Artist Talk: Vessel
It’s been some four years since the release of "Punish, Honey", the last definitive Vessel record that up until now was unlike anything Seb Gainsborough had made before. In the meantime though, a stand out track from it, "Red Sex", provided the blueprint for a rush-cutting sequence of images to be laid out in the trailer to "The Handmaiden", a 2016 Korean film by Park Chan-wook; the director behind the malevolent classic, "Oldboy". Violent and decrepit at the same time, even alluring, these films are to be seen, avoided, or at least known about, and for Vessel’s music to play into such wild and carnal aesthetics only adds scope to the breadth of Gainsborough’s sound and its evolutionary development.
The course Gainsborough has charted through the dubby, trip hopping and industrial side of Bristol’s rich bass culture remains something of a starting point in understanding where his music comes from. Colliding the more poetic and experimental sounds of dub music within the Young Echo collective, Gainsborough’s continental drift of the group’s urbanistic middle, naturally finds itself left of field. Trawling ‘an undocumented hinterland’ that only his Vessel project holds the bearings to navigate, “exploratory mode is the default setting,” Gainsborough says of his production, “if things are comfortable and easy then I don’t feel like I’m growing.”
“I knew I needed to go deeper but also higher...(it was) nearly two years before I felt something strange enough emerging that I could actually write anything.”
With his new album "Queen of Dogs" just released on the outlandish and experimental label Tri Angle, its sounds blur a tapestry of hyperactive elements with a mass-erratic of wild drums, euphoria and macabre danse. Its interlacing thread; a take on early, medieval, chamber music: European classicism, surrealism and, overtly, choral. “I knew that I could learn and take from this music and it would sustain me,” Gainsborough says, “I loved the various forms, the sounds, the structures, paradoxically because they weren’t easy.” When it came to writing new material, Gainsborough adds, “I knew I needed to go deeper but also higher...(it was) nearly two years before I felt something strange enough emerging that I could actually write anything.”
The new Vessel record however, "Queen of Dogs", was fed on the compost of "Punish, Honey", Gainsborough explains. “I wanted to be able to express life as I was experiencing it in technicolour rather than in a palette of greys,” he says. “With Punish I was dealing with raw, unformed, electric feelings that were really hammering me at the time. It wasn’t a very pretty expression, but it felt good.” Obscure or disconnected club aesthetics still meet with an indirect industrialism on the album, though sensually lurid themes of metal and flesh, even dub and post-dub influences, seemingly give way to a revised philosophy of musical practice, and Gainsborough says of his neoteric approach to this LP, “it felt right to have both fairly straightforward instrumental moments and manifestly electronic ones.”
A stepping stone that led to the more classical trajectory of Vessel’s music today, was in 2015 when Gainsborough, along with members of Liverpool’s Immix Ensemble, were given access to play and record inside of London’s Tate Britain during refurbishment. The ensemble’s greater purpose, firstly, revolves around giving emerging talent a place to manoeuvre within avant, orchestral contexts, and spearheading the collaboration alongside string and wind instruments players, Gainsborough centralised a theme around Transition. “The excitement came through working with musicians who are coming from a very different background, namely concert, classical musicians, jazz musicians,” Gainsborough remembers, with the music later tailored for a release on Erased Tapes.
“I don’t care about sound or music until I can hear the presence of a personality, of a human character at work.”
With new sounds and techniques pushing their way to the surface, you could say Gainsborough has reached a peak sense of confidence when behind a computer or using his instruments. “I’ve spent years working out (in)elegant workarounds within software, which is quite satisfying in its way,” Gainsborough says. “I’m very happy that if I now want to, I can simply make music without stopping every five minutes to resolve a problem.” However, “because I don’t have any desire to make electronic music, or acoustic music,” Gainsborough says, “I am always searching for an expression that exists between those worlds of sound, it tends to take a very long time before I feel like the computer is singing.”
The routing and modulation capabilities of software like Bitwig, Gainsborough suggests, “have made my pursuit of human expression via computers a lot easier,” and, he explains, “my process involves a lot of dialogue and feedback - via both audio and control signals - between the computer and a modular system.” Gainsborough elaborates, “I send one back to the other until something starts to come off the page...being able to add to this spiderweb through internal modulation makes the whole instrument more responsive and alive.”
“I don’t care about sound or music until I can hear the presence of a personality, of a human character at work,” Gainsborough continues. “This is one of the reasons I haven’t listened to electronic music for a long time now.” Drawn to art and music that looks backwards as much as it does forwards, Gainsborough attributes that anything made will inescapably bear the mark of its age. “I don’t think or care about a conception of modern or futuristic music,” he says, “I think as soon as you aim to go about making music that sounds of, or ahead of its time, you've probably already failed.”
Gainsborough adds, “the music I make as Vessel is a series of station-stops along the path of my life, before it was like that because I was like that, now it’s like this.” In the future, he concludes, “I have no idea what it will become.”