Vessels on their remarkable career change

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, he 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.”

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.

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 cross-pollinate. 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 the time they’ll give themselves things to do just to look busy, but we wanted to make the tracks as performable as possible. Yes, we try to get as close to the record as we can, but as the tunes progress in the live show, we think we can get more expressive and experimental so we don’t get bored playing them night after night.”

Lee: “We’ve also got an original Roland Space Echo and we’re running some of our synths and drum machines through that. I’ll smash a Vermona DRM1 Drum Machine through it, but we’re also using a Dynacord Echocord. That’s got a sick preamp on it and we’ll put a lot of the drums though that.”

You mentioned using the ARP Odyssey synth earlier, which is an absolute monster, right?

Tom: “It is. We initially bought it to replace the MS-20, just because it’s flat and would fit in a flight case easily. But when Lee started playing with it, we realised it’s so unhinged that it sounds amazing. It goes out of tune really easy, so it’s a bit of a liability to use live, whereas the MS-20 is really versatile and quite dependable. But you’re right, it is an animal and really great for percussive, weird synth sounds.”

The Roland Boutique JP-08 is a rework of the Jupiter-8. How do they compare?

Tom: “I watched someone on YouTube do an A/B between the JP-08 and the natural Jupiter-8, and when he pulled the scope up they were bloody close. Obviously, the original one is going to behave differently - it’s got the idiosyncrasies of a big old machine with big old circuits - but they’ve nailed it fairly well. It’s annoying that the controls are really tiny, and it’s quite difficult to find a sweet spot, but once you do, you just save your patch and off you go. 

“But talking about re-releases of old synths, when we were trying to find a replacement for the MS-20, we tried some of the new MS-20s and took Lee’s original one to the shop to A/B them. Apart from the filter, they were pretty much identical, but the filter on the original is so beautiful and expressive and is one of the main things we used live, so it’s worth taking a bigger box around just for that extra filter nuance [laughs].”

Do you still have live drums in the band, or has that aspect gone fully electronic too?

Lee: “We’re still using a live drummer and there are live drums all over the records, but they’ve been messed about with a bit. On the first track, Mobilise, the drums are clearly live but it’s all mixed in with programmed drums. It’s actually been quite a challenge to get the acoustics and electronics to sit nicely together. There are two live drummers in the band, and we also had two Roland SPD-Ss, which were OK but a pain in the arse to get sounds on and off. The new SPD-SX has a USB interface, and there’s loads more you can do once the samples are on there.”

Tom: “We’ve got three now. The guitarist has one, Lee has one on his little mini-kit with the hi-hat and the snare, and the drummer’s got one on his hybrid kit, which is a full drum kit with a trigger kick pedal, a trigger snare and pads. For him, it’s all about making it ergonomic, so he can still play quite openly.”

Lee: “By the way, the kick drum on the Korg Volca Beats is absolutely amazing. With stuff like that, we’ll make drum sounds and resample them. The Vermona DRM1 is great, too. It’s got a distinctive sound and eight separate outs, which go into the desk and allow me to EQ and affect everything separately, and kind of perform with it. You’ve got control over every aspect of each drum, and you can make basslines on it, too.”

What role do DAWs, soft synths and plugins play in your production process?

Lee: “I started off with Cubase back in the Atari ST days, but Ableton was a total game changer. I know people argue that it doesn’t sound that great and you should mix in Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase or even Reaper, but it’s so intuitive to me that it’s a joy to work in, and obviously you’ve got all the VSTs available too. I used to use a lot of VSTs and third-party plugins, but not as much these days, as I’m often sharing projects. When it comes to mixing, we’ll take the tracks down to the studio and use whatever software we need to use. To some degree, you can have too many plugins and it can be quite daunting and difficult to start a track. Setting yourself restrictions often brings out more creativity.”

How do those restrictions tie in with using your modular rack, where it’s easy to get carried away noodling for hours?

Lee: “Not that much, actually, because it’s not that big. I’ve only got two rows and the Roland System 1M on top. I’ve got to a point where if I need a sound, I’ll turn to an appropriate module and try to get it out. As I’m still learning, it’s giving me new ideas, so I’ll mess around a bit in the morning and experiment without any agenda and just record what I’m doing.”

Maths by Make Noise seems to be quite a common module these days…

Lee: “I think most people have that in their setup. It’s an amazing function generator and a constant source of surprises and inspiration. It’s basically an envelope generator, but with rise and fall rather than sustain/release, and you can add algorithmic or exponential curves to the release and trigger it, cycle it or cross-patch from one side to the other, so that one envelope can trigger another on its decay or end of cycle. And then you’ve got a bunch of attenuators in the middle, so you can really fine-tune incoming and outgoing signals. The whole thing about Maths is that it’s about cross-patching itself to get much more interesting envelope generation.”

What other interesting modules do you have?

Lee: “Mutable Instruments Veils, which is a quad VCA. It sums all of its inputs down to the last output, so you can use it as a mixer, and then you’ve also got logarithmic and exponential curves on the volumes. Then I’ve got a Xaoc Devices Batumi, which is a quad LFO module with three different outputs for each LFO: sine wave, saw wave and square wave. It just gives you very complex and interesting modulation outputs. The thing that I’m still really exploring is the Intellijel Cyclonix Rainmaker, which is a 16-tap stereo spectral rhythm delay and comb resonator [laughs].”

Could you explain what that does?

Lee: “It’s basically 17 delays in one, and you have various controls over each delay. You can have each delay pitchshifted by plus or minus 15 semitones, or anywhere in between, and each delay can be filtered to a different spot with a different resonance and cutoff, and you can pan them wherever you want and adjust the level amounts. It’s absolutely amazing, because you can build incredibly complex delays that can all be modulated and clocked.”

What does the comb resonator do?

Lee: “The comb resonator allows you to create interesting tonal resonances, but that’s the side I’m still trying to figure out. I’m a musician at heart and want to be able to play an instrument, and modular jut makes me feel like I’m accessing that part of my brain again. It’s horses for courses, but the most important thing is that, whatever equipment you use, it’s inspirational and intuitive, and doesn’t get in the way of the process of writing good music.”

The Great Distraction is out now on Different Recordings. Find out more at the band’s official website.

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