The inspiration was a weather-enforced break from work, the idea was to write and record an album in one month, the result was Mike Vass’ Decemberwell project – an album in celebration of the Scottish winter.
Composer, arranger, performer, producer, teacher – Mike Vass has to be one of the most versatile and hard-working of Scotland’s gifted young musicians. Winner of the prestigious Composer of the Year at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards in 2012, his New Voices commission for Celtic Connections in 2010, String Theory, was hailed as a compelling and ground-breaking achievement; his work with Malinky, The Paul McKenna Band and Fiona Hunter have made him a familiar face to audiences up and down the country – and further afield.
Taking a step back from his many collaborations, in 2011 Mike spent a month writing and recording Decemberwell; he even created a daily video blog charting his progress. The album was released, and very well received, in December 2012 Mike was joined by Mairearad Green, Innes Watson and Fi Vass for an equally well received Decemberwell tour.
For those of us unlucky enough to have missed the tour last year, there are several chances to make amends in December 2013. The first of those was on Monday night (2nd December 2013) in Edinburgh’s OutHouse.
Mike took some time out from his Decemberwell preparations to talk about the project, his hectic schedule and what the well-dressed musician is wearing this winter….
The Decemberwell album was an entirely solo project – was is it difficult to hand over to a band for last year’s tour?
As the recording is so multilayered – the wonders of modern technology! – I knew the live version would be quite different, but I don’t think this was difficult. It is always a rewarding experience hearing other musicians breathe new life into my compositions as they always bring so much of their own personality to it. However, I am a bit of a control freak and was keen on having the material thoroughly rehearsed before the tour.
Who’s joining you for Decemberwell on this tour?
Mairearad Green (Accordion/Piano/Vocals) and Fi Vass – my wee sister – (Piano/Percussion/Vocals).
Have there been any major changes to the set / any new arrangements following rehearsals?
The live set up is a bit different this year with the trio. Last year the quartet was completed by Innes Watson who is working abroad this time round unfortunately. To make up for the loss of Innes, I am making use of a loop pedal which better reflects the multilayered recorded sound.
When you were composing Decemberwell, did you find the promised video blog restrictive or more of an encouragement?
I think both! The video blog was motivational, I had to upload the video describing progress each day, and I did manage to stick to the regime. Due to the quite considerable time involved with filming, editing and uploading it did eat into the actual writing and recording time a bit more than I had anticipated.
Have you enjoyed touring with The Paul McKenna Band?
Yes it has been great, we have had some fantastic and memorable times in the USA and Germany, and I really enjoyed working on the new album ‘Elements’ (My banjo debut!) More than that though, the boys have become great friends.
How difficult is it to wear the two hats – solo composer arranger / touring band member?
I think it is difficult to fit everything in. Many ideas for composition work gets shelved due to other commitments. I think I need both though, as I certainly have hermit-tendencies and if I was just working as a composer I’d find myself holed up in the studio all the time, I’m not sure how healthy this would be long term!
What are looking forward to most about taking Decemberwell on the road again?
I’m looking forward to scoffing mince pies and getting my festive jumper collection out of the cupboard and playing some (mostly) instrumental music. The majority of my touring work is song accompaniment – which I do love – but they do say a change is as good as a holiday!
The holiday started in the Loft at The OutHouse, a small venue above a bustling city centre bar/cafe. Although looking a little crowded on stage, as the first set opened it was clear that the intimacy afforded by the venue suited Mike and friends very well indeed. As a prelude to the main event, an end-to-end performance of Decemberwell, we were treated to a short set that opened with a cheery pair of jigs; one from Mike and one from Mairearad, Cavers of Kirkcudbright / Passing Places. A song from Fi Vass, Not Much Time, reminded us what a joy it is to hear siblings harmonize, and Mairearad Green contributed Maggie West’s Waltz – a lovely, lilting waltz, very much in the traditional style, and the title track of her forthcoming EP. The set closed with Bad Timing / Calum J MacCrimmon. The former named for its somewhat challenging 7/8 time signature, the latter in celebration of the Breabach piper. These featured some remarkably deft fretwork on the guitar from Mike, with precise, paced and dexterous accordion from Mairearad.
A small and perfectly formed warm up for performers and audience alike.
Innes Watson’s absence on this tour must have resulted in some frantic re-drafting of arrangements; but Mike Vass has never been one to shy away from technology – the plethora of pedals and cables at his feet hinting at the solution.
Mike is an innovative composer, evidenced from the very start by Wintro – a sparse, atmospheric overture. By means of some deft live looping, Mike was able to contribute both guitar parts and the lead fiddle. Looking Through benefited from the inclusion of Tenor guitar in the kind of warming, positive tune that instantly brings a smile to the heart, and an early reminder that this performance isn’t all about concept and innovation – it’s also about making damn fine music.
