“It’s very boring when a band’s records and live music sound exactly the same. It’s nice to take time doing something a little different on stage, but which is inspired by the record. You can take things in a different direction.” Nik Prowse chats to Martin Teff from Vessels
Following the release of the critically acclaimed The Great Distraction (reviewed elsewhere on Echoes and Dust), Nik Prowse managed to grab a few minutes on the phone with Vessels guitarist Martin Teff while they were on tour in northern Europe.
(((o))): Are you guys travelling at the moment?
Martin: Yeah we’re just driving between Rotterdam and Antwerp. We have a gig tonight in Antwerp.
(((o))): I saw you in the Soup Kitchen in Manchester and when we spoke after the gig you said that the new album had been a long journey. Did it take a long time to put together and write?
Martin: Yeah, we can be quite perfectionist at times, and quite self-critical as well. So we kind of go through lots of ideas and really work on them and develop them. And then sometimes it takes quite a long time to get from the first thing you think to where it needs to go. Then at some point along the way we occasionally abandon a few things that don’t go in the direction you want them to. Sometimes it can be that kind of long process. There are also times when it just kind of comes quite naturally and quite quickly. Probably more often it takes a long time.
(((o))): Did it come together over a number of years?
Martin: I’m not sure I could even pinpoint when the first track started. I would say a couple of years.
(((o))): So when did the collaborators get involved? There are several tracks on the album with vocal tracks by other people. So was it a case of producing a fully formed song and then giving it to someone? Or did you have their involvement earlier on?
Martin: It varied. Some of them were quite well defined. With ‘Deeper in the Sky’ [featuring vocalist Harkin] the vocal was crafted on top of the song. And other ones like ‘Deflect the Light’ [sung by Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne] was a bit more involved in collaboration in response to the vocals. The same with the John Grant track ‘Erase the Tapes’. It was much more a case that the musical idea inspired a bit of vocal and that then changed what the vocal was. It went round a number of times.
(((o))): I know Harkin’s actually based in Leeds, like you are, but for the other guys, did you approach them? How did you hook up?
Martin: We mainly approached them, just through mutual people that we’ve met. We were looking for the right people for the music.
(((o))): It must have been fabulous when they said yes.
Martin: It was definitely very welcome! In the case of a few people it was a nice surprise.
(((o))): I was really pleased when you played ‘Deflect the Light’ on stage, because a lot of bands who have got a guest vocalist on a record don’t tour with them, so they basically can’t play that material live. But you just added the Wayne’s recorded vocal. I thought it was excellent to hear that track live. It was really welcome.
Martin: It’s good to not limit yourself to only being able to do those things from the persons present on stage.
(((o))): I’ve been following your music since the first album. Obviously you’ve changed your sound massively since then. On paper it’s a career of two halves. You’ve got two guitar-based albums and two more dancey electronic ones. Was there ever a gameplan or did that change happen organically?
Martin: It was pretty gradual. If there was one milestone it would be when we did the James Holden remix (2012’s ‘The Sky Was Pink’) and that felt like a marker. After that, because that worked so well, we really enjoyed doing things like that and it just snowballed. I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision, but more a reflection of what we enjoyed playing.
(((o))): You’ve kept a lot of the stuff associated with being a rock band. For example you’ve still got two drummers on stage, and you play guitar. A lot of the sounds you do sound electronic, but actually are they made by traditional instruments just put through effects?
Martin: I’ve got lots of pedals for my guitar, almost like putting it through a modular system. It occasionally sounds like a guitar and a lot of the time you wouldn’t be able to recognise it.
(((o))): At the end of the gig you played a song from the last album, ‘4 am’, and Pete said something about working out how to play it live!
Martin: For live shows it’s often a bit of a challenge in figuring out how to translate something to play it live. Also the flip side of that is that it can be really fun, because it’s very boring the band’s records and live music are exactly the same. It’s quite nice to take a bit of time doing something a little different, that it’s inspired by the record. You can take things in a slightly different direction. It’s a different experience when you see the stuff live.
(((o))): Absolutely. I was pleased when you played ‘Deflect the Light’ but after that it morphed into something more merged together. The atmosphere just went up and you stayed up for the rest of the gig. It was only at times when you could tell there were discrete songs. It had more of a dancey vibe.
Martin: That’s good to hear!
(((o))): Do you still listen to guitar music? I spoke to Pete years back at a gig in Leeds and he was talking about bands like Red Sparrowes and Russian Circles. Do you still play a range of stuff, in terms of your influences?
Martin: What we listen to is not always obvious in the stuff we create. I don’t think any of us are too narrowly constrained by the music we listen to. One of the key differences between then and now is that I don’t think any of us spends all the time listening to post rock. But at the same time we’re still going to get the new Mogwai. It’s not like we totally ditched that either. We’ve broadened.
(((o))): You said on the press release for the album that “living, breathing human version of electronic dance music”. I thought that quote described your music really well, especially on stage. Have you go much longer on the tour?
Martin: We’ve got a London date with Tycho at the Roundhouse, which should be quite fun. We’ve got a few German shows next week and a couple of Spanish ones the week after. And then a bit of time for a break. We’re going to learn a few more songs from the album and do a little bit of writing and make some changes to what we’re going to play next year. The main set of shows for next year will be from around March onwards. We’ve definitely got a few exciting things festival-wise in the pipeline.
(((o))): You’re playing bigger venues presumably?
Martin: Yeah, on the back of selling out the London show we’ve got a new London show we’ve just announced at Oval Space. In some of the key places we are definitely stepping up the numbers and the size. We can combine that with better production, visuals- and lighting-wise.
(((o))): Do you have a road crew now?
Martin: This is the first time we’ve had a sound engineer and a tour manager. We’ve stepped up a little bit in the respect. Just the two. With the five of us in the band we need to keep it fairly tight, numbers-wise.
(((o))): What’s next? This album cycle, how long is it going to last?
Martin: A year or two. I guess it depends. Certainly we’ve got the festivals in the summer. We’re keen to get on with some new music as well. We’ve got some ideas that we want to work on for new music. The reception for the album has been really good so far, it feels like we’ve got a bit of a buzz, a lot of interest.
(((o))): Thanks for your time! I love the new album. Good luck with the rest of the tour