “Whether they get an airing on tour is yet to be decided.” Has the brand-new material found a home yet, I ask, after Tim returns from connection hell. “There are a lot of ideas knocking around. We also have a left-over from our sessions with Richard that hasn’t got a release plan yet. We were going to do an EP of techno covers as a stopgap between Helioscope and Dilate, but most of them ended up being a bit shit!” Their cover of Modeselektor’s ‘Blue Clouds’ survived, though, the sole remnant of the time the band thought about “going to play some gigs in clubs. We couldn’t follow through, because it took us about two years to make the transition from what we were to what we are now. That whole period was just us getting to grips with a set of new instruments for pretty much everyone: either learning to play your instrument in a new way or a completely new one, which was the case for P [Peter Wright], Tom, Lee to a lesser extent… I’m probably the only one left on the same instrument!” Mitchell exclaims, his drumming remaining a key part of the band’s rhythmic makeup.
“Everyone had to learn to fill new roles” Evans elaborates. “With the things we did before, we knew who’d be doing what and filling which space, but that’s changed quite a lot. Those techno covers were really useful from that point of view; no-one was getting het up about notions of creativity or whatever.” At this point, I’m slightly distracted, mainly because the arrival of a third Vessel has thrown things into disarray a bit. Lee J. Malcolm is not supposed to be awake at this hour. [Full disclosure: Lee was meant to be one of my interviewees. He had to drop out, but I accidentally added him anyway… and then this happened.] “It’s fucking nearly three in the morning in Bhutan!” Hang on, did you say ‘Bhutan’?! “He’s out there with an audiovisual interactive art project at the Bhutan International Festival, but it’s like six hours ahead, so…” It turns out Malcolm wants me to bring him in, so I do that. Good morning Lee! I hope I didn’t wake you up! “Where I am is just above India” he offers helpfully, after this unexpected turn of events has temporarily derailed my train of thought. I had been wanting to ask which member of the band had orchestrated the shift in sound, so I pose the question to my three interviewees.
Malcolm fields it. “We’ve always been using electronic elements in our music, but we’d never taken the step of incorporating these… dancefloor elements, if you like. We were still hung up on the whole post-rock/prog/math-rock thing. Not to depreciate the value of that sort of music, as it’s been an important part of our musical history, but we just saw so many bands doing that kind of stuff, and we all listen to so much electronic music between us. It was just like, ‘Let’s all try to do something that’s way out of our comfort zones in terms of how we make and perform music – make dance music in our own way.’ There was a lot of anxiety about how our existing fan-base would react, but I think if we hadn’t done that, we… we would have just stagnated, which would have been such a shame as we’ve all put so much time into this.” “Yeah, we hit a brick wall” Mitchell admits. “There’s only so much you can do with post-rock. [To Tom & Lee] I certainly felt like you guys were getting less bothered with playing and writing music for guitars. We’ve always listened to electronic music, so it was the logical thing to do. Lee, before you randomly messaged from Bhutan, I was about to tell Gareth [more] about the progression from being a post-rock band to being a techno band, where we spent three years learning and playing covers and then… didn’t.”
There’s that fear of stagnation again: going into hibernation to reinvent themselves could have resulted in a spectacular misfire. In the end, they decided to just go with it: “We didn’t end up with what we wanted from that exercise, but we still came out of it with a much better understanding of how to write and perform that music. It changed our setup to pretty much what we have today. It was the learning period.” As with all learning periods, it inevitably came with a few setbacks; those gremlins again. Having all their equipment crippled 10 minutes before they go on stage is all in a day’s work. “That’s every gig!” Evans responds. “Who is this guy? Have you been to a Vessels show?!” It’d be more newsworthy if things ran like clockwork, it seems. I mention that I caught them at the inaugural ArcTanGent in Bristol a couple of years ago – my first exposure to Vessels 2.0, when I had been expecting something entirely different. “Yeah, you and quite a lot of people at that festival; it’s like a math-rock/prog-rock festival.” They weren’t sticking out like a sore thumb, though. “It was the day that Fuck Buttons played” Evans recalls, something that made a weird sort of sense. “The thing about relying so heavily on technology is that if you add one new piece of equipment to your setup, the chances of everything going to shit are multiplied. We try to cover our bases and have backups for everything, but we’ll rarely play a gig where absolutely nothing goes wrong, [and even if it does], it’s not critical 99% of the time. Sometimes it is, though. We supported Public Service Broadcasting one time in Leeds, and left the laptop on under really hot stage lights, so it started overheating…” It didn’t explode, surely?! “It didn’t explode, but Tim plays his drums to a click [track], and it started speeding up and slowing down, glitching and stuff. He just had to follow it; I was the only person with in-ears [monitors], so I knew the computer was fucking up, but everyone else in the band was looking at Tim like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?!’ We all thought he was having a stroke!” Ever the master of understatement, Mitchell simply calls the experience ‘frustrating’.
