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Escape Velocity

Personal Myths: Vanishing Twin Interviewed
Patrick Clarke , May 10th, 2018 10:23

Ahead of a special show at the Total Refreshment Centre on May 15, Patrick Clarke meets the brilliant, shapeshifting Vanishing Twin to talk amphibians, new atheists, gongs, chimes and more

Vanishing Twin play live in Hackney on Tuesday May 15

Vanishing Twin are a band who it is both fun and fruitless to attempt to pin down. Shimmering and ethereal, much of their work centres on themes of duality, amorphous identities and personal mythology, and their methods are prone to shapeshifting and constant evolution. Their most recent release, for example, is a cassette entitled Magic And Machines, a self-described ‘indulgent’ pair of longform improvisational works, recorded in one take during an ‘improv practice/deep listening/group therapy’ session at an old mill in the small market town of Sudbury. Their debut album, 2016’s Choose Your Own Adventure, was grounded in sublime, tight but dreamy conceptual songwriting, while last year’s Dream By Numbers EP offered frantic, propulsive jazz.

This magical, metamorphosing band grew from vocalist Cathy Lucas’ project Orlando, in which she was joined by drummer Valentina Magaletti, also of Tomaga, Neon Neon and a host of other projects. “Gradually more and more people joined,” says Lucas, speaking over ice lollies on the hottest day of the year in East London’s Curve Garden. “It started off as Orlando and it was my songs and my thing, but then all these people joined who had so much personality in the way that they play that it couldn’t just be mine.”

As Magaletti tells it via email a couple of days later, “Cathy and I travelled extensively in the US and Europe and spent a lot of time together record shopping and sharing our musical tastes. It felt quite natural forming a new band after such invigorating experience. When we got back to London we started demoing some of Cathy’s songs, while in the meantime Cathy recruited all the dysfunctional geniuses available in London at the time.” Those dysfunctional geniuses are Susumu Mukai (better known as producer Zongamin and sometime member of Floating Points), Phil M.F.U. (Man From Uranus), and the film-maker and visual artist Elliott Arndt.

There is a generational gap of a quarter of a century within the band, and each member’s work outside of Vanishing Twin is deeply individual, but the five bonded over a number of common threads, particularly the kind of music that hints at an entire other world. “Library music for sure,” Lucas explains as she reels off just a few influences. “Italian stuff in particular, soundtracks by Piero Umiliani and Morricone. Anything that’s outside of music, we all love The Space Lady and R Stevie Moore and the aesthetics of home recording is important to us. Not that that’s [producer] Malcolm [Catto]’s thing, but he shares with us a love of imperfection and the character you get when you use a four track, or when there’s something in microphone bleed that brings an energy and an atmosphere to something. So much contemporary production is built to counteract those things, we like music that embraces them.”

Following the release of the sublime Magic And Machines, Vanishing Twin take their live show to the Total Refreshment Centre in London for a special show in aid of tQ. We caught up with Lucas to tell the tale of the story so far, with contributions via email from Magaletti and Phil M.F.U.

tQ: For me the band has had an incredibly strong visual aesthetic from the outset, is this of a lot of importance to you?

Valentina Magaletti: There are many incredible bands and artists out there who seem to either ignoring or trying to hard to build a visual identity. I strongly feel that neither of the above applies to Vanishing Twin. We all have strong taste and visual references.

Cathy Lucas: We’re all very much into artwork, basically. Susumu’s been an illustrator for part of his career, Elliot’s very much a videographer and visual artist. I think all of us like to make things. So that was part of it. We have similar tastes I think. Val, myself and Phil are into library music and there’s such a strong aesthetic to the covers there.

VM: All the artwork, record sleeves and videos are made by ourselves. Eliot directed all the videos so far. Me and Cathy designed the sleeves. Collage art and Hannah Höch's work particularly is a big influence for me, her artistic approach is very similar to our aesthetic.

Vanishing Twin has one hell of a lineup, could we go through your bandmates individually?

CL: Val’s my favourite drummer and I feel so privileged to be in a band with her. She has a huge record collection, she’s really into sound and she’s got a real sense of drums through the eras and through genre and what drums mean in different contexts. That knowledge is incredible to have as part of the group because she knows how to bring certain atmospheres and evoke a certain era. She’s got a whole octave of gongs, giant ones, little ones, ones with faces. She’s a collector of percussive instruments, anything that’s ‘other’.

Elliot plays percussion and flute, he’s very much a musician but his main thing is film, he makes all our visuals. We want to make a short film, when’s the last time a band made a film? Probably very recently actually, but when’s the last time a band made a good film?

Phil’s only really came to music in the last ten or fifteen years but he’s got this magical relationship with it. He’s not a technical or a music guy, he’ll always be different from everyone else, an outsider in a way.. He’s incredibly prolific and full of ideas, he does it all without much notion of how to do it, he just does it. A great portrait of Phil is this film called One Man In The Band, and it follows five or six solo musicians that try and play everything on stage, and he’s one of them. The way that he talks about music is really magical, it’s so personal to him.

And then there’s Susumu, he’s from Japan originally and he’s also someone who just constantly surprises me. They’re all just great musicians basically, they all have a sense of what’s musical and what’s surprising. I feel like some dodgy captain who’s just trying to steer the boat in some kind of way that makes sense.

You grew up in Brussels, and you’ve got members with origins in America, Luxembourg, Japan and Italy. Do you think it’s just incidental that you all grew up in different places and countries?

CL: Interesting… I’m definitely drawn to a more continental approach. Jazz was a bit dirty word for a long time in music in the UK, and there was a divide between the indie world and the jazz world. I hope and I think that’s changing, but there’s definitely something continental about that willingness to be open to jazz, maybe. Not that any of us really play jazz, we just like the sound of it!