Decemberwell is an ingenious piece of work in many ways – Mike developed a DECEBE guitar tuning for the album and its bassy tones were used to great effect in Slide, which builds gently to a crescendo that delivers far more than the sum of three parts. Lights is a gentle and spirited tune with a frosty twinkle in its eye and Maxwell Park manages to draw a distinction between strolling and walking, and also incorporates some inventive instruments. The trickle of tenor guitar over an enchanting melodica in Melter is a delight.
The hypnotic fiddle tune Pane came about during a hail storm, with the sound of hail on the studio window forming an integral part. Many musicians would be content to use the same sample in live performance, but such is Mike’s commitment to keeping things on a live footing that the hail sound is produced by one of the many devices improvised for the tour – in this case a home-made rain stick variant. The multi-layered complexity of Cycles was omitted from last year’s Decemberwell tour. However, Mike’s new found love of electronic assistance has inspired him to adopt DJ mode and build each tiny, nature inspired, phrase in loops – to mesmerizing and dramatic effect.
North presents a more familiar approach, evoking a Highland welcome with a lively and inviting Shetland sound before the dark melody and monastic chanting of Hallan. Written on, and for, the winter solstice, Hallan is every bit as evocative of the ancients as the burial site it celebrates – Cladh Hallan on South Uist.
Lights closes the performance in a state of restful melancholy building to a tumble of strings.
Following such an accomplished and enjoyable performance, we couldn’t resist pressing Mike for a few thoughts on the start of the Decemberwell tour, and what comes next….
The live looping was slick – Is this your first time?
Thank you! I was apprehensive about it as I’m so new to working the looper. It is so easy to get things wrong, timing is very important, both in terms of keeping the loops rhythmically steady when playing them in, and in hitting the pedal at the right moment – there were a few fankles during the rehearsals! That was my first time performing live with a loop pedal.
Is there a different ‘Decemberwell jumper’ for every gig?
No I’m afraid not, there are a few, but one or two will have to be recycled during the tour.
How can Innes Watson bear to miss all this fun?
We must relay the message to France that we’re having a miserable time without him ….!
7/8 timing, DECEB tuning… you really do love to experiment, don’t you?
I’m keen on experimenting and exploring new ideas, it makes me learn faster and keeps me interested (I think I maybe have undiagnosed ADD).
You enjoy a very conceptual approach to composition, are there any new concepts bubbling under?
I have a big project coming up next year named ‘In the wake of Neil Gunn’. This summer I spent a few weeks in hospital suffering from Neuroborreliosis – a rare form of Lyme disease that affects the central nervous system. During my recovery, my Dad brought me a copy of Neil Gunn’s ‘Off in a Boat’, his non-fiction account of a summers sailing in the Western Isles with his wife and, occasionally, his brother. Against all advice, he left his job in Inverness with the customs office, sold his house and bought an old (barely floating) converted lifeboat. He was determined to write full time, and the summer sailing was to be his inspiration. Next May I am going to recreate Gunn’s voyage in a sailing boat and will perform some concerts in the various ports he visited. I’ll be joined along the way by some great musicians, including Innes Watson and Hamish Napier. I will be composing themes for a larger suite of music whilst at sea and during the autumn will perform the new music in a series of concerts as part of the Homecoming Scotland celebrations, including a concert on a Calmac ferry!
Something to look forward to without a doubt.
Decemberwell live is a unique event. Inspiring, welcoming and thought provoking; it reminds us of our relationship with everything that winter brings, both light and dark. And if you can’t venture out of a winter’s evening to enjoy the performance, there’s always the option of a live webcast. You can stay by the fire and enjoy DecemeberWell live via concertwindow from Rusty Squash Horn studios, where the album was written and recorded. The show goes out worldwide at 8pm (GMT) 3pm (EST) on December 20th and will feature a guest spot from Paul McKenna. (http://www.concertwindow.com/shows/2382-decemberwell)
There’s no substitute for a great live performance, though. With some of the best and most accomplished young musicians Scotland has to offer, a warm genial atmosphere, and a musical concept that delights and intrigues – A visit to Decemberwell should be on everyone’s wish list.
Interview and Review by: Neil McFadyen
Decemberwell Tour Dates
Thursday 12th Dec – The Acoustic Music Club – Kirkcaldy – 7.30pm
Friday 13th Dec – The Ceilidh Place – Ullapool 9pm
Saturday 14th Dec – The Sailing Club – Nairn – 7.30pm
Wednesday 18th Dec- Folklub – Glasgow – 8.00pm