Monday, February 12, 2007

Tom Vek

[for Urb magazine, 2006]

Deep in the grimy armpit of East London, round the corner from Brick Lane’s parade of hip boutiques and curry houses, you’ll find a rickety doorway fashioned from rotting wood, the unprepossessing entrance to the offices of Tummy Touch Records. A label specialising in electronica and house music, Tummy Touch has latterly been better known as the home of one of the more promising discoveries in British underground pop music, a lonesome self-recorder hunkered down with his portastudio, cutting tracks that have won him fame and acclaim the world over.

His name is Tom Vek, and a whole wealth of music hides behind those two short syllables. He’s in his mid-twenties now, though with his elfin-features and his fresh face he sort of resembles Harry Potter. Like Potter, Vek found his purpose early in life; as a teenager nestled in the leafy suburbs of South London, he was fascinated by father’s growing collection of musical instruments and primitive recording equipment, and was soon teaching himself the rudiments of overdubbing with the 8-track tape recorder.

“I played in bands all through school,” he explains, “But I was more interested in the recording process. I’d record friends’ bands on my dad’s equipment - by the time I was fifteen I’d amassed three microphones, enough to record a drum-kit properly.” He smiles, seemingly still flushed with the achievement ten years later. “It was arduous!”

As an adjunct to the bands he played in at school, there was his own music. “I’ve always written and recorded my own stuff,” he explains. “Even though I was playing in other bands, I was never bothered about playing my music live, or having a band play the parts.”

Instead, Vek - a self-taught multi-instrumentalist - wrote and recorded the parts for his music by himself. That music changed and morphed over the years, as he exited the hormonal rushes of teenhood and his tastes shifted from the lucid, luscious grunge of Smashing Pumpkins, to the more cerebral contortions of ‘electronica’ offered by labels like Warp and Ninjatune, tempering his digital soundscapes with dashes of guitar and piano. Tapes of Vek’s nascent experiments - in his words, “geeky synth stuff” - passed along a chain of industry-connected friends, finding their way to Tim ‘Love’ Lee, eccentric electronica artist, DJ and head-honcho of Tummy Touch. The label released Vek’s first 7”, There’s Only One Thing Left Now, in 2001. Vek assuming the pseudonym Souvenir for the release, its warm reception prompted Lee to offer Vek an album deal.

By the time Vek delivered early demos for this album to Lee two years later, Vek’s music had changed again. He’d ditched the computers he’d used for the Souvenir material, was recording on old analogue equipment, and was singing vocals again. Most remarkably, the glacial electronic music of Souvenir was replaced by a jerky, caustic sound that owed more to the guitar-scratching of Post Punk than artists like Aphex Twin.

Lee, perhaps surprisingly, loved the new material, and encouraged Vek to explore this new sound further. Less than a year later, We Have Sound, Tom Vek’s debut album, was completed.

“I’ve always had a lot of faith in what I’ve done,” he offers, a young man who seems assiduously assured of what he is doing, of where he is going. “I’ve never taped over my stuff, I always finish my songs off. I’m incredibly prolific - I’ve recorded an album’s worth of material every year, as much as any signed artist. I never sent demos tapes out - I just clung to this naïve belief that someone, somehow, would discover me. I always just kept on doing what I wanted to do, and as the years wore on I got better at it.

“My favourite music has always been the stuff I just recorded,” he continues. “I’m pleased, in hindsight, that the first album I recorded when I was fifteen never got released. It’s a little weird, because I guess it seems like I’ve come from ‘nowhere’, but it seems appropriate somehow… I’ve meandered between styles and sounds and genres for the last decade or so, but over the last couple of years, the edges between all these sounds begun to blur, and this, uh, happy mixture came out.”

This is the key to Vek’s music. While the last couple of years have seen a slew of groups adopt the clothes and sounds of the early 80s New Wave to great commercial effect, Vek’s music is less a slavish Costumed homage to one single era of pop, and more a new music all its own, Vek putting his own individual spin on his influences rather than just simply aping them. Take the album’s ‘Nothing But Green Lights’; a mantric Moebius-strip of punk-funk, it wears its inspiration - Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’ - more openly than most songs on We Have Sound. “It was an attempt to write a song inspired by ‘Once In A Lifetime’, not having heard it in some time,” grins Vek. And, brilliantly, that’s exactly what it sounds like, adopting David Byrne and Brian Eno’s looping sample method, but spinning off in a new direction all Vek’s own.

In the time that’s passed since We Have Sound’s release, Vek assembled a ramshackle group of buddies to tour with Bloc Party and Razorlight, and recently began work on a follow-up.

“Ironically, I’ve found my song writing has slowed down, now this is my ‘day job’,” smiles Vek. “I used to just make music in my spare time, and I’ve managed to retain that hobby-like purity in making it. I only make it when I feel compelled to, when I want to, and now making music is an escape from all the other stuff attached to being a musician and making records. I’m just waiting till the next time I’m so bored with it all that I have to go off and write a song.”

(c) Stevie Chick 2006

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