I press them for more details. “The show was good fun, but it was a bit of a nightmare from a technical standpoint.” I imagine you could say that about any number of Vessels shows since their transformation, right? Ones in which things just randomly fuck up? Malcolm has just learned to make do: “It’s like Tom says – you add a new piece of kit into things, and then times by 10 the chances that it’ll fuck up. Everything that’s in our live setup, even though it looks possibly gratuitous, is there because there’s no way we could perform this stuff without having all that there!” Maybe Vessels sound more streamlined on record now, but it sure as hell doesn’t look it on the stage, according to Evans: “One of the ironies is that we thought we were streamlining because we were getting rid of the guitar amps, but in actual fact, it’s made things more complicated… ultimately for a good purpose. How do they cope with festival sets? “We’ve done them, but we can’t do them without huge amounts of stress. Everything has to be micromanaged – you can’t just rock up, play your show and then leave. Down to the last cable, we need to militarily organise every five minutes of that setup to get a 30- or 40-minute set out of it, not just play two songs and then leave.” Speaking from experience? “Yeah, we’ve done a few festivals where we just played two songs and left” Mitchell concedes. “We can’t really be that band that makes everyone else late.”
These festival sets may have been short, but fans in attendance may also have noticed an absence of older material. How much of it have they thrown out? The trio respond almost in unison. “All of it!” Seriously? “We played [Helioscope track] ‘Monoform’ with this setup” Evans reveals. “There are a couple of tunes we could still perform, logistically speaking, but 90% of it we can’t do anymore.” Did this raise any issues within the band? Malcolm takes over: “I wouldn’t say it’s been a bone of contention, but y’know, we’ve… obviously given a lot of thought to this ‘cut-off point’ thing from album to album. [To Tim & Tom] Correct me if I’m wrong, lads, but even though we could still perform a lot of what was from White Fields... & Helioscope, we… tend not to do that so much?” he tries, voice rising. I’m guessing it’s not really a conscious thing. “It seems kind of silly, but we… just get bored of playing those songs and want to move forward. There’s always something else in the pipeline. There were two songs from White Fields… we used to play in the Helioscope set; our top 2. The mathier ones–‘Altered Beast’ and… what was the other one? ‘An Idle Brain [And the Devil’s Workshop]’ – just because they were loads of fun to play. “And also—“Mitchell’s trying to cut in but instead cuts out again for a few seconds—“What I was going to say was, also it’s a case of each live set depending on what works on what doesn’t. We played those two songs because it’s what the set needed to make it work. With this new album and new music, deciding not to play the old stuff isn’t being wilfully obstructive to any fans who like that music, it’s just that it’s totally incongruous and doesn’t work in sets like that. Even if we could logistically do any of those songs, it would sound bad. If we had unlimited time and resources, it would be fun to do reworked or remixed versions of those tunes, but we’re so busy with other things, moving on, new compositions and all of that stuff that it’s never really a priority. We have tried that in the past, though – we played some live—““’Yuki’!” Malcolm suddenly exclaims, referring to a track off their debut, “we tried ‘Yuki’!” “…and that… er… wasn’t the most successful thing we’ve ever done” Mitchell responds sheepishly. A certain idiom about omelettes and eggs comes to mind.
