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Tom Vek: Back With 'Luck' To Fight The Hits And Stats

Tuesday, 17 June 2014 Written by Tom Seymour

Photo: Sonia Melot

“I wake up thinking I’ve had enough, of lying around all day,” Tom Vek sings on Trying To Do Better, from his third album, ‘Luck’. “Not pushing for any one thing, just spinning these little plates.”

We’re almost halfway through the record, yet it’s the first time, you feel, that Vek’s properly letting us in. Is he talking about a girl? The hardships of a settled relationship? The pressures of modern London life? Or his own, very personal, bond with the music industry?

“I’m not expecting anything from this record,” Vek says on a sunny Tuesday afternoon on Brick Lane. He is fashionably late and, as I stand and scan the crowds that walk by, I worry I might have missed him. Yet, when he arrives, fresh from his home just around the corner, he’s unmistakably Tom Vek; hair quiffed back, Rayban Wayfarers, great clothes. A Cheshire cat in repose.

“I decided to do another record completely on my own. The last record really helped me settle down, because the first one was a bizarre roller-coaster,” he says when we’re settled in an outdoor cafe near Rough Trade, the venue for Vek’s gig that evening.

The bizarre roller-coaster was ‘We Have Sound’, for which Vek might always be remembered. It came out back in April 2005, just a few weeks after Youtube was invented, around the time thefacebook.com became Facebook.com and a year before Twitter even existed. Thomas Timothy Vernon-Kell, then in his early 20s, recorded the album in his Dad’s garage, a fact that, at the time, only heightened the feeling we’d found a revolutionary.

‘We Have Sound’ felt like the announcement of an exploratory talent, one of the first online, DIY, truly independent musicians to force their way into a stitched-up industry with music pollinated from all manner of genres; punk, electronica, pop, new wave, grunge. You would meet people who’d confide that they, alone, had found a special album that no-one else had heard of.

After his debut snowballed, Vek left his small label to sign with Island Records. His videos, each one low-budget, abstractly conceptual and full of edge, were played every 30 minutes on MTV. One tune made it on to The OC. He gave up the day job as a web designer and toured the world.

Everyone thought: Tom Vek, a fixture. He’ll knock out an album every two years, maybe date a girl from Popworld, do the festival circuit and eventually start selling his tunes to PC World and DFS. We’ll be sick of him soon enough.

And then, nothing. For more than six years, Vek was silent, invisible; no gigs, no interviews, no guest performances, side-projects or collaborations. Then, in 2010, an anonymous editor updated Vek’s Wikipedia page, stating, without sources: “Vek has recently stated that he is ‘unable’ to write a follow up to 2005′s We Have Sound due to having contracted writer’s block and it is expected his will soon announce his musical retirement.”

A year later, with a new mod haircut and a short flurry of publicity, he re-announced himself with ‘Leisure Seizure’. It got tepid, if generally positive, reviews. The consensus was; you’ve got more to give, and we want more, so don’t keep us waiting another half-decade.

“I was very excited about being in the music industry when I was a teenager,” he says. “I used to think: ‘It would be so cool for me to put this music out there, and then people will enjoy it on their own and that would be it.’ To be honest I had about three months of it, and then the whole industry became about Myspace, Youtube and all these fucking hits and stats. And I started thinking to myself: ‘I don’t care about stats.’ Even record sales, even. As soon as something becomes finite and statistical, it becomes so joyless. I think that culture is a killer of ideas on their own.”

Vek grew up in Kingston, a nice, leafy town on the western edges of London. His Dad taught him guitar and bass, and he learned the drums himself, before the old man’s discarded four-track provided a musical epiphany. “I was never able, before then, to work out whether two things would sound good together,” he says.  

Vek graduated in graphic design, working at a web design company “quite literally above where Rough Trade is now”. Music was an extra-curricular activity, exercised through a variety of outfits. “I was never much into clubbing,” he says. “So we’d just play gigs to hardly anyone in pubs around east London and then get drunk afterwards.”

His solo work was very much that. He created his album hidden away, playing every instrument himself, blending synths and drum machines with a classic garage punk sound. When the major labels came calling after the album’s release, Vek had never performed his own songs live. He recalls telling his mates he had to leave their coterie of bands to go solo: “We’re still friends though, I see them around, so those relationships survived.” The next, unavoidable, challenge was having to sign people up and teach them how to play his music. “I am used to it now, but it took some doing,” he says.

