Tom Vek is angry. “Is it just me? I kind of assumed that when all the artists I admired were being mysterious it was a deliberate thing, but it turns out that when you give people a platform to spout shit the majority of them will.”
Okay, so he’s not that angry, but he’s more riled up than his unflappable demeanour might suggests and, as he’ll go on to explain, it’s this desire to channel very potent emotions and perhaps turn them into something constructive, that directly translates to his third record, ‘Luck’. But for now what’s causing him such ire is the idea of mismanaged celebrity social media.
“I’m not really active on Twitter or Facebook,” he says, “to me they’re just tools. I have my art form. My music. And what I’m anxious about is; you have all these reasons to get people to like you, so why give someone a reason to not like you once they’re already on-board?” He elaborates. “I like brand integrity, it’s the graphic designer in me. I mean, your public persona is like a rarity and if someone had a rare record and ripped it on YouTube it would lose all its value and become as common as ‘Gangnam Style’.”
It’s mid-afternoon on Good Friday and we are ensconced in the booth of a bustling and somewhat surly Brick Lane coffee house, just a short walk from Vek’s recording studio. East London is finally coming to its senses after the novelty and excess of a pre-Bank Holiday Thursday has left much of Shoreditch’s brightest and best in a fragile state. Tom Vek, by way of counterbalance to this, is looking the bright-eyed picture of health, perhaps as an implicit nod to his own sense of ‘brand integrity’; from his neatly coiffured hair and simple but stylish attire to his intelligent and – when he’s not meandering down a rabbit warren tangential enquiry – rather considered answers.
The last time Loud And Quiet caught up with Vek was three years ago, as he was in the throes of returning from an overly extended and by now well documented break from the limelight. At the time the question seemed to be what had happened to him during his ‘disappearance’ and why had his second record taken so long to make? Of course, as with all the best mysteries the answer was relatively simple: Vek was just getting on with life and work at his own pace. “It wasn’t a deliberate choice to spend that long on the second record,” he says now. “I’d always wanted to be in a situation where I could work quickly because I work alone. But I want my music to sound spontaneous and that’s what takes the time – you can work on something quickly and it can still sound laboured, so I have to keep doing stuff to try and catch that spontaneous moment.
“Obviously releasing the album is the end reward. You’ve been pushing a rock up the mountain and then you get to watch it run down the other side. But I’m relatively uncompromising, so if I can’t do anything good enough, then I’m not going to bother people with something bad.
“The problem is in the middle [of recording an album], when it’s lagging and people assume that nothing’s going on, because actually there are loads of things going on. But the current structure says you have to wait until you’ve got eleven tracks and then just when fans start to wonder where you’ve disappeared to it’s like, ‘right, I’m back, now listen to all my fucking songs!’”
Vek’s 2005 debut, ‘We Have Sound’, transported him pretty quickly from making music in his parent’s garage and studying for a degree in graphic design to touring the world and making guest appearances on popular American teen-dramas, gaining an army of ardent and loyal followers on the way. So when in 2011 he announced his return to the spotlight after over half a decade of silence, the Internet’s natural response was – and this is a technical term – to lose its shit. The resultant album – ‘Leisure Seizure’ – brimmed with frothy electro, jaw rattling beats and a dusting of existential gloom, but despite – or maybe because of – the anticipation that surrounded its release, what could have easily been a breakthrough for Vek saw him garner only modest reviews and sales; pleasing established fans but not launching his career to dramatic heights. Yet, considering the time he spent making it Vek doesn’t remember it as an anticlimactic moment.
“Not at all. I’m immensely proud of that album,” he says. “There was a point in the middle of recording it where I thought, if I can’t create something I’m happy with then there won’t be any more albums. There was always that possibility and that’s the standard I work to. The person I’m most worried about shares my opinions on the music, so I try to work within the limits of a snobby fan, but at the same time maybe I’m not doing enough to encourage casual listeners.
