Wandering through last summer’s Playgroup Festival, the sunshine warming our skin as we ambled through the fields, we found ourselves humming along to the sounds coming from one of the tents. So joyous was the noise we turned on our heels and headed toward what we thought was a band playing a cover of one of our favourite songs, maybe a half forgotten Neil Young number. But when we got inside it was Holy Vessels playing one of their own compositions – a song that we’d only heard once before. It was then that we realised how good they were. Not only had they nailed that country rock sound, they’d also written songs that were so catchy they lodged in your brain as instant classics.
‘Springtime Bloom’, their debut single, is one of those songs. Guitars slide, pianos tinkle and basslines walk as Frank tells a beautiful story to lift the spirits. It could have come from an early Wilco album and it still would have stood out.
“It’s a love song about two people on the South Downs falling in love in the summer,” explains bassist Mavo as he strips down ready to be baptised with much more enthusiasm than you’d expect. “But I wasn’t the one falling in love at the time so for me it’s more like a hymn to the English countryside. We were talking about Stand By Me on the way down here, that summer holiday feeling of, ‘this is going to last forever’. To me it’s about the possibilities of being out in the open space.”
“The reason we were talking about Stand By Me was Grills worrying about getting leeches on his knob going in this pond,” laughs keyboard player Tommy as they lower themselves into the icy water.
It’s the first of three singles that the band are releasing through their website for free, on the journey to their album in October. ‘Last Orders At The Marshal Arms’ is a stunning debut, especially when you realise it’s self-funded and released and, fittingly for a country rock outfit, recorded in a barn on a farm. While following in the footsteps of Mumford & Sons on the River Rat Pack tour, they discovered that the guy whose barge they were travelling on had recently bought a farm. Before long Iain Harvie – the former guitarist with Del Amitri, who has been a big supporter of the Vessels for years – had packed his studio into a van and was setting it up in a disused barn. For two weeks the boys moved into a caravan and recorded their debut.
“I think that you can hear on the album that it was recorded in a lambing shed,” says Tommy figuratively.
“That’s when we started properly experimenting with the sound of it,” says Frank. “That’s what shaped everything.”
While the first half of the album has the clean melodies and country rock stylings that we’ve come to expect from seeing them live, as the second side progresses the album becomes quite wigged out, almost like psychedelic rock’n’roll in places.
“The beginning of the album comes from the early demos when we were listening to loads of country,” explains Mavo. “Gram Parsons, The Byrds, Johnny Cash…”
“Who’s that geezer with his dog?” asks Frank.
“Jim Reeves,” answers Mavo. “As it took so long for us to get the final line-up of the band together we’ve played the songs quite a lot, so we were ready to try other things. So the second side of the album is kinda epic psychedelic rock. I think that was a result of almost being bored.”
“And Tommy getting an organ,” adds Frank.
While they were recording Iain had found Tommy something else to play, another old organ in one of the barns, covered in birdshit, and got his head into the wires in the back to reprogram it. They even recorded some of the guitars through an industrial wood chipper. Despite the Del Amitri man’s pop sensibilities he wasn’t afraid to experiment.
“If you follow the record from start to finish it’s almost chronological,” explains Mavo. “It sits really nicely that way. It almost ends on a cliffhanger – what’s going to happen next? To me it feels like we’ve got to a point where we can start making records. Getting this album done was getting our shit together. Now we can do it properly.”
But how are the songs so catchy, especially those in the first, more country part of the LP? Mavo reckons it’s from growing up listening to pop music all their lives.
“Once we heard a good hook we jumped on it,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any bullshit on the album, there’s no filler. It’s wall to wall hooks and big tunes. I don’t think we knew how to make anything fancy.”
“We had quite a lot of rules when we started,” adds Frank. “No hi hats, and if you’d already put the message across, don’t put it across again.”
Apparently that economy left many of songs between 90 seconds and a couple of minutes long, leading Iain to ask, ‘Why are all your songs: verse, chorus and then the end?’
Mavo is keen to stress that not only would the experimentation not have been anywhere near as successful without their producer, the whole thing might never have got anywhere near happening without his support.
“He mixed the demos that we did in the live room at the Brunswick, he was coming to our gigs and doing our sound, all off his own bat, with his own money,” explains the bassist. “He didn’t ask us for anything. He was the only person who was up for it enough to sit in a caravan for two weeks with us lot not knowing what we were doing. If it wasn’t for him we’d still be scratching our arses in Brighton Electric.”
Maybe that’s true, but we’d probably end up whistling along while they did it.
SINGLE: ‘Springtime Bloom’, free download Mon 2nd July 2012
WEB: Holy Vessels
LIVE: Green Door Store, Tues 24th July 2012