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Suffering For The Art: An Interview With Tom Vek
John Freeman , June 22nd, 2011 05:39

After five years of radio silence, Tom Vek's back with new album Leisure Seizure. He tells John Freeman exactly where he's been for the last half a decade...

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In 2006, after a year-long promotional schlep for his sparkling debut album We Have Sound, Tom Vek sat down to think about his next record. And he did a whole lot of thinking - Leisure Seizure was finally released last month. As you might imagine, it's a lovingly crafted album, spotlighting Vek's quest for unleashing fascinating noises and his love affair with straight-up pop music. However, on listening to Leisure Seizure, it's not immediately apparent why it took so long to make.

Vek added to the mystery by maintaining almost complete radio silence during the intervening years, to such an extent that fans took to setting up Facebook pages entitled 'Find Tom Vek' and 'The Tom Vek Detective Agency'. My search for him is somewhat easier. After I am the cause of two aborted appointments, we finally hook-up and it is 9.30 am when I speak to Tom. For many musicians this would be an ungodly hour, but Vek has a full schedule for the day in preparation for the following week's live shows.

He's thoughtful and articulate, but midway through our interview he admits that his "mind wanders" and I catch glimpses of how Vek took five years to create Leisure Seizure. Many of his sentences remain unfinished as he spirals away onto another thought process. It is quite difficult to keep up and I admit defeat in my attempts to get direct answers to a number of my questions. Indeed, Vek's mental meandering coupled with a desire to explore his musical boundaries are the prime reasons for a half-decade of creativity. Tom Vek didn't go missing – he just got busy.

A few days later I catch up with Tom again in Manchester, this time at a crammed Ruby Lounge. It is the first date on a short promotional tour and there are 'Sold Out' signs and touts offering to "buy any spares" – all highly unusual for a Monday night.

The stage is immaculately presented – the former graphic design student has a strong sense of branding - with huge, vertical light boxes and projection screens. When Vek appears, he's dressed in regulation plain white t-shirt and jeans, his hair beautifully oiled and his grin genuinely wide. His four-piece band leaps into 'We Do Nothing' - a standout song from - and deliver it with precision. It sounds wonderful, but as the song ends Vek shakes his head and smiles ruefully as if something has not gone quite right – such are his levels of perfection.

The rest of the set is exceptionally good, with news songs such as 'Someone Love You' and 'Hold Your Hand' sitting snugly alongside crowd favourites 'Nothing But Green Lights' and 'I Ain't Saying My Goodbyes'. What is undeniable is the tangible level of goodwill and love in the room for Vek. His music is clean, crisp and focussed – but a sprinkling of charisma is the magic that sets him apart from his peers. And that is worth waiting for.

So, are you sick of answering questions about the gap between albums?

Tom Vek: I suppose I'm not sick of it. It's great that I am asked that, because it means the first album was noticed by certain people. Every time I get asked it, I'm annoyed that I haven't worked out a definitive answer. I still think that I don't really know myself. I try and justify it and the album is meant to justify it, in a way. So, in that sense it seems a bit strange to be thinking about.

There seems to have been genuine warmth and delight in the public's reaction to your return. That must be very pleasing?

TV: It was a real surprise. I think that if I wasn't in my position, but still working on this project – so my arrogance wouldn't look so arrogant – I would be very wishful that what happened was going to happen. I'd kept myself in the mindset of being a creative person with a public identity, but not allowing myself to have any connection with that public. I'm not a complete recluse – I do like seeing websites and stuff about my own art, but there was a conscious decision to hold off completely until I had done an album and just being respectful of how genuine the first album was. I felt an obligation towards that.

Your communication lines have been virtually silent since the last album – I'm assuming you are not a big fan of social networks?

TV: Well, it is also the wider internet thing. There hasn't always been this mindless, pointless news and I am not going to contribute to that either. I'm glad that it didn't anger people and they weren't like 'this is not fair, you can't just not update us with your mindless news and then come back and expect our attention' which is kind of the opposite of the 'cry wolf' thing. I wanted to save it all up and draw as much attention to the fact that the album is out and that is a real, genuine thing for me and the next chapter in my career. It was something I wanted to get people's attention to.

So you never felt the need to tweet about what you had for breakfast?

TV: I am on Twitter as well, but I'm not on it personally. We set up a thing which uses it to update stuff. I can find certain ways of enjoying stuff. With the Twitter thing, the thing that I've found really cool – and the fact I've brought it up in an interview – is that I've managed to set up my own short links. You know on Twitter where people use those .url shorteners? I recently set up my own ones, so that when I post links on Twitter it comes up as 'vek.to/' and then whatever. That to me is cool and reflects more of my personality than what I had for breakfast.

So, regarding the creation of Leisure Seizure, your press release states that the process was two-fold – "a three year set-up followed by a two-year stretch of musical output." I'm assuming that's a neat summary born out of hindsight and that you didn't initially intend to take five years?

TV: I was hoping that it wouldn't. I was incredibly excited when I started working on the new record to be honest. The first one had been finished in 2004 on this indie label I was on. We were set to release it and then Island became interested and we worked out a licensing deal. We then promoted the album a lot longer than I would have been able to do beforehand, which ended up being about a year. The idea that I was being vindicated about being a recording artist and my career path had suddenly changed – I was working as a graphic designer at that stage – meant I was incredibly excited about cracking on. I hadn't really managed to write much music during that period because I was just completely in awe of everything that was happening.

