Vortex Ascent is an award-winning, experimental collective of independent solo musicians mostly based in UK but also in France, South Africa and Japan. Our albums, which cover genres from alternative rock to soundtrack, have earned excellent reviews. We also work with respected artists in other disciplines including poets, painters and digital artists. Our current album Shine A Light was produced with Andy Rugg (formerly from the Coldplay engineering team) and guests include musician/producer Paddy Bush (brother of Kate Bush) and USA-based author & public speaker Cathy O’Brien. We spoke with Derek Schuurrman of Vortex Ascent to get a better idea of how the group came to fruition and we also got the inside scoop on their latest release, “Shine a Light” in the interview below!
Entertwine: Could you tell us about the musicians who are involved with the Vortex Ascent project? How did they meet and begin creating and performing music together?
Derek Schuurman: Being a virtual artistic cluster thanks to file sharing, means that we don’t need to live in the same countries, though many of us are in London. I got to know the musicians in very different ways: Parisian composer David Floc’hlay, I met on line in the heyday of Myspace, when we had pages on it – this must have been 2007 or so. We’re both avid David Lynch fans so connected because of that mutual interest which endures to this day and we have since met in person, in Paris a couple of times. In the same year, I would occasionally attend live open-mike gigs, and several times I noticed that an Austrian guitarist/singer/songwriter Martin Giebner, had this incredibly positive presence about him which snowballed off onto the audience. As a result he always drew such a good response. I met Mart and told him about the concept of the experimental collective, and asked if he’d like to contribute a slightly off- the- wall- track to an album. One winter night in central London as we were walking to a venue where he was to perform in a gig, he said ‘I want to play something for you that I think you’ll like’. In a dark alleyway, he sat down with his guitar and played the song ‘Cold Town’ – which I immediately took to. Typical of Mart’s tracks, which have been said to have the best lyrics of the collective’s songs, it showcased his storytelling ability. We recorded a good few of Mart’s track with the collective’s co-founder Brendan Lynch who since moved to Bahrain. The singer Sarah K Panton I met through a musicians networking site, Bandmix, where we advertised for a female vocalist. Sarah has a hand in several other projects as she has a chameleon-like ability to write lyrics and melody lines, to instrumental arrangements provided by a very mixed assortment of composers – there’s hardly a genre that she hasn’t yet manage to harness. We met quite often when she lived in Hampstead and two of her most memorable tracks – ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘When Its Over’, were recorded with Nigel Homer, who she introduced me to and who records/ engineers a number of us, and who plays guitars and bass on several of the musicians’ tracks including his own. Nigel, who is a trustee of the inspirational music therapy charity Upbeat, also has the ability to work with many genres so for him I think the idea of this mixed collective was always of interest. One of the musicians who recorded her tracks at Nigel’s home studio in Camden, Gila Chaya, is more involved in jazz-related projects but is also an excellent songwriter, pianist and singer. I had known Gila for many years socially, so it was quite a surprise to find out that she actually had an interest in, and is actually a very capable, musician. Her track Basho In Three, based on a Haiku by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, made a huge impression. As has a track we collaborated on for our current album, the chilled out ‘Walk in the Park’, for which I had written an instrumental arrangement back in 1999. Gila liked it and wrote words to it, and we recorded her ethereal vocals in the bedroom studio of the incredibly prolific and talented Brazilian musician Low Monotone, who since moved back to Belo Horizonte. The tracks were then sent to Brendan Lynch who mixed them in Bahrain. I think the most fun we had was when four of us got together at Nigel Homer’s studio to lay down some tracks, such as Basho in Three, and the song he produced for Australian-born singer, guitarist and songwriter Sygnet. I think Sygnet’s song ‘Did You See’ has achieved more for the collective than any other track – it got us the Reverbnation Artist Spotlight, propelled us to the top of the Reverbnation National and London Charts for their ‘Other/Experimental’ genre and it also landed Sygnet a Critics Choice Award from Ditto TV. Guitarist/singer/songwriter Charl Jean Bouwer who was on all but the current album, was my eldest god-daughter’s brother in law so that was how we met. Charl at the time was living in London and has since relocated to South Africa to pursue a career in architecture. I hope we’ll have him back with us in the near future as he is incredibly talented, writes compelling material and records like a dream. Two of the musicians who I have not met in person, were brought into the collective by Nigel Homer. British singer Briar, with whom he did the title track of our current album Shine A Light, he met on a music course, and Japanese singer Kanna Sasaki who is based in Tokyo, is the other half of a project Nigel and she have called Lonely Yoko.
