Tom Vek on chaos and caution
Tom Vek is a musician with the mind of a designer. His sculpted hair and immaculate trenchcoat embody his nature: clean and efficient.
“Chaos in art is great,” he says. “But the purpose of it is that it’s a controlled thing. You put it in a box, in a nice white gallery and you say ‘Oh wow, look at how out of control this is’. But nobody wants that in their real life.”
It makes sense, of course, that a man with a degree in graphic design enjoys grid-like structure day-to-day. He’s highly creative, incredibly visual, and borderline compulsive. He arranges his guitar pedals by colour. Vek came to terms with his need for an organised existence during the recording of his 2011 comeback album Leisure Seizure, six years on from his debut We Have Sound. “I realised I needed to control where my anger comes from. You grow up a bit and you realise that you’ve got problems in your life that you just have to solve. You have to be pragmatic.”
This apparition was perhaps the source of another one of his obsessions – the cautionary tale. Vek’s new record Luck is filled with portentous warnings and damning judgements condensed into punchy lines played on repeat. He sings on Pushing Your Luck as though imparting a prophecy: “You’re not going to win, you’re not going to cut it.”
Despite the fact lyrics come last in his songwriting process, the nature of Vek’s metronomic sound ensures they are imbued with the godliness of repetition. He describes his approach to words as “sloganeering”, informed by years of listening to bands unique in their language. “My favourite band of all time is a New York group called Soul Coughing,” he says. “The singer came from a 90s beat-poet kind of background. He came out with these profound snippets and it was almost like they were stolen from somewhere. I think I admired that. Years ago someone came up to me to talk about Nothing But Green Lights, saying ‘I wish I could write something like that line’. I was very humbled by that because I realised I’d done something that was as efficient as I’d like a lyric to be.”
And even though Vek insists that his songs are driven by noise not words, that doesn’t mean inspiration always arrives in sonic form. The first single from Luck, Sherman (Animals in the Jungle), was inspired by Tom Wolfe’s modern parable The Bonfire of the Vanities. “The general premise of the book is that there’s a wealthy bonds trader living on Park Avenue, and it’s his own fault that things get out of control. One thing happens that unpicks his whole life.”
That double-edged interest in disorder and efficiency is perhaps unsurprising. Luck continues Vek’s near decade-old exploration in streamlining sound, asking once again how few parts are really needed to make a danceable racket. The distinct live drums return, his drawl is still dry yet oddly shamanic, and the riffs hint at the teenager Vek once was (at one point he was “telling people it was a grunge album”).
“I’ve been talking about ‘permission to rebel’ a lot recently, because I think that’s fascinating. Everybody wants to be told that they can do what they want. Everybody knows that if you actually do what you want and don’t give a fuck about anyone else then you’re an arsehole.”
Vek says this pretty much out of the blue. Perhaps he’s mulling over the experience of creating this record entirely on his todd and without a major label. “I mean, this time I did it completely on my own. In the past I’ve had producer influence. This time I thought I could do it by myself.”
His new label, Moshi Moshi, didn’t insist on the use of a guiding voice, and so Vek added to his already huge workload (he has a hand in everything from his cover art to Amazon banners) by recording Luck with minimal external influence. It was a world away from being signed to Island Records in the mid-noughties. “It was a dream come true then; the coolest thing that could possibly have happened to me. But the reality of being a headstrong, individual artist on the major structure was hard, particularly considering what happened in the following years … it’s sad, really, that they can’t operate in the way they used to. I experienced the last year of them being like ‘We think of you as like a PJ Harvey character’. I was like ‘Oh my god!’. I cared about the brand. I’m proud that that record was made under that premise. And it made me realise the kind of control I want over my music, and that I still wanted to have that DIY, punk ethos to it.”
Despite the musical continuity between this record and the last, a line between Island and Moshi Moshi has clearly been drawn in the sand from where Vek is standing. There was even, at the most base level, a change of studio after his former haunt in North East London was bulldozed to make way for flats. “It was like a hospital morgue – a stand alone building. I thought about trying to live in one of those flats so I could live on the burial ground of my previous album and spread rumours that it was haunted by a pop record.”
He is now based in Fortress Studios in London’s Old Street tech district. It’s an appropriate location for someone with an appreciation of even the most basic technology – he examines the dictaphone used to record this interview with honest interest before talking about his love for St Vincent’s guitar sounds. “They’re these crazy riffs that are all coming from one thing. Her tech set-up must be pretty crazy. And a guitar pitch pedal just scratches the surface of what Tom Morello achieved with those Rage Against the Machine riffs, where you were like ‘How many guitars are in that band?’. And you’d read on the sleeve notes ‘All noises created by guitar, bass and drums’. You’d be like, ‘oh, wow’.”
As much as Vek enjoys speaking about equipment, he doesn’t actually own that much. Again and again, it comes back to efficiency. He mainly varies the sounds of his toys by arranging them in convoluted ways. “I’d rather be on the keyboard that has five sounds. Then the sixth sound is through a guitar amp, making it a new thing. The main riff in Broke (one of Luck’s standout tracks, led by a propulsive clanging squelch) is a combination of a synth line getting chopped up by something else going through a pickup going into a guitar amp that is being recorded at a distance. So all of a sudden you feel like you’re listening to some odd machine making a noise instead of some direct synthesis from a programme.”
‘Odd Machine’ seems like a perfect description for Vek’s one-man production line. Minimal yet immersive, Luck mirrors the process and the person. But in the end, it’s the little surprises in his ordered universe that provide the eureka moments. “There’s some pieces of music I’ve made where it starts on an up-beat so I’ll start nodding along and then the drums come in and I’ll realise I mis-stepped. I get fooled by that. And that’s fun.”
Luck is out now via Moshi Moshi