Sunday, 17 July 2011

A quiet evolution in the undergrowth: An interview with Vondelpark

My 100th Helium Raven post is an interview with Vondelpark, a band from the wilds of South London and beyond and currently signed to R&S. Their new EP, NYC Bags and NYC Stuff, is very much in line with the bittersweet echo of London beats that the label has taken such a shine to with other recent releases from James Blake, Pariah and others.

Props also to Phil Sharp who took the photos for the interview, which he previewed on his blog. He's met at least two of my favourite artists of all time, by the look of it. 

First published in Loud And Quiet

Even a stagnant pond teems with life around its damp and fecund edges. There in the broken reeds and rainwater tributaries you'll find all sorts of chary and reclusive fauna, shrinking from your gaze and retreating deeper into the undergrowth to tend their offspring and forage for sustenance. So I find myself in Peckham on a rare visit to this oasis of cheaper living and isolated artistic indulgence, atmospherically a million miles from London's arid centre but really only a few streets south of the priapic new Shard development, a glassy-eyed visual metaphor for the recession if there ever was one.

Vondelpark, despite being named after a green space in Amsterdam, are a distinctly British proposition and a band that have made London's anonymous southern borders their home. Though apparently influenced by a trip to America's West Coast (as hinted at by California Analog Dream, the opening track of last year's Sauna EP), there's something about the mottled patina of their songs – warm yet cool, fond yet distant – that's exactly the opposite of the Golden State's freewheeling optimism. The vocals are submerged and rarely decipherable, floating above reclaimed garage rhythms on 'Hippodrome' or trip-hop shuffle on 'Jetlag Blue Version', and seem to be calling back to warmer, easier times. The Sauna EP is a document of that longing – for sunshine, a younger youth, a smoother toke.

This is the sound of Britain's new bands. Have you noticed? They're young, as always. They're sad, sort of, but also happy at the same time, in the same moment. They like to look back, to reflect. And perhaps more than ever they've got no clear future, no reason to stay in school and get a job, 'cos there are no jobs to be got and it's starting to seem like there never will be. In the boom years there was a risk, a desperate thrill, in pissing about with guitars for a few years before knuckling down to the inevitable. But now? Bands like Vondelpark are taking it slow. They're productive, prolific even, yet they don't crave overnight success. Perhaps because there's little else out there for them, and the future seems to stretch out indefinitely.

Alright, this portrait may not be exactly how it is for Vondelpark, but it's a common enough attitude among bands of their vintage. We're sitting out back at Peckham's Bar Story with the railway station in our sights. Lewis, the guy commonly mistaken for the only member of Vondelpark, is frontman and ringleader of the porous group which includes regular members Bailey and Matt. A recent Boiler Room set saw them joined on drums by Will Archer, a friend and musician who operates under the moniker Slime and has collaborated with Vondelpark on the tracks '2Player' and 'Gals'.

So is this the birth of a 'scene'? “All of our friends are creative in some way, like our friend Ciaran [Wood] who does the videos. It's good to be inspired by people, you kind of bounce off each other,” says Lewis, explaining that it's a “friendship group” first and foremost. “We don't even go to all these nights in London, we just use the amenities to do our own little world.”

Asked how they put their dense and dreamy songs together, there's little to go on. “Just from hanging out,” Bailey offers amid the ums and ahs. It's part of their defiance against the hype machine, one that they share with some of their contemporaries. They're relaxed and purposely slow-moving. The songs too are languorous but not luxuriant, seeming to wallow in time, not as an opulent fuck-you to the ever-quickening treadmill of globalised commerce but more as a consequence of being left behind by the gobbling Pac-Man of credit, debt and default. If the under-25s have had free time foisted upon them because of the recession, at least the musicians can take the opportunity to go slowly, add more layers, play low-key shows and retain their privacy.