What inspired the formation of this current project in the first place? What is the significance of the collective’s name?
I wanted to create a collective, whether virtual or not, of musicians who each write and perform their own songs and who are open to the idea of experimenting with music. At the time I was very much inspired by the CD series Cafe del Mar, where there seems to be a core of musicians who feature on all the albums… but also, on each record, there are also some totally off-the-wall artists who do a track or two. Another album which was massively inspirational was the soundtrack to David Lynch’s ‘Fire Walk With Me’ film. It’s quite different to that of the Twin Peaks series, much more ‘rough and ready’ and far more varied. So it made my day each time a reviewer wrote that our albums sound like ‘soundtracks to David Lynch B-grade movies’. There isn’t any particular significance to the name – people can interpret it as they want to.
The group’s members are based all over the world, correct? How is your music conceptualized and created? What is the recording process like?
Yes. We tend to make an album every 2 years or so. The others, who all have their own projects, know I’ll ask them for their more alternative or experimental compositions, so they send demos through via email or dropbox. Eventually this’ll be narrowed down to about 20 or so tracks and then to 12 – 14 which we feel fit together best as an album. The recording process is how things are done nowadays thanks to the advent of the internet. If more than one of us are collaborating on a track, each musician will record his or her parts and drop-box them to whoever is doing the initial mix. Its usually Nigel Homer and I who sort out the initial mixes – he is a very good engineer, and we then hand what we think are the best mixes of a song to one of the producers like Andy Rugg or Brendan Lynch, to create a polished final product. That too, takes time because the mixes come and go from Brendan and Andy to me, or to Nigel, until we are 100% happy with the end result. Sometimes you can nail a song in 3 or 4 mixes, other times never – you just have to let it go at a point before over-producing it and losing its essence.
What life experiences and events led to the writing and recording of the group’s latest record “Shine A Light”? What was it like working with producer Andy Rugg (of Coldplay fame), producer Paddy Bush, and author Cathy O’Brien on this project?
I’d known Andy for a few years, while he still worked for Coldplay. He always told me he would be keen to do some experimental production work in his home studio setup where he uses Protools among other programs. He’s great to work with – fun, patient, open to ideas, and has quite a stubborn determination to get a song to be the best that it can be, no matter how many mixes that might take. So we’re very happy that he’s accepted the challenge of producing our next album, which we plan to record in 2015.
Paddy Bush and I go back a long way. I had not listened to his sister Kate’s music for several years, and on the day of 9/11, I arrived home from work, to find my then flatmate sitting in tears on the sofa, watching the horrors of that event on the news, But the TV sound was turned down and instead Kate’s apocalyptic song ‘Hello Earth’ was playing full volume on the stereo. Its one of those spine-chilling moments you just never forget. A few nights later – the same week I think – I met Paddy at a party of a mutual friend of ours in London. Unbeknown to both of us, we had separately been visiting Madagascar since 1992 – he to make musical documentaries and me to write guidebooks. He had with him a psychedelic collection of Malagasy beads called vakana, and we got talking instantly. Paddy is a walking encyclopaedia on music, especially cutting edge technology. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s also a multi-instrumentalist and a fine producer and musician. So we’ve been incredibly fortunate in that every time a song has been mixed and mastered, I send it to him as an MP3 and usually get detailed feedback including loads of useful information. On the current album Shine A Light, I also inadvertently had the chance to co-write a song with Paddy: when I sent him the album’s opening track, called Dodging Bullets, he really liked it and sent me a long email suggesting I double its length and he wrote a set of lyrics which could have been used for a second half. However, I read his lyrics and realised they were actually positive, particularly towards the end, and genius in their ambiguity. So I asked him if I could use my same music arrangement for Dodging Bullets, but sing his lyrics over it as a separate song with which to close the album and he agreed. We put in some Tawny owls and other effects to change it from the opening song, but essentially the album goes full circle.
