A conversation with the Tri Angle producer, whose new album 'Punish, Honey' is one of the most strange and wonderful you'll hear for a while.
Vessel is at home in Bristol when we speak. Despite the gloominess of the day ("Very grey," he says over the phone, "It’s horrible. Horrendous.") he’s in a chipper mood. A week earlier he’d been in Belgium playing a show with Killing Sound, one of many outfits whose numbers are made up by members of Bristol’s sprawling Young Echo collective. "We played with Inga Copeland and ended up just getting really hammered," he says, "Inga came on and we did an impromptu live 10 minutes, which was awesome."
We’re here to talk about 'Punish, Honey', Vessel’s new album and his second for Tri Angle following 2012’s 'Order of Noise'. Where 'Order of Noise' imagined techno as if it were suffering from some sort of degenerative illness, 'Punish, Honey' is a considerably gentler listen: with its marching rhythms, considered song structures, and spry melodies, the album often comes across more like a Neolithic folk record than anything else, akin to James Holden’s excellent 'The Inheritors'. In order to give 'Punish, Honey' its distinctive character, Vessel – real name Seb Gainsborough – built many of the instruments himself using rudimentary construction techniques, these unique sounds sitting alongside his hardware synthesizer experiments.
When did you start working on the album?
Vessel: "I first started making the record… blimey, bear with me. Let me just rack my memory banks. Probably, the seeds were sown around summer last year, and I finished around January this year."
Did you have an idea for what you wanted to do with the album before you started making it?
Vessel: "I definitely had to wait a while, until my ideas gained enough form for me to start putting them into practise, and to stop thinking about them and start making them. A big thing was deciding how I wanted to go about the record in practical terms – and by that I mean, not doing it on the computer, and not doing it on hardware so much, but actually building the instruments for use. As soon as I decided to start doing that, things started to take shape and gain momentum."
What was your reason to start doing it without a computer, and to build your own things?
Vessel: "I was far too comfortable using software and hardware. I just felt very limited by how familiar these processes were. I’d sit down and I’d almost know what I was going to do and what the result would be before I’d even done anything, because I do that every day and it just becomes muscle memory. So I needed to kind of ‘unlearn’ a lot of stuff and remove myself from that comfort zone in order to start having ideas that felt fresh to me. Otherwise you’re just going around in circles the whole time, chasing your tail."
A lot of musicians invest in hardware because they slip too easily into routine using software – but you said even that was getting predictable?
Vessel: "I cycle through things incredibly quickly. I’d been doing software for a long time – I’d started with the basic stuff, and then by the end of it I was segwaying between more traditional sequencers and open software languages like Max/MSP and Puredata and other freeware bits. And then I just couldn’t go any further with the software stuff, so I moved to hardware – and I love it. I love it more than the software stuff because of those inherent limitations; you’re working within set parameters and there are only so many configurations that you can have. And then that became stifling as well. I’ll get a piece of kit and I’ll live in that piece of kit for a couple of months, and then I’ll feel the need to do something more. I’m a child of this generation, I have a really, really low attention threshold."
"I was far too comfortable using software and hardware. I’d sit down and I’d almost know what I was going to do and what the result would be before I’d even done anything, because I do that every day and it just becomes muscle memory." - Vessel
That’s a criticism of today’s producers, isn’t it? They’re overwhelmed by choice, so they find it hard to settle on any one sound.
Vessel: "God, yeah, it’s crazy. I really do think that that has a big part to play in it, because I think of some artists – early electronic artists, who maybe only had one piece of kit, like an ARP synthesizer or something, they’d spend the next 30 years using the ARP synthesizer making incredible music. I have the utmost respect for that, and hopefully one day I’ll have that much patience."
Can you talk about how you made the instruments?
Vessel: "I was thinking about how I could get away from the computer, and I read an interview with Thor Harris from Swans, and he mentioned a book, which I then bought. That was it, really. It gives you some basic groundwork in how to create crude – and they are seriously crude – instruments. They’re not for performance, and by that I mean there’s not enough potential for expression because they’re so basic."
How much of the time spent making the album was actually spent just trying to make those instruments?
