Vessels – a band breaking the bleakness with a pulsating euphoria

In conversations recorded in the months up to their new album release, Vessels talk about transitions, techno and taking their time.

In 2008, Vessels’ confrontational mix of heavy guitars and twisted dance beats characterised their feisty debut album ‘Over White Fields and Open Devices’. Almost a decade on, the Leeds-based quintet (Tom Evans, Tim Mitchell, Martin Teff, Lee J. Malcolm and Peter Wright) have powered through the guitar-heavy, percussion-driven dynamics of second album ‘Helioscope’ and emerged with the blown-out techno ambition of third album, ‘Dilate’.

In the aftermath of that second album, Vessels were a band at a fork in the road. The lively intricacy of their first two albums was gradually pushing the band beyond complex post-rock and into a new world of expansive, electronic intent. Dabbles with techno covers—their version of James Holden’s ‘The Sky Was Pink’ or the excellent take on Moderat’s ‘Blue Clouds’—didn’t quite translate into a longer-term direction before the creation behind ‘Dilate’ helped them find a balance between the band-driven bedrock and a bigger, brighter BPM-led future.

Their latest album, ‘The Great Distraction’ takes that intent and pushes it past a base desire to go four-to-the-floor. Anchored in the hypnotic intensity of tracks like ‘Radiart’ and the fragmented ‘Radio Decay’, it’s an album that picks up on the understated ceaselessness of its predecessor but throws up some surprises with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, Django Django’s Vincent Neff, and John Grant adding their vocal weight and depth to Vessels’ slow-burning march forward.

Rooted in life, death and the strange, strained state of the world, it’s an album that also sees Vessels take on some heavy, philosophical themes, but always breaks the bleakness with a pulsating euphoria. After almost 10 years, three albums and being perennially on the fringe of wider success, they’re a band asking deeper questions of themselves, too. From dealing with creaking, old equipment to reflecting on their own mortality, there’s a dichotomy between the new album’s title and the fact that Vessels are more focused than ever.

Patience, persistence and constant creation has propelled the band to this point, and while ‘The Great Distraction’ might not make or break Vessels, they’re at a point where ‘Deflect the Light’ is featured on the FIFA18 soundtrack and those late-night set invites are rolling in with more frequency. Momentum is a beautiful thing.

Let’s talk about the transition between ‘Helioscope’ and ‘Dilate’—it was a pretty dramatic shift in style. Looking back now, how much of a risk do you think it was for you?

Lee: We made quite a departure from the last record. I was quite nervous about how it would be received or if it was too much of a jump but it was great that so many people came through with us and got on board with it. We’ve played a lot of interesting shows we wouldn’t previously have been able to play and we’ve always thought wanted to do something with nice lights and a banging techno set at 2 o’clock in the morning — ‘Dilate’ really helped us get to that point.

Was there a point or a discussion where you all decided that this was the way forward?

Pete: It was quite a gradual process but the ‘Elliptic EP’ we released was closer related to the rockier music we were playing. As we were writing and recording the music, we decided to not include it on the album, to draw a line and just release it. I think that was the point at which ‘Dilate’ was going to be made in more dance-orientated way. ‘Miopic Biopic’ and ‘Come out of the Sky and Fight This’ were going to be on it but it became clear there were two different types of record emerging and we could see a dividing line.”

Martin: I tend to think of all the music we’ve ever done as a kind of progression but there’ve been points along the way where, for example, we learned to cover (James Holden’s) ‘The Sky Was Pink’ and that was a bit of a pivotal moment. I think ‘Dilate’ was the point at which we were entering the electronic world and this album is the point we’re experimenting with it.

So the process of creating ‘Dilate’ helped provide you with more of singular focus when you started making ‘The Great Distraction’?

