Bill Cummings 07/12/2008
At the start of this year, we tipped the Leeds act Vessels we offered that the five piece 'show the world that interesting music isn't always something to be frightened of. They manage to show that you CAN have a variety of songs and still maintain your own identity as a band, and you CAN have post-rock with vocals, and you CAN be mellow and ambient one moment, and rocking out with planet sized riffs the next.'
Considering their debut album 'White fields and Open Devices' has made it onto GIITTV's top 50 albums of 2008, list we thought it was high time we had a chat with them, but more than that we wanted a track by track guide to their album. Being the fine chaps, Vessels' Tom Evans and Lee J. Mitchell happily obliged:
TOM: Those of you who owned our first EP will recognise the reference in the title of this tune. The first track on our self-released EP is called 'The Beast', and this tune, in its early stages at least, sounded reminiscent of a more mash-up version of that old live favourite. It certainly has a similar vibe in places, although I personally don't think the finished version has much to do with the old EP unaltered Beast. It came together over quite a long time, maybe a few months, I think, and was probably the first time we'd successfully married the more mathy and more post-rock elements of our sound successfully into one piece. The weird time-signatures in the middle took aaaages to get down, but now seem like a piece of piss compared to the tendonitis-inducing "An Idle Brain...". When we play this live we often open the set with it, and drag out the squelchy synth intro to the extremes of sillyness. Some of our music can be pretty po-faced and serious at times, so it's nice to just make a laughably ridiculous noise now and again.
A Hundred Times in Every Direction
LEE: This track came about largely because I wanted an excuse to justify carrying two drum kits around with us and I plan to increase this justification. 'A Hundred Times...' started life as a really mathy tune but, bit by bit, the mathy sections were removed and it turned into more of a head nodder. It felt more fluid and fun to play. Again it was one of those tracks that came together after much adding and subtracting until we all stopped arguing. That's generally how these things are done. Once people stop complaining about the song it's usually ready. This tune became one of my favourites to play live beacuse I hadn't played the drums in front of a crowd for years.
TOM: This piece started life ages ago, way before Pete joined the band, but it ended up being the first to be influenced by his existence. Lee had the main chord structure and electronic beats (which, during the programming, he'd hit upon a happy accident), and the rest of the creation of the tune was apprached with this title in mind. The two of us locked ourselves away for an evening recording loads of zither and psaltry (a medieval bowed-instrument) samples, allowing for slips in rhythm and tuning to add to the potential 'accidents' that could occur. We then jammed it together with Martin and Tim - Martin on 2nd guitar and Tim on electronics - until we had the basic structure down, then finished the detail of the skittery zither samples during the recording of the first version (which came out on a Dance To The Radio compilation).
When I told Pete (who I was living with at the time) what the song was called, he immediately quoted Bob Ross, who I'd never heard of at the time - "We don't make mistakes, we have happy accidents.". With the realisation that this was exactly what the track needed, we set about watching 8 hours of Bob Ross re-runs on VHS trying to find this elusive quote, before stumbling on this beauty. We ended up taking quite a large segment of speech in the end, as it worked as a nice analogy between painting and composing.
An Idle Brain and the Devil's Workshop
LEE: I wrote this one.
TOM: Yeah, Lee wrote this one. Did it on his laptop and taught us all how to play the parts. Not much of a story there, I'm afraid. It went under various names - "Shower of Shit", "Shower of Bastards", "Shower of Bestiality"...... you get the idea. The static noise in the middle was (producer John) Congleton's idea, which I now try and replicate live with my new effects pedal, to invariably comical results. The sample in the second section was actually audio taken from video camera footage of a walk we had through the grounds of the studio on the last day. If you listen very closely you can hear a special cameo vocal appearance from Martin: "errrrrr...".
Walking Through Walls
TOM: This was put together around Pete's acoustic guitar line that comes in near the end. It had been a part of one of his solo tunes that was never finished, so we rinsed it for Vessels instead. It's also the only tune on the album that was intially composed without Lee's input (he was off on his laptop writing 'An Idle Brain....'). We had almost finished writing it when we went out to America to record, but it was one of two songs (this and 'Wave Those Arms, Airmen') that we had purposefully left to see what would happen in the studio. During the recording sessions, we took half a day off recording to finalize the structures on these tunes, and while me, Tim, Martin and Pete finished this one, Lee was sitting in the control room listening to the piece and writing some electronica beats to go over the top. He then plugged his guitar into every single pedal we collectively had, split the signal into 3 differnet amplifiers, played 3 notes and let the pedals do the work. This created the beautiful soundscape that sails over the top. I also added the second verse of vocals that day as well, a worthy last minute addition.
