“Well, this is the thing…” Tom Vek inhales, and soon you’ll know why.
It’s been six years, one month and two days since he released debut album ‘We Have Sound’; half a decade since he ducked out of the limelight and became experimental pop music’s yeti – a near myth; a figment of our imaginations; a bespeckled cult figure who vanished from the grid completely. By rights – and all probability – we should all be thinking ‘Tom who?’. In his absence we’ve been given Spotify, Twitter, Facebook, Bandcamp and Soundcloud, all of which have duly plied us with tomorrow’s stars yesterday. We’ve been fed Rhianna, Leona Lewis, Arctic Monkeys, Klaxons, The xx, Adele, Amy Winehouse. It goes on and on. But we’ve never forgotten about Tom Vek. We still listen to ‘We Have Sound’.
Last we saw him he didn’t look like a 1960s advertising executive, but, then, Mad Men is another phenomenon that’s come our way since Vek went rouge; the whole HBO Revolution is. It was a glossy US TV show that gave him his curtain call though – he performed – rather ironically – ‘I Ain’ t Saying My Goodbyes’ on the original indie-astute teen soap The OC, in front of impossibly good looking people like Mischa Barton and Adam Brody.
Today he arrives like Jon Hamm on dress-down-Friday – Brylcreem’d and clean-shaven, in brown brogue boots, turned up semi-jeans and a plain white T-shirt. Fittingly, it is the final day of the working week, and the high apartment where we meet happens to also peer into London’s executive core: The City.
Tom is alone, although that’s not something that we should be too surprised about. He is, after all, a solo artist, and one that relishes being just that, performing under his own name rather than a moniker that sounds decidedly like a collective, like, say, The Streets or tUnE-yArDs or Blank Dogs. The buck stops with him, and that’s just how he likes it. It’s why he continues to be involved in every single aspect of his career, designing his record sleeves and website himself (he’s a graduate of the prestigious Saint Martins College of Art and Design), and even sourcing exact T-shirts for his next batch of merchandise – “I’ve been trying to get in touch with Uniqlo,” he tells us as he poses in front of a cardboard terrier, “because they’ re the shirts I want. I wear them myself and they’ re pretty good quality. American Apparel’s are too tight on your tits.” (Other stories of Vek’s precise manner include him insisting that ‘We Have Sound’’s CD stickers go on cellophane rather than the casing, and that the plastic moulded bumps on the inside of the lid be a certain shape to keep creasing to a minimum when fans slide out the sleeve notes). Such attention to detail largely explains his absence, and why he carefully considers every position our photographer puts him in. It’ s the “design Nazi” in him.
“Well, this is the thing,” he says. “I’ve been on a break from being a public, entertaining persona, but I haven’t been on a break. I have just been completely immersed in this idea of what I wanted it to be – the whole point of becoming a recording artist and getting a record deal, and trying to work out how I can get into a position where I feel like I’ve achieved something from it. It was initially exciting with the first album, but after that you don’t want to feel like you’ve gone back to where you were before…” Tom pauses for a second. “Well, it’ s not even that, actually. You get in a different place. The goalposts change and so does the way you treat your work, and I wanted to have something to show for it, so I put a lot of emphasis on my creative space. I would probably contextualise it in a highbrow way by saying it’s like the Warhol Factory scenario. Y’know, I’m a big fan of building something that might work for itself…
“Sorry,” he says, “this is a really convoluted answer to your question, but I was just wrapped up in all of that really, and not being able to let it go. I mean, ultimately, until it became possible to not think about it, I was just trying to feel right about that, and having a few creative spaces that didn’t work out, that took time.”
Put plainly, since ‘We Have Sound’ wrapped at the end of 2005, Tom Vek has been building a suitable workspace and recording studio, it just so happens that he’s had to do it several times over. And new album ‘Leisure Seizure’ [out June 6th] has also been tirelessly made and remade over the course of five years.
“In terms of the artistic principle of it, without sounding too pretentious, I think it’s actually older than that,” says Tom.
And presumably there’s been a fair amount of tracks written and discarded in that time?
“Yeah yeah yeah. They’re on hard drives and things.”
And how many albums worth do you think there is?
