Sometimes the soulless, corrupt, evil music industry doesn't seem so bad.
Sure, record labels care more about unit sales than brilliant music, pay off radio stations for airplay, sign bands according to popular trends, overcharge for CDs and sacrifice baby seals to pagan gods once a week to keep Jessica and Ashlee Simpson popular. These, of course, are the only reasons that your electro-death-metal band still plays in the garage and not at the House of Blues. Still, once in a while, everything falls into place the way it should: A talented kid falls in love with music, learns to play every instrument, records demos on old beat-up gear, signs to a small label, makes a great album that slyly salutes his influences while capturing his personal style, tours the world and makes it out of the garage. Justice is served.
Likewise, Tom Vek, a 24-year-old former art student from London, is lucky enough to have been rewarded for his prodigious musical talent rather than his connections to a music scene. Looking almost like the British reincarnate of Beck circa 1993, the lanky, impish Vek probably wouldn't have skated by on his ability to make the lasses swoon, either. No matter — Vek's debut album, We Have Sound (Star Time International, 2005), stands on it own. A moody concoction of midtempo pop-rock, lounge-hop and disco punk, the album's 10 songs are held together by funky guitar riffs; rolling bass lines; stylish, head-nodding beats; and warm, droning synth chords. With Vek adding his baritone, sometimes nasal, spoken-sung vocal drawl, We Have Sound easily recalls the artist's stated influences of '90s American nerd-funk bands like Soul Coughing and Cake, as well as the same era's British trip-hop, which bowed to the beat and bent toward electronics without breaking the song. More than just a mish-mash of influences, however, We Have Sound exhibits Vek's personal flair for making instruments bob, weave and dance around each other — he arranged and performed all the parts — in a minimal yet fully realized composition.
Vek began recording his own music in his parents' garage at the age of 14, when he was still very inspired by American grunge. After years of honing the craft, and while studying graphic design in London, he gave some demos to his cousin Tim “Love” Lee, who ran a small London label called Tummy Touch, which put out Vek's first single. (Okay, so Vek's story is not a Disney movie; he did have a small industry connection.) Fortunately in this case, the machinery of the industry worked in favor of the music. Although Vek may be a one-man band (until he hits the stage), We Have Sound's success owes almost as much to another Tom, producer Tom Rixton.
In classic fashion, Vek was unhappy with the first producer he was paired with to record his album; the producer was pushing him too hard to make dance music. But cousin Lee knew Rixton not only as a club DJ but also as a producer and engineer who had worked with indie bands such as Cornershop. After an introduction, Vek and Rixton hit a London studio together for about four hours and completed the majority of “Little Word in Your Ear,” a wistful tune with a lazy, bouncing groove. The partnership was established.
Following that first endeavor, the two Toms spent about 30 total days in studios recording We Have Sound, but those sessions were spread over roughly nine months. “Tom was on a very small independent label when I started working with him, so we had no money,” Rixton says. “Because I've been producing and engineering for about 10 years, I could call in favors here and there. It was just me, my laptop, Pro Tools and wherever we could go to work, really.”
Their first stop was Dublin, Ireland, where they borrowed a studio for about two weeks from one of Rixton's friends who was working in Australia at the time. The duo took advantage of the many instruments and tools available at the studio, including a harmonium and other vintage synths, guitars and basses. They recorded into a Digidesign Pro Tools TDM system on an Apple Mac G5, but they first had to contend with all of the demo material that Vek brought from his home studio. A few of the songs on these demos, which Vek had recorded on an Ampex 16-track analog reel-to-reel and Alesis ADAT digital recorders, were complete recordings, and the rest were sketches in snippets of less than a minute.
“We put all that into my Pro Tools system, chopped it all up, stuck parts back together, rearranged it and recorded extra parts,” Rixton says. “His material is very lo-fi because his garage equipment was very limited. When we started, we didn't have the money or time to rerecord stuff, so the lo-fi sound of the record evolved. When we got the money later to kind of hi-fi it up a bit, it didn't seem like it suited the album. The lo-fi sound is very conscious, even though some songs might have 30 or 40 tracks of audio.”
On We Have Sound, some of the original lo-fi tracks are identifiable, such as the gritty drums on “I Ain't Saying My Goodbyes,” the most danceable number on the album. This might imply that the drums were sampled if they didn't possess such a live, human feel to them. This feel stems from Vek's extensive self-recording on a reel-to-reel, which he came to love. “If a song is four minutes long, you have to play four minutes; you can't just play one minute and then loop it,” Vek says. “A lot of soul comes through that way. By the end of it, you'll be playing it slightly differently than in the beginning. That gives the song a real aliveness.”
Although Vek says that he was excited to work with Pro Tools for the first time and explore its creative potential, he still preferred to play all of his instrument parts completely. “We were using the computer as an extra interesting instrument in its own right,” he says. “We weren't using it to make life easy for us.”
Nevertheless, if Vek is the visionary, Rixton is the technician who understands Vek's style, embracing it and allowing the artist to work with seamless precision. Rixton found that the key to working with Vek was just making it easy for him to jump around to any instrument at any time to record new parts. “Producing is a difficult job to quantify,” Rixton says. “Probably 50 percent is psychological and about putting an artist in the right place to produce the right performance. Some people need a kick up the ass, and some people need to feel very comfortable. The artist will dictate how you approach the project.”
ANATOMY OF A SONG
At the Dublin studio, Vek and Rixton captured not only the album's atmosphere but also its most original songs. We Have Sound's opener, “C-C (You Set the Fire in Me),” is a prime example of Vek's originality as well as the twosome's creative process during the Dublin sessions. The lively, slightly psychedelic trip-pop song begins with a precise triplet drum fill that sets off a rocking yet groovy drum break that would sit well in a Beastie Boys jam. “A lot of people think that drummers don't write music, but drums for me are just as important as notes,” Vek says. “I play the drums as a drummer, not just for the sake of a beat.”
