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Escape Velocity

We Want To Cause Confusion: Vision Fortune Interviewed
Joe Clay , May 2nd, 2013 06:55

The churning drones and hammered percussion of London's Vision Fortune thrillingly blur the lines between electronics and guitars. With their debut album imminent, they sit down with Joe Clay to discuss musical freedom, plus listen to an exclusive advance stream of the full album

There's a point early on in my interview with Vision Fortune, the London-based trio who deal in heavy drones and pounding repetition, where I start to question the validity of being a music writer. Why am I sat in a coffee bar in South East London asking brothers Austin and Alex Peru, who along with absent drummer Andreas Cuatroquesos make up the band, questions that I scribbled in red ink on the back of the press release for their debut album? Does knowing arbitrary things about a band improve the experience of listening to their music? Because let's get this straight from the off – I love Vision Fortune. I was forewarned of their brilliance by MJ of Hookworms. When I was raving about his band's stunning debut album, he generously said, "You wait till you hear the Vision Fortune record. It's amazing." And he wasn't wrong. One listen to their debut album, Mas Fiestas con el Grupo Vision Fortune, in a rare shaft of sunlight while waiting for a train back in March triggered a minor spiritual epiphany.

So what's triggered all this existentialist bullshit? Well, the early stages of the interview are difficult, punctuated by what seem like long, awkward silences. Initially I think, "It's me. I'm asking obvious, boring questions." They don't say much at all at first.  They're brothers, I reason, they probably don't even need to talk to each other, they can just communicate with glances and nods. And in my mind those looks are saying, "Can we go home now?" But then I drop the question; the one that no matter how badly an interview with a musician is going, you trot out and even Lou Reed suddenly becomes garrulous: "What sort of music were you into growing up?" I sit back and wait for the inevitable verbal flood.

After a long pause (7 seconds, I timed it), Austin finally responds: "Ummm…. I don't know. What do you mean – like a big thing we were listening to or just anything?"

Flummoxed I push on. "I'm just interested in finding out how you ended up making music like you do," I ramble. "Did it just happen or were you trying to sound like somebody who were you really into – something that made you want to be in a band. Has any other music, directly or subconsciously, led you to your sound?"

"Well, the first album I bought was by the Beautiful South," Austin replies, obligingly, once I've stopped babbling.

And then it dawns on me. They're not being deliberately uncooperative and I'm not asking shitty questions – they are actually having to think about how to respond to my inquiries. Unlike most bands, they haven't rehearsed for this moment or spent ages crafting a Vision Fortune manifesto. Just because they make music doesn't necessarily mean that they find it easy to talk about the process. When I ask them what they do in the band, Alex says he plays guitar and "samples, I guess?" They then exchange a look and Austin says, "Electronics?", which Alex concurs with before Austin changes his mind and says, "No, no. Samples, yeah. EL-EC-TROON-ICS."

He says this last word in a dismissive drawl; as if it is the most pompous thing that anyone could ever say. Despite talking to journalists registering low on their list of priorities up to this point in their careers, watching them gradually warm to being interviewed is very engaging. They finish each other's sentences and look to each other a lot, perhaps to check that the other brother is happy to stand by what they are saying. None of it feels premeditated. It may not be the most relaxing interview I've ever conducted, but it is one of the most unaffected.

Stream Mas Fiestas Con El Grupo Vision Fortune in full

It turns out that this is the first face-to-face interview that Vision Fortune have done. They chose the venue, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, because, according to Austin, "it's just the weirdest place. So many cultures colliding. I hope it stays like this." Of course it won't – a refurbishment is imminent, part of the on-going £1.5 billion regeneration of the area. But for now, it remains a "pink blot in people's minds", according to the development project director Chris Horn. It's not a venue that you'd select for a meeting if you were trying to impress somebody. Readers of Time Out voted it the biggest eyesore in London in 2006, and the magazine called it "arguably London's worst postwar rebuild." It's not much better on the inside; a ramshackle collection of market stalls, dated shops and restaurants, money transfer outlets and a plethora of empty units. But what it lacks in glamour it makes up for with charm. It is the antithesis of the glitzy yet utterly bland Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, and by choosing it, Vision Fortune are making a statement of sorts: "We don't give a shit." Or perhaps, more accurately: "We haven't really given this much thought."

At 25, Austin is the older, more outgoing, of the Peru brothers, with Alex 24, rather more reserved. Andreas is the youngest member of the band, at 23. The brothers met up with Andreas when they were at boarding school in Belgium, which they attended from the age of "about 11" until Austin had just turned 15 – but hold off with those lazy Strokes comparisons. They were in Belgium because of their parents, but they won't be drawn on why, and I don't push it. The school wasn't a musical place. The trio weren't playing instruments then or even talking about music. They were just "hanging out" and it was pure coincidence that they all ended up in London together and started a band.