“Right now we can only play the 8 songs we have, but as we get newer stuff under our belts we’ll be able to mix the sets around once people are used to the new style.” Malcolm reckons the situation the 2015 incarnation of Vessels find themselves in is an odd one: “That’s fairly obvious, but this whole thing has been about trying to… I dunno… trying to do what excites us, I guess; about doing something that’s not just reinventing the wheel. Not that…” He leaves that sentence unfinished; modesty is the best policy. “I don’t think there’s too many bands trying to do this kind of thing live - probably because it’s fucking hard--” Evans jumps in, eager to elaborate. “In the dance music world, it’s mostly just people with laptops, and as dance music fans, the times when we’ve seen bands perform dance music live have been some of the most fun parties that we’ve danced at. I think people like to see what they hear, ultimately. Even if you do know how to operate a lot of new (or old) analogue-digital equipment, a lot of people don’t, so they don’t know how what’s happening on stage translates to what they’re hearing.” Is that to say Vessels would never use playbacks?
Evans is adamant in his response: “We made a vow that we would never use backing tracks, though we do use loops since we don’t have enough hands in the band to do all the noises that we want to make.” There’s five of them, but they’d need to be superhuman to perform every single aspect of Dilate live; I reckon the album is ridiculously layered - where do those loops come in? Malcolm explains it with a reference to The Big Lebowski: “They’re kind of like Lebowski’s rug; they tie everything together. They‘re four- or eight-bar loops that we just keep bringing in and mixing up depending on the room we‘re in, like how a DJ would… unless we just run out of hands. It’s a bit like spinning plates sometimes, but there’s a lot to be said for it; how you can play two, three, four notes and then do something as simple as adding a filter to add expression to those notes. The whole thing about, y’know, math rock and all that kind of stuff, it’s very much like--for want of a better term--penis waving. ’Look what I can do! Look at all these crazy rhythms we can play!’ These days, I find [simplicity] more significant.” Understandable, since they’ve been a band for almost a decade, or in real terms, ‘since the Napoleonic Wars’ (their words, not mine).
The mention of the 10-year milestone allows me to segue into my next point, namely that Vessels chose worriedaboutsatan as their tour support for a few shows. They’re also celebrating their 10th year of existence, having also been in the wilderness for a few years, so there are a few parallels there that mean that choice makes sense, right? “They’re good mates” Malcolm replies. “We’ve known them essentially since the beginning, and they’re on a similar sort of mission to us; that’s one of the reasons. There’s room for two more people in the band! They don’t have a massive setup--I don’t mean to cheapen them; it’s not that. We chose them for musical reasons, and it just worked out that way--but they’ve certainly paid their dues, and Ghosting Season’s--”Malcolm cuts off without warning, because of course he does. Technology, eh? Evans and Mitchell cover for him while he wrestles with Bhutanian internet: “They’re great guys and we love their music.”
Malcolm eventually finds his way back into the conversation while I look for a new angle, which boils down to asking them how in the hell they’ve managed to stay together for a decade. It’s a more impressive feat than you might think; so many bands from their scene didn’t last: the likes of ¡Forward, Russia!, This Et Al, Grammatics, Shut Your Eyes And You’ll Burst Into Flames… so why not Vessels? I put it to Evans, Mitchell and Malcolm and am met with hearty chuckles, before Mitchell takes it upon himself to respond; apparently he’s ‘got the best answer’, according to Malcolm. “It’s quite interesting because, as you say, a lot of other bands from the Leeds scene have split up or whatever; you made a point about us changing our sound to give ourselves something to work towards, and that possibly has helped keep us together. It certainly hasn’t been an easy four years, and for that reason we have a lot invested in making this work. It was a hard slog for everyone, really, but we were determined to make it work. We’re just now getting to the point where we’ve relaxed into it a bit - it seems like there’s momentum now in terms of what we can do, [something] which has taken four years to get to. The rest of the guys still live in Leeds; I live in Bristol, so I didn’t know if we were going to be able to survive that, and it hasn’t been particularly easy, but as you get older… if you still want to keep doing this, you don’t have the same luxuries as you did in your 20s. We basically all stayed in a basement for three years playing music! We threw out, like, 70% of what we wrote, and because of that we can now approach things differently - more wisely. Look at what we’re doing now, having a Skype conversation on two continents; that’s quite indicative of the way that you operate at this stage in life. The important thing is making sure you still play music together; you can still play music over ‘the cloud’, but that’s not the same as playing in a band.” So they’d never consider sending their parts in from different countries, or even continents? Is it all about that everyone-in-the-same-room dynamic?
