Vondelpark Discuss Their Suave Sound, R&B Influences and Plans to Keep Dropping New Jams
Tradition holds that musically inclined British males of a certain age strap on electric guitars, get funny haircuts and demand the world pay attention. A few years back, Lewis Rainsbury seemed to be following protocol. As leader of Lion Club, he brought the post-punk ruckus, but ever since 2010, when he formed the trio Vondelpark, the 21-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has been kicking his version of late-night slow jams, drawing on classic soul, ’90s R&B, cloudy modern hip-hop, achy Drake-y downbeat pop and all those woozy, bass-heavy strains of U.K. dance music we yanks will never keep straight.
Following a pair of EPs, Vondelpark have just released their full-length debut, ‘Seabed,’ an album named for the isolated environment in which Rainsbury and childhood chums Alex Bailey (bass) and Matt Law (keys) recorded the music. Sequestered from the world, the trio created one of the suavest records since the xx‘s debut, tapping into the fever-dream-R&B sounds of contemporaries like the Weeknd and How to Dress Well but maintaining an urban sophistication that reveals them to be more than mere bandwagon jumpers.
Checking in from London, Rainsbury chatted with Diffuser.fm about pizza delivery, Sade, Teddy Pendergrass, weed, sex and more.
Thanks for taking time to talk. This album has been getting a lot of attention.
There have been mixed reviews, but I think the bulk of people get it. There are a few hateful reviews knocking about, but I think they’re misunderstanding. We had an interview with Pitchfork, and we said stuff that got [taken] a little bit out of context, and I think they hate us for the fact they think we don’t like dance music. I don’t really believe what I read when I see them anyway.
I read that Pitchfork interview, actually. I wanted to start by asking whether you still work at the pizza place referenced in that piece.
I actually worked at a pizza place myself, back when I was in college.
I enjoyed working there. The people that worked there at this particular place were all DJs and stuff, so it was a good hangout. But I didn’t have enough time, with the album coming out, doing press and going on tour. But I would like to work there again when this stuff calms down again.
I was a driver. It was great — I could cruise around all night playing music in my car.
I used to do that for Domino’s in Surrey. That’s what me and Matt both used to do, actually.
How did you guys make the transition from Lion Club to Vondelpark?
We were flirting around with the idea of being in a band when we were younger, and it got to the point where we didn’t feel comfortable being in Lion Club anymore. We didn’t really want to be in a band at all. There was a period of two years of just making music, or maybe a year-and-a-half, but the reasons Vondelpark emerged wasn’t because we wanted to be a band. We just wanted to hear these tracks we were working on. I think that explains the [initially] elusive Internet presence. We weren’t comfortable with the band idea. There were a lot of dicks we knew that were in bands. We were trying to come from a more honest approach. I kind of want that to be our thing, but it’s difficult when you have interviews, because you say things you don’t really mean.
Lion Club definitely had a rock ‘n’ roll sound, where as Vondelpark’s music references a lot more R&B and dance music. Were you exposed to all of those things growing up?
I wouldn’t really relate our previous band to the band we’re in now. I don’t think there’s that many similarities. I think we grew up quite quickly. I don’t really feel like, as musicians, we even work in the same way. When I was that young, like 17, when we broke up, I didn’t listen to that many records, and just in this three- or four-year gap that we had, it’s been an intense time of building our influences and buying records. We’ve built up a bigger language, sonically, in a really short amount of time. The stuff we used to listen to, like My Bloody Valentine, still influences us, but I wasn’t listening to so much R&B at the time. I kind of missed that because I was so into shoegaze, I guess.
‘Seabed’ has a really suave sound. It doesn’t necessarily sound like it could have been made by 16- or 17-year-olds. You’re now in your 20s; do you feel like this music is emblematic of greater maturity?
Even our manager says we don’t make music for people our own age, so that’s why at our live shows, [we're] making it a little punchier. I personally feel that people I hang around with in age — this is what they like listening to. They don’t want something that’s too much. They just want something to hang out to and listen to in the background, like to stay up late night and come back and listen to once you’ve been out all night. I like putting on chilled-out records when I come in. That’s probably the time where I listen to the most music. ['Seabed'] is definitely a record where if I hadn’t written it, I’d probably want to put it on. Occasionally, I’ll put on [our 2010 EP] ‘Sauna.’ But I think it’s too soon to be putting on ‘Seabed.’
Over the last couple of years, it’s become acceptable for bands to explore the influence of ’90s R&B. I definitely hear that in your sound. Why do you think that’s become such a go-to reference these days?
I have read about this R&B, quiet-storm, blah-blah, whatever. But can you give me another example of another band, so I know what we’re talking about?
I’m not trying to lump you in with anyone, certainly…
No, it’s good that it comes across in our music. But it wasn’t intentional.
I’m thinking of someone like How to Dress Well, or maybe Rhye.
How to Dress Well … I don’t know the reasons [for the similarity]. It’s just quite expressive, isn’t it? It probably comes from making music in your bedroom, because when you’re in a band, you don’t want to experiment with your voice in front of your mates. If you’re just making music in a solitary environment, you can just try things. I’m sure How to Dress Well had to experiment before he could find his range. Something like ‘California Analog Dream,’ we’re just working as a unit of musicians. We’re just trying to achieve a sound; we’re trying to make an arrangement. And if it happens to have R&B-style vocals, that just happens to be a coincidence for us.
If you’re saying the record sounds suave, in a way, R&B is kind of sexual, maybe. Girls grind to R&B, and I think there is in London — and I’m sure there is in America as well — a massive fan base for acts like Drake. When you’re at a festival watching people like the Weeknd and stuff, there’s this exciting atmosphere. It goes with smoking weed and skating and stuff. It just seems to be part of a lifestyle.
