One of the many challenges musicians in instrumental bands come up against is trying to convey a sense of time, place and feeling through music alone. With no lyrics to tell a story, musicians have to create their own arcs, with maybe only the song titles and album art giving a hint as to the meanings that lie beneath. On Heroics, the second album from Scottish post-rockers VASA, the band have attempted to tell a narrative many of us share one way or another: the passage from childhood, via adolescence, to adulthood. The album moves from the joyful abundance of tracks such as lead single ‘Heroics’ through to the intense exuberant rush of ‘Prom Night’ and the darker passages of closing tracks ‘Expectations’ and ‘Settle’. Astral Noize spoke to guitarist Blaine Thompson and drummer Niall Morison MacRae about the themes explored on the record, how they’re own life experiences are reflected in the music and how the band intend to present these tracks live.
Rather than the themes of growth and adulthood being a blueprint for the album prior to writing, they seemed to have revealed themselves naturally during the process, as Thompson is keen to explain. “When we wrote it it wasn’t necessarily something which was at the forefront of our minds, it was just as we were writing the music together we were talking about things that had happened to us in the past ten years, and that was when it started to take form.” Even after the writing process during which these ideas were beginning to shape the record, it wasn’t until taking a step back that it truly came into focus. “It wasn’t even at the end of recording, but after listening to the final mixes that things began to take shape and we realised ‘Oh, we did actually write an album about this’.”
Heroics begins where all our lives do; in childhood. For many, this is the time where we connect with music for the very first time, where our future interests take route. “My parents had a big hi-fi system,” says MacRae. “Tape player, CD player, all that stuff. And when I was about two years old I learned how to use it because I absolutely loved that Billy Ray Cyrus song ‘Achy Breaky Heart’. I used that massive hi-fi system just to listen to that one song over and over *laughs*.”
Similarly, Thompson has similar recollections of his love of music beginning at home. “I remember when I was really young listening to my Mum and Dad’s stuff. They’d have a few drinks on a Friday night and listen to AC/DC really loud and I can’t remember the name of the song, but it’s talking about big balls [hmm, tough one – ed]. I think I was about three or four and I just thought it was really, really funny. That’s always been an early memory for me”.
Being exposed to music at a young age obviously planted a few seeds for the young, future musician. “There was always music on in the house,” he goes on to say. “My Dad can’t play a note of music at all but he has a huge passion for music and put me on to anything and everything when I was little. I remember a lot of Queen being played too. My Dad had this big mustache and everything. My family used to drive around a lot too because we moved so much. I have a lot of memories of listening to Queen’s Greatest Hits in the car. I really, really loved and still do love, ‘Bicycle Song’.”
The playfulness of these songs obviously made a lasting impression. On the band’s debut album Colours, despite belonging to the often overwrought genre of post-rock, display a vitality and almost childlike sense of playfulness. Even the song titles of that record (‘Fat Ronaldo’ anyone?) hint at a band not accustomed to taking themselves too seriously. With Heroics there seems to be a more conscious effort to produce a serious work of art. When we were naming the tracks, we put so much of ourselves into this that if we did just reduce these songs to silly names it just wouldn’t be fair on the songs,” explains Thompson.
Five years have passed since Colours, and the lean toward introspection on the follow-up is an obvious testament to the band members’ personal and musical growth. “The last album did have a theme but it was quite general,” explains Thompson. “This time we wanted something that people could listen to and attribute to their own experiences.”
Recalling another memory, Thompson explains the way his Father used to listen to music. “Thinking back, at the weekends, my Dad, after everyone had gone to bed, would crack open a couple of cans and sit with his hi-fi and listen with his headphones on and look through all the album artwork and stuff and I think when we started to finished this album off, the idea was that you could listen to this and think about your own life.” With the album split into three sections – childhood, adolescence and adulthood – the titles of the tracks gently signpost the listener to reminisce on different times in their own lives, such as ‘Everything Is Golden’, ‘Prom Night’ and ‘Expectations’. “The track titles are intentionally trying to force you to think a certain way,” says Thompson. “And because they’re instrumental, that’s why some of the titles are very on the nose.”
It’s obvious VASA’s music isn’t lacking anything despite being entirely instrumental, though the band would seemingly consider adding them. “We would probably put lyrics in if we felt we could or if the song had room for vocals,” says Thompson. “But I’ve never written music for vocals so I don’t know how I’d go about it *laughs*. In fact I remember being told by someone at a show that if we had a vocalist we’d be the greatest pop punk band on earth *laughs*.”