Lee: In terms of what got brought through to this album was a tried and tested infrastructure we’ve just kept refining. This record’s been nowhere near as unhinged in terms of not knowing whether it was possible to do things. There are some things that are almost impossible to do live, so with this record we were very much writing with that in mind, trying to think about who would play what and how they’d do it, and trying to limit the palette somewhat. In the same breath that that’s liberating, it can also be quite marginalising or debilitating. You have all the sounds and just don’t know which route to choose. We’ve all been to those gigs where a geezer’s just stood there and you’re asking yourself “Why are we all facing this guy?! Let’s just have a dance!” There’s definitely that element in the back of our minds where it has to be visually interesting; we are fundamentally a band and one of the basic prerequisites of that is that we play fucking music!

But retaining that sense of being a live band gets a little trickier when it comes to creating an album with a techno backbone. Were there any failures in that process?

Lee: Definitely. There have been so many tracks that have fallen away. For instance, when we started doing ‘Dilate’, we were doing a techno covers EP that basically paid homage to a few tracks we just loved. It didn’t quite turn out how we wanted it to but the failures were just trying to figure out how it all worked, and subsequently, a load of tracks just disappeared into the void…

Pete: …I don’t know whether I’d describe anything as a failure because all the stumbling blocks help us along the way. All the tracks that Lee mentioned fell by the wayside, it’s not because they weren’t good, it was because there’s always so much material we’re working on, if one of us doesn’t get on board with it, we tend to drift towards the stuff everyone’s behind.

Knowing there was this fork in the road right after ‘Helioscope’, how do you look back at those albums now? Were they all a step towards this new record?

Pete: For me, the first record is a document of four lads in a room, writing together whereas I think the second record is a bit more upbeat and optimistic. That reflects the freedom Lee found in the technology allowing him to multi-track and demo stuff more and has an energy that comes with experimenting with new ways of writing. The third one, represents starting to find the limitations of that method, and the solitude of spending a lot of time in a studio over long periods of time writing. This record represents finding a new method of Lee working on his own but then having more input from everyone. I think every record will be a reflection of how it was written and where Lee was in the process and, to me, that comes across in the music.

Lee: I really miss that time we had together as a band with the safety and the knowledge we can get together in a room and feck about—that’s really important in terms of our longevity. I love synthesizers and messing around with sounds but I do feel isolated too. I’m hoping that this record is successful enough that it allows us to be in a room together and write like we used to write. It’d be great to have the best of both worlds!

How many tracks were you working on (in various states) during the process for ‘The Great Distraction’?

Lee: I think there was around 100…

Pete: Mate, we were one or two off 700 hundred! It was overwhelming! There was a point a few Christmases ago where there was a big move towards picking the tracks we wanted to forge ahead with, rather than the more embryonic ones. We asked Lee to gather everything and when he sent them all, there was so much stuff it was anxiety-inducing. Lee’s already started sending stuff around for the next record, so there’s ideas in the ether for us all to work on, give opinions on and mess around with. It doesn’t ever stop.

Lee: I thought I’d written the record a year and a half ago but boy, was I wrong!

So it’s taken longer than you thought?

Pete: It’s definitely taken longer than we thought. We put aside a six-week period last March where we cleared some time to work through a lot of demos, planned to hammer through it over a few weeks and we’d have it finished. We got some great work done in that time but expecting to finish it was wildly ambitious. At the same time, when Lee said earlier he thought he had the record written a year and a half ago, there was a written record at the end of that period but it wasn’t a record we all agreed on, so we kept the best tracks from that and continually added new tracks over the past year until we got a record all five of us wanted to put out.

Do you feel that this album is a better representation of your electronic ambition than ‘Dilate’?

Lee: Yes and no. I think we’re just trying to find our sound and we’re always keeping an eye on the live aspect of what makes us interesting as a band. I think part of it is logistical because if you truly want to play electronic music live, you need tons of gear, which we just don’t have. At the same time, we could just keep going but you have to draw a line. If it can be done live, we’ll always do it live, even if it’s really hard. When we were doing more of the guitar stuff, it was pretty complex, so that musicianship definitely enables us to perform a lot of the new music. On the face of it, it looks quite simple but there’s so much going on, and you have to think of five, six things at once — it’s just not just running through patterns or chords, there’s extra dimensions to everything; all these little elements in play.