Their early recordings, released on Mannequin and Italian Beach Babes, were heavily influenced by Sublime Frequencies (a Seattle label that specialises in "acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers", mainly Southeast Asian North African and the Middle East) and have an almost mystical, Eastern, world music quality, bound up in repetitive distorted riffs and tribal rhythms. They are slightly pretentious, but in the best possible way. A mixtape Austin did for the Psychedelic Psyblings website blends Lil Wayne, Actress, chanting Benedictine monks and Holly Herndon. They call videos "visual expressions", while for their album launch party they played behind a bank of 20 flickering television screens, joined by two blonde dancers who wigged out as if at a 1960s happening.

On 'XVII', the stand-out track from their debut album, a joint release between Gringo Records and Faux Discx, vast, oscillating keyboard lines hover like UFOs over jagged, Keith Levene-esque riffs and precise drum loops, punctuated by Austin's shamanistic vocal intonations. There are drifting ambient soundscapes that evoke a more urban take on Flying Saucer Attack's rural psychedelia: it screams of decaying tower blocks, not open fields. There are even echoes of a pre-Nik Void Factory Floor, especially on 'XIV', where a glacial synth line is paired with sparse snares and clanging guitars, while the churning riffing of 'XV' recalls MBV's disorientating 'Glider'. It is deeply hypnotic and psychedelic one minute; taut and punky the next. Vision Fortune are definitely post-something, but I'm not sure what.

As 'indie' music becomes more concerned with branding and image, Vision Fortune's approach is the polar opposite. The press release for their album talks about it being a record "borne out of desperate economic uncertainty, loosely based on John Kay's infamous Parable of the Ox – itself a thinly veiled allegory for unbridled capitalism." They nicked that from The View, I think. The song titles are in Roman numerals and, to make matters even more confusing, don't run in a sequence. The album cover doesn't feature an image of the band, but a random Mariachi trio instead. The title is in Spanish – rough translation: "More parties with the group Vision Fortune". It is resolutely anti-image – an oblique strategy that Brian Eno would be proud of. But is this approach deliberate?

Alex Peru: I don't think so. I mean… We're not actively trying to shove ourselves in anyone's faces.

I think the fact that you are willing to put your personalities to one side and let the music speak for itself is what I find exciting. Why have Roman numerals for song titles?

Austin Peru: We just thought it was… a good idea. Errr… [laughs]

As a journalist who is encountering lots of music all the time, it's this sort of thing that makes you stand out. So even though you say you're not trying to shove yourself in anyone's faces, by trying to stay in the background you are actually standing out more, because it's different.

Alex: It wasn't about trying to be different. I like the idea that people can make up their own titles. It's more interesting that somebody can engage with it directly and say, 'I like the one that has the really long start and gets really loud' – something like that. They can describe it in their own way.

Austin: We're not trying to be difficult.

In the press release you mention a music teacher, Mr Healey, who seems to have been very influential, which is quite unusual. In what way did he influence you?

Alex: He was just, kind of, helping out. He wasn't really a Svengali figure or anything like that. He was just a guy who was encouraging.

Austin: He encouraged us to…. create. And he gave us a space in which to practice, which is so hard to find in London.

So he wasn't Simon Cowell. But did he try to get you into any particular music at all?

Austin: No. No, not at all.

Alex: Though he is in to all the same prog rock stuff that our drummer is into, but that's about it.

Austin: He's really into Yes and things like that. He's a diehard prog fan.

When you started playing together did you immediately decide that you wanted to form a band or were you just mucking around?

Austin: Alex and I…

Alex: …had an idea for a while.

Austin: …growing up we've always kind of… um, influenced each other.

So it's more of an organic thing then – you've arrived at this sound from playing together?

Austin: I think Alex and I playing together and kind of...

Alex: I guess we don't really talk too much about the music we make.

Austin: It's really weird. When we recorded the album we didn't really talk at all. We recorded it last summer – a bit in Mr Healey's space and a bit in Alex's flat in Deptford, on the high street. And then we mixed it together. MJ from Hookworms did a mix and then we fiddled with it a bit more.

Alex: We gave up in the end. We got sick of it.

Austin: It was such a long process.

Taken from the split with Meddicine

The VF songs on the split 12" you did with Meddicine (released on Italian Beach Babes in December 2012) were more electronic sounding then what you'd recorded before and are very different from your debut album. Has the process of writing and making music changed much?

Alex: We've pretty much done it the same way…

Austin: … from the get-go, really. We have an idea and then there'll be long periods of improvising and then recording and editing, then putting it to one side and eventually going back to it and thinking, 'Is that actually any good?' And then composing it and recording it again and wanting it to sound like the improvisation, but it sounding completely different and being completely upset by that. I think when we were recording the side of the split we wanted it to sound quite metallic and brittle, even.

Alex: We did all the demos on my phone and we wanted it to sound like that again. Like it was breaking up…

Austin: … and it would sound like your record player was broken. It ended up sounding OK. But listening back to demos was frustrating, because it's really hard to recreate something.

So do you like playing live then?

Austin: No, we really hate playing live.

Alex: It's always such a battle to get the sound right, you know, sorting out broken leads for hours. We've never really enjoyed it that much. It's always progressing and getting a bit better, but it's still not really where we want it to be. We just enjoy recording more. It's never that creative playing live and we're not really a jam band.

So you always know what you're going to play before you play it?

