[17 min read + 5 min media]
Everything about Tom Vek seems to be neat, precise and tidy: not only his appearance and music, but also the striking album artwork and, as you’ll quickly find out, his opinions regarding technology and the current status quo of the music industry. In the last decade, he has been developing a very personal and eclectic approach to electronic and indie rock that can be fully appreciated in his three carefully crafted full-lengths: We Have Sound (2005), Leisure Seizure (2011) and Luck (2014). All these idiosyncrasies are probably related to the fact that he has a graphic design degree, even though he’s a self-taught multi-instrumentalist with a penchant for do-it-yourself ethos. When he felt unhappy with the way digital platforms were handling music artwork, he decided to create Sleevenote, an iOS music player app that tries to update the heritage of sleeve art into a pretty cool and lean digital interface. So, this is basically what you get: a gifted musician and designer with the soul of a punk entrepreneur that can’t help but be enthusiastic about the future, even if the present seems somehow off-putting. When it comes to Tom Vek, there’s always more than meets the eye.
What was your first passion: music or design?
It has to be music. My dad plays the guitar and I remember he always had some recording equipment lying around, like a four-track tape cassette recorder. When I was eleven or twelve, my first interest was learning how to play bass guitar and that was cool, because it allowed us to jam together.
That sounds great! Do you still have recordings from that period?
Oh yes. But the first recordings would be of my own, messing around with my own ideas. I think that’s what sort of liberated me from being fixed on a certain instrument, because it was most interesting to be able to record without any help and play all the bits. Our garage had some sort of a music room and I spent a long time there drumming along to cassettes and CDs. That’s how I learned to play guitar as well. CDs were still expensive, so I would borrow them from my friends and make compilations on cassettes with the tracks I liked the most.
That makes sense because, from the things I’ve read from you on interviews and posts you’ve published, you do not seem to have any nostalgia regarding the good-old days of vinyl or analog music.
Oh yes. I really like the high fidelity of CDs and to be able to go straight to the track you want to hear. Though this is kind of a big debate that still rages, I think that CD is capable of sounding as warm as vinyl and it’s far more detailed, at least to my ears. My dad had a few vinyls and even back then they felt old and all crackly. CD is such a great format and I wonder if it will have some kind of resurgence or revival in the years to come.
The old-fashioned music industry was very indulgent to the artist. Nobody was saying to me: “Oh, you haven’t got a million views on YouTube”.
Considering your passion for design, don’t you think that the CD format reduced drastically the possibilities for artwork in comparison to vinyl?
Well, it wasn’t that small… I think that artwork has always been about the booklet and the whole package. When I was making these mixed CDR compilations, I would use my dad’s black and white photocopier to make collages of CD booklets. I think that’s where my interest for design definitely came from, realizing that there was so much visual creativity going on, from the actual cover to the label logo.
What about music streaming? Did you adopt it as soon as it came out?
People kept buying CDs up to the point that I was making my first album. In 2004, I was already doing the artwork for We Have Sound and it was all very exciting, just to think that people would be touching that physical thing, read all the liner notes and look at the photos and other little details. I used to print my own CD covers and I could never use too much black ink, because my printer wasn’t that good. That’s why my debut album cover has so much black: because I knew it could be perfectly printed without me worrying about how much ink was being used. [Laughs] But it was also around that time that iTunes started to become very popular, it was indeed the first big disruption that came along. The initial outcry about iTunes was the debundling, the fact that people could buy the individual tracks they liked from an album. I can really sympathize with that, because that’s what I did when I borrowed a CD from a friend: I would give it a quick listen and then only take the tracks that I liked. Obviously, I would become a champion of albums, because I am a recording artist who makes them.
And albums also kind of forced you to spend more time trying to enjoy even the tracks that you initially didn’t like on first listenings.
Exactly. The whole point of being a fan was to be able to know all the tracks from an album. I mean, everyone is aware of the singles, what separated you from occasional listeners was the fact that you knew all the tracks and their sequence on the albums.
So there’s a bit of irony in all this: by the time you were starting to be a recording artist making his first album and carefully crafting its artwork, a new generation was starting to turn its back on the format.
I feel very lucky to have been able to experience what it meant to be a traditional recording artist. It was very exciting. At the same time that I was having gigs with an audience of fifty people, I was also having meetings and lunches with major labels representatives. This old-fashioned music industry was very indulgent to the artist. Nobody was saying to me: “Oh, you haven’t got a million views on YouTube”. So yes, my debut album was released in a year when people still bought a lot of CDs and I even remember signing some of them for fans. I took a few years to release my second record and it was definitely in the interim that things changed drastically.
Track listings were always an important part of the artwork and were designed to look like works of art.
But you seemed to be rather prepared for that shift. Your second album, Leisure Seizure (2011), was cleverly promoted by what would become a genuine classic of the new digital era of music videos. I’m obviously talking about the great video directed by Saam Farahmand for “Aroused”.