“Well, this is the thing,” he says again. “It’s all about the standard. Like, what is good enough. In terms of recorded audio, there’s a chronic amount. But it’s a weird thing because it became to be a trait of mine that the production is so involved in the writing that it’s not like there’s loads of completely finished songs – they’re just ideas that don’t get elaborated on. But there was also this frame of mind where I was at this point quite quickly where there was an album worth of ideas there, but I didn’t feel happy in my environment. You need to be confident. It needs to be a complete package. I was a bratty art school kid on that first record, and that worked, and like any unsigned band it was like, ‘we’ re brilliant, this is excellent’, to an extent, and success effects people differently – for some people it inflates their ego enormously, for me I felt so humbled by it that it made me very, very anxious and I took it very seriously.”
Tom maintains that, against all odds, his record label (not some frail indie but the major-owned Island) never pressured him to deliver his second album. Perhaps Amy Winehouse’s surreal and manic rise and fall acted as a distraction – while Wino had label heads looking one way in shock and awe, Vek was left to his own devises, quietly filling up hard drives with half ideas in an untold number of creative spaces.
He says that, especially as ‘We Have Sound’ started to twitch ears across the Atlantic, “‘momentum’ was the word that kept coming up.” But when his US label asked him to tour the States once he’d made it as far as the set of The OC he simply said no. He’d set up the first of his studios by then, had quit his job and “had enough money to eat for a couple of years.”
“I was like, ‘let’ s go for it!’,” he remembers. “‘I want to do some more music now. I’m ready!’ So my manager and I sat down and we made this ridiculous plan that even had on it when we’d need the first video made by. It’d be hilarious to read it back now, but it was also me thinking it’d be good if I worked to a deadline. We handed that in and… it didn’t really work,” he laughs.
Tom was adamant that he wasn’t going to play anyone anything until he was completely happy with it, though. “And that just lasted up to about two months ago.”
“It’ s a weird old thing,” he ponders, “but there’s no point in… particularly in music… Like, I’m a trained designer, and you work with a client and say, ‘do you like this? I can do this or this or whatever’, but music, for me, it had always been my own thing that I am the artist, and the artist doesn’t need to ask other people what they think. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, and that you don’t get that a lot. I mean, a lot of people I admire are very open and like bouncing their ideas off of people, and it’s a lot more pleasant to work in an environment where you get that feedback, but particularly for the first few years I was like, ‘I shouldn’t have to ask anybody what they think,’ and I knew that ultimately I will find it more rewarding if I get there in the end on my own.”
April 11 2011: Tom Vek’s eventual return is announced out of the blue on Zane Lowe’s BBC Radio 1 show. It comes seven days earlier than planned, although you can’t blame Lowe for letting his excitement get the better of him. Between some new nonsense and a reminder of ‘Nothing But Green Lights’ he plays forty seconds of new album track ‘We Do Nothing’ and lets us know that Vek’s first single in almost 6 years, ‘A Chore’, will be premiered on his show the following Monday. Twitter especially goes nuts, and over the course of the next seven days the fact that Tom Vek is alive and has a new record to release becomes smart indie’s lead story. At 7:30pm, on April 18, it feels like the only people that have gone out are those who still have portable radios.
“I’m glad that we’re where we are now,” says Tom, three weeks later, “because between the period of delivering the album to the label, them accepting it and us having a marketing meeting discussing when we were going to announce it and now, it was the most stressful time of my life, because we needed to make sure that it was kept under the radar, because we wanted to have this big announcement. And to be honest, that first announcement was not meant to happen at all. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have so much support from Zane, and I wouldn’t change anything now, but I was driving my manager mad saying that we should just announce it out of the blue, and he was like, ‘but I don’t know if anyone is going to care’. And I was like, ‘well, neither do I’, but I thought it was worth a try. If it’s going to work it’ll be really cool, and if it doesn’t work it wouldn’t have fucking worked anyway. I’d been building up to this big reveal, where you open the curtains and there’s either no one there or there is.”