Read the reviews for ‘Luck’ (and they’re thin on the ground), and it’s clear Vek will endure the quite legitimate criticism that he hasn’t yet produced anything nearly as defining, original or enduring as his debut. Yet he’s still one of the few musicians out there capable of generating a genuine sense of anticipation. The songs on ‘Luck’, each and everyone one, still combine the high-intensity attention to detail and spontaneous, punk aesthetic of ‘We Have Sound’.

That coruscating voice of his is still elevated by layered, looped harmonies, carried by grungy guitar riffs, embroidered with crunching electronica, by lyrics that tease at something that feels distinctly of this modern life. “I like solving problems, and I don’t like moaning about them,” he says. “But I grew up on emo music, and that feels like the purpose of a song; to be emotional, angry about something. I get around it by presenting a personality, by creating abstractions in the lyrics.”

In a 40 minute conversation, he chews the cud on London rent, the decent local watering holes, on how Video Games by Lana Del Ray is one of the greatest songs ever written and the bands that soundtracked his teenage years - Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins and, with a hint of apology, a lot of Beck as well. He talks broadly about the industry, the age and what it means to be a professional musician “in the Google analytics world we live in.”

But, when I ask about his career, Vek’s quotes become disjointed. His sentences start and stop, veer off on a tangent before looping and layering back. He doesn’t do studied awkwardness like the many musicians who don’t, actually, have anything to say.

Instead he’s good, easy company; a relaxed, self-possessed yet self-effacing character with a quick smile, a loose laugh and the intellect to second-guess himself. His body language is expressive, and he often falls into the habit of playing an invisible guitar while his talking about his music, his left hand shaping chords in thin air. You get the distinct and genuine impression he cares about music, not being a musician. He acts like a free radical in an industry more interested in marketability, and it renders him quixotic, complex, not very marketable.

Yet you also get the sense, when pushed to talk about himself, that Vek wilfully, purposefully withholds. He refers, once or twice, to “emotional times,” and “certain people” in his life. A break-up is mentioned, when pushed. But he maintains a studied distance, a certain cool. Then he actively admits wanting to engender a sense of mystery around his music. Beyond wanting it, he knows privacy will only help his cause. He gets the game, and he’s not above playing it.

So what, I build up to ask, happened in those years away? Does he have any regret he didn’t follow 'We Have Sound' up sooner? “It was just day after day, I just had to keep trying,” he says after a long pause. “My standards had shot up at that point. I was in a transitional period, without a lot of new things to set up. I had to set up a studio, and it felt like a five year distraction. And then the whole industry changed, and it felt like playing this other game. There was a point where I was thinking: ‘There isn’t going to be another album. If I can’t make another album I’m happy with, then I can’t release one.’ I got a bit of confidence, a bit of living, a bit of growing up, and I got there.”

Can you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life? I ask. “I don’t know really,” he says, and then pauses to stare off into the distance. “The artistic pursuit is a weird one because I always believe in it being easy. And as a slightly wiser person, I don’t want to be a tortured genius. I’m not interested in suffering. You make it work for you, you get something out of it. But I need to adhere to principles I have as a fan of music. I don’t want to anything contrived. If I can’t write another song that isn’t that, then that’ll be it for me.”

“I know, I know I will always want more,” he sings on Trying To Do Better. Not just you Tom, but us too. If he is to continue to be a musician, that’s something he will have to come to terms with. And here’s hoping he will.

Tom Vek Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri October 03 2014 - FALMOUTH Princess Pavillion
Sat October 04 2014 - OXFORD Art Bar
Mon October 06 2014 - PORTSMOUTH Wedgewood Rooms
Tue October 07 2014 - BRIGHTON Haunt
Wed October 08 2014 - MANCHESTER Gorilla
Thu October 09 2014 - GLASGOW King Tuts Wah Wah Hut
Sat October 11 2014 - LEEDS Cockpit
Sun October 12 2014 - LIVERPOOL Kazimier
Tue October 14 2014 - NOTTINGHAM Bodega Social Club
Wed October 15 2014 - LONDON KOKO

Click here to compare & buy Tom Vek Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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