Photo: Steve Gullick (VAAL)
VAAL debuted in 2012 in almost complete anonymity with a slew of releases on Baastard and Tale of Us’s Life and Death with a sound that embraced the so-called new romantic house of that era but also hinted at a broad range of interests and talents. These came to the forefront on VAAL’s 2019 breakbeat-heavy and IDM-influenced debut album, released through his newly launched Pale Blue Dot. Having successfully opened a new chapter, the new LP Love Reversed, released earlier this month, shows Eliot Sumner—no relation to Bernard, though at least one family has reportedly dabbled in music—further expanding the project’s sound palette: VAAL’s mix for our Groove podcast primarily draws on material from the album, but also includes a previously unreleased track as well as a nod to Scottish powerhouse Mogwai.
You have released your debut album, Nosferatu, on your own imprint, Pale Blue Dot. What prompted you to start your own label? You had co-run another one, Baastard, before.
Pale Blue Dot was the beginning of my new sound and direction. I wanted to move away from the dancefloor and have the freedom to go in any direction that would fall under one umbrella. I’m always making music and from what I’ve learned is that it can sometimes take months sometimes years for labels to put something out. I wanted to have full agency and not be on someone else’s clock. Creatively its very satisfying to collaborate on music, artwork and build something on your own terms.
Love Reversed is said to “pick up where Nosferatu left off” musically with “more noise, more guitars, and more emotions.” Would you say that there is a thematic overlap as well, are there non-musical topics that informed it?
I’d say that Love Reversed is more dynamic and it feels more human. Nosferatu has a stronger thematic identity drawn from my love for Bach, Beethoven and silent horror films. Love Reversed is more of a personal dive into my emotional world and feels to me more like a soundtrack to my experience.
What is being expressed with the album title?
The title track was born from a very dark version of “Silent Night” I had composed for a film. I reversed the audio and it made it even weirder and built the rest of the track from that sample. I think I am trying to express a distorted love story within the album.
“Tragedy” features lyrics, sung by Liam Bailey. How did the collaboration come about and what attracted you to the idea of featuring vocals and lyrics more prominently in your work as VAAL in the first place?
I have known Liam for the last 14 years. We had met in a studio in Brooklyn in 2018 while we were both working with a production label called Truth & Soul. Liam has such an enormous character and we became friends very quickly. Before I had finished the album I saw an opportunity for us to finally work together. I sent him a rough version if “Tragedy” to try something on. I had goosebumps when I heard the vocal pass he sent me. It was pure euphoria.
This is not the only collaboration on the album, “Dead Drop” features Warmduscher’s Clams Baker III. What did he contribute to the track and what did your working process look like?
I met Clams when we were both on the bill for Boiler Room in Vienna. We share the same birthday and I knew I had met a friend that day. During lockdown I sent him “Dead Drop” for him to try something on. He captured it perfectly. It reminded me so much of Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds, which has been an unconscious influence on my music since I heard it for the first time.
You have been playing guitar since your early teenage years and it plays a significant role on Love Reversed as well. What does the rest of your studio setup look like?
It made so much sense to have guitars on this album. I am a guitar player at the core of my being. I had suffered a traumatic injury to my left hand last year caused by a kitchen knife accident and I had severed a peripheral nerve. I went into one of the worst depressions of my life due to the possibility that I would never be able to play guitar again. After surgery, the advised rehab was to force myself through the pain and play guitar everyday to desensitise the hand. I channeled it all into this album. Nerve damage is the strangest thing because it proves that pain is in the mind. The main features I used on the album are a Prophet Rev 2, a Mellotron going through various guitar pedals, and my cherished Fender Nocaster. I record everything through an SSL Six. I never went to engineering school but I grew up in recording studios so I’ve always had a sense of how to capture sound. Thomas Fererio a.k.a. Maenad Veyl is a very close collaborator and co-mixed both Nosferatu and Love Reversed. I’m really blessed to have him in my world and save me from having to compromise a musical decision based on a mixing issue. He is an absolute magician.
You have been producing remixes rather regularly, most recently one for 404 Guild’s “Morning Mist,” of which you seem very proud. How do you try to approach remixing in general and what made you especially happy with this one?
I love an opportunity to remix and the 404 Guild remix is definitely still my favourite. I had Charlie’s vocal and a click playing in the background and took to the piano to work out a melody. I generally have a rule that if something doesn’t feel right in the first ten minutes then forcing something won’t work. It really is magic and there’s no formula for that. I like that about music.
You haven’t been touring much since the start of the pandemic, what role does DJing have in your work right now?
I fell into becoming a DJ by accident. It was an amazing experience to see the world and I’m entirely greatful to have had such a bizarre and exciting lifestyle for six years. But I grew tired of being on a plane sometimes three times a week, no sleep, the solitude. This album gives me a whole playground of how to explore it in a live setting. I am excited to start performing as a two-piece with my friend Laurence.
What was the idea behind your mix for our Groove podcast?
I wanted to mix something you can listen to at home or on the move. I like to provoke emotional intensity in music. I selected a few tracks from Love Reversed and some selections of music that would fit in the same world. Theres a song I wrote called “Enigma” that I never ended up putting out. It seemed to match the mood. I also recently discovered the Mogwai remix of Snow Ghosts’ “Heavy Heart.” Mogwai is an enormous influence and wanted to get that across in this mix.
Last but not least: What are your plans for the future?
My plans are to get this show on the road. I have recently moved back to New York where I will start rehearsals.
Stream: VAAL – Groove Podcast 358
01. VAAL – Feliway
02. VAAL – Love Reversed
03. Eliot Sumner – Enigma
04. Snow Ghosts – Heavy Heart (Mogwai Remix)
05. VAAL – Song Zero
06. Plaid – Maru (Skee Mask Remix)
07. VAAL – Ascension Symptoms
08. VAAL – Dead Drop
09. VAAL – Stroke (Roland M. Dill Remix)
10. VAAL – Tragedy (feat. Liam Bailey)
11. 404 Guild – Morning Mist (VAAL Remix)
12. VAAL – Blue Eyes