Features I by I 02.10.14

Sleazy does it: Vessel on inventing “terrible, unplayable” instruments and making his goth album

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Vessel interview

It would be an understatement to say that Punish, Honey, Vessel’s second LP for Tri Angle Records, is a departure from his debut album Order of Noise.

Rather than build on the sound of Order of Noise, which lashed together dub and techno with murky, sepulchral textures, for Punish, Honey, Seb Gainsborough chose instead to start afresh and undergo a process of unlearning. Departing from his hardware-based setup, he literally started from scratch, building a number of rudimentary instruments by hand. The cliché of the difficult second album doesn’t apply here: Vessel’s debut LP may have been accomplished but it was slightly inconsistent, whereas Punish, Honey is far more cohesive and fully realised, retaining the dub sensibility of Order of Noise while drawing from a far wider pool of influences, many of which he touches on in a recent mix for FACT that takes in Xenakis, Jason Lescalleet, :zoviet*france:, Coil, medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen, and Culturcide.

Punish, Honey is also a deeply physical, sensual record. From the track titles – ‘Febrile’, ‘Red Sex’, ‘Euoi’ – to tactile drums that sound like pounded leather, gritty guitar harmonics and sleazy, writhing melodic figures, Punish, Honey evokes sex at every turn. Gainsborough binds sexuality up with images of death and violence, so that the overriding impression is not the hollow gloom of much of his music, whether solo or as part of Killing Sound with Jabu and El Kid, but rapturous ecstasy. There’s also something essentially English about Punish, Honey’s blackened humour, glam campness and taste for the macabre, and while Gainsborough is keen to emphasise that any notion of national character is purely subjective, it’s difficult to imagine an album like this coming from anywhere else. 



Punish, Honey and Order of Noise couldn’t be more different. How did you want this album to be similar to or different from your first? 

Order of Noise was the first long piece of work I’d done. I had absolutely no idea how to go about it, so I just jumped in and made tracks. There wasn’t any kind of theme or thought process, whereas with Punish, Honey I really wanted to do the exact opposite and invert certain things. Whereas Order of Noise was all over the place with its references and from track to track, I wanted to achieve a much more coherent record this time around. That was really important to me.

Why was it important to you to make a cohesive album?

Because that’s what I hadn’t done, and day to do day, when I’m working, it’s something I find very difficult, to actually slow down enough to think things through, rather than just zipping around at breakneck speed and trying everything at once. So it was a challenge.

Would you say you were fighting your instincts on Punish, Honey, then?

Definitely. And I like to do that a lot – it goes back to finding it difficult to be slow. I constantly cycle through things, and I wanted to be able to stop for a minute and think about how these tracks could relate to each other, and that did go against my instincts because every day I wake up and just go and do music, and I don’t think about it that much. So I wanted to stop that in its tracks, and that’s actually the hardest part of making records thinking about it.

It’s strange, because Punish, Honey is quite a physical record, a record for the body. I couldn’t really lose myself in the initial process because I was sitting there and thinking about what I wanted to accomplish, which is something I don’t actually do very often at all.

And how did you go about the process of doing something completely different – did you plan it, or mess about with several different things before landing on something new? 

I actually just stopped making music completely, and I stopped listening to it, and just sat around and did my day job. I didn’t think about it and let it come to me, so I would gradually collect these strands of ideas. You know how things come to you when you’re not thinking about them, you look away and maybe the idea will creep in. That’s what happened, and eventually I felt confident enough to have a crack at starting something. So it was like looking away while the idea settled, rather than facing it down and consciously trying to pick it apart. I think I probably have a tendency to think about things so much that I lose perspective on them, so that was certainly very helpful.

I understand you built some of your own instruments for this record. Was that also in order to turn away from what you had been doing on Order Of Noise

I think it goes back to just wanting to kick my legs out from underneath myself all the time. Again, I go through things at such a pace, they lose their charm for me very quickly, and I quite often find myself getting into creative stasis because they become too familiar. I’ve been using computers forever, so I know my way around a computer too easily, and it’s almost the same with hardware now. Unfortunately, when it comes to hardware, if you cycle through and use it, the next piece is going to cost you a few hundred quid, so I just didn’t have any options available to me really rather than trying to do something very DIY and very crude. That turned out to be probably the most liberating experience I’ve had with any music making. It was so entirely different, and I think that’s what really gave me the drive to do something different, having that energy and excitement.


“I ended up in this really bad cycle of watching this one guy on YouTube, with full medieval kit and a zither.”


Do you find yourself getting bored easily with your old processes?

I do. It seems to be really common among people of my generation; I think we just have a really poor attention span, which is quite sad! All that multiple clicking all over the internet. But I have to move about very quickly, or I become too familiar, and as soon as I can’t switch on and find that magic quiet space, the whole thing becomes too obvious and I’m too aware of what I’m doing, and I prefer just having a piece of metal to hit.