I found out about Cathy O’Brien’s story because of an interest in psychology (in which I have a degree) and mind-control programs, which a friend had told me about. Her story, harrowing as it is, is one of hope and of resilience of the human spirit. She is an amazing human being. But the first 30-odd years of her life were what can only be described as hell. From when she was an infant she was sexually abused by her father who sold her off into a local child pornography ring, which involved people in the law, the church and in the very institutions which are supposed to protect children. She became a victim of the MK-Ultra mind control programs which were brought over to America from Nazi Germany and based on the Hitler-Himmler research on trauma-based mind control. You need to read the books she and her partner Mark Phillips wrote and self-published, to get the full picture: Trance Formation of America very much exposes the ghastly ring of paedophiles among the ultra rich and powerful, leading right up to Whitehouse – Pentagon level, where she worked as a mind control slave and was sexually abused by among others George Bush Snr. I need to emphasise that Cathy’s story is not unique. Far from it. You can see many other similar testimonies on film by other survivors of these mind control programs. And the deeper you delve, the more distressing the picture becomes. You learn about things like the Franklin Credit Bureau Scandal, where once again, young adults who had been taken from poor families as children, or from orphanages, or simply abducted, recount their ordeals during their childhoods of which they were robbed, and these stories always seem to lead to the same high level criminal faction in the US government. From what I understand, many of these ‘slaves’ were killed off after turning 30, as then they were considered ‘past their sell-by date’ as repressed memories which had been purposely fragmented during the programming, begin to return. But some are still on the run, and have been missing for a very long time. One such person is Jonny Gosch, whose mother Noreen set up the Jonny Gosch Foundation and she has never given up hope that one day her son will return to her. He is the ‘Jonny’ I referred to in the song ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’, which contains a few extracts of poignant speeches by Cathy O’Brien. Cathy had read the song lyrics, really appreciated them and given me a free hand to use whatever I wanted out of her public speeches and any other material she and Mark Philips had generated. As it was jaw-dropping watching Cathy O’Brien’s speeches, it was just as horrific and heart-rending reading about and listening to Noreen Gosch, The question remains why are these heinous crimes continuing, and the perpe-TRAITORS not dealt with as they should be? Meanwhile, other people commit silly little crimes by comparison, not harming anyone, and end up in the slammer. Its bullshit.
Could you walk us through each of the 14 featured tracks? How does this new record differ from or expand on previous releases by the band?
I think each record has seen the collective develop and improve more. In this one we had more opportunity to collaborate with each-other on more tracks, which was great. The opening, electro-pop song, one of my contributions, ‘Dodging Bullets’, is about a soldier who has survived a battlefield situation but has Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Its followed by a simple, raw piano piece I wrote in 1989, and over which Sarah K Panton last year wrote a vocal melody and lyrics, calling it ‘This Unknown’. We could have added a full arrangement but liked the raw feel. Low Monotone follows with his Radiohead-like ‘For What Its Worth’, which has had a wonderful response. Then there’s Sygnet’s ‘Dream Lover’, a song which she and Nigel Homer made many different versions of. But I really wanted one from her with a country & western or folk feel, so they just sent me her vocal and guitar tracks, and Brendan Lynch and I put in bass, very subtle keyboards and a nightscape of crickets to go with the lyrics. Its followed by Mart Giebner’s ‘Catch Me’, which Nigel and I initially worked on but handed it over to Brendan Lynch to produce and he turned it into a jazzy/ funk-like masterpiece which blew Mart away. The title track, Shine a Light, by Nigel Homer and Briar, follows. Its an epic, with Briar’s powerful vocal being especially surprising in the opening lines. Nigel ends the track with a lengthy guitar solo but its the bass-line which is so catchy in this song. The two of them laboured for months on it. Then comes the chill-out piece ‘A Walk in the Park’, which features Gila Chaya’s lovely vocals over an instrumental arrangement I wrote and recorded back in 1999.Gila wrote the words last year and did the vocal in 3 takes, with jet lag. I think its been the most listened-to piece on the album so far. I also created a soundscape here, of birds – a full-on dawn chorus going right through the track. Then comes my personal favourite, a short but extremely penetrating instrumental by Low Monotone called ‘Fatique’. Its a play on ‘Fatigue’ and even now when I hear it, its as if someone has plunged a knife into me and twists the blade. The mood changes completely with the song by Lonely Yoko (Kanna Sasaki and Nigel) who deliver a lovely, ebullient piece called So Long Summer. Then the album goes into a dark, moody song cycle, starting with one of the other stand-out tracks from the album, Dark Skies, by Sarah K Panton, Dan Moody and Tony Rogan. Its about the Syrian situation as well as bipolar depression and also, literally, storms. Again I put in a stormy soundscape with Andy Rugg – this was the piece he worked hardest on, to get it sounding as good as could be. (Andy spent days labouring over this track). David Floc’hlay follows with his song ‘La Dame Blanche’, a Lynchian instrumental about the French legend of the White Lady, a ghostly hitch-hiker who has apparently been seen by quite a few people. The drivers pick her up and when they turn to talk to her, she is suddenly no longer there. This is followed by my track with Cathy O’Brien, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’, which I discussed previously. It was recorded in 2 takes (I did the piano in one take and the vocal in two takes which were patched together), and then Brendan Lynch and I added in the whale vocalisations, Cathy’s speeches and other sound effects to create a creepy atmosphere. Its the darkest piece on the album by far and we were hesitant to include it – I had recorded two other songs as substitutes – but I felt compelled to put it out there. Fortunately reviewers have given it the thumbs up and some appreciate the taking on of such contentious subject matter. Mart Giebner then changes the mood completely, with the wonderful track ‘End of the Road’, on which I had great fun creating a seaside soundscape with gulls, children laughing and waves crashing. The record then ends with Dodging Arrows, which has the same music as Dodging Bullets, but with Paddy Bush’s lyrics.