Vessel: "Two months, initially, and then I started making tracks, and it was just a process of going back and forth. Thankfully, you didn’t need loads of money, or loads of technical knowledge, to build these instruments. Otherwise I would’ve been screwed, because I have absolutely no woodworking or metal skills."
It seems like it’d defeat the point if you had the skills to make them.
Vessel: "That’s it! That’s it. That’s exactly what I was not looking for. I didn’t want to know anything about how to even tune an instrument – the maths behind it, I wasn’t interested, because that would be kind of placing myself back in the very situation I was trying to leave behind."
The album has a lot of sounds on it that are... Not exactly alien, but which I can’t really recognise or pinpoint what they’re similar to, which is surprisingly rare to hear. You get used to sounds being quite codified and representing certain things.
Vessel: "It’s something very particular to the electronic world, and what the electronic world has turned into. This search for ‘the next sound’ – the next, most powerful, most effective sound. We’re almost in the terrain of film composers thinking about what’s popular at the moment, composing really techy, new grime music. We’re in the hi-fi, super sheeny, super slick world of electronic music. I didn’t want to follow that trajectory of looking for, in inverted commas, ‘new sounds’, because I think that’s a loser’s game – you’re only gonna end up sounding dated very quickly."
Everything’s only new for a second.
Vessel: "Exactly. I was much more interested in how you can place familiar sounds in a strange context, and maybe the listener would glean something different from that reappraisal of sounds."
"I didn’t want to follow that trajectory of looking for, in inverted commas, ‘new sounds’, because I think that’s a loser’s game – you’re only gonna end up sounding dated very quickly." - Vessel
The press material for this record mentions how you were interested in natural sounds, and electronic sounds made to sound natural.
Vessel: "That was more about exploring physical instruments rather than electronic instruments. That wasn’t really in reference to the natural world.
"Again, it goes back to this constant exploration of new sounds that I think many electronic composers concern themselves with. At the time, I was listening to music that definitely wasn’t electronic – jazz, and freaky weird music from the ‘80s – and the sounds that they were creating, to me, were much more alien because they weren’t electronic. They weren’t self-consciously weird, they were the result of some weird people doing weird things with instruments that were actually completely codified, like a saxophone. There’s a proper way to play it, and then there’s a completely unconventional way to play it. And those sounds were much more thrilling to listen to for me than someone going crazy on a modular synthesizer, or doing whatever with a plugin, because there wasn’t that self-conscious ‘I’m setting out to make a weird sound.’ It’s almost competitive now, with who can make the most thrilling sound. These guys were just doing their thing, and there’s something very human about it. You can hear the ways their bodies are mediating this expression.
"That was the thing for me. That’s why I wanted to create instruments and explore natural sounds in an unnatural context, and by that I mean through processing or using the skills I learnt through synthesis, or using Max/MSP."
Speaking of things being misinterpreted from the press release, there’s another bit where it says the record has an interest “in notions of national identity” and “Englishness”, which I’m sure you’ll be asked about in every interview from now on.
Vessel: "Ahhhhh!! [laughs] My friends have now given me the nickname ‘the techno Morrissey.’ I absolutely didn’t set out to make a record commenting on national identity. That would be absurd, and such an incredibly boring and arrogant thing to do. I was reading a lot about Middle England and Anglo-Saxon culture, and that set off a whole chain reaction. I realised I was unconsciously listening to music that I thought conveyed a real sense of ‘Englishness’. Obviously, that is very subjective – my conception of Englishness is going to be very different to my Pakistani next door neighbour. In that sense – in the sense that I am an English person, working and living in England, who has been absorbing all of this specifically Anglo-centric culture – it’s a record about England, in a very obscure way. But it’s absolutely not a conscious decision to do that."
"My friends have now given me the nickname ‘the techno Morrissey.’ I absolutely didn’t set out to make a record commenting on national identity. That would be absurd, and such an incredibly boring and arrogant thing to do." - Vessel
I read that you’ll be doing some performances using the instruments that you built for the album?
Vessel: "Well, actually! [laughs] I can’t transport my instruments. That was, I think, misinterpreted – that I’d be bringing these instruments to these shows. Unfortunately, that’s not gonna be possible. I wish I could bring the instruments, but they’re just crap for performing on. They’re so, so boring."
Tri Angle Records released 'Punish, Honey' on September 15th 2014 (buy).