For the record I am probably neither a partial or disinterested observer (writes Andy Wood) having been involved with Vladimir in a very minor way helping with gigs occasionally over the last couple of years and having put out the physical release of the new single ‘Smoke Eyes’. That aside, if I didn’t love the band and their music passionately and believe in the band wholeheartedly I wouldn’t bother my backside. The band and the songs are the important thing for me in all cases.
When I first saw Vladimir they seemed to me very raw, playing short sets of around fifteen to twenty minutes but even in that embryonic stage they were pretty exciting and full of promise. The early shows provided a sense of tension and possibility. Occasionally they might overreach themselves but even then I, and a number of other people as well, felt that excitement and potential.
In recent months that potential seems to be coming to fruition. Last Autumn’s release ‘Come Over’ was a real burst of energy and tunefulness, taut and tense but full of twists and turns. Prior to that the shows had been getting better and better and each gig seemed to herald fantastic new songs.
I’d disagree with the band’s suggestion that they are a only now ‘a proper band’ as suggested below, they have always been a proper band it’s just they are now a much better band. For me there were several key points in this evolution in the last year. They played two headline shows in Dundee which saw them stretching their sound and set, introducing new songs and, latterly an epic take on Underworld’s classic ‘Born Slippy’ which they totally made their own. Also, an early slot at Doune the Rabbit Hole in the summer was amazing. Despite the wan daylight, warm drizzle and early start they pulled in a good number of people to see them fire through a short but utterly beguiling set. We’d just arrived at the site and were a little discombobulated, wondering which direction we should head in when we heard the opening notes of their set, loud and clearly across the rural setting. Like manic Pied-Pipers they reeled us in and pulled us towards the stage. After they played the sun came out and that seemed perfect a perfect metaphor for Vladimir.
The music has often been described as ‘gloomy’ but I’d suggest that’s incorrect. There is a darkness, musically and lyrically to Vladimir but it’s more uplifting and energizing than depressing. Defiance, rather than melancholy is the main feeling. It’s also very beautiful. Far from the fifty shades of black some reviews may suggest, Vladimir are light and darkness, discordant but utterly melodic.
At recent gigs I’ve still felt that spine-tingling thrill throughout songs, not just familiar ones such as the brilliant ‘Cold Winter’s Grasp’ but the newer songs which have become integral to the set. At the Glasgow launch show for ‘Smoke Eyes’ they played with a tightness yet still retained all the tension and unpredictability of earlier shows. Opening a set with your last single followed by your new single might appear madness in some people’s eyes but there is such a confidence in the songs that Vladimir don’t have set filler any more. I have little flickers of nostalgia for the days of covers of The Cramps and Nancy and Lee but only brief ones as I spend the set wishing I was still an unselfconscious gig goer who was happy to jump around at the front and settle for grinning like an idiot and resisting the temptation to punch the air with sheer joy.
The new single is absolutely brilliant, three minutes of pop-noise adrenaline. Following on from ‘Come Over’ which was a brilliant, song, building into moments of claustrophobic noise interspersed with a lighter, airier feeling that is a highlight of the newer songs, the way in which they are more nuanced, subtle even. ‘Smoke Eyes’ takes that up a notch with a sense pummelling introduction and probably the catchiest chorus that Vladimir have recorded to date. Earlier songs were an exercise in beating the audience into submission, the newer songs are no less powerful but caress and tease as well as pack a punch.
This month saw the start of an incredibly busy period for Vladimir with single launches in Glasgow and Perth before they hit Aberdeen and their hometown Dundee. Following that they play a festival in Sheffield then head out on tour with band favourites The Twilight Sad on their first big tour. The gigs then stretch into May with a headline show at Sneaky Pete’s in May, a return trip to London and on into June.
As the band geared up for this busy period I caught up with Ross Murray (Vocals/Guitar) and Sam Taylor (Drums) in the Campbeltown Bar to ask them a few questions. The conversation ranged over many topics, from being asked to endorse fun string to the difficulties of touring on a shoestring. Over the years I’ve known Vladimir I’d have said Sam was the quietest member of of the band (when not beating seven shades out of a drum kit) but put him in front of a recording device, ask him about the band and he is as passionate and talkative as any of his colleagues. And they are incredibly passionate about their music and music in general.
You have a new single ‘Smoke Eyes’ due out. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Ross: We wrote it at the same time as ‘Come Over’ and it’s carrying on the same vibe but maybe a little more listener friendly. A bit more catchy.