What has working with digital artist Chris Von Steiner and French filmmaker Stephane Floc’hlay on the group’s visual presentation been like?
Chris is brilliant. In about 2008, his controversial, cutting-edge and often psychedelic digital art exploded into the European art scene, and he was widely exhibited and his work was all over magazines and books. We became friends, and I’ve visited his studio in Brussels too. Like Paddy and Cathy, Chris’s generosity of spirit and his support has been ongoing. He’s done work for us – anything you see painted on our covers or art is usually by him, and he gave me a free hand to use his works in certain promotions. We’ll still be doing more of that as Chris’s work is also continually evolving and brilliant. Stephane Floc’hlay, David’s brother, is a French film maker and David composed the sound-tracks for a series of short, Lynchian films. Its from those sound tracks that a few of his contributions to our albums have come. Stephane did a video for one of my tracks, ‘A Circle of Sorrow’, which was cut from footage of the short film Cissenar, a 12 minute film which brings to mind elements of Lynch and Kubrik.
What went into the making of the music videos for your songs ‘Dark Skies’ and ‘Dodging Arrows’?
Those were both done by Dan Moody, who is not just a great musician but a keen film maker and great video editor. I like what he did with Dark Skies because he could film Sarah K Panton singing through a window in the rain, creating a ghostly effect. The one he did for Dodging Arrows was too rushed I think – unfortunately that was the one weekend I could not help him edit it because my computer was being repaired, so I could only see his drafts on my mobile phone. If only we could have had the soldier clips continue for a second or two more than they did, it would have made all the difference. Perhaps one day we will redo it. But the end part with the owl and its amber eyes, followed by the full moon over a black forested slope, is great.
What have been some of your favorite and most exciting memories of working together as musicians during the past decade?
As mentioned above, the fun parts are when we get together to work. Sure, writing is great when you know you’re onto a song which will work, and to which you almost have to ‘give birth’. But some of the most fun times for me were at Nigel’s studio, when he, Sygnet, Gila and I would get together and record in the summer. Likewise, sessions I’ve attended with Martin Giebner recording have been great fun. Working with Andy Rugg is a blast. Receiving an unexpected song from Sarah K Panton with no warning, is often a wonderful surprise, as is getting a mix on which Nigel has done some mental things with his guitars on my songs, as he knows I enjoy that. But the highlight is having made some lovely friends in this collective and combining our art to create our little albums which people seem to respond to with increasing enthusiasm..
What does 2015 hold in store for Vortex Ascent? Do you have any live performance plans or dreams for Vortex Ascent?
We are doing an album in 2015 – this was only decided within the last month, so no plans yet other than we have a few good songs in demo format already, and two new and truly excellent musicians. Not at all sure who we will have as guests, but the core musicians who were on ‘Shine a Light’ (myself, Sarah, Mart, Low Monotone, David, Nigel, Sygnet) all instantly agreed to make a new album and Andy Rugg immediately said he’d produce it with us. So we’re very amped about that, as are the two new musicians who will be contributing some dynamite material. No live work planned, as we all have busy 9 – 5 jobs and more, but you never know.