As the album moves into adolescence, the music begins to gain a sense of wonder and urgency, an explosion of emotion and energy that easily brings to mind those perilous and pivotal years. For those of us who are now adults, we can perhaps begin to chart where our musical tastes began to take shape; so too can the band. “From about the age of thirteen I listened to those first two Muse albums a lot,” enthuses Thompson. “I mean, those first two are amazing, but then after that, a lot of it is dreadful *laughs*. I was also listening to Glassjaw, At The Drive In and a lot of other post-hardcore stuff too.”
MacRae also mentions how there were parallels in much of what they were all listening to in their early teenage years. “When we were writing this album we talked a lot about what we were listening to as we were growing up,” Macrae says. “It’s quite interesting, particularly with me and Blaine, as we grew up completely separately. We were listening to similar music at the same ages. I think the big ones were The Blood Brothers and At The Drive In.”
The final section of the album, which begins with the aptly named ‘Adulthood’, is where the album takes on a somewhat darker feel, mirroring the emotions one feels as the tumultuous teenage years slowly dissipate and more serious responsibilities come into play. Whilst still displaying the charm of earlier tracks, there’s a clear progression into more sombre territory at this point in the album. “When you move into adulthood, and the track ‘Adulthood’, it’s definitely a cognitive progression in terms of outlook and the expectations you have,” explains Thompson. “The repetitive nature of the song is supposed to represent how you expect adulthood to go a certain way but that those expectations can all go to shit. Adult life can end up being repetitive and so that was the thinking behind the repeated groove in that track.” It seems part of a person’s natural growth is coming to terms with letting go of their earlier expectations, and this is certainly reflected in the final two tracks – the bittersweet ‘Expectations’ and epic closer ‘Settle’. “The end is kind of an acceptance,” says MacRae. “An acceptance that being an adult is fine, it’s just not what you built it up as in your head.”
Now Heroics is complete and released, the band are rightly incredibly proud of what they’ve accomplished. “I’m really happy with how the album sounds,” affirms Thompson. MacRae goes even further, saying, “We’re incredibly proud of it, it’s one of the best things I’ve put time and effort into in my life. The first album was kind of jovial and upbeat. This album is a bit more evenly balanced, starts off jovial but balances out more toward the middle and end.”
And the band have seen those themes resonate with listeners. “There was an independent blog and they pretty much went through every track talking about their own experiences as they were listening to it, and that is exactly what I hoped people would do with it,” Thompson enthuses. “I really hoped people would engage with it in that way where they go through their own memories. I was quite taken aback by it. Not that people should necessarily listen to it one way or another, but that is kind of what I’d hoped.”
As the band prepare to take Heroics on the road, it sounds like the VASA’s approach to playing live has also matured somewhat. “I think in the past we’ve felt a little underprepared perhaps,” Thompson admits. “But this time we’ve put a lot more work into the live show and it’s a lot tighter. We don’t tend to improvise live, Niall might change a few fills here and there, but other than that we’re quite set. Also, because we have a lot going on on this album we do actually have some backing going on live, so it is a little more note-for-note, a little less chaotic, and really I’m quite proud of how the live shows are shaping up.”
Returning to the live circuit after a lengthy absence seems like the perfect opportunity to take a new approach. “We’re kind of terrified,” laughs Thompson. “We haven’t played live for about a year and a half and since then we’ve changed how we play live. I’ve got a totally new set up with pedals and everything so I’m just a bit anxious about that. We’ve definitely stepped it up.”
It’s clear that both live and when comparing Heroics to Colours that VASA have taken a huge musical and emotional leap, so where do the band hope to see themselves go next? “I don’t want us to do the same album again just with different songs, you know?” MacRae tells us. “We could incorporate vocals, or more electronic sounds next time.”
Thompson agrees. “We would have maybe liked to have done a bit more electronic stuff on this one I guess,” he suggests. “But I prefer to do mostly guitars and I’d have to know a bit more about synths before I tried it I think *laughs*.” Despite being only two full-length albums into their career, it’s clear that VASA are a band keen to push new boundaries with their sound and move their style ever forwards. On Heroics, the band have created an incredibly invigorating and fresh sounding post-rock album, with universal themes that all of us can relate to. As the band themselves move further into adulthood, and we grow with them, it’ll certainly be interesting to see the next instalment of their musical expansion. For now, lose yourself in the wonder and charm of Heroics.
Heroics is out now on Dome A Records. Order here.
Words: Adam Pegg