What gave you the idea to build your own instruments, and how did you go about it?

I totally stole the idea from [multi-instrumentalist and Swans drummer] Thor Harris, actually. I read an interview where he was talking about this book that he’d been using to make instruments, and I just thought it sounded brilliant so I got it and that was it, really. I had no prior experience with any kind of building. I completely suck at using my hands for anything other than making music, so that was really challenging, and I had to get my dad involved. We just sat down with a bunch of tools and this book, and after a couple of months we had some really terrible, unplayable instruments which formed the backbone of the record.

It was a real revelation for me as an electronic musician, because you’re constantly analysing sound, sitting there in your chair in a room or studio, training yourself just to listen. So you lose a very important connection, the connection of the body to sound. It becomes a very cerebral activity in a way, so just rediscovering using my hands to make music was a really amazing thing, and actually being able to feel what I was doing in a very, very different way, and subsequently seeing how changes in my body would create changes in the sound. It was a much more active participation, and I really felt that I was playing a part in making the sound in a much more direct way.

Like you say it’s a really bodily record. I think it’s so raunchy. Was it the process that informed that, or was it your aim from the outset to make a body record after Order of Noise, which was comparatively so cerebral?

It was definitely both. I suffer from a total lack of restraint, as my colleagues in Killing Sound often lament! Present me with a soundsystem and a way of making big sounds, and I won’t be able to temper myself, so when I was playing with these instruments, which could only give this very basic range of sounds and timbres, I couldn’t really play them subtly. It was such an exciting, visceral experience to be able to do it in the first place that I went from zero to ten very quickly. So yes, the physical aspect of playing definitely informed it heavily.

So much music that you could loosely align your music with is bodily in the sense that you dance to it, and the bass and noise have a definite physical effect, but by and large a lot of it can be pretty sexless. 

It’s a weird thing, isn’t it? Electronic music used to be all about sex and violence, and really primal things, and I think a lot of it has definitely lost that edge.

This is closer to something like Throbbing Gristle, with that sense of having no limitations or boundaries at all. 

That’s what it should be. It’s the biggest mindfuck when you make music, and because everyone is so career-focused now, we have boundaries before we’ve even begun. We close ourselves in, and we’re very fearful of criticism. It’s the most damaging thing to your creativity, to be afraid of pushing yourself. It’s not what it should be about; it’s about liberating yourself and liberating other people.

As well as this sleazy atmosphere, there are pieces that specifically recall sacred music, like ‘Euoi’.

I love that word. I love the etymology of it.

It’s Greek, isn’t it? I had to look it up – “A cry of impassioned rapture”. What a great word. 

It just struck me that we’ve totally carried that word through. It has a contemporary usage, and I find that really interesting.

Vessel2

There’s this uneasy pairing, between the ecstasy of sacred music and the reality of the institution that weighs it down. Did you have that duality in mind at all? 

Not really, no. The main reason I started using tunings other than the standard Western scale was again because I was finding it very difficult to create any melodies or progressions using those scales, because we’re so overexposed to them. I would sit down and play something anything and I couldn’t do anything with it. So I just put it to one side and played a scale that I had no cultural familiarity with. And I was able to play it without thinking about it. I certainly experienced different emotions, or experienced the music in a different way because I wasn’t familiar with it, because it was still very strange to my ears.

What specific emotions were you tapping into?      

I think you can probably tell that it’s a record of catharsis. I do make music that’s cerebral, and music that isn’t really tied to the body, but this record wasn’t about that. It was about escapism. There wasn’t much going through my head emotionally at the time of making it, apart from wanting to find a way to communicate this dual sense of absolute ecstasy and pain, because I think it’s what it comes down to – sex, death and religion the whole way. Which sounds incredibly goth and quite sad! But that’s what it was, and that’s what I needed to do. It’s my goth record!

It’s interesting that you say about you wanted to get away from cerebral music and towards something more bodily, because this year you performed a Parmegiani piece at the London Contemporary Music Festival, and in your mix for FACT, you include pieces by people like Xenakis and Jason Lescalleet. What did you take away from electroacoustic music in relation to Punish, Honey

I’m grateful for learning about that music, and there’s no doubt that I still like some of it, but I can’t really listen to most of it any more, because it sounds, and I know it is, extremely limited in its range. And I mean that as a two-pronged attack. Firstly, socially, it’s restricted to the ivory towers in that it’s super academic, and I think that element of confining it to a very tight circle limits its effect. Also, you get people spending years and years researching how to make new timbres in Max/MSP and stuff like that, and I don’t see it as being particularly useful. What I take away from it is technical stuff, but there are very few electroacoustic artists who really excite me or really grab my attention. Parmegiani is one of those few. I love hearing those techniques used in ways that they shouldn’t be, and I think that’s what most good electronic artists now do; they’ll use super advanced synthesis programs, but not to demonstrate how many incredible textures they can create, or to try and mimic the sound of a saxophone. They use them in a very personal way, and I think that’s really crucial. A lot of electroacoustic music is incredibly lacking in any sense of the human, in any sense of personality behind it, and I can’t get excited about it.

