Interview by Mark Bayross
VAST’s 1998 debut album, VISUAL AUDIO SENSORY THEATER came from out of nowhere to win critical acclaim across the globe and legions of fans almost overnight. It was easy to see why – mixing the rock dynamics of Nirvana with the skewed electronics of Nine Inch Nails and the ethereal atmospherics of Dead Can Dance, V.A.S.T. quickly established itself as a serious contender for most people’s album of the year. What was even more incredible was that it was entirely the work of one man, Jon Crosby, and he was only 21 years old!
Two years later, we are about to be treated to VAST’s follow-up album, MUSIC FOR PEOPLE, and this time Jon has enlisted the help of a band: drummer Steve Clark, bass player Thomas Froggatt and newly-appointed guitarist Justin Cotta (replacing Rowan Robertson). It’s still very much Jon’s baby – he wrote all the songs, co-produced the album and arranged all the strings (courtesy of the New Bombay Recording Orchestra), but VAST has taken on the dimensions of a rock group.
I spoke to Jon and Justin about the new album, the tour and living in the “vast”.
I was not the only person to be blown away when I heard your first album. Has it been hard to follow it with this new one?
JON: Not really. I just came from the same place, went in and did what I do. A lot of people tell me that the first record was good and did really well, and I never really knew that, so I didn’t think I had anything to lose when I was doing the second album, which is a nice frame of mind to have.
Of out interest, how well did it do? Did it really exceed your expectations?
JON: Yeah, it did. Well, certain things didn’t and certain things did. It’s a pretty big learning curve when you’re starting out as a musician. Not only getting things to work, but I didn’t realise how hard it was for bands to get exposure. That’s pretty much the hardest part: getting people to actually hear you. But I was pretty surprised by how quickly we got these fans who were so into the band – that was not expected at all. We have some pretty loyal fans for a band that’s only done one record.
Did you actively set out to blend organic sounds and electronic sounds, or did that just kind of evolve as you were writing it?
JON: That was something I did purposely because I felt it would be kind of innovative and fresh. It wasn’t something I had heard a lot before. It’s something that’s maybe “our” thing. On the second record I did it even more in a lot of ways. Ever since electronic music has been around, whenever an artist has wanted to sound modern, it’s always thought that more electronics was the way to go. But, I was listening to “Sgt. Pepper” and it’s really interesting because it still sounds really fresh, but none of it’s electronic. It seems like when synthesisers came out people stopped trying to do things with real instruments, so I thought what if I used, like, harpsichord and parse phones and hammer dulcimers and more obscure instruments, then with computers, chop things around and quantise them and mess with them, and do things you can only do with computers. I thought that combination was really interesting, and that’s a lot what this record’s about, on the technical side.
When you recorded the new album, did you record as a band in the studio?
JON: Pretty much. I wrote all the songs and produced the record, but they played on it. They were also a good sounding board. When I was demoing stuff with an engineer and a computer, trying to find the right tempos and stuff like that, Steve and Thomas would come in and they would say what sounded good and what they liked and didn’t like. They got involved in it on a contribution level, but not so much on a collaborative level. I don’t want to be a solo artist – all my favourite music is created by bands. Other people can help you grow – when you do everything yourself, you can end up ripping yourself off.
How did you get the New Bombay Recording Orchestra involved on the new album?
JON: That came from Andrew Mackay who’s a screenwriter who has done a lot of big, Oscar-winning records, and he went to India…and as soon as the idea came up, it just sounded perfect. In VAST, I’ve always injected a little world music – actually I hate the term “world” music – but on my first record I basically just sampled everything…I wanted to do something on the second record that was live, bringing in a musician, a percussionist or a singer who knew how to do that…you know, the real thing. So, when the opportunity came up, I thought, “Yeah, that’d be nice”. What’s nice about people like Peter Gabriel, and other cutting edge innovators is that they were doing that: they were working with real musicians. Sampling’s fine, I don’t feel guilty about it, but I wanted to do a little bit of live work, too.
How long were you in India?
JON: Just a few weeks.
