Joe Crow speaks with ReGen about the latest chapter in his musical evolution as 2020 sees a new band lineup and the first full-length album from Vanity Kills.
An InterView with Joe Crow of Vanity Kills
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
From Cardiff, U.K. comes Joe Crow with his band Vanity Kills, and although it’s been six years since emerging with the Chapter 1: Stitches EP, the group has only sharpened its steely claws. Released on August 7, the second chapter of VK’s artistic journey, titled Enemy, has seen a number of improvements to this musical hybrid – a new band lineup, slicker production, stronger songwriting, all resulting in a full-length album that is as corrosive in its textures as it is melodic. With elements that recall ’90s techno and coldwave, early aughts nü-metal, and with a slight dash of ’80s new wave, Vanity Kills presents a sound that is not easily pigeonholed even as it fits in the current umbrella of industrial/metal… but it’s loud and in-your-face as any upstart band should be. With bassist Johnathan James Jeffreys, guitarist Phil Psycho, and percussionist Sophie Wighton rounding out the live band, Vanity Kills is still very much at the beginning of a long road, a road made even more uncertain and precarious in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on the music industry and the world-at-large, but the band seems more than ready to tackle the challenge and blow out your speakers. ReGen Magazine had the chance to speak with Crow about the evolution of VK’s music, touching on the development of his songwriting and production skills, the formation of the current lineup, along with some thoughts on the numerous changes in the way audiences consume music in these uncertain times and how musicians can offer alternatives to keep setting your ears aflame.
You released the first chapter, Stitches in 2014, with this second chapter following six years later. First of all, please tell us about your activity in the interim – why so long a wait?
Crow: Stitches was a weird experiment for me. I set out to make a much more electronic sounding record, but the end result didn’t really match what I intended. The producer I was working with at the time didn’t necessarily gravitate towards synth and programming in the same way I did and I didn’t have the production knowledge to push those elements harder, and eventually a lot of them got dropped from the recordings. After it came out, I also found myself taking time for my personal life and felt that maybe it was time to put music to bed for a bit. I started tinkering and learning new things over about four years and took up making music for games and films that was purely electronic. Next, I added some guitars and suddenly realized I had come further than I thought to making heavy electronic music. So, last year I started dusting off a few riffs I had stashed away and started work on the new record.
Secondly, what can you tell us about the progression of the musical or lyrical story you’re telling through these chapters?
Crow: Lyrically, Chapter 1 is sort of a reflection of my life up to that point – sort of a backstory; like dealing with things like drug abuse, seeking out your own views and personal politics, and small town drama that seemed to surround me growing up. This one is a lot more in the moment and personal. It still comes from the same place. There are a few political moments, but the years since Stitches have been very up and down – both the highest and lowest points in my life so far, so of course the personal elements on this one are more raw. I try to never write about any single incident specifically and instead take a whole bunch of things that made me feel a certain way and amalgamate them into one. It keeps it vague so anyone who listens may identify in a way that feels right to them. So, sometimes you may hear a song like ‘This Is Gonna Hurt’ and it comes off as political, whereas for me, it’s deeply personal, for example.
Did your original conception for this story change in the six years between chapters? How closely were you able to adhere to your original vision (if indeed there was one)? In what ways did it evolve and change since the first chapter?
Crow: There hasn’t ever been an overarching story planned. The chapter numbers are kind of like little markers on my ‘life map.’ So hopefully, at the end they will all come together as kind of a semi-fictionalized autobiography. (Laughter) Musically, this album is vastly closer to how I wanted Vanity Kills to sound when I started.
It does seem like more artists are releasing smaller singles and EPs, which it does seem allows for more prolific output; what are your thoughts on this? What does the album format mean for you as it pertains to Vanity Kills?
Crow: This is something I debated on really hard while making the record. It started out as an EP. Then I started pulling old demos out and rewriting those, then more new songs seemed to fall out of me. At one point, I had about 35 songs ideas flying around. I took the attitude that if these songs were going to happen, they had to happen as naturally as possible. So, I recorded everything fully except vocals. Lyrics are always the last piece of the puzzle for me because I find them difficult. So, the songs that got lyrics are the ones that made it. That gave me 10 songs (one two-parter). Some of the songs existed in some form back when I recorded Stitches. ‘This Is Gonna Hurt’ was actually the first thing I ever put out there under the VK name, albeit as a 30-second preview with a totally different arrangement, and ‘Scream’ was originally conceived as an intro track for that record, whereas ‘Murder Song’ was written recorded and finalized three days before I sent the album for distribution. Also, there were a lot of songs that I’m really sad didn’t make it, including what probably would have been the title track. (Laughter)
As far as the albums vs. EP debate goes, I think that it makes sense to make more frequent but smaller releases in the current musical climate. People’s attention spans are short and at a premium, especially when you’re at the entry level, so to speak. You’ve got to fight to get anyone to hear even a 10-second clip of your music. For VK, this one is an album because it’s what felt right. And there is no intention of there being another six years wait for the next one. I’m hoping that our policy of making music videos for every single song will alleviate the issue of attention span and give each one time to shine in some way.
Plus, there is already new material being written for Chapter 3 now, as well as some of the holdover stuff from this album that I’m sure will find a home at some point in time.
The music is mostly performed and produced by you, while it seems there is a live band, whose lineup has apparently changed between releases – would you tell us about this change in personnel and how you feel it has affected Vanity Kills? Do the live musicians participate in the studio process at all?
