Exclusive Interview: Vasa
Posted by Neil Wilson
Last Friday, one of Glasgow’s favourite bands Vasa, finally unleashed their debut album Colours into the world. The release was marked by a visually fascinating and suitably loud hometown gig at The Old Hairdressers. That gig was the last in a ten date tour which took the band to Prague, Berlin, and Copenhagen amongst other European cities.Before the band headed out on tour Scottish Fiction high heid yin Neil Wilson caught up with bassist John Niblock and drummer Niall Morrison MacRae, with the imminent release of their album the hot topic of conversation. For a band who have been as heavily active as Vasa, it’s been a long time coming. “We’ve been around for four years and Niall’s been here for just over a year” explains John. “We pretty much started planning it as soon as Niall joined.”
That reshuffle involved current drummer Niall joining the Vasa ranks shortly after goNorth last year. “We got Niall in during the World Cup and we went just straight into practice” explains John. “We had a couple of gigs as well – we had a really difficult gig up in Inverness, and Niall’s first Glasgow gig was in the middle of Brunswick Street. The first couple of practices went really really well. We battered through the stuff we’d kinda half written, and some new stuff, and a couple of older ones like Not A Cop and Cynthia got redone for the album.” After several EP’s and single releases, the next natural step for the band at the stage was an album. As for Niall, he recalls being told to “learn a bunch of songs and that there was probably going to be an album at some point.”
As with any line up change in a band there can be a creative overhang, as previous work makes way for new input. However in Vasa‘s case it seemed to prove the reverse. “We had bits and bobs in place, and there’s songs on the album that we’d started on when we still had Alex in the band” says John. “But when we got Niall in that’s when everything started to kick on.” “From the way Blaine talks about it, everything started to fall into place when the four of us started practicing together” explains Niall. “We did the first practice and after we were just standing round the car, and I was like “are we good?” and everyone was like “yeah”.”
“We are rubbish at being serious” laughs John. “Like really bad! I know some bands are like all business like, but we were like “do you wanna play drums with us?” Like how you’d ask someone out in high school!”
John and Niall laugh at lot at this. It’s not like a private in-joke though, and both are outwardly friendly. Seriousness it seems isn’t something Vasa do well. “It seems to me it’s [being in a band] an over serious thing sometimes, especially in post-rock bands” opines John. “I just don’t buy it. It’s hard work being in a band, but it’s also fun. I think you need to have that fun side to it as well.”
That fun, and lack of self imported seriousness, can be found at play in the track listing for the album. “The song names” laughs John, “I mean it’s much easier for us to name them now. All the tracks are either Futurama jokes, or something from Peep Show. Or something Niall found on Reddit. It’s better having a goofier side.” Niall agrees, citing himself as often the instigator of silly song names, “I’m pretty sure every practice we have, I make up another ridiculous song title! Most of the time the song titles come before the songs. And then it’s like we’ll go to the backlog, and pick the funniest one that at the top of the pile. But sometimes it just happens, and it just fits, like the track The Angry Dome. But even that come from a Futurama marathon we had!” “Even the ambient tracks just have stupid names” agrees John. “It’s better having a sillier name” he goes on to explain. “I find it really difficult to get an idea across with instrumental music. When people ask what’s the background of the song, what’s it based on? It’s kind of difficult getting that across without lyrics, so it’s better to have silly names. It’s better that way for me.”
One track, naturally with a silly name, was released back in August, officially announcing the album to the world. Fat Ronaldo displayed a visceral post-rock feel weaved with an intricate math-rock element. It was a track that offered a full flavour of what Colours would hold. “I think the two songs that we picked [Poseidon’s Kiss followed at the end of September] are the two songs that encompass everything that’s on there” agreed Niall. “They are pretty varied, but they sort of sum up everything that is going on.”
What of the full album then? Are the singles reflective of the album as a whole? “I feel the album is definitely a concise piece that has been put together by the same four people, but it does have lots of variation on it” answers Niall. Poseidon’s Kiss, as Niall already touched on, expands on the classic Vasa sound. “It sort of feels like the direction we might go in, like that’s the maybe that’s the direction the second album might go in. It might not sound exactly like that, but that’s the kind of feel.” “There’s quite a lot in that second song which wouldn’t really be expected of us” agrees John. “There’s a really dancey bit in there which I love playing live.”
It leaves me wondering if perhaps this evolution of the band’s sound gives the album a chronological feel. If that is the case however, it may be purely coincidental. Guitarist Blaine Thompson took the final decision regarding the running order, and, as Niall explains, that there wasn’t a deliberate ordering at play. “The way it’s put together works, and the way it sounds works, so it just so happens that the last few tracks are newer.”
We chat again about some of the tracks, Not A Cop and Cynthia, that have been re-recorded for the record. I asked Niall if it was difficult to put his own stamp on songs which had already been recorded. “It was actually easy because the music was there, and the people were there. It’s an easy band to be in with these guys and with the music we are working with.”
“When you listen to the older version of Not A Cop it is verging on sounding electronic, whereas on the album with the way it was recorded it sounds big, and natural, and real. Cynthia has that as well.” Of Cynthia, John muses that they hadn’t even thought about the track before a number of people had asked him and Blaine about it. “We kinda discussed and thought we probably should include it” he says.
With Colours the band took the decision to head south to record. “We recorded at The Ranch, down in Southampton” John mentions. “It was great. Niall and I were done within three days. And then we had ages sitting listening to guitars.” He glances over at Niall before adding with a laugh “it was hell!” “Yeah I just played games for about two weeks” chuckles Niall.