Sam: It’s a bit brighter.
Ross: Maybe a wee bit brighter but it’s still the same vibe.
Sam: The same intensity to it.
Was that a deliberate thing to try and make it a bit more intense but also catchy?
Sam: No, it just happens. All the intensity just happens.
Ross: It’s just the way it goes.
Where was it recorded this time around? I believe you did some recording in Sheffield?
Ross: We went down to Sheffield to do some recording. We recorded some songs there and then went up and did some more in Dixon Street in Glasgow. That’s kind of worked out best. So went there (Dixon Street) and recorded ‘Smoke Eyes’ and ‘Born Slippy’. It sounded good.
Sam: I’m happy with it.
Have you got many unreleased songs recorded now?
Sam: Just the one.
Ross: We’ve got another tune that we’ve recorded but that will never get released, it’s just there.
Sam: It was like a trial and error thing to see what panned out and if it worked then we’d use it but that’ll not be happening. It’s just kind of there. It’s not even there, it’s just gone.
Ross: It might come out one day.
What circumstances led you to cover ‘Born Slippy’?
Sam: I dunno,,,
Ross: We just stumbled upon it….
Sam: It was about three years ago, way before we were even a serious band and I think it started off as a joke. We were in the studio doing something and Peter was like, ‘We should totally do something, some weird 90s dance tune or something like that’. We went through a few songs and there there it was.
Ross: Josh came up with it.
Sam: And the next thing, we had iTunes on shuffle, one of the guys in the studios and the next thing that came on was ‘Born Slippy’ and it was like, that could work. It started off as a joke.
Ross: It took ages to get it right.
Sam: The way we played it, it was nothing like it is now. It’s more refined. It’s taken a lot of time to get it the way we wanted it.
The first time you played it live it took a while to really grasp what it was that you were playing. People were looking a bit confused as though they were thinking ‘is that what I think it is’? It seemed quite brave and quite cheeky.
Sam: It is a bit of a surprise, but in a good way. I quite like it. It’s something different as well.
Ross: I like the way it just creeps up on you. It does sound like one of our songs but when you finally work out what it is you get into it.
The artwork for ‘Come Over’ and ‘Smoke Eyes’ is very distinctive. Where did the images originate from?
Ross: The first one came from a girl called Cairney Tait. It’s weird because both images look very similar, it’s like they are meant to be a pair but they are taken by two totally separate photographers who don’t know each other.
Sam: The second one is by one of my friends. I came across that and thought it was cool.
Ross: We were struggling for an image and found the first image and thought it was pretty cool. It was originally in colour and we made it black and white. Then we were thinking, what are we going to do for the next one and Sam found it. It was a total fluke.
Sam: My friend said, just have it. There’s a continuity to them instead of both being totally separate things. There is a theme. We didn’t deliberately say we’re going to look for another one, I was just looking through one of my pal’s photographs and saw that and thought, that could actually work. So I asked and they said, ‘It’s all yours, have it’. I just thought it would be cool to have the same vibe but totally different.
It is important to care for how a band is portrayed beyond just the music isn’t it?
Sam: I think the visuals are quite an important thing. Even in a live performance it’s quite important as well. Things like artwork and visuals do help. It’s not our main focus but wee bits and pieces do their bit.
How about videos? Do you have any plans to do any more videos?
Ross: We’re planning on doing a video for ‘Smoke Eyes’. Not with us in it. It’s something we are working on just now but we’re struggling with getting it there.
When I spoke to you last year you’d written quite a lot of new songs, a number of which have been played in the live set and recorded. Are you still working on new material constantly?
Ross: We’re still writing them.
Sam: We’re going through a lot of trial and error just now. Trying as many different things as we can.
Ross: We do several practices a week and split them up. Some doing the set and getting it tight and other practices we’re writing. We do that constantly. We don’t just want to write hundreds of songs. We want to wait and pick the right ones. We’ve most passed the point of playing just everything that comes up, like any song we write.
Sam: We’re quite critical of the stuff but in a good way. We’ll get halfway through writing a song and just think, ‘we’re not feeling it’. I think it’s a good thing. We’re not just being arsey, we’re just trying to make sure we’re writing as good as we can.
Ross: We look at it like the last song that we thought was great. We wrote a new song a few weeks ago and thought it was absolutely amazing, probably our best song so we use that as a benchmark. The next song has to be as good or better. Nothing less. I think that’s a good way to treat it.