Evans is of the opinion that it’s open to discussion: ‘We’ve never been against that in principle, but the real magic happens when you’re all together. It’s energy, the same thing you get when you’re in a crowd watching a live band, rather than a guy with a laptop… you’re bouncing off each other with the sounds you’re making, and that’s always going to be important.” Malcolm reckons it’s down to the way the band operate. “It tends to be that not everybody’s there for the process; [Tom and I] write most of the music, but not only is there a sense of ownership from everyone, there’s also a sense of… I guess, what we’d call a ‘shit filter’. We’re not a super-successful band, but we respect each other’s tastes enough to justify having a song be collectively agreed upon as something we want to perform and put our name to as musicians. I write a lot of music, Tom writes a lot of music, and it’s not always going to be great.” That’s why they have their solo projects, then? (Evans records as Peasman, and Malcolm records under his own name.) “Yeah, for when you don’t want anyone else’s opinion telling you what works and what doesn’t!” Malcolm responds. “I need to have some stuff where I can just tell the rest of you to fuck off!”
It’s this sort of dynamic that has helped the five people collectively known as Vessels to stick together through considerable turbulence, even though they admit that ‘they’d be lying if they said they didn’t have their differences’, but keeping everyone on side through a period of complete reinvention must be commended. “I think this band’s just a really important part of our lives” Evans says when I ask him how they’ve managed to stay intact. “Everyone here just loves what they do, and I think it allows us to stay connected to people.” “That’s what music’s about, isn’t it? Connection?” Mitchell chips in. “Absolutely. I’d be heartbroken if I didn’t get to do this. The guys in the band are like my best friends--not just in the band, behind the scenes and everything--and… it’s sort of… I know it sounds clichéd, and I’m sorry if it is, but it’s kind of like a family that you’ve chosen.” It’s awfully clichéd, but it makes sense, certainly enough to print. “Shit!” Evans exclaims jokingly. “Make it in really big letters at the top of the page!” Malcolm adds. “Yeah, and make sure you put my name beside it…” Besides all this, Evans has a point to make. “There’s loads of musical influences [going into what we do]. Pete [Wright] loves his finger-picking-style guitar; he’s really into it. It’s what he listens to probably more than anything else, and that’s his thing. Tim doesn’t listen to techno as his main thing…” “Neither does Tom; in fact, I’d say the only one of us who listens to techno 24/7 is probably Martin [Teff]!” Mitchell reveals. “It’s been the backbone of our friendship for such a long time because it’s an obvious connection point. It’s what keeps us together.” “That’s not quite true about Martin, mate” Evans corrects Mitchell, “I’d say he listens to about 70% techno and 30% Elliot Smith!” That sounds… incongruous. “That’s the beauty of music, though, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t have come up with a better clincher myself if I’d tried. The only thing left to do is find out what the hell Malcolm is doing over in Bhutan, something that’s beyond even his bandmates. “It’s been mental!” he tells us. “I’m doing this thing called Danceroom Spectroscopy, a project we started about five or six years ago. It’s like a sonic art installation sort of thing, using particle physics, quantum physics, self-generated sound, Xbox Kinect camers, 3D mapping and all sorts of crazy shit. It’s pretty cool. That’s what I’m doing out here in Bhutan with a lot of other interesting people - you wouldn’t believe who’s out here, mate, it’s fucking ridiculous!” Life on the edge, no doubt. “Tomorrow, I’ve gotta wake up at half eight, get some breakfast and go travelling for an hour and a half across Bhutan to get to [Tiger’s Nest] monastery, and I’ve got to climb up a mountain for about three hours.” Cue incredulity from Evans and Mitchell, and admittedly myself. Everyone just collapses into giggles, which is a weird way to end an hour-long interview, but Vessels know all about things getting weird. They’ve been through the wringer, but have come out of it sounding better than ever. Not even those gremlins can stop them now.