The Vain Travail is a five-piece collective from the Netherlands, whose members are top Dutch session musicians. They started in 2018, and only ever rehearsed once: it’s all about writing and arranging beautiful songs, and they do so from their home studios scattered across the country.
The project started in 2018 as a new way of having a band: they had the same basic idea of what kind of band they wanted to be in, but no time for another source of endless rehearsals and band meetings. And that worked, albeit slowly.
When the world slowed down due to Covid-19, the Vain Travail made the best of it and sped up working on their album. Their debut album ‘After a Silent Disaster’ was released in November 2021. It is one of my favourite albums from 2021. I asked lead singer and lyricist Arthur Adam ten Cate, some questions about the album and the backstory of the band.
You played in a one-off Radiohead tribute band in 2016 together with Dirk Schreuders, Len van de Laak and Bertolf, which laid the foundation for the band. As I understood, you then started sending each other song ideas. When came the idea of recording an album? Did you already have a name for the project back then?
“At first Dirk and I thought that this could be the band we dreamed of having. We weren’t thinking about recording an album. A few songs, a few gigs, maybe. About a year later we had four demo songs and we agreed on the band name. Early 2018 Dirk and I started thinking about recording an album for the first time. Len too, but he’s this really laidback guy who was just like “yeah, cool I’m in”.”
The band name derives from a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt. How easy was it to come up with a band name that you all agreed on?
“Fairly easy, actually. I had thought of the name before, and thought it was so cool I already registered the domain name. I told the others: well, we have a band without a name, and I have a band name without a band, what do you think? They all agreed.”
When did Dave Menkehorst and Jonas Pap join?
“Dave joined the band in August 2017. Dirk, Len and I were also playing in another tribute band, with Dave: ELO. At the time I thought he was just a really cool drummer and a nice guy, later on he turned out to be a mixing genius and quite the singer too.”
“Jonas Pap was part of the same ELO tribute band, and he used to be Dirk’s roommate in their Conservatory years. I found Jonas intimidating at first: insane music skills, big guy, quite loud. Dirk convinced me Jonas would be good for the band, and he joined us early 2018, around the same time as Bertolf left the band to focus on his solo work. Dirk was right.”
“Well, we are happy with your response. And quite a few indie sites found out about us. We get great responses from the people that have heard us and that’s really cool. But it’s hard to get attention from a bigger audience, especially when you can’t – and won’t – do shows and tours. And even more so when you release an album towards the end of the year – magazines and radio stations tend to have different priorities in December. So, yes and no. There is still some vain ambition driving us.”
The album was mostly written and recorded from your respective homes. How did that work? Did you just send files back and forth or did you have video calls?
“We sent files back and forth. But I have to explain some more. Before Covid-19 hit Europe, we already had the back story and concept for the album, and the skeletons of about 11 songs. Dirk, Bertolf and I wrote and recorded some cool parts of songs in Dirks studio, I wrote the basics for a few songs myself en made demo recordings at Jonas’ studio with Dirk, and that’s the stuff we sent each other, adding layers, deleting layers, cutting songs into pieces again, starting over. We were really happy with the song material and the ideas, but they still were sketches, as if we were afraid (and too busy) to really finish them. And that thought also slowed us down, we were thinking that this would maybe never get finished. But then Covid happened: everyone had to stay indoors, all gigs were cancelled, the others had time on their hands and we had the setup to work online, so we said: let’s turn this shit around, make the best of it, let’s make an album!”
Did you work on one track at the time or multiple ones at the same time? What can you tell me about that process?
“We worked on multiple tracks at the same time. I tried to coordinate stuff, by giving people assignments and deadlines, like “by the end of next month Dirk has done the bass part for this, added vocals on that, played harmonium on a third song, etc”. And then the harmonium part was awesome, but made the guitar part obsolete, and then that had to be redone. And the same went for several instruments. On all songs. At the same time, more or less. And when finally everybody was happy about the parts, we sent the stuff to Dave, to mix it. And then Dave would send messages, like “ok, I had an idea, check it out, but if we’re going with this, you have to redo the vocal. And the guitar”. So it was really studio madness, crazy creativity, but without being in the same studio together.”
Do you have any favourite memories of writing and / or recording the album?
“A lot of memories come to mind, but for me personally the heaviest one is: my wife and I went to Ireland on holiday in 2018. A week in I got quite ill, having fever dreams in a tent. I could hardly move but my mind was really active, it was there and then I thought of the title of the record, the backstory and I wrote the lyrics and melody for the title song.”
You wrote most of the lyrics for the album. A recurring theme on the album is derealization. Do you consider it to be a concept album?
“Almost all of the lyrics. ‘I must be dreaming’ is a reworking of a song Bertolf and Dirk wrote. In that song I just changed the message and some words to fit the backstory, and to fit the atmosphere of the song better.”
The songs are possibly about different people and different disasters, but they could be read metaphorically to all fit the same person.
“And yes, it is a concept album, but not with a coherent storyline. All songs revolve around people that found themselves in a world that was broken, or weird, in a reality that wasn’t theirs anymore. And that is what the title ‘After a silent disaster’ says: There has been a life changing event (heartbrake, earthquake, pandemic, psychosis, war, fallout), but did it really happen? Is this a dream? What will happen next? And how do we recover? The songs are possibly about different people and different disasters, but they could be read metaphorically to all fit the same person.”
“The order of the songs reflect the stages of dealing with the new situation, from picking up the pieces to disbelief, denial, to “the end of everything logical” and then some light at the end of the tunnel appears, we feel hope and power again and in the end we will fall back into our old habits, so maybe the story will be repeated.”
What’s your personal favourite from the album and why?
“‘All is quiet’, at least today it is. It just works for me, but also technically, I think it sounds awesome, and I’m really happy with how words, harmony and sound work together.”
One of my favourites is ‘Ghost Light’ which currently holds the top spot in our chart. What can you tell me about this particular song?
“It’s a philosophical horror story 🙂 I got the idea when there was a thunderstorm hitting our town, and it got really spooky and dark when it was just after noon, and I thought that that would be a good time for the dead to roam the streets. In the song the dead have risen and are knocking on doors, to tell people that the way they’re living now is not sustainable. Mankind has become a monster beyond control and will start to eat itself if we go on like this – this is a dramatization of my actual thoughts on this matter.”
In 2021 you also released an EP ‘Other Life Forms’ under your own name Arthur Adam. How does your solo work compare to The Vain Travail?
“For me it feels totally different. In The Vain Travail I am part of a team, where my part stops ideally after I have delivered the basics of the song, so the others can do what they’re best at, and I can ideally just sit back and enjoy the ride or support the creative process of the others, without intervening. The songs all turned out way more awesome then when I would have had a bigger say. If you check out some chord progressions or phrasings, maybe you could tell I was involved, but soundwise it is like nothing I have ever made. Also, normally I like to keep my musical arrangements really sober, often conceptually so. Like on ‘Other Life Forms’ I restricted myself to having a maximum of one lead vocal, one backing vocal, one guitar and one string quartet, played by Jonas, on each song. The Vain Travail is quite the opposite of that, and I’m really happy with it.”
What inspires you to write music?
“A lot, but mostly the absurdity of trying to get my inner world to correspond to the world out there. And love