POP music is full of brilliant eureka moment stories — but we’re not sure how many classics are composed in the bathroom. But Aaron Smyth of Dublin new wave electronic act Vann Music had a Radox moment with a difference — when the band’s new single Boy came to him in the shower.
Speaking on the phone from his home in Harold’s Cross, Aaron recalls: “Boy came around a time we were stuck on one song. I got up early on the Sunday and I was in the shower washing myself and started singing the first line of Boy, it flew out of my mouth. I thought it sounded really good. I literally jumped out of the shower, ran in to record the vocal line and looped it til I knew where I was going.”
The song in question is the lead track from Vann Music’s new EP Running, released on Friday. It’s a pop song begging for an arena to fill, pegged down by Smyth’s melancholy vocal and studio heft from producer Stephen Hague, who helped soundtrack much of the 80s working with Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Erasure and OMD.
“A lot of people would say Vann Music has an 80s sound, that’s something we were aware of before going working with him. He was the best man in terms of mixing real instruments in terms of guitar bass drums and electronic side, you’d have looked to his New Order kind of work to see the fruits of the labour.” Aaron says.
Aside from Hague’s signature sound, Aarons says he taught the band to be objective when confronted with a musical fork in the road. He says: “What we’ve taken from Stephen — and we’re gonna continue working with him — I think the ultimate thing is how to approach songs, like how to remove yourself from the song itself. He taught us how to serve the song before ourselves, seeing things from different angles. The bells and whistles on productions — adding certain instruments at certain times to being out a certain emotional quality, and to build and flesh out the narrative lyrically and musically. It’s a lot more than one melody line and then just drums, bass and vocals. We were learning to be better builders of our own songs.”
Aaron says the four-piece wrote “around 30 songs and condensed it down to four for the EP”, with two seemingly disparate obsessions being vintage analogue synths and Bruce Springsteen.
Aaron says: “I wouldn’t be an obsessive but I’ve been buying synths for the last couple of years, what my pocket will allow. There’s an age-old argument between soft synths and hardware. I believe you can tell the difference between a soft synth and the ‘real stuff’ because of the general hum and warmth. You know listening to those old Led Zeppelin records, you can hear the guitar getting plugged in, and the hum of the lines.”
As for The Boss, Aaron’s been on a quest to write with an emotional honesty after listening to the 1987 album Tunnel of Love on a loop for months.
He says: “The first few records were about where he was from and growing up. When he was doing Born To Run it was about the people he knew. When he was doing Tunnel of Love he was faced with the fact that he was splitting from his wife and it was the first time he faced inwards, towards himself to write. If you look at Brilliant Disguise. He’s talking about the woman in the song but also at the end, he’s talking about, ‘When you’re looking at me you have to look twice’, because it’s me that has a brilliant disguise. Also on One Step Up, he’s talking about the same old act he’s stuck in, knowing that things are falling apart. It’s what attracted me to that record. The beauty and the honesty gets me. It’s just the whole truth.
Aaron laughs off the thought of trying to pull off a Springsteen, but he admits this emotional honesty was a big inspiration, rather than trying to nick Bruce’s style. He says: “Following up [EPs] Tina and Electro Shock Dreams, we found we had run out of steam — but when all this truth about ourselves started to come out we were writing honestly and we found that we had a huge collection of songs. We wrote about 30 songs and condensed them down to what we thought were the best four. And when we wrote honestly that’s what we had. And even if it’s difficult when you’re writing about yourself, it seemed like it was the best thing to do and Boy is getting a really good reaction right now. It’s just trying to be honest to yourself.”
A band like Vann Music — with their unashamed electronic pop gloss and blockbuster production — simply wouldn’t have got a break in Ireland maybe five or 10 years ago, when an endless stream of singer-songwriters and bands seemed to be competing for a most earnest crown. For years, though, Ireland’s dance scene has been ever-evolving. These electronic explorations helped shape Vann Music’s direction, with Aaron telling us that he and his bandmates — Phil Costello, Rob Von Bergen and Ross Fortune — “bring loads of different stuff to the table… Ross would listen to a lot of quirky stuff, he’d be a be a big fan of dance music like Todd Terje etc, Phil loves his dance music, hard house and stuff like that. I like the more traditional guys like Springsteen, U2, The National, that kind of thing”.
And it’s not just a gear-head love of vintage synth sounds — the band reckon there’s a magic in creating a dance track that’s an actual song. Aaron says: “Daft Punk would have something to do with it. LCD Soundsystem too — the DFA scene certainly brought synths back into vogue for pop and indie bands, even with the Juan Maclean and things like that, where you’d have heavy synth production. But they’re not traditional song structures. Just look at All My Friends, which is like a seven-minute verse or a seven minute song full of verses, and just making it work with fantastic production and arrangements. That’s what I mean about getting structure right. and making sure the lyrics work to keep the listener in there for seven minutes. That’s a major feat.”
When asked for an Irish act that inspired him he says “Jape” before the question is finished, and adds: “And that New Jackson EP Night Mail. Collectively hands down. that’s our favourite release ever.
“I can think back to the time, we had just started out as a band and we were down to do a photoshoot and I’d picked up the Night Mail vinyl, and we were all meeting up in my house on a Saturday afternoon and we had just had lunch. We were waiting around and I thought, ‘I’ve gotta check this out’. We had only just started and we didn’t know what we were doing, so we stuck it on and the four of us, along with the photographer were just dancing in my living room at half two on a saturday afternoon, just after we had tea and sandwiches. It just makes you wanna dance, it’s so good.”
With a good critical buzz behind the new EP and an Irish tour that kicked off in the Button Factory on Saturday, Vann Music are promising to play some new music from the 30-odd they wrote for the Running sessions, with Aaron revealing: “Absolutely, yes, we’ll be playing all the new EP and more. Half the set will be new.
“And we’re gonna be going abroad this year. Not so sure if it’s been announced but we’ve been invited to the Canadian Music Week, they’ve asked us to come and play so we’re gonna be hitting up north america. the plan this year is to go further afield. We waited a while to go plan for tours abroad. When we first started we got to play all these shows and it was insane. Then we got to a point where we needed to get better and sit back and work out what or who this band was.
“I think that’s really hard to do when you keep making plans to play loads more shows and go away. I think you’re not doing yourself a good service. You need to find out what you’re about. Electroshock Dreams and Tina was Vann Music Part 1 and Boy and Runner will be Vann Music Part 2.”
Vann Music’s EP Running is out now. They play Roisin Dubh in Galway on March 12 (FREE); Shortts in Waterford on the 13th (€10); McHugh’s in Belfast on the 20th (£10); Cyprus Avenue in Cork on the 27th (€10), and Dolan’s in Limerick on April 20 (€10).
Original version in Irish Daily Star