Austin: Oh yeah, it's always completely structured. Even if something's like ten minutes long it's considered.

But what about your sound – the heavy drones and repetitions – how did you arrive at that sound?

Austin: If I had to say one influence then it would be Stars of the Lid.

Alex: Yeah, I was always into that. As far ambient as you can go, that really pure sound and then putting things on top of that to make it more song based. There's a tension between the two.

Austin: But definitely since the Night Jukes EP onwards, we've been a lot more interested in electronic music and how we could have that as an influence… basically, how a guitar band could play electronic music.

A bit like Seefeel, or Mark Van Hoen of Locust, maybe. Have you ever heard any of their music? They deconstruct guitar music and remake it in an electronic way.

Austin: We'll check them out.

Alex: We like the structure of electronic music more than most other music. It's more interesting. Electronic acts are always much more forward thinking than guitar bands. The biggest compliment we ever got was when a friend said it sounded more like electronic music than a band.

Austin: Someone wrote that we sounded metallic after our last live show, which I liked. We're really not interested in Krautrock in that sense of repetition, despite being associated with it all the time.

You're not really affiliated to any scene, though there are lots of likeminded bands around in terms of the ethos of making music – Hookworms, Cold Pumas – who you sound nothing like, but you seem to have an association with. It's very disparate. There's not a scene linked to a specific place or sound, it's more about shared aesthetics. And you're all releasing on Gringo, Faux Discx and Italian Beach Babes.

Austin: We really like those guys and consider them friends as well…

Alex: They're our buddies, but I guess that whenever I hear that kind of thing, I assume people think there's been this meeting where we've all decided to play things a certain way but we never talk about that.

Is making music your full-time occupation?

Austin: Andreas and I study still. I study graphic design.

Alex: I'm a teaching assistant at Turkish Boy's School. I teach English. We've all got our day things we do.

So you can do it because you want to do it and you like it. You're not in it for the money, though I doubt you'd complain if you made a bit.

Austin: I think what's really refreshing about the music industry over the past few years, is that people aren't really making that much money any more – or there's not as much money to be made, maybe. That means that we can make whatever music we want because we don't have to think about making any money – because we won't.

You might make some…

Alex: [laughs] But that's just a bonus, really.

Austin: We're much more concerned with seeing how far we can push what we're doing and ourselves.

That's a really interesting way of looking at it. There are still quite a few musicians who are frustrated that the old music industry business models are fading – big advances and lots of money sloshing about for publishing. But it frees you up in a way, because you can just concentrate on making music. But that's maybe too idealistic a way of looking at it. Another argument would be that a band like Vision Fortune should be able to make a half decent living from music. Is that frustrating?

Alex: But we've never really considered that we'd make any money. It was always amazing if we got a good gig.

Austin: Yeah, to even be asked to play a show was surprising.

Alex: And now we're releasing an album and we never thought we'd get this far.

Austin: Ten years ago we were just noodling and messing around…

But once the album is out it's going to take on a life of its own and you'll find it all changes really quickly. It's going to happen. Just because you didn't start out with a grand plan doesn't mean it won't happen for you.

Alex: Assuming people like it, of course.

Austin: Everything is a surprise to us. Everything is a bonus.

So what happens next? Are you already writing the next album?

Alex: We want to take the structure of electronic music and do it with guitars. There's nothing that crosses over in that way that I like. We want to cause confusion – so people aren't sure if it's a guitar or a keyboard.

Austin: That's what we're discussing.

According to the press release, the album is loosely based on John Kay's Parable of the Ox, which is "a thinly veiled allegory for unbridled capitalism". Was that just a conceit – something to put on a press release?

Austin: No, it's pretty much the truth.  Alex heard about it on Radio 4 and it seemed fitting to start working along that idea.

It's sort of fits in with what we were talking about before – the traditional capitalist model of the music industry going to shit. Is that what that story is about?

Austin: That's a nice parallel.

Alex: But it wasn't meant to be a big comment on that.

Austin: We're definitely not political musically.

VISION FORTUNE- 06.04.13 from Conan Roberts on Vimeo.

A few weeks after the interview Vision Fortune support Sun Araw at Corsica Studios. I miss the beginning, but arrive just in time to hear the last song, 'XVII'. Under the battering glare of strobes and white lights that render the band as intermittent, flickering figures, they sound like Ed Rush & Optical tearing the guts out of the My Bloody Valentine holocaust section, Andreas's locked-down drum loops underpinning a whirlwind of howling dissonance. It's brutal and, the brothers will be pleased to hear, it does sound metallic – the melodies that occasionally surface in the din are vaguely Eastern sounding in places, a nod back to their early days under the influence of Sublime Frequencies. They may not enjoy playing live but it is definitely the best platform for them to start realising their ambition of making electronic music on guitars. In the resulting cacophony it's hard to tell what noises are made by the guitars and which are the samples that Alex is triggering. But perhaps most importantly for Vision Fortune, live is the best way for them to connect with an audience, if they decide that trying to explain themselves to journalists is too much like hard work.

Mas Fiestas con el Grupo Vision Fortune is released by Gringo/Faux Discx on May 13. You can pre-order the album here.

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