Speaking of jazz, can you expand on how much that’s influenced you?

CL: There’s a side to jazz, for example with Sun Ra, where he pushed against jazz itself in the way he approached music, as a bit of an outsider in that community. I think we’re definitely into that aesthetic. Even in jazz today it feels very strict. You can see the Sun Ra Arkestra and compared to pretty much anything else in the jazz world they reject the past.

Phil M.F.U.: A lot of modern popular psychedelic music could take note from the idiosyncratic exploring and melodic nature of jazz, rather than the heavy droney and dark masculine approach it seems to be taking at the moment, it's all beginning to sound like heavy metal to me, and miserable, reflecting an increasingly superficial and emotionally sterile society, when it should be a means of escape and fantasy, an uplifting adventure from the mundane. Jazz is all about the relationship of sounds moving in space and playing off each other in playful ways, and I think we take that from it. Some of the group’s largest inspirations come from exotic Lounge and library music which is rooted in jazz and played by jazz musicians.

VM: As James Thurber once described Dali’s art, the naked truth about Jazz in Vanishing Twin is to the naked truth about jazz as an old ukulele in an attic is to a piano in a tree, and I mean a piano with breasts. I think the musical approach adopted so far by the band is boldly visionary and Dorothy Ashby, Sun Ra and Yusef Lateef have lots to answer for. All band members listen to modal, atonal, free jazz trying to enter that coloured free world without falling into any precise scheme.

Your new cassette was recorded in an old mill in Sudbury, through an ‘improv practice/deep listening/group therapy’ session. Why Sudbury?

CL: Sudbury was pretty ideal for what we wanted to do. It was isolated, there was nothing else there to do or see, that was the only thing to do was music. We all went away together and just immersed ourselves a bit, we were trying to getting better at recording, I think that’s really important to a band developing their identity and sound. If you’re able to record yourselves you’ll be more likely to create your own world. It was quite late and we were playing and I got this message from the guy who hosted us telling us to keep it down. I liked that there was this order from above and we suddenly had to play extremely quietly. Something magical happens when you have those constraints.

VM: Initially I was skeptical. I thought it would have been hard working far from our comfort zone, but it proved to be one of the funniest experiences of last year. We ended up recording a lot and ordering trombones and food online. A marvelous sonic testimonial of what happened at the Sudbury Mill can be found on the tape. We will have some copies at the London show on May 15.

Can we talk a bit more about what exactly a Vanishing Twin is, and why you’ve chosen that as both a name and a theme to explore?

CL: During pregnancy sometimes you’ll have what looks like twins, two embryos, and then at a later scan you’ll find there’s only one, because one embryo has been absorbed by the other. It was actually quite momentous for me when I found out I had a Vanishing Twin. I was 12 years old and I’ve always wanted a sister, and I was very drawn to twins. I was quite upset when I found out actually. It’s something that’s just become knowledge, something in the back of your mind that you know about yourself, than at some point that turned into the song ‘Vanishing Twin Syndrome’ when we were still called Orlando. It made sense to name the band after that song as lyrically I was interested in ideas about double identities. I got into this idea that I might be amphibian, I was writing a lot of songs about going swimming!

Do these themes permeate the whole of that first Vanishing Twin record?

CL: If you can say there’s a concept around the record it’ one I call personal mythology. It’s basically me writing my own stories about where I come from and who I am. It’s a manifesto for why anyone should be able to do that, should be able to write their own mythology. It’s also targeted at the New Atheism movement and Christopher Hitchens, that whole world to me is just soulless! I hate debating people now about anything, but at the time I used to end up in these awful conversations with people about that stuff.

On your second album will those themes continue, or will you explore new ground?

CL: It’s quite good to find a direction or someway into it that can guide you. I thought it would be great to make an album about language and communication in its many forms. I started working with Phil with stuff about telepathy, then I have another one which is mainly about how you build a world, and the way you communicate with someone. Texting can create a universe in the way that you interact with someone, it’s very personal between you and them, especially if there are lots of messages. I’m trying to use that as my guide, and there’s definitely other ideas coming around, but it’s good to have something that you can use.

Is there a humorous side to Vanishing Twin too? The video for ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’, for example.

CL: Definitely, that’s a big side of it for us. I get uncomfortable when things come across too earnest, it’s not natural. I never write these heartfelt songs, that’s a big part of it for us, the humour of it. Hopefully in the lyrics as well it’s a little bit tongue in cheek

VM: I have a few issues appreciating the artistic effort of anyone who takes themselves too seriously. I won’t necessarily want a Vanishing Twin show to be qualified as comic, but humour is definitely an essential ingredient in our music.

If money were no object, what would your live show look like?

CL: That’s an evil question! We’re working on something, I hope we’re able to do it fully, involving slide projectors and having several, maybe five or six, that play different slides in different places so you have these constantly evolving collages of imagery. Elliot has a homemade chime wheel, he invented it, it’s a metal rim on a stand and then it has chimes mounted with string inside the rim and you can pedal it to spin it, and you play it with a metal stick. It’s a beautiful sound, we had it in Sudbury but it’s not on the recording. If money were no object it’d be like the Wheel of Fortune! We should be bringing the gongs out at some point, I have a dream of having a 1930s style drumkit with the curved symbol stands, with the symbols suspended from above, an old jazz kit with painted skin. No technology basically, just beautiful objects that make sound. You can do a lot with that!

Vanishing Twin play live with Robert Sotelo at Total Refreshment Centre on Tuesday 15 May