Crow: That is true. It’s always been that way. I work best in my own stream of consciousness when I’m alone. The guys in the band are absolutely integral to what comes out though. They are my sounding boards. They tell me honestly what works and what doesn’t. Each one of them has recorded on the album in some way, and each time, they have they’ve added to the that song in a way that has brought it to life. Phil and Sophie came onto a session for ‘Friends Like These’ and saved it from being dropped off the album with their input and turned it into one of my absolute favorites. John and I wrote the music for ‘Alone’ in about an hour while jamming on two guitars in two different tunings. After he left, I got inspired, and by the time he texted me to say he’d made it home safe, I sent him the final completed song in response. The words just came out of me with zero planning and that one quick take (save for a single word that I coughed through) is what made it onto the album.
For Stitches, the only other member of the band was Jasin. He contributed some of the best drum moments of that record, as well as writing most of the lyrics to ‘Scumfuck Revolution.’ That song was originally a different song and I couldn’t get away from my original idea, so he helped me rewrite it into a much better song. The others in the videos never played on the record, but they were my buds who helped me out for those. The only reason that Jasin isn’t playing with us now is that our lives both took new directions – no drama, boring really. (Laughter)
Your music blends elements of industrial, metal, alternative, and straightforward electronica; I almost thought ‘This Is Gonna Hurt’ was a long lost DOPE track, with a bass line that could’ve been sampled from Lords of Acid or Psykosonik. As many artists and bands blend genres in similar fashion, what do you find to be the greatest challenge in establishing that right mix that you feel readily identifies Vanity Kills? Or to put it another way (and hopefully you won’t take this as flippant), how do you feel you’re able to stand out?
Crow: Okay, I’ll start by saying that I love that you chose DOPE and LoA for comparisons – they are two of my favorite bands. I’ve always gladly and proudly worn my influences on my sleeve, I make no qualms about comparisons between my sound and the sounds of those that I personally enjoy. I like to hope that all my influences have given me a writing style of my own.
I was a lucky kid growing up because both my parents had their formative years in different musical eras, and both took hard looks back at others. So, the amount of musical variety in my house was immense. The old adage that you can only love ‘The Beatles or Elvis’ or ‘Prince or Michael Jackson’ never applied to me. I loved them all. I got rock & roll and new wave from mum, ’60s rock and ’70s glam and prog from dad, ’80s cheese from both. (Laughter) Combine that with two aunts who were into heavy metal and rave, then growing up in the ’90s with metal, hip-hop, and techno… all that combined with the stuff I’ve found organically, so to speak. There are elements of all that in the way I write.
Like I say, I hope that we have our own sound to other people’s ears and I also hope that our sound doesn’t stay the same. But to consciously try to manufacture something doesn’t feel right to me. It feels forced. So, it’s either there organically or not.
As mentioned, many bands and artists mix and mash up genres more so than ever before; do you see audiences today steadfastly remaining within a genre, or do you feel they are embracing the different sounds and styles as the musicians are? How do you perceive the relevance of genres in this day-and-age?
Crow: I think it’s a double-edged sword, especially in underground small venue music scenes. Genres are great in many ways because it means promoters can put together a package of bands that will all fit together and keep people inside the venue and keep money changing hands across the bar, which keeps venues open.
The problem arises when elitism come into play, which I know firsthand is a huge problem here in the U.K. (I’ll speak for this country here because I’m not sure how it is elsewhere). For every huge ‘metal’ guy that sees our show and gives us a high-five at the end of the set, there are at least three sniggering away in the corner of the smoking area at the ‘girly men in makeup’ or dismissing us as karaoke for using electronics and drum machines. The same applies to when we play industrial shows and get shunned for being a guitar-based band.
That being said, I think outside of that elitism, if the music is good, I’m seeing more and more people doing away with the ‘guilty pleasure’ mentalities and really embracing bands and artists outside of their immediately apparent tastes – less crossed arms at shows and more floor movement, so to speak, as well as feeling more willing to explore new things outside of live music.
With all of the lockdowns due to the global pandemic, how has this affected Vanity Kills? Obviously, it will be some time before touring is possible, so what possibilities do you foresee for live music to survive or evolve in the wake of the current situation?
Crow: The lockdown actually afforded me the extra free time I needed to finish the recording process. So, at first, I took full advantage of it. Right now, live is a terrifying prospect. The question of what sort of shows will we be doing in the future and what venues will still be around for us to do them in is one that I don’t think will be answered for a little while. My hope is that this is a one-off and once a permanent and stable solution is found to the virus, we can get back to a form of normality. I don’t think live music will ever truly venture away from what it was. This is just a hiatus while we deal with this nasty situation. That being said, the drive-in venue thing is pretty damn cool in many ways. I’d love to do one of those for sure… just so we can say we did.
On the other hand, a livestream obviously doesn’t hold the same power as a live show, but as it’s become part of the status quo, what sort of possibilities do you see for bands to use new and online technologies to keep music alive and maintain the excitement of audiences?
How do you feel Vanity Kills can and/or will be taking advantage of these possibilities?
Crow: Livestream is fun in a wholly different way to flesh and blood live shows. We did one right at the beginning of lockdown, which started as acoustic versions of our own songs and descended into just jamming whatever songs at least two of us knew how to play. We ended up streaming for nearly three hours, having some drinks and interacting in a much more intimate way with the online audience, not taking ourselves too seriously. We did the same sort of thing the night the album came out after livestreaming the album itself. The idea of putting on our usual show through livestream is a little awkward for me, personally, as I love the audience participation and use it to fuel my performance – cliché artist quote. (Laughter) But I’ll happily try anything twice so as long as we can find the means to pull it off; we’ll definitely have a go at it at some point soon.
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