Rixton had to tighten up a lot of the tracks from Vek's reel-to-reel in Pro Tools because they had no set tempo. He didn't want to divert them from their loose, live feel, but, occasionally, he would have a little fun with them. For example, later in “C-C,” the instruments drop out, and Vek's recorded drums devolve into a glitchy, stuttering Aphex Twin — worthy breakdown courtesy of Rixton's Pro Tools handiwork.
Furthermore, the air-organ sound of a harmonium anchors “C-C” with a repeated chord progression. Vek enjoys experimenting with new instruments and sounds such as this. “I've always found that the instruments have inspired their parts,” he says. “I don't write everything on the piano and then transpose it. Quite often, mucking around with something will actually write the part in itself.” Rixton also approached the harmonium with curiosity. He set up a hollow metal pipe by the instrument and miked the end of the pipe with a Shure SM58 to capture the sound after it had reverberated through the metal tube.
When recording vocals, Rixton prefers to have a high-end mic like a Neumann U87 and a nice preamp to keep the signal path as clean as possible. However, for the chorus of “C-C,” he had none of that. Instead, he used a Shure SM57 through “some really cheap equipment,” he says. “But that gave a nice crackly, lo-fi quality that we found actually added to the song.”
WE HAVE TRICKERY
After Dublin, the Toms spent another large chunk of time in a London studio, where they found another batch of intriguing instruments. The track “Cover” benefits from two of these: a Wurlitzer electric piano and a rather unique organ. “[It] had these big curvy keyboards with neon lights around it,” Rixton says. “I think they got it from an ice-skating rink. I've never seen one before, and I have no idea what it's called.”
In London, they did some mixing and recording on a Pro Tools|HD system with a lot of other high-end equipment, but they weren't always so lucky. “One of the tracks on the album was recorded and mixed on a laptop and an MBox,” Rixton says. “We made use of the equipment we could get our hands on at the time. Every song was done a different way.”
Rixton cobbled together We Have Sound by making creative use of the mish-mash of gear that he and Vek had access to. They ran a lot of sounds through analog synths such as the Yamaha CS-5 and relied a lot on Rixton's collection of vintage effects, including Electro-Harmonix stompboxes and a spring reverb by Bandive Ltd. called the Great British Spring. “I think it was from the '70s in the UK,” he says. “It's like a piece of drainage pipe with a spring in it, a speaker at one end and a microphone in the other. It works really well. I find with reverbs, you either have to have really expensive ones or ridiculously cheap ones that have their own character.” Rixton also likes to record instrument parts and then feed the original recording through an amp, mic the amp and rerecord it. For this, he'd use anything from high-end amps to battery-powered Marshalls less than a foot tall.
One of the album's most distinct parts, the fluttering synthesized riff that opens and runs throughout “Nothing but Green Lights,” was devised and recorded by Vek at home. His brother had a Korg MS2000 synth, and Vek wondered what it would sound like if he played his drums through the keyboard's vocoder. “I actually taped down some of the keys so it held a chord and put an arpeggiator on it,” he says. “Then, I put the vocoder on, played live drums and recorded the feed out of the keyboard.”
Although Vek has played in other bands (such as the Poverty Jet Sets), his own music had been a strictly studio affair, which meant that he had no live show prepared when the album was finished. “Recording music is where the magic is for me,” Vek says. “It means the world to me. I've never in the past felt a need to take my music live.” But he realized that touring is a necessity in the music industry and gathered some friends he'd played with before to work on a stage show. “At first, it was really just a test for a laugh, and it ended up taking off,” he says. “Every gig we play, we get closer to the right thing.”
Vek's four-piece band has already toured the UK, Europe and the United States. He is proud of We Have Sound and therefore enjoys performing it, but he also misses writing and recording new material. “I'm always thinking about new ideas,” Vek says. “But because I tend to actually write in the studio, the stuff that gets written outside the studio tends to not make it, because I'm fascinated by things I haven't heard before. I hate redoing stuff, because it's just pointless. For every song I redo, I could've done a brand-new one.” Indeed, his heart belongs to recording, and he's eager to begin again. “This time out, I will have a lot more at my disposal to take it to the next level,” he says.
Rixton has also moved on, relocating to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he runs a hotel with his wife while working on various musical projects, from DJing to producing hip-hop artists, and producing his own solo album in his home studio. But the dynamic Tom duo may not have split for good. Vek and Rixton already reunited once after the recording of We Have Sound to produce some B-sides from previously unfinished ideas. Both also seem open to future collaborations. “[Vek is] one of the most refreshing artists I've worked with,” Rixton says. “It's just Tom, so you don't have to deal with bands falling out with each other. He just comes in and plays everything. To work with someone like that is quite phenomenal.”
WE HAVE GEAR
Select Gear From the
We Have Sound Sessions
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Ampex 16-track reel-to-reel recorder
Apple Mac G5, G4 PowerBook computers
Digidesign MBox w/Pro Tools LE; Pro Tools|HD,
Pro Tools TDM systems
LaCie FireWire hard drives
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Korg MS2000 synth
Moog Minimoog synth
Wurlitzer electric piano
Yamaha CS-5 synth
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Apogee Gateway converters
Bandive Ltd. The Great British Spring reverb unit
Electro-Harmonix Dr. Q, Memory Man effects units
Neumann U 87 mic
Shure SM57, SM58 mics
Telefunken vintage mics
Trident mic preamps