Was it any harder going over there and setting up a recording environment, getting everything to work?
JON: It wasn’t too bad. On the technical side, we had an engineer and everything. There was a studio there, I mean I didn’t have to go out into a field or anything [laughs], but it was very small. It was a challenge…
Justin, how long have you been the guitarist in the band?
JUSTIN: Three months, nearly.
Did you know the first album beforehand?
JUSTIN: Yeah, I’ve said this a million times, but I don’t mind saying it again: it’s been my favourite album for a while, since it came out in Australia. I was thrilled to get the audition, and to actually get in was a major thing. I’ve always said I would never join someone else’s band, so to speak…which is how it’s always going to feel initially when you join, but this band I was prepared to join and leave my home country for, and not just for opportunism, but because I love the music. I liked the guys from the day we jammed: a half hour session turned into three hours of fun. Fun should be not stressed enough when you are planning to get together, collaborate and travel, and that was refreshing…to walk into a room and get on with each other. I think they were as relieved as I was, as they had been through however many guitarists. I was also relieved that I didn’t have to go back to Australia the very next day! That would have been a bit of a whirlwind 48 hours…[laughs] I’ve clocked up three months…I’m looking forward to much, much longer…
Given that the first album is one of your favourites and you must have played it thousands of times, how did it feel playing that material with Jon?
JUSTIN: It felt great. I think we first jammed on TEMPTATION and we did FREE actually. When I arrived I got a tape with FREE and THE GATES OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. This album is fast becoming my new favourite album…
The new album sounds more positive lyrically, with its themes of escape and freedom. Is that a fair assumption?
JON: [Laughs] I guess I can’t really argue. I sing what’s in my heart and speak what’s on my mind. It’s interesting because it goes through different phases…I didn’t set out to go in a completely different direction. The second record’s actually more sad I think…
JUSTIN: A lot of people have said that it’s a lighter sound, but if you listen to the lyrics it’s actually quite sombre…
JON: I think it is positive, but it’s also quite serious. The first record was serious too, but this second record is more about searching for something that you know you want, you don’t know what it is but you know you want it, and it’s trying to escape the mundanity of the world through something.
Are you getting closer to finding out what the “vast” is?
JON: I know what you mean and I’ve thought that way, but now I’ve realised I shouldn’t think that way anymore, because as soon as I figure out what the “vast” is…it’s probably time to quit [much laughter]. It’s almost like, there’s an old episode of THE OUTER LIMITS, or it may have been THE TWILIGHT ZONE, where they hooked up a computer and they asked it to find out the meaning of life, and once it did, all the stars started, like, disappearing from the sky.
JUSTIN: The fun is in the whole pursuit of it…
JON: The discovery and the exploration is the most interesting part. Mystery can be the best thing sometimes.
Is FREE aimed at anyone or any group of people in particular?
JON: No, I think it was aimed at everybody. I kept thinking “where has this come from, who am I talking about?”, then I realised I was talking about everyone and I was really talking about myself.
You’ve cited influences as diverse as Depeche Mode, the Beatles, U2 and the film AMADEUS. Do you see your music as a kind of synthesis of all of that?
JON: I guess it is. It’s kind of unusual when you look at it that way. I always wondered why there aren’t more bands that do that. I guess with most bands, the musicians themselves have very different influences and they come together and create something like Faith No More, but here, I feel like I’ve just kind of done that myself. I guess it’s because I’m in indecisive – I don’t really know what I want to do…I want to do it all, but it comes together and it feels cohesive…I hope.
I’m sure you’ve heard THE FRAGILE. What do you think of it?
JON: Actually I haven’t heard the whole record. I’m going to listen to the whole thing, but I haven’t really had a chance yet. When I get some lock-down time, I’m going to listen to it over and over again and really get into it.
JUSTIN: “The Downward Spiral” was a hard act to follow…
JON: As long as the next one doesn’t take another six years… [much laughter] But Trent’s a genius, and that’s all I can say. He’s kind of reached that “legend” status where anything he does…well, he’s just cool…
Have you heard The God Machine?