 


It’s almost the inverse of what you’ve done on Punish, Honey in that respect – using crude instrumentation to create a very personal, visceral result, as opposed to using these very advanced techniques to create something quite faceless.

I’m so torn on the subject, because I love the techniques and I love where it came from. I love a lot of old tape music and a lot of electroacoustic musicians like Parmegiani, but the really crucial difference was that they were at the forefront of their art form, creating music that had such a clear sense of personality, which I think has stagnated for the most part, unfortunately, and the people doing the most interesting electroacoustic music aren’t really tied to that world, like Russell Haswell, or Rashad Becker. Those people don’t really have both feet in that camp.

What brought about the idea of “Englishness” as a framework for Punish, Honey? It’s not a common starting point for most electronic records, to say the least.

It’s become bigger than it should have been, I think. With regard to how much it informed this record, it was extremely oblique. It definitely wasn’t a conscious decision to explore the theme of Englishness in music I think that would be arrogant and futile. It comes back again to this idea of filtering stuff through your own personal experience, rather than trying to make an objective commentary on something. I started thinking about it specifically as a result of reading Middle English literature: Piers Plowman, Chaucer and so on. That got me thinking about national identity and how it’s shaped over time. I found it fascinating that this was happening hundreds and hundreds of years ago, so to try and trace those characteristics from a completely different world and work out how we relate to those people who lived in that time really consumed me for a while.

Naturally, I started to think about how that related to me through music, and how I thought music might display aspects of national character. Although I obviously don’t restrict what I listen to it’s not like I sit down and sift through my records and if it comes from the States or France I’ll chuck it out I did realise that I was listening to a lot of English music, music that I thought exhibited strong characteristics of Englishness. Obviously that’s really subjective, but I guess they included black humour, and irony, and elements of the occult, and something really camp as well.

All things I associate with Coil, so I’m pleased you included them on your mix too.

I am a number one Coil fan, I love Coil so much, so they were definitely hugely influential. It was bands like that, industrial bands from that time, going all the way through to weirder punky stuff. These bands all exhibited these characteristics where I stopped and thought, this does sound really English to me, and what I’m making sounds really English as well. It’s not like I started from trying to make an English record, but I just started joining the dots.


“After a couple of months we had some really terrible, unplayable instruments which formed the backbone of the record.”


Were you listening to any medieval music?

I was, and for the most part I didn’t find it massively interesting, but that could be because I didn’t look that hard, if I’m honest. I absolutely love stuff like Hildegard, the sacred music from that time. But I have to say I have less than no interest in folk music from that time. It just doesn’t do it for me. I ended up in this really bad cycle of watching this one guy on YouTube, with full medieval kit and a zither, and he would sing these epic poems, and it was like watching a Lord of the Rings convention in someone’s dingy flat. So that put me off. I don’t know a lot about literature, but being able to consume these books as fuel for the imagination was the main thing.

Given the processes involved in making Punish, Honey, how do you plan to play this live? 

It’s a thorny term for me, I struggle with it. I’m just going reel out my hardware collection and jam it out, really. I did initially want to incorporate some instruments, but every aspect from transporting to setting up was too much to think about and I think it would go terribly wrong.

Talking of things going terribly wrong, I heard what happened at Berlin Atonal! [At an electronic music festival in Berlin, Young Echo, a collective Vessel is a member of, played a DJ set that ended early after they played a Moondog record and were booed offstage.]

That was perfect! It was a beautiful moment. It’s weird though, isn’t it? People want to be safe. Berlin’s a city with this incredibly progressive musical and cultural heritage, and so it finds itself in a weird stasis, like it can’t deal with anything that isn’t techno. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who live there, and it’s kind of endemic. Atonal did a fantastic job, and it was one of the best curated festivals I’ve been to, but it was the club above Tresor at six in the morning, and if there’s one thing people don’t want to listen to it’s Moondog. I didn’t even want to listen to Moondog!

I’m not surprised, though. Even though your records are cerebral – and for the sake of argument, you put a great deal of thought into Punish, Honey, even if it’s very bodily, too – one thing I take away from them is that you don’t take yourself too seriously. 

No, no, no, you’re right. It’s one of my biggest fears. I think electronic music can often be so po-faced. It really does my head in when it takes itself too seriously, and something I absolutely strive to avoid, so it’s great that comes across. I think if I hear music that does take itself too seriously, I instantly get turned off by it, and can’t really appreciate it. If I think about electronic music that I absolutely adore, then it will be riddled with errors. Electronic music so often strives for inhuman perfection that I think there’s something important about committing to your mistakes.


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