While ‘A Chore’ was being premiered on primetime national radio, Vek launched his new website and uploaded the track’s video – an ode to 1960s pop television, in which he, the host, introduces the single with a knowing grin. “Hi, this is Tom Vek’s Island,” he winks down the lens without actually winking. “Desert Island Discs after five long years.” Live dates were announced and the track was instantly made available to buy on iTunes, all before Zane Lowe started speaking again. Even with the grand surprise blown a week previously it was a masterfully savvy unveiling; exactly what we’ d hoped for from a conspirator like Vek.
Tom says he’s always been aware of the dangers of hype, so what better way to quash expectation than by delivering a long-awaited comeback single unannounced? “It won’ t be for everyone,” he tells me, “and that’ s fine, but there can’t be hype around what something will sound like if everyone can hear it.”
It partly explains why he chose mainstream radio to do the job, rather than the less archaic – and far more hip – medium of blogs and Tweets. Radio shouts where the Internet still whispers. More important, though, is that Tom Vek has never been a punk. He’s incapable of artistic compromise, but he freely admits that he’s always wanted his music to be hi-fi and for his appeal to be broad. “I don’t really come from that world of lo-fi or being from the streets,” he says, even if his studio is these days shared with producer Rory Brattwell – punk producer to every British DIY band you care to mention. “I always wanted to be part of the establishment, which is why I was so profoundly excited when a label like Island got involved.”
Other things that have excited Tom over the years include that OC performance (“Getting the call to do that was amazing and kinda crazy”), ‘We Have Sound’ selling tens of thousands of copies (“You can’t even imagine that amount of people!”) and… barcodes. “It represents so much and how official it all is, having a barcode on your record,” he nods. “That’s what I held so much in my mind when I was younger – I was obsessed with the whole nature of everything that surrounded being a signed artist, and what even got me interested in design was album covers and all the facets of it, like the logos and where the barcode is and the small print and who the band have thanked. People say they’ve had these wonderful experiences with vinyl but the CD was that for me.”
Pallet Studio is a small, detached building just off Kingsland Road in Dalston, east London. A lot of the time it’s occupied by new guitar bands recording their first demos and early releases: bands like Male Bonding, Fair Ohs, Not Cool and a load of others that we like and have featured before now. It’s also Tom Vek’s creative lab, and quite possibly a ton of bricks that have saved his recording career, and even his sanity. “I found it in early 2009 and I was really like, ‘right, if the album doesn’t come from here, it’s not coming at all,’” he remembers, adding: “I’d put so much pressure on the space, or not being happy here, or blah blah, so when I found that space I knew there wasn’t any more excuses, so there was a skewed optimism there.”
A decidedly post-dubstep track called ‘Close Mic’ed’ (“kind of the record’s curveball,” says Tom, before informing me that that sound is called ‘night bus’ now) soon proved Vek right as it became the first song to make the ‘Leisure Seizure’ cut. It was followed shortly by ‘A Chore’, or its chopped, ’90s piano riff at least, “because I knew if I could listen to that looping for four minutes it must be a song,” he reasons. And with those two tracks, Tom Vek’s illusive second album snowballed to completion. The thing is, it’s not out until June 6th, which leaves plenty of time for hype to do its danger thing.
What people will no doubt say is that ‘Leisure Seizure’ is astounding, and precisely because it’s neither a grand, panicked departure from Vek’s cut’n’paste dance loops of ‘We Have Sound’ nor a twelve-song rehash of ‘I Ain’t Saying My Goodbyes’. And it’s true. Think of how lazy new Strokes albums seem – like they’ve been written in a week regardless of how long the band has been gone; ‘Leisure Seizure’ is basically the opposite of that. Five years is excessive by any nutcase standard, but if Tom Vek hasn’t been solidly working on these songs for half a decade, he should probably be burned as a witch, because each one hums of perfectionism.
‘Close Mic’ed’ acts like a neo-soul, James Blake intervention, while ‘Seizemic’ is a far woozier breather, of which Tom says: “I can’t describe what that song is at all. I just know that it feels chronically right.” Then there’s a whole bunch of more upbeat tracks like the opening ‘Hold Your Hand’ and ‘A Chore’ that a) remind us how skilled Vek is as a drummer who loves syncopated beats, and b) pick up where ‘C-C (You Set The Fire In Me)’ left off. “ That and ‘The Lower The Sun’ were the more unique moments on that first record,” says Tom, “they’re what’s been elaborated on. I feel like that was my duty.” ‘Aroused’ is almost tropical (in the way that Yeasayer’s ‘Odd Blood’ could be) and it’s definitely Tom’s most pop-sensical song yet; ‘World of Doubt’ is reminiscent of semi-spoken Beck; ‘Someone Loves You’ begins with Rhianna bass. ‘We Do Nothing’, with its creaky ice-cream truck sample and carefree swing, is either the record’s best track or is only beaten by ‘On A Plate’ – a murky piece of slow motion dubstep that’s about writer’s block, and is the song that Tom says has the most literal lyrics.