Pete: ‘Dilate’ was still very much using our old palette of sounds, so it was us trying to make more electronic dance music with the instruments we’d toured for years playing more post-rock. In the past couple of years we’ve invested a lot in the equipment, and ourselves, to find the right noises and sounds. The palette we have at this point compared to the palette we had a few years ago on ‘Dilate’ I think is exponentially bigger—that leads to more interesting sounds.

Retaining the live band feel is pretty important to you—do you get a sense of satisfaction in making it work despite some of the technical challenges?

Pete: No! Because it has gone wrong (laughs). I think it can go wrong in one way where the music goes a bit awry, and you have to come up with stuff on the fly and it takes on a life of its own but that’s the risk factor of live music. On the other hand, using some of the equipment we’ve had over the last few years, it’s gone so wrong to the point that the whole show has just collapsed. We were performing with a pretty bedraggled electronic music rig that wasn’t fit for purpose and we’d tied it in knots to get every ounce of functionality out of it. We’ve been able to get shot of the old equipment and get some up-to-date stuff, because that kind of risk makes me nervous—it doesn’t help.

Lee: We’ve been playing together so long that we’re used to reading each others’ signals and cope with the situation but when technology fails, it’s totally out of your hands, and you can’t defeat that.

Tim: When we turned up to play techno nights, some of them worked and some of them didn’t. When you have a live drum kit in a club, it changes the dynamic so our approach to a 7pm slot at an English festival is different to a 2am set in a Dutch techno club. We’ll be trying to do both!

The vocal collaborations on this album are interesting. How did they come about—did you create the music first and identify whether it needed vocals and go from there?

Tim: Essentially we had to decide whether we wanted to make a pure techno album or temper it with a bit more variety. The challenge for a band who mainly play without vocals is trying to find ways of working with vocals so that there’s still variety but so that it also sounds like Vessels. I’ve been listening to a lot of music where there’s interesting collaborations where some of it works, and some of it doesn’t, so you have to experiment. It was a conscious decision to do that and see what happens — it wasn’t necessarily just to work with specific artists, it was also seeing which artists wanted to work with us.

Martin: I think also with the collaborations this time round, previously we’ve often finished a piece of music ourselves and then someone else has put something over what we’ve done, so in that, there hasn’t been a lot of interaction or collaboration. This time, on almost all of the tracks, we developed an idea, got input from a vocalist, and then in some cases totally changed what we did or had a good debate. I think also the difference this time round is that the depth of the songwriting is much more significant. We’ve had interesting collaborations with some great people before but this time, in a lyrical songwriting sense, it’s been on a different level.

Did you have a wishlist, though?

Tim: We had a wishlist. There were some interesting people were on it, and a couple didn’t work out because they were too busy or a collaboration just didn’t work out. By sending the music out, we got some interesting collaborations out of that process because people wanted to contribute.

Martin: There were some interesting conversations between us around whether someone liked a voice and or someone else hated it. In terms of the people we worked with on the album, Wayne Coyne was quite special when we figured out that was going to happen, and his contribution really elevated it. It wasn’t just a case of someone doing a little something over the top of a track — he added bits of the vocal and played with the arrangement. John Grant also has such a distinctive voice that he didn’t just sing a few things and send it over to us, he did some interesting stuff with the arrangements. We played with that and ended up creating a totally different track to the one did his vocals for because we felt what his vocals offered deserved something else. It was eye-opening.

Finally, we talked earlier about each album being a document of the way you created it as a band. Does the same apply to this one yet?

Martin: With this album, we’ve talked a lot about what the significance of it was and the stage we’re at in our lives. I think it captures a euphoria to some degree but then there’s a bleakness and darkness that speaks to the fact of where we are and how we reflect on the world. The album title actually came quite unexpectedly from a lyric that John Grant had written, and as soon as we thought about it in that context, it made sense. It makes you sit back and question it a little bit. Personally, I like art that has a slower impact.