JON: No, but I’ve heard all about them. People have said we ripped them off. One critic once said “VAST is cool, but if you want the real thing you should listen to The God Machine”. I thought that was a bit harsh…
The reason that’s happened is because The God Machine used a sample of the Bulgarian female choir, and you used it on one of your songs, and it was probably a different bit, but there was a big enough similarity for people to draw the comparison…
JON: All I can say is I haven’t heard them. If I did, I would say “Oh yeah, I heard them. They influenced us”. Period.
Do you feel particularly close musically to any other artists?
JON: No, I don’t really. I don’t think we have that much particularly in common with any other artist. It’s starting to become naturally a bit more U2-ish…I don’t know why, I mean, I love U2…the feeling has become more like them. Justin said it the other day…
JUSTIN: …The last few shows have felt a lot more like early U2. There’s enough well-rounded energy…
JON: One thing at our shows that’s cool is that people sing a lot. There’s this kind of higher consciousness – everyone’s feeling good and it’s pretty positive even though the words are really serious. It’s like with some of their stuff, like SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY and NEW YEAR’S DAY, where the lyrics are really negative, but yet it feels really positive live as everyone sings along. I mean, there’s no mosh-pit at our shows.
JUSTIN: There’s a lot of love in the room. People are there to enjoy themselves, not to smash into each other, break each other’s bones. They are actually there to enjoy the band, to enjoy each other’s company.
JON: With our new show, I’m starting to feel that we are giving a lot to the audience without wanting it back, and that’s an interesting dichotomy – we’re giving but we don’t take. Our show doesn’t drain people.
Have you started feeling where you’re going next?
JON: Yeah, I definitely already have quite a few ideas of where I want to go next…but we have to go out and tour this record. I don’t know – I love playing shows, but I just think that when I’m working on a record, I want to tour, and when I’m on tour, I want to be working on a record.
Are you touring only in the States?
JON: We did a few shows in America, we are going to go back to America after this, then tour supporting Queens Of The Stone Age for about three weeks, then we are going to spend about another three weeks playing headline shows. After that, we’re coming back to Europe, playing Paris, Amsterdam, London, Germany.
JUSTIN: And Manchester and Glasgow as well…
Have you had any thoughts about playing Eastern Europe?
JON: I would love to. We went to the Czech Republic when we filmed the video to PRETTY WHEN YOU CRY – we did that in Prague, and I loved it, I thought it was cool.
Do you know in which countries you are most popular?
JUSTIN: Apparently we have a huge following in Mauritius… [Laughter]
JON: I don’t know exactly worldwide, but per capita, I think we have gone our best in Australia, followed by America and then Europe.
Maybe the language factor comes into it a bit…does your music go down well in France and Germany?
JUSTIN: Actually, it goes down very well in Germany.
I have to say I found the video to PRETTY WHEN YOU CRY quite disturbing. I’m sure that was the effect you wanted to create…
JON: That wasn’t my treatment or anything. What I did was make it into a less disturbing film – that was my role. It was originally going to be a lot worse…they wanted the girl to be, like, three years old, and for the video to be total darkness, and I was like “okay, let’s chill out a little…”
JUSTIN: Let’s make the girl over twelve for a start… [Laughter]…over three, even…[much laughter]
JON: They wanted, like, a three year old girl to be crucified in the milk room, and I was like, “No…that is pretty dark…come on, you can make a good video without having to do that”.
Are you going to release more than one single off the new album?
JON: I hope so. It looks like FREE’s doing pretty well. I’d love to release a few more. There were two off the first, and I’d like there to be three released off this one. I don’t know which songs, but I’d like to show people what else is on the record. Like on the first album, every song is pretty different… there’s a lot more on it than one tune.
There most certainly is. MUSIC FOR PEOPLE continues the tradition of VISUAL AUDIO SENSORY THEATER with its sweeping soundscapes and haunting melodies. Check out the review of both albums, and the current single on PHASE9. Log onto http://www.realvast.com for more information and a nifty VAST mixing desk to play around with.