Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Super jazz-prog-experimental group Vels Trio release their long awaited debut album 'Celestial Greens' on 29 October via Peckham label Rhythm Section. The album fuses together electronica into swift movements that ride along incessantly into ultra groovy patterns - this is at the core of what makes this album an absolute treat to listen to. Ben chats to keys player Jack Stephenson-Oliver and drummer Dougal Taylor from the trio about the new album - focusing on it's concept, recording process and role in the jazz scene, as well as how they have navigated the music industry up until now.
Along with Cameron Dawson on bass, the group have been busy since their debut EP release Yellow Ochre which came out in 2017 on Total Refreshment Centre. Using the success of their first release has helped them work with various bands and artists since then, a decorated list of musical talent that includes Footshooter, Etuk Ubong, Poppy Ajudha, Charlotte Dos Santos, Mamas Gun, Emma-Jean Thackray and Neue Grafik Ensemble.
Even though there has been a lack of releases to follow since their debut, their popularity has not ceased. Their impressive sound fits in just as much on the dance floor as it does in relaxed settings where the emotive grooves can surround and cover all your senses into deep trances of cross-genre bliss.
A song that fits this description is their much loved 2018 single 'The Wad' which has been added onto the album. The tension they build is engrossing and timed to perfection and when the drum patterns break into increased intensity, it feels so slick with the synths. Lots of cosmic whooshes swing in between the riffs and it's really refreshing to hear the song out on this record that has tunes that equally compliment its beauty.
The first track 'Dormant Daze' adds to the cosmic atmosphere with an ever-climbing synth that arpeggiates wonderfully. 'May As Well Be' turns the glitchy sounds into a soft mood to chill out to, feeling like a timeless jazz-funk composition that breaks into heavier cuts just like 'The Wad' with some delightful retro synth that comes in at the end.
Finding the time since the Yellow Ochre release has been hard to come by for the trio though. Jack explains, "we've all been so busy being full-time musicians playing for different people and it's been hard for us to actually get together to find that sort of time to get together and record it. I know it sounds like a lame excuse but it's kind of the truth. Because of the first lockdown, we got together in the summer of 2020 and made the album happen and gave the album the attention it deserved I think, because we were trying to record it doing little bits here and there in different studios and it just wasn't really working."
"We just spent two weeks in our friend Raven Bush's studio, but I wouldn't say it was a choice leaving it this long to put anything out. We're all aware it's been quite a long time now since the EP, but now that this is done, it's great! We're all more able and wanting to give Vels the time that it needs to kind of flourish even though we're all still playing for other people. But yeah, I think it's it's been good for us because we kind of needed to get the album out."
Giving their group time to flourish is exactly how Bush approached recording the album in the studio. "The aim of the game was to keep the post-production to a minimum and capture the rawness as much as we could. Every member has their own sound, being the heavy players they are they come with their thing, so I was just encouraging them to be themselves. This record to me is the sound of Vels playing in a room. All the trickery is in their fingers.”
The heaviness comes through on the spectacular 'McEnroe', starting with a slapped hard funk vibe before the synths go wonky and the speedy drums bring an energy into a searing, spiritual mood. '40.2' has a dark, muggy edge to it and there's a retrowave element to the interlude. The space to jam out ideas as well as develop melodies keeps things fresh for the group.
"It's been every single part of the spectrum," Jack says. "Like one of us writing the majority of the song and bringing it in, but then it gets totally changed. But it's always jammed at some point, whatever it is. I could come in with a chord progression and Dougal writes the melody to it so just always different. Sometimes it will come out of a spontaneous jam or it's pre-written."
"There are no boundaries for us to how we write but I'd say the one main boundary is we have to all do it together at some point. There's never been a song that we've released that hasn't been workshopped by all three of us at the same time in a room together. I think that's what makes our writing sound the way it does is because we all are in a room together and working through ideas and trying stuff out."
The limits they push themselves in these workshops can be clearly heard in tracks like 'Winter Games'. The keys chill out cooly on the stabs before the bass becomes prominent, inviting the drums to reach a place to solo and then come back down into a proggy beat. The back and forth from these sections feels both improvised but also well thought out, with the chemistry between the three feels like there was never a lockdown that halted them playing together for a long while.
Ironing out which takes to use and making sure they felt right took time though. Dougal explains, "feeling good about it was an absolute fucking mountain. Obviously we haven't been playing really for like two years with lockdown and just suddenly it was like go and record these tunes that you've been practising for two years. It was hard mentally and physically so there were all kinds of takes that we were happy with to go on the album. But it was hard to find ones that we were all thinking that this was the best take, let's use this. That was sort of a laboured process but in the end, we're happy with all of them and chuffed to get them all down. It was just a big challenge when we went into it."
"I think we definitely needed some space from the record after we recorded it for exactly that," Jack states. "But now listening back, every time I listen to 'Celestial Greens' at the end, I'm just like "fuck yeah!" It's the same with 'Pop Stuff'. 'McEnroe' is also proper intense throughout. That was hard, especially for Dougal and Cam because I think he's holding down this crazy drumbeat, which is always free-flowing and changing. Then Cam's got this kind of baseline that's just relentless and it's hard for us to play basically."