Does this ever lead to fights? Does anyone ever come along with an idea for a song that they think is good and everybody else says, no way, that’s not happening?
Sam: Oh, all the time.
Sam: That’s how it works. For every fifty ideas you come up with there will be three of them which two of the band like, one in a hundred, we’ll all click with. ‘Come Over’, for instance, I don’t ever want to think about how many songs we wrote at the time that was started and that was the only one that we all clicked on.
Ross: Four young boys are never always going to agree on something. When you do all agree on something that’s when I think good things come up. You’ve got to all enjoy it on stage or it’s a bit pointless if one person is up there thinking ‘I don’t want to be doing this’.
You’ve been gigging a hell of a lot recently as well as recording. Which do you prefer now?
Ross: We used to say it’s all about playing live but I think recently we’ve started enjoying recording more. I still love playing live but we do enjoy recording now. I don’t think we used to enjoy recording as much, it was more, we have to do this, now it’s like we can go in the studio and do demos and stuff.
Sam: I think it’s because we are good enough to do it now. In respect of we’re able to go and actually work on something instead of going in and just mucking about.
Ross: We used to struggle to get through a song without mucking it up.
Sam: Now we can just fire through it. When we did ‘Smoke Eyes’ that was done separately, we all did separate takes but I personally only took about three drum takes and the three of them were pretty tight and we just picked the best one.
Ross: Even when we’re recording we’re always thinking about how it is live. It’s not like, ah, I’ll put this mad thing on it that we’ll never be able to do live.
Sam: You have to capture the moment but you can do wee things.
Ross: When we are recording it feels like we are playing live, there’s just not an audience there obviously.
Sam: I mean there’s wee production things you can put in that just make it sound better but the way I see it is, the way we do it is to try and capture the sound we make live. We try to capture the actual sound we’ve got and add a couple of buts and pieces to make it sound bigger and better.
Ross: I do think we still prefer playing live to recording. That’s what everyone is brought up on, playing live.
Sam: By the end of April we’ll have played more gigs in 2014 than we did in the whole of last year and that’s not through ‘Oh, we have to do it’. Every single one of the gigs we’ve got lined up we are so excited about. There’s not one single one of those gigs that I’m not like totally buzzing for.
Ross: We wouldn’t play so many gigs if we didn’t like doing it.
Sam: Yeah we wouldn’t be in a band if we didn’t like doing what we did. You have to enjoy what you are doing.
Does it still feel the same playing live as it did when you started out ot does it change?
Sam: I think it’s changed a lot.
Ross: For the better.
Sam: Totally for the better. Before that, it seems like we weren’t a real band, we were just mucking about. I mean, if you saw us a couple of years ago it would be use four basically playing to each other, forgetting about how many people were in the crowd and just mucking about on stage. Now we’re all, as well as focussing on each other on stage, we’re all trying to focus on the songs as well as we can and trying to make it as appealing to a crowd, not just as songs but watching us as well.
Ross: I think the songs are a lot better now as well which helps. We’re a lot tighter. A lot more professional which helps.
Sam: We get a lot of help with that which is good. We’re still learning…
Ross: It might all be different in a years time.
Sam: We’re still young. This time next year we might be looking back thinking we were hardly a band then. I like looking back at how much we have improved and thinking about how much we can improve more.
One thing that I personally like is that while you have improved immensely you haven’t lost the things that I liked about Vladimir when I first saw you.
Sam: The way we did it was like, before, the way I put it was were hardly a band, we were testing the water to see what we could do and what we were good at and we found the vibe we’ve got now and focussed on that and kept that vibe. Now we’re just trying to perfect that. There’s no such thing as perfection but we’re trying our best to make it as strong as possible.
Ross: I think when you say kept all the best bits I think that’s what all great bands do. The bands that do keep a following throughout their career and go on to do big things have kept what was good about them and made it better. There are a lot of bands who have good things and just totally lose it because they try to change everything. You’ve got to keep the good things and try to build on it.
Sam: You’ve got to appeal to the fans you’ve got and appeal to new ones as well.
Ross: We’re not going out trying to please people, we’re pleasing ourselves, but that’s the way it seems to go.
Part 2 of Andy’s interview..
Here’s a chance to listen to their cover of ‘Born Slippy’:
Vladimir launch ‘Smoke Eyes’ with a show at the Cool Cat Club on Saturday (12th) at Beat Generator Live in Dundee with support from Naked and Waiting for Jack.
Vladimir portrait by David P. Scott. Live shots by Manic Pop Thrills.