Of his other words, he says “the more I write lyrics the worst they get”, which may or may not be true. If it is, a lot of those found on ‘Leisure Seizure’ read like a train of thought. Their constant is, after all, that they are playfully clever, if not always profound (see the “A P O L O G Why?” chorus of ‘A.P.O.L.O.G.Y.’, and the song’s opening line of, “It’s only fair to say that it wasn’t fair, what you said to me”). Many seem to be self-referencing also, occasionally talking of the wilderness years, like on ‘We Do Nothing’, where Vek cries “You’ll have to listen now/This is all that I can do”, as if he’s spent his recent past trying his hand at alternative careers, only to discover that music really is for him. Interpretation has always been a big part of Tom’s songs though; his insistant use of “I” and “you”, over “he” and “she”, has long muddied just how much of what he sings is directly linked to his personal life.
Musically, Tom talks about how he remains most influenced by “chopped up bass and alternative music from the ’90s”, and how even though some industry insiders have thanked him for not coming back with a dubstep record he has been influenced by the underground genre that’s now not so underground. A friend took him to London dubstep club night FWD (“an insane evening”), which ultimately spawned the drum beat of ‘A Chore’ – “a dubstep drumbeat played on a drum kit.”
Tom could talk about sound for hours, and in the three that I spend with him he’s stumped for something to say just once. It’s when I ask him how he feels ‘Leisure
Seizure’ differs from his previous work.
“I kinda feel like… hmmmm… Yeah it’s a tricky one actually,” he says. “I’m going to seize up on that because… Well, it’s less guitar based, which I think is quite exciting, because I’m not a very good guitarist anyway – like, back to basics; me and a guitar, that would never work – I mean, all of the tracks have to start with an interesting noise, which you can’t categorise, hopefully.”
Easier to get his head around is how he now feels about ‘We Have Sound’ – the album that set the standard he’s spent so long trying to match.
“I’m enormously proud of it,” he says without thought. “Y’know, the thing with that record is, I was really quite impressed with myself when that was finished, which
I know is an arrogant thing to say, but I mean the opposite to that, in that I was like, ‘wow that’s a lot better than I thought it would be.’ And I’m enormously proud, in a mischievous way, that a major label released an album that sounded like that – I think that’s brilliant – and I love the artwork. And it did set the standard – and I mean personal standard – for the next stuff. I made no compromise on that record at all, to the extent where you have to think if maybe a minor bit of compromise might have made it a bit more accessible.”
Earlier on, as we sat down for this interview with one eye on the clock, because dress-down-Friday is still a Friday nonetheless, and Tom is finishing his week with a business meeting later that no other musician would bother attending, he told me that, “all of my favourite albums are second albums.” And now, finally, Tom Vek has a second album of his own. And while the wait has been excruciatingly long, it really has been worth it. ‘Leisure Seizure’ is an outstanding record.
“I’ve been feeling like [I need to complete this record] from the first day I started working, quite honestly,” says Tom, “because I wanted to have it out there. And I’m not going to say that this is different to how anybody feels who creates stuff, but you do sit there and think, if my standard was lower I could just get this stuff out there, even though I’m not happy with it. But you don’t even want to think that. I cast away that thought, of course I do. But then you’re thinking, what am I looking out for here? What am I meant to be reacting to? Because there’s an element of music where it’s like, ‘this is going to give me a cool life’, or, ‘this would be fun to play live’, and I disallowed myself a few of those things. It was as if it had to be some kind of challenge and endurance. I think this is something that I only have to go through once. I’m pleased that I’ve come to terms with myself as someone with previous work and future work, and everything is set up now. There’s going to be more music soon, I hope.”