If you wanted to 'crack on', what happened to derail that?

TV: I was looking forward to the creative process. I had a few meetings with my manager who asked about what timeframe we wanted to use. I didn't have a job anymore, so I could have spent 24 hours a day on it. He put down this schedule which a few months later I realised wasn't going to be that simple. I loved the idea of just knocking some more stuff out – I think that'd be great – but when I sat down and got in that mindset again, I had a feeling that I was obliged to push it a little more. It ended up getting slightly towards suffering for my art.

Was that a shock?

TV: It is a weird one – there is a public persona of people who make music easily, and I am more than happy to continue that impression. It needs to be a desirable and aspirational thing. I have never been that excited hearing someone who has suffered terribly for their work. I liked the idea of a tortured genius implicitly when I was younger, but you wouldn't want to live like that. I was this bratty, ex-art school kid whose first album was relatively painless in the way it was put together. I reached the point when I realised [the new album] wasn't going to make itself, and it would become an exciting indulgence.

Did that create a philosophy of 'following your muse' and seeing where that took you?

TV: Yes. I'm a wanderer; my mind wanders and as you grow up you start thinking of psychological concepts. I'm trying to make music, which is a pretty emotional thing, fit into a relatively sophisticated lifestyle. I like living in London, I like nice experiences with my friends, so I'm trying to make it make sense to me.

From perusing the website, it looks as if your PALLET recording studio is light, uncluttered and welcoming. Is the environment critical for you when it comes to making music?

TV: Yeah, totally. Growing up, we'd converted my parents' garage into our music room. I always found that the environment was always very conducive to music and because I'm not trained as a musician, the studio environment is very, very important to me and kind of like a special place. I wanted to set that up again. I was a little presumptuous that I could do it anywhere and then particularly if you are doing it as a nine-to-five job, it has got to be a little more like an environment that is physically pleasant to be in – not luxury – but a lot of studios are dark, underground, smelly, airless places.

After such a long gestation period, are you happy with Leisure Seizure?

TV: I'm pleased with it. I felt like we were pushing what I was capable of on the first one. I've got a lot of very traditional influences when it comes to songwriting. Years and years and years of listening to grunge music with the very standard arrangements still informs me; I'm not that into experimental music. I'm coming from the point of trying to make a traditional song sound as interesting as possible. I'm not trying to make random nonsense listenable.

The music business is almost unrecognisable from its 2006 vintage. Since your debut album, the world is now awash with male solo artists – the Blakes and Woons of this world – peddling interesting versions of electronic pop. Do you feel in competition with them? How aware of their success were you while making Leisure Seizure?

TV: It only comes up now, because when you are working on a record you don't really know when it is going to be finished or what climate it will come out in. When I'm doing stuff it's more about my references outside of what is currently going on. As an armchair commentator on the music industry, I'm interested in things and I don't think it is a bad time for this album to exist in and for my identity to work in. A while ago there were a load of female solo artists and now there are lots of guys. It doesn't really matter; you still have to be compelling enough. I wouldn't have thought I'm riding the wave – some people may disagree, I don't know. I don't care very much.

What were those references you alluded to?

TV: It's usually from my record collection from the 90s; alternative American stuff which I just adore and listen to all the time; that kind of zany stuff like Eels and Beck. That's my happy place, musically.

If that is where you get your inspiration for the music, how do your lyrics come about within the context of writing a song?

TV: They come at the end mostly. I tend to lay down a nonsense vocal once the song is coming together, and quite often I just flesh that out. That's a bit of a strange process really because it throws up random stuff and that will have an odd or contradictory sentiment. I like that and it makes it a bit abstract. I don't really feel that music is a medium for me to get across a direct message to anyone. It is all kind of a collage of soundbites and a scattergun of interesting phrases.

But have you ever written some lyrics which were confessional or highly personal? If so, how have you processed them?

TV: It's a good question. Off the top of my head, I can't remember doing that. It is so ingrained in me to write in this 'words that sound like lyrics' thing, so, even if I was trying to be quite particular, it could be taken in lots of ways. I got pretty close on [new song] 'You Need To Work Your Heart Out' in saying what I wanted. There is a line in that track which say "You are blowing away dust with your words" and that actually happened. I'd written this part on my Wurlitzer keyboard and it was being mic'ed up and I came up with this line and I wanted to record it. So, I bent down into the microphone and sung the first line and it blew all this dust off onto the keyboard. It just seemed to fit in with the sentiment [of the song].

From what you've told me, I'm sensing that Leisure Seizure is a honing and refinement of the sonic palette you achieved on We Have Sound. Have you any ideas of how album number three might sound?

TV: It is probably going to be – I kind of thought, er, yeah. It will sound, I think, I'm not sure. I'm kind of continuing, er, I dunno, maybe it will just sound like a more advanced version of this album. This one was a more advanced version of the first one – it was going to be more particular and come to more of a point.

And shall we pencil an interview for some time in 2016?

TV: It's gonna come sooner than that. I hope...