It’s a great name inspired by architecture and fashioned by pragmatism. Richard Larsen and Rowan Pierce met when studying performance design together at Massey University, and soon began writing songs together under the name Vaults, inspired by the vaulted ceilings of cathedrals. That later morphed in order to avoid the connotations of banks and crimne. Interviewing Glass Vaults for an NZM Fresh Talent article back in 2013, Chloe Cairncross reported that the band were then recording a debut album to be titled ‘Sojourn’, an album she reckoned ‘…could prove the ultimate in stoner gospel.’ Good job we haven’t been holding our breath, because it has taken until now for that album to finally surface. Martyn Pepperell held them up about it.
“Making music is the most meditative of the arts for me,” admits Richard Larsen. “It’s a chance to work on a craft, which is something I enjoy. It’s also a way to realise my aspirations. I haven’t got what I want yet. I still have goals I want to achieve.”
“For me, making music with Richard is the one thing in my creative life where I feel like it’s mine,” interjects his Glass Vaults’ bandmate Rowan Pierce.
“I work creatively in other areas, but it’s always someone else’s work, or within someone else’s work. This is the creative project I can see myself in the most. In that moment of making music, even though it’s a collaboration, I can still make any decision I want. If I really believe it, I can go down that path. In other creative endeavours that isn’t always the case.”
Larsen and Pierce are the songwriting backbone of Glass Vaults, one of Wellington’s most celebrated bands of the last half decade. It’s a musical partnership that has endured based on the importance they both place on their shared creative space. Since 2010, they’ve released a series of gorgeously textured EPs in free digital download and beautifully packaged 12″ vinyl formats, played reverently reviewed shows around the country, and in 2012, held a month-long weekly residency at New York’s Pianos bar.
Trained graphic designers and seasoned musicians, from the jump, Glass Vaults work has always been presented with a unified aesthetic that perfectly ties together their crystalline sound and look. Along the way, they’ve been described as ‘glacial pop’ and ‘stoner gospel’ and won acclaim from leading international music media outlets like Clash and No Fear Of Pop. This September they will self-release the debut Glass Vaults’ album titled ‘Sojourn’.
When we meet up, on a mid-winter’s Monday night at a cozy pub in the Wellington suburb of Newtown, they’ve both recently arrived back in town. Larsen has been performing solo in the South Island while Pierce has been on holiday in Europe. Prior to that, the two had played some gigs together up north with their six-piece live band.
Having long maintained a cool and critically loved reputation here as well as abroad, Glass Vaults have yet to take things to the next level in terms of commercial visibility or recognition, hence Larsen’s comment about un-reached goals.
“Making music is always escapism,” he enthuses, with some agreement from Pierce. “There are different aspects to making music. One of them is sitting in a quiet space and processing some things that are building up inside of you and making music out of them. That part of it is the most enjoyable thing there is in my life really. It’s about being able to release those things, while practising songwriting, which is something I have been doing for a long time. I get a deep enjoyment out of this.”
In regard to the level their band sits at, Pierce has some thoughts and philosophies.
“It’s not in our hands. It’s not even in anyone’s hands really. The goal is to reach as many people as possible. It would be beautiful to be able to perform for lots of people who are sharing the same space. For me, that is the goal, but it’s not a pre-requisite to keep making music. You can’t make something and expect people will want it or need it. People will jump on board if they get it or vibe with it. You can’t fault those people for not liking it. You can’t fault yourself either.”
Considered and pragmatic, Larsen and Pierce have honed their perspectives and approaches release-by-release, and even show-by-show. They’ve made, performed and released music on their own terms, around their day jobs and life commitments. 2010’s ‘Glass’ EP positioned them as a NZ answer to the electronic singer/songwriter sounds being pushed at the time by the likes of James Blake, Jamie Woon and How To Dress Well.
Interlacing sleek synthesisers, delicate guitar work, clear-voiced devotional vocals and pounding rhythms, their live sound was often accompanied by washed out multimedia visuals, and guest guitar work from their producer Bevan Smith (of Signer, Introverted Dancefloor). With Florida, USA indie label Jukboxr releasing their music worldwide on vinyl, the project had an air of internationalism to it that helped set them apart.
In 2011 they followed ‘Glass’ with a second EP titled ‘Into Clear’. Revealing more of a psychedelic and shoegaze tilt, further expanding on their love of immersion and meditation through music. While what they were doing was rooted in a shared creative trust, what was perhaps even more important was the freedom to continue to grow and explore.
“Being open to possibilities is the primary thing, Pierce concurs. “We never plan to make a certain type of record. We just start creating, assess as we go, and whatever comes out comes out.”
“That’s totally the type of person I am,” adds Larsen. “I don’t know what I am doing in life. I just do things and hope something will happen.”
Around the same time the pair started to get the sense they’d hit a glass ceiling in NZ. With this realisation setting in, they made plans to travel to America and play some shows. They connected with New York/Toronto marketing company The Musebox, who set them up with a residency at Pianos in New York, and worked with Jukboxr to book some side shows around the country. Over the three months spent in America, they started to see things differently.
“We saw a lot of crappy bands play in New York,” Larsen laughs. “You can look really cool, be promoted really well, and be really confident, but if you can’t write good songs, what’s the point? We really wanted to step up our songwriting after that.”
“We went over on our own backs and saw the reality of touring,” Pierce continues. “Coming from where, when people say they are touring overseas, it can look like they are making it. But anyone can go over and do that. Touring overseas isn’t making it, it’s the starting point.”
“Just by being in New York and playing shows, you get extra credit with the media and the consumers,” Larsen interjects. “We were just whoring it out on the Lower East Side, and people wanted to make it into a big deal.”
After making some connections and building a few foundations, they returned to NZ, ready to put their new focus into practice. Since then the two have been writing and recording at home and in studios around the capital and Auckland, again under the watchful ear of Bevan Smith. Also mixed and mastered by Smith, ‘Sojourn’, sees the pair again moving out of their comfort zone, blending their immersive synthesiser sound and dynamic beatscapes with psychedelic folk and pop.
“If you stay in a space for too long you’re going to get bored, no matter what stage of life you’re in. For me it’s about not knowing,” says Pierce. “I have to be in the unknown for it to intrigue me. If I am going to do something that I know and have known for a long time, it’s not going to hold my interest. I need to have a bit of instability. It helps occupy my mind when I’m trying to wrestle with or figure something out.”
As part of this, Larsen and Pierce decided to invite some of their musician friends inside their soundworld, eventually fleshing Glass Vaults out into a six-piece band. Larsen was becoming obsessed with classically great songwriters like McCartney and Paul Simon. They were operating in an area where the live standard for electronic music performance was quickly becoming a laptop and a MIDI controller. Live instrumentation and an increased focus on songcraft ahead of just texture seemed like the way forward.
“We’d been creating these big open landscapes of sound,” Pierce says. “I wanted to make something that was a bit more immediate and moved people around emotionally. I’d always enjoyed music like that but never made it.”
The result is an album which, while rooted in Glass Vaults’ original musical values, places them within new sonic terrain and new stories. You could describe it as an ecstatic study in how to change while remaining the same.
After completing ‘Sojourn’, they connected with Flying Out, the distributor helping them run a pre-order campaign to finance pressing the album on vinyl. They’re also helping with physical manufacture, distribution, publicity and marketing. It’s a different format to the traditional label release, but one they are happy to try.
Back in 2010 they were doing things differently by giving away the digital version of their EP for free, so why not try something new again? Both feel the need to continue to move forward and engage with the unknown while creating, the same evidently applies to the way they approach their band’s business activities. Paradigms don’t shift themselves. Someone has to take a risk.