Vondelpark haven't appeared from nowhere though, having had a taste of success with their previous incarnation in a more straight-up art-rock band. Pretty brave to just chuck all that away and start again, anonymously? “It wasn't representing what we actually wanted to play,” says Matt. “We had the greatest intentions with that, but we were very young, we didn't want to go down a path that we weren't completely comfortable with,” explains Lewis. “We had offers from major labels who wanted us to be something that we weren't, so... that's all really. There's not many bands that start with four years of experience of playing live around the country. I think we're just quite comfortable with the experience we got from that, and we're not ashamed of any of it.”

It must have made you more clued up about the pitfalls of the industry as well. “Yeah, I think people care about music and we didn't realise that as much when we were in that band before, 'cos everyone around us in East London... it was just like, a darker place, to be completely honest.” How so? “It was just a weird time,” says Bailey, as they all quietly nod. “Yeah.” “Not very nice.”

Still, internet buzz being what it is, the idea of anonymity quickly overtook their intentions as cut'n'paste culture turned the reborn band into 'mysterious south London producer Vondelpark'. That's what happens when your only web presence is an interview with Vice magazine. How important is anonymity, then? “I think people really get that wrong, to be honest, about forced mystery,” says Lewis. “In our case, we actually did do an interview about a month after we put up our first MP3.”

Lots of artists seem to be quite clearly choosing to hide their identities though. Maybe it's a reaction to all that in-yer-face pop and the risk of sudden 'success' and over-exposure on the blogosphere. “You don't need to be anything more at first, it's just having really good songs so people care enough about the music to want to hear more,” says Lewis. “I just feel with the mysterious thing it just comes from people not wanting to waste away with an image, just wanting people to take the music for what it is.” Bailey offers a harsher assessment. “There's a lot of people that just keep regurgitating the same article over and over again, and I think people need to like... live a little bit more.”

“With Burial, he did it in his own way and it's completely original, so the music is the actual important thing,” says Lewis. “And it wasn't intentional, he just honestly doesn't like doing that [promotional] stuff because it's not that important to him, and it's not actually that important to us, 'cos we enjoy listening to our records.” Wu Lyf tried to go down a similar path at first, too. “Now they're saying they're pissed off they even started doing press, 'cos it's taking away from them being in their bedroom making songs.”

What about the musical mood that pervades London bands at the moment? I'm thinking Ghostpoet, James Blake, Echo Lake – musicians of all genres evoking a similar melancholy feeling through mumbled lyrics and dreamy production right down to blurred press shots. Is there something in the water or what?

"Yeah, you could take that quite pretentious and say it's because of England, but it probably actually is,” says Lewis. “I was talking to someone from San Francisco about this the other day, and he was saying, 'I couldn't live in London 'cos it's so grey.' But on a serious level, it is pretty grim, there's only like two months where it's warm in London and I mean, it's not really a great place to sort of... at the moment everyone's just like... yeah, getting emotive,” he laughs.

It's a sound that the classic Belgian techno label R&S has spotted and embraced, signing up diverse acts of the 'post-dubstep' non-genre like James Blake and Space Dimension Controller, giving the label a new lease of life as it nurtures London's fresh talents. “The label has some amazing musicians at the moment,” they remind me later. “Keeps the momentum up to improve every record.” The band are about to release their second EP through the imprint, titled NYC Stuff and NYC Bags, but still plan to steer clear of the limelight. “We're keeping it pretty low key, hopefully the album will be out around Christmas time,” says Lewis. “We don't want to release an album until we're completely happy with what we've done,” adds Matt.

Our conversation concludes with Lewis setting out what could be the band's manifesto, if only they were the type of band who would put their name to something as declamatory and earnest as a manifesto. “We're just really, really, really into making music, and we want to play to lots of people. I just want people to be able to listen to our music and relate in some way, and make them feel better about being in shit situations. That's the main intention.” And in its own small way, that simple rejection of cliched rock and roll living and industry indulgence sums up the quiet evolution ticking over in the city's undergrowth.

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