Tales of early morning toilet trips in the snow aside though, the band felt the decision to travel further afield was a justified one. From listening to Colours, it certainly seems it. “It was probably the best place we could have gone” explains John. “I kind of enjoyed not being able to go back home. The last place we recorded was in Airdrie and we’d be waiting about on people coming down to open up, so we’d lose like half an hour either side. Whereas at The Ranch, we’d just get up and go record. And at night we’d be able to go in and work on stuff.”
Working with the team of Neil and Daly at The Ranch, the four band members have crafted an album that was truly worth waiting for. What was the process like I asked. Niall begins talking about the studios drum room, like the proverbial boy in a sweet shop. “The drum room was massive” he beams. “And I was allowed to put together my own drum kit. So I was like, “I’ll take just the biggest drums you’ve got!”. So I ended up using just the biggest drum parts.”
As John recants tales of effects pedals being sprawled out across the floor he and Niall share the pain of the fact that the rhythm section had recorded first. “There was a half day of Blaine recording nothing but feedback. I was like “you are done! Stop it!”” “There was days when I’d wake up at like two” Niall joins in, “and all I could hear was just walls of noise coming through the walls. And I was like what is this for? Why do we need it?” “It was really difficult for us sometimes” laughs John. “Me and Scott were sitting one day and Blaine was in a room just shaking a guitar at a cab. And I was like really? But it actually works. Now that I look back at it it was definitely needed.”
We start talking about how the recording process takes so much out of you. It’s stories like those above that do stick with you because every part of the album becomes broken down, recorded and re-recorded until perfect. “Neil and the other guys at the studio were really great” explains John. “They made sure we played everything spot on. There was no “ah that’ll do”. They made us go through it a bunch of times, and if there was one note off, they’d be like “do it again.””
“I am really proud of the album” says Niall in a rare moment of seriousness in our interview. “Because when you are working on an album you have to go through all the mixes, and you don’t get to listen to it subjectively, or to enjoy it for ages. And it’s not until you get the masters back and it’s done that you can. I remember the day I actually managed to listen to it, I sent everyone a message saying “it’s awesome, really proud of you guys, zero out of ten.” Joking self-depreciation is just another way the band keep themselves rooted and entertained.
It would be remiss to chat to Vasa and not bring up the ongoing infamous internet phenomenon that is John Niblock graffiti. “Ah god! There’s enough of them” laughs John. “It is a shame because the guy who started this doesn’t get any credit for it which is a wee shame. The first one, our manager Gerry gave me a phone call in the van saying there’s really personal graffiti about you on the toilet wall in Bloc. And I was like “oh god what!”” “It’s all true” shouts Niall.
“So he sent me a picture” John continues “and my friend Andy from uni had wrote, and I quote verbatim, “John Niblock is pure daft about Stereophonic an aw that”. So then Owen from WOMPS just thought it was the funniest thing on earth. And he’s now wrote some belters. There’s one in Broadcast that just reads “something about John Niblock”. It’s probably my favourite one.
That graffiti, and there’s plenty of them, expands across the country. Evidence perhaps of the bands hard working ethos towards touring. I ask if they feel their tours across the country will help Colours really make an impact outwith Scotland. “We’ve done five UK tours now” says John “and we’ve done a lot of work on it. It kind of bugs me a bit because not a lot of Scottish bands do get out and go to England and tour.” It’s a criticism that others have levelled at the Scottish scene. For all it’s creativity and activity, there can be a reluctance to head out on the road over the border. “Ever since we did the first one, we were like let’s do that again, that was fun” John goes onto explain “And it’s not that difficult either. To go out on tour, make some contacts, send a bunch of emails. And doing tours you’ll get to know more people, get better gigs, and get more gigs. You’ll end up doing mental 15 date UK tours that totally drain all your energy.” Niall agrees. “It’s the way you need to do it. You need to focus on England” he states. The last word on the matter falls to John who explains, “As much as I like playing Glasgow and Edinburgh, there’s a bigger scene down in England. There’s some places that are really great. Bristol for example.”
A quick look at the clock shows that we’ve been chatting for close to an hour by this point. Such is the affinity and ease with which Niall and John can talk about music. Throughout our chat we’ve joked and laughed. I pose a more serious question, asking if the band have any expectations for what Colours will achieve. Pausing before answering, John speaks for the band saying “I think we are all of the opinion that if something happened that would be cool. If it didn’t then that’s not going to stop us. I don’t know, this is just me, but I kind of get annoyed when I talk to people in bands who are like we have to get a label and this and that. And I’m just like, just do it. See what happens. Because I think if you set yourself dead specific stuff, and it doesn’t happen, then you are going to be gutted and it might effect how your band works.” Niall nods in agreement. “You find that people who are very success orientated – and success means different things to different people – but success meaning people who strive to have more than just fun. You find that those are the bands that pretty much just end up breaking up.” “There’s nothing bad about doing it ourselves” remarks John.
Indeed it’s true, and in fact ‘doing-it-yourself’ is pretty much the most accessible and cheapest model available to most bands these days. It’s almost an outdated model the idea of play gigs, get signed, release debut album. “It’s something that we are proud of, so why let the fact there’s no label diminish that” Niall goes on to explain. “I can’t wait for it to come out.” John is of the same opinion. “I want people to hear it” he says. “It’s been a year of work so I’m just wanting people to hear.”
Now that the wait is over and Colours is officially out, I ask the band for a quick summary of the album. Sell it to me in a tweet I say. I should have seen the answers coming by this point.
“For fans of Craig David. This album is going to get all over your boink” laughs Niall.
“Thoroughly reprehensible. If you like music, you’ll hate this” says John proudly.
Let me just add that those are far from the truth. But you already knew that.
Vasa – Colours is out now on CD, vinyl, and digital download. Grab a copy here.