You’ve described ‘Seabed’ as a “bedroom record.” It seems like you could take that in a sexual way — “bedroom record” like baby-making music — but it could also be this chilled-out vibe you’re talking about.
It’s not necessarily a bedroom. Maybe a lounge, or a balcony overlooking the city. Apartment listen.
Yeah, but it’s not, like, a Teddy Pendergrass record, and you’re hanging with your lady. Or maybe it is…
Well, Teddy Pendergrass is a good reference point, because I listen to Dexter Wansel quite a bit, who produced most of Teddy Pendergrass’ good records, in my opinion. I do like slow jams, to be honest. I enjoy [listening while] hanging out in a room with my girlfriend, as well as hanging out in a room with my friends. That doesn’t necessarily ever become sexual.
If you’re lucky it does, sometimes. [Laughs]
Well, yeah, not with my friends, though [laughs].
Some of the reviews of the record mention Sade — another of our personal faves. Was she someone you grew up listening to?
I love Sade. I got into Sade from doing karaoke in Peckham. There’s a really cool pub in South London, and some girls I know would go there, and I went down and learned most of the songs at karaoke. Then I got the records after that. I wasn’t brought up on Sade, but obviously the big tracks, I knew. I read a review of ['Seabed'] that said it sounded like it would suit a naff ’80s wine bar where they’d be playing Sade. I thought, “That’s an insult,” but to me, it’s actually a good thing to hear.
I don’t know why I’m drawn to it. But I do wish sometimes we had a female vocalist we could use. I think on the next record, there are a few possibilities. There’s something about a female vocal — and especially one as good as that one.
You guys use keyboards and samplers and things, but everything you sample is music you created yourselves, right? And all the vocals on the album are yours?
We definitely, on this record, wanted everything to be as close to us as possible. On these new demos we’ve got, I’ve been sampling a little more … and I’m going to be working with female vocals. But with our debut record, we wanted it to be something judged on the basis of something we could do as three guys making music.
Now that Vondelpark is gaining popularity, it might become more like a traditional band, where you put out records and tour. In some ways, that’s what you weren’t looking for. Are you comfortable with that? Do you sometimes wish it would go back to being a bedroom project?
It’s difficult. I enjoy both elements, both bedroom producing and being in a band. So I think what I”ll probably do is develop it so I won’t be making records in a bedroom. I’m going to have my own studio, so it’s still stepping it up. I’m not scared of being in a band again, because we clearly are a band. I don’t like the idea of being stylized in any way. As long as we’ve still got the control, and it’s self-produced, I don’t really have a problem with people wanting to hear records. That’s a good thing. Definitely, there’s going to be more of an art influence again, [as on] the early records, like working with video artists and curating events and stuff. That’s something that excites me, because I did sound art at [university], and they scrutinize the contemporary idea of a band. As long as you’re musicians trying to push boundaries, it kind of means longevity of your band can progress. I don’t strive to be on the cover of NME and it doesn’t bother me if we have good or bad reviews. We’re just making music as artists. It’s not the only outlet.
A song like ‘California Analog Dream,’ a 2010 song you re-recorded for the new album — was that inspired by an actual trip to California? Are there autobiographical bits in there?
Definitely. There are elements of escapism in that track. I have an uncle who lives in Riverside, south of L.A. I did visit him when I was writing the lyrics for the original version on ‘Sauna.’ That was the period where I was really uncomfortable with being in a band. It was talking about leaving and not thinking about coming back. The new version, there’s more thought in it. It’s about being in a nightclub and standing on the edge but not being able to cut in and do what everyone else is doing. It’s about being infatuated with the idea of getting involved but not being able to do the thing that is normal, if that makes any sense.
There is a distance there…
There’s a lyric which is, “I passed her on my way out / I passed her hair as I climb out.” That was actually about a girl, who is now my girlfriend. And it’s that idea of being awkward in weird situations, the idea of “climbing out,” like it’s an uncomfortable environment for us. But I think we’ve become a lot more normal since we made the record. We’re not in a “seabed” anymore. We’re not in, like, a cloud. We were, but I think it was a growing-up period, where we thought it was cool to be staying in and getting high, but we’re past that now.
Now you think it’s cool to go out and get high? [laughs]
[Laughs] Going out and eating and cooking.
Are there plans to tour in America?
Probably after summer. We need to get a North American agent sorted out, but there are definitely plans. I feel like our music could go over well in America.
Have you started looking ahead to the next record?
I’ve got quite a lot of the next album demoed. I’ve also been working on my solo project, which is trying to do a different genre per track, but at the same time, there’s a film that goes over all of it.
What kinds of genres have you tried so far? Like, third-wave ska? Polka? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Kind of like weird tech-house tracks, and it kind of verges into jazz on other tracks, and then it’s quite Motown. It’s still within a certain Western way, but I’m trying to do something with raggas as well, Indian-style music. We’re always doing loads of stuff, and we’re just gonna basically find the best label for the next [Vondelpark] record and try to get it out before the end of the year.
Wow, that soon?
I look to what rappers are doing in America — you know, how they’re giving music continuously. The way the Internet works now, it’s quite a short attention span, as a culture. People have a short attention span. The more you can give as an artist — you have to develop [your sound] and people don’t want to buy music. Getting as much stuff out as possible is a good way to explore stuff. It’s good to get reactions.
Watch Vondelpark’s Video for ‘California Analog Dream’