LEE: The best story about this tune is how it got it's name. While demoing the tune at home, we saved the file under the name "Twazzer", as you do when demanded to name an unfinished piece of Work - write the first thing that comes into your head. So you see where the name comes from, yeah? Sneaky, huh? Anyway, that's not the best bit of the story. This comes when transferring the file from one computer to another, it was burned onto a CDR with "TWAZZER!" emblazoned accross it in huge letters and slipped, foolishly, into a CD wallet that also contained the Vessels EP cover as well. This, obscuring the fact that the CD inside was not in fact a Vessels EP, created the situation where a nice man called Dave ordered our EP through Paypal, and soon sent us a message: "Hi there. I ordered your 5-track CD through your myspace, but when it arrived there was only one song on it and it had "TWAZZER" written on the front......". Oops. Not only that but we never got around to sending him the replacement - he had to get it off us in person at a gig! We're still friends, though. Honest. Props to John Congleton for making the electronics sound fully mint on this tune.
Look at that Cloud!
TOM: A very old tune. We finished every gig with this one for about a year, until it became really cliche for us, but it definitely feels like it's got it's own gravity or something when we play it well. We were sitting on the basics of the tune for about 6 months before we finished it. I wrote the harmonic intro line sitting on the park in summer 2005. We put it together with the chords of the first section and it sounded nice but pretty much abandoned it for a while. Later in the year, in fact the last rehearsal of 2005, we gave it another chance, this time slowing it right down and adding more reverb than was strictly necessary, and it all began to come together. We played it round a few times, untill we stumbled onto the held chord, with the build up section, and as we got louder and louder and plan was formulating in Lee's head. He started pointing at the 2nd fret between strums, indicating which chord to go to when it dropped, so we dropped, and it sounded awesome. He then kept pointing to each successive chord for that entire ending section, which we nailed in that take with no discussion. There's still a recording of that jam somewhere, and you can almost hear (in the playing) the excitement that we've found something pretty special.
LEE: This was written at about the same time as 'Happy Accident'. I came up with the piano and acoustic guitar parts first, then programmed the beats and set up the midi controller for Tim to play with. The real Eureka moment for this tune was while jamming with the electronics for the first time, and Tim turned up the delay feedback on the beats to full and it morphed into this groove, almost psy-trancey, and we kind of worked backwards from there. Tom wrote some vocals, and we sequenced it all together. It used to be called 'Yuki Otogawa', after someone i met in a dream, and it had a big kick-in overblown ending after the "Hold up, held down" bit, but during the recording of the single version we chopped that whole segment off, deciding it was unneccessary. That's one for the bootleggers in a few years time.
Two Words & a Gesture
TOM: The first of our tunes to employ dual-drum kit action. For ages we were playing gigs where we'd have a 2nd drum kit set up on stage for the whole set, and then use it only for the last minute of the last song. We actually played this every night on one of our tours before I had written any words, so I was just singing gobbledygook while trying to refine the melody. Strange thing was, when we got back off tour and I wrote some lyrics down, it sounded well rubbish and I'd somehow lost the melody I'd developed. Lee stepped in and gave me the melody for the opening lines, and I scratched the lyrics and started again and it all worked out pretty nice. We're yet to write a tune based around a vocal melody, so it can be hard work getting vocals right in this band. We have a loose policy in that if it doesn't feel like it needs vocals, then we won't use them, yet we like the additional timbre / impact that vocals can have so we don't want to become a fully instrumental band. There's too many bands of our ilk that have all the subtlety of their music shat on by inappropriate singing, so we're wary of that as well. I think this is my favourite actual "song" that we do. Although I personally prefer the vocal take on the single version.....
Wave Those Arms, Airmen
TOM: This was probably the most hard work to finish, partly because it was the last song we wrote before recording, so we had an actual deadline, and partly because we had the ending sorted out (Lee programmed a version of the ending on his laptop) and we were finding it hard to develop a tune that would justify having such a massive overblown outro. We must have churned out about 15 different sections of this tune before throwing 13 of them away and finally using just a few. It definitely felt a bit like hitting our head against a brick wall at times, but once Lee found the chord progression for the first section, it all became obvious. My favourite bit is the e-bowed line in the middle, which Congleton put a octaver-effect on to make it more beefy. It reminds me a bit of whale-song, in a way. We also borrowed a glockenspiel from the local primary school in Canon-Falls for use on this tune and 'Two Words...' who we forgot to thank on the album sleeve, so if you ever happen to be passing them by, give them a thank you from us!