That was Saam’s concept. I always kind of knew that “Aroused” would be the best track to promote the record. And I was glad that his concept wasn’t attached to the lyrics, it was way more abstract. I actually did think at the time that it would cause more stir than it actually did, but there’s no doubt that the video ended up doing a good job in promoting the record. Having said that, I must admit that making videos is still kind of frustrating for me, because you narrow the possibilities of what the song could be about, and nothing is more powerful than what people can imagine when they listen to it. But when a video is just a one liner is does not get much in the way of what people might get from the song lyrically or emotionally. The same thing applies to design.
Don’t you think that in this new digital era we’re living a lot of the functions of music artwork have been transferred to the music video format?
The issue for me with music video is the fact that it is time-based and that it lasts the length of the song. If a music video is boring, it makes the song more boring as well. I like those videos on YouTube where you get only one static image, because you don’t get impatient watching it. And that’s what I think is the classy element of static album cover: you spend the time you want dealing with it. It’s like art that’s hung on the wall. The static nature of artwork complements music very well, because music is a time-based medium. I don’t want to be retro about it, but I think that just because Internet and technology give you the band-width, it doesn’t mean that you always have to do a video and not try to do something more tedious or boring. As a musician, I must have faith in music on its own. Basically, I still believe that a traditional album cover is a potent medium and that it’s not going anywhere.
So that’s basically what’s pushed you to create the Sleevenote app.
The initial intention was just to make a very graceful digital music player that would take away from the interface other design that clashes with album covers. The thing I hated about iTunes was how boring and joyless these track listings looked. Plus, the hidden tracks weren’t hidden anymore and intermission tracks appeared when they weren’t supposed to in the first place. Track listings were always an important part of the artwork and were designed to look like works of art. Initially, I even thought of a device, some kind of a double-sided touch screen that could digitally emulate anybody’s record collection. But then, to kickstart it would have been too complicated. So, in 2012, some friends of mine started to tell me about apps and that’s when I realized that I could instead just skin the whole experience of listening to music on a iOS device, which was a much more realistic approach.
Do you plan to expand Sleevenote to other streaming services?
I spent my own money on developing it initially and luckily a friend of a friend is a very talented coder who did a marvelously good job considering the app is still running after so many iOS updates. My vision is not only to expand it to other streaming services, but also for it to go beyond booklet artwork. I want Sleevenote to be able to link all related data in an interface that looks really good and could be controlled and explored by designers. Sometimes I think that the ease and quickness brought by technology dropped horrendously the quality of design, look at DVD menus, for instance. Tangible media like traditional artwork, magazines and newspapers still have to get it right, because once it’s printed it can’t be changed.
Digital media should give more possibilities to designers. It should offer them a bigger blank canvas. It’s a real shame, for instance, that you can’t access iTunes digital booklets on a phone or a tablet. Though I have mixed opinions regarding Genius, one of the good things Spotify is doing is to integrate Genius in their interface front and center. But the artist should also be able to control that, to choose how this implementation is being shown to the user. This is definitely the future: to have one eye on the digital platforms that exist today and another on the traditional artwork form, in order to offer the best of both worlds.
I assume then that Frank Ocean’s Endless kind of represents everything that you don’t like in terms of packaging or interface-wise. It doesn’t have any static artwork, you can’t skip tracks and the whole thing is presented in video form.
It’s true, but nevertheless I admire it, because he found a way to control what the experience is. Not only do I admire Frank Ocean as an artist as I think it’s pretty cool that he seems to be in charge of how his music is being delivered to his fans. But then, I must admit that if he ends up being successful in submitting Endless as a contractual fulfilling album record, I will be very surprised. The fact that his other record, Blonde, came along with a full magazine [Boys Don’t Cry] also proves that there wasn’t any digital platform good enough to meet the visual standards he had set for that album.
Digital media should give more possibilities to designers. It should offer them a bigger blank canvas.
What about your music? Should we expect a new album soon?
Well, I am working on my fourth album but I really don’t know anything more than that. I am always a real bitch about the process and I’m at that point where I get the most wound up, which is when you’re down to just a blank canvas again. If I can’t do anything good, I would prefer to do nothing at all. I must confess that I also feel conflicted about leaving the three-album gang. Anyway, if I do get to record one, I am tempted to release a short album, due to nowadays’ short-attention span. [Pause] The problem is I do get distracted. [Pause] When I’m creating music my mind always starts wondering how it will be like when I release it, always wishing there’ll be a better format around.
And you start to think about design already at that stage?
Yeah, a little bit. It does tend to start to come together towards the end. Though I always thought I should have a pin board, the process remains pretty open. I love branding an album and to have an active role regarding every piece of merchandising. I find the design side of it so enjoyable when the record’s done.
Featured photograph of Tom Vek by Sonia Melot.
Read our BPI Q&A with Tom Vek here.