"It's a good way to try to make yourself better as a musician, right? If it's too hard for yourself to play, keep doing it until you can do it. I currently have keys parts where they totally don't relate to each other. I have to just sit down for hours and work out the independents to be able to play a certain chord progression with the melody or whatever, because some of it gets pretty messed up."
'Pop Stuff' is certainly one of the tracks that feels less jazzy and taps a lot more into their vapourwave and 80s synth influences. These nods to other genres build the foundations of a record that really tries not to be an out-and-out jazz record. Dougal goes into this a bit more in how this concept of making 'pop music' in the jazz scene offers better accessibility for their fans to enjoy their music.
"I guess in our hearts we're jazzers, and we love the mad shit, basically. But we are totally into pop music and listening to classic tunes and structures. We don't want to make it inaccessible or sort of wildly jazzy because that doesn't really interest us anyway. It's nice as a spectacle, but we all have a bit more of that going on in our hearts. So we want to be able to give music to the people in some kind of dynamic with the jazz and improvisation in it. But not as the main source of intellect in the music, because it's gotta be grooving."
Jack agrees. "Yeah, we're not just trying to be like "here's the melody, and here's the solo". We're trying to write songs and you don't necessarily need a big old solo to make a song sick." Keeping the music as purely instrumental music can cause the group to be pigeonholed in this way. "I mean with jazz for the last 10 years, it's kind of been like the hot thing, hasn't it? But if people were more aware of the 60s music that came out of the UK and the Canterbury scene and all the prog stuff, people might relate to that more with our music."
"It's just because jazz is on everyone's lips, isn't it? So when you hear something instrumental, people think it must be jazz. But it's hard not to categorise things isn't it, we all do it." Vels Trio have certainly benefitted from the rise in awareness of the jazz scene from when they started out in Brighton. It's led them to play a set in the celebrated Boiler Room series as the interest in the scene has sustained over a long period of time. Joining a musically-diverse label such as Rhythm Section adds to this, with the label itself evolving and taking on more experimental projects with artists they admire. Jack has already had releases out on the label with Footshooter as SAUL, blending together breaks, soul and house into their productions.
"I think the one thing we did know as a band is we didn't want to let go with a label that was like through and through jazz, because we're also not through and through jazz. People constantly tell us we are. So in the same way that we are trying to write pop music or whatever, we're not jazz but we've been made part of this London jazz scene. To us the music is so many other things. Jazz is definitely in there but there's a lot of other stuff. So signing with Rhythm Section is cool, because it opens up genre-wise a bit."
"London jazz or whatever, it's been around for many, many years as a scene," Dougal says. "And that's like a bubbling scene but it's just kind of broke out into the masses, partly because of social media to some extent. The accessibility to all sorts of music, and all pools of social life just kind of built this thing, and it keeps building and I think it's definitely grown. But even at the time it was big 8-10 years ago, it's just been spreading and dripping out to the less music-savvy people. It's becoming more and more accessible sounds in the same stuff. Yeah, it's really nice to see and feels like there's a current of people who want to different music and not just tracking chart music, which isn't bad, but it's cool."
Two of the standout tracks on the album definitely epitomise what Rhythm Section and the wider London scene is all about in branching out into new realms of jazz-associated sounds. 'Quick Zeus' features lots of hard-hitting drum pattern with an airy keys and synth sound that floats above the phat bass. It's hard funk at its best, and the title track offers a smoother funk tune that has the bass controlling the pace and pulse of the song magnificently. The synth flutters and breaks into a rapturous solo for a huge ending.
With the record being delayed due to lockdown over the last couple of years, it's given time for Jack and Dougal to assess how they continue in creating music as a group and in their own pursuits. Jack has seen how the break has made him understand the pitfalls of the industry and how to respond to them.
"It's definitely changed things a lot for me. I try not to take gigs at weekends anymore. With things like that, I'm just trying to be more of a human and less of a musician because it's such a weird career to have where if you're not careful, your self-worth gets reflected into where you're at as a musician or what you're doing. It's so unhealthy so it's a career that's prime for neurosis and mental health problems. If you're not on top of that stuff, or aware of it, it can definitely be quite a sly one in that sense. It's a hard thing to juggle with living a healthy normal life."
Dougal emphasises though the privilege it is to still be able to make a career through music. "I definitely had quite a lot of time to think and all the stuff that went on through the lockdown times as well with different world issues, I had a lot of time to think about the purpose of what we're doing and kind of what it means to be a musician and to make music. There was a lot of reevaluating that but seeing things pick up again, it was just kind of slipping back into it and carrying on. I had more perspective on how lucky we are to do something like this for a living and what it can mean to people to have music that they love and relate to in times where people aren't connecting necessarily physically."
With European dates confirmed alongside a UK tour, Vels Trio will be able to bring their new album to life and connect with people physically at the start of 2022. Celestial Greens is a stunning albeit slightly overdue debut album from the group, but the wait has certainly been worth it.
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