“I’m a solo artist, so I have to be somewhat of a perfectionist because no one else is going to do that for me. That said, too much self-analysis is just as dangerous as not caring. I mean, there are some bits of music I’ve worked on and they just weren’t going anywhere so I stopped before I got the point where I began to resent the whole process. The real success for me was that I put out an album of new music at all.”
Cut to 2014 and as it’s announced that Vek will return with ‘Luck’ the general reaction seems to be not so much one of surprise that he was back, but that he has managed to come back so quickly this time. And while there’s little danger of him becoming prolific just yet, his recent collaboration with Dirty Projectors singer Olga Bell (two tracks released last year under the guise of Nothankyou, which took his music to darker places) suggests that he’s interested in drawing from a broad palette of sounds. It’s a sonic restlessness that he sees as part of his creative process, particularly in an age when we’re swamped in cultural influences.
“I guess I’m just trying to be uncalculating,” he says. “It’s like, there’s a lot of ’90s nostalgia now and obviously I remember the ’90s, but we spent half of the time being frustrated because culturally, much of it was shit. So maybe the most punk thing to do these days is not feel at the mercy of someone else’s culture.
“In some ways the problem is that everyone is allowed to be creative at the moment. In fact it’s not just encouraged; we’re sold it. Everyone is told: you are a creative and unique individual. And while that’s great, people need to understand that real creativity can’t be forced. It’s not competition. So people need to give themselves an easier time.
“When I work, I’m not being guided. The music itself is just taking me on a journey and what I present in the songs is a documentation of those experiments. I would like to hope that people don’t think there’s any kind of contrived element to my music. I don’t really have a vision for what I want to end up with when I start.
“If I tried to make one specific type of music I would probably fail so I just start with an interesting sound and it either snowballs into something bigger or it doesn’t. You listen to so much noise when you make music that, for me at least, the excitement of creation is wrapped up in a refinement of that sound. My methods are quite brutal. All I’m allowed to do is edit but nothing else, the scissors are the only tool.”
Talk of this cumulative approach to songwriting brings up one specifically memorable track on ‘Luck’; ‘The Girl You Wouldn’t Leave Any Other Girl For’. It’s a stark and surprising song built from little more than the repetition of a single lyric (the clue to which is in the title) and varying degrees of acoustic instrumentation that somehow manages to elicit as much emotion – if not more – than Vek’s most lyrically well developed work; hanging together on nothing but the barest of bones.
“That’s probably the song I’m most excited about on the whole album,” he says. “The construction of it involved lots of live experimentation, but with all the mistakes chopped out. Some people might have taken some chords and written a more conventional song, but I like starting with something unwieldy and refining it until it becomes interesting. At times that song felt so fragile, I thought it was going to fall apart, and that’s kind of the point – it was an exercise in how little I could do before I was happy.
“I want my songs to include fragments of the writing process. To me demo is a dirty word. A song doesn’t get demo’d, it gets started and finished or thrown out. I never demo something because I think if you’re happy with it as a song then you’re happy with it. I have lots of incomplete songs, but it’s not because I’m lazy, there are just some things I can’t get past so they never get finished. It’s always been that way for me.”
Another of the songs that stands out on the album – and not only because of its equally unwieldy title – is current single ‘Sherman (Animals In The Jungle)’. The ‘Sherman’ refers to the lead character in Tom Wolfe’s celebrated ’80s novel The Bonfire Of The Vanities. The song’s chorus is built around a central hook based around Wolfe’s line “We’re just animals in the jungle”, a theme which resonated with Vek while he was in the midst of writing.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever written from a point of reference, but it seemed to fit the kind of anger in the album. The book taps into something that I’ve always been fascinated with; that is to say, I consider myself to be quite a neurotic person, but some people seem blessed with a totally carefree existence. So the song explores the idea; are you more honoured to be humbled by worry or to exist without it?
“It’s a sentiment that ties into a lot of things that come out in the lyric’s of the other songs, about controlling destiny, how hard you should try at something and whether you can try too hard or maybe force something that doesn’t work.” Vek pauses. “Plus, I just thought it sounded like a really cool line.”
In terms of explicit influence, Tom Wolfe seems to be the exception on ‘Luck’ as Vek continues to remain idiosyncratic to a fault, although he acknowledges patchwork elements from other artists that give him inspiration; the vocal intonations of Soul Coughing; the guitar lines of St. Vincent; the drums of Kendrick Lamar and the riffs of Deftones. “I’m aware that a lot of my influences are starting to date so I’m always listening to new music,” he admits. Of course, when I ask if he can pinpoint a favourite moments in his own work on ‘Luck’, his answer is more clear-cut.
“Of course, the whole LP is a collection of things I think are cool. But when you finish a record and begin a new one it’s like a blank page, so I’m particularly grateful for the early songs, the ones that came first, so I’m very fond of ‘Broke’. Even though I know what started it off, when I first listened back to it I almost couldn’t remember how it came into being. So I guess I’m proud of it because I’m still surprised by it. I also love ‘You’ll Stay’ which incorporates elements of Jungle. I really love Jungle music, but I’ve never been able to get near it, but I was just doing something and the tempo was right and I was like YES!” he exclaims. “I’m making a jungle record! Unfortunately that didn’t pan out,” he says with a wry grin. “But I’m still really proud of that song.”
Maybe Vek’s greatest trick on ‘Luck’, though, is how he manages to make it sound exactly like a Tom Vek record, yet utterly distinct from his previous two LPs. This resultant progression has led to possibly his most bombastic and captivating work to date; synths and shuddering beats fluctuate over pitching guitars and industrial rhythms, while his lyrics convey a very distinct emotional landscape. Vek’s usual themes of sadness and anxiety are filtered through an abrupt almost sneering tone, which lends itself perfectly to Vek’s vocal delivery. “It’s a Grunge record,” he states halfway through our conversation, and you can see his point. It certainlyhas its roots in the confrontation, frustration and pain that Grunge tried to harness, but refracted in his singular, modern lens.
“It’s about channelling anger, but being objective about it,” he tells me. “Getting perspective on what frustrates you and giving yourself permission to rebel. Everyone is looking for permission to do what they want; there’s always a reason. So if you’re unhappy about something and you’re not doing anything about it then take the bull by the horns and try to sort your life out,” he explains. “I guess the music is just a way for me to have the kind of attitude that I would like to have about everything. That voice on the record is one side of my personality, that the other side of my personality would let down in any circumstance other than having hours to replace words and get things right.
“But the character in the songs is only a representation of me, an abstraction because I wouldn’t want them to be too personal. I tried to refine the lyrical sentiment on this record so I pose questions but don’t necessarily provide solutions. It’s sloganeering, because I think that’s what makes it sound potent.” He pauses again. “Mostly, though, it’s just me thinking aloud. So if that means I touch on some accidental profundity, then maybe someone else will relate to it more so than if I was being very specific. Maybe that makes it a self aware rock record?” he ponders for a second. “Maybe it’s kind of… meta-Emo?” he says laughing.
With a new body of work that feels more highly charged than anything that has come before, as well as tours and projects in the works for the rest of 2014, it seems like Tom Vek is going to be busier than ever. Of course, you have to wonder if this will last, or whether his itch for perfection might take him away from the spotlight once again, and if so for how long? He seems cautiously optimistic.
“I feel more connected to my creativity now than before,” he tells me, “but I have to treat it with respect, being three albums into my career feels great, but I was thinking recently, all my favourite acts only made three albums.”
“But I suppose I don’t feel like I’m pinned down as an artist just yet and I think all you can hope for is that if and when your sound does gets pinned down it’s by you. I’m just pleased if I do enough to make it my own, because to me the coolest thing is still when people listen to my music and say; this sounds just like you. Because that means I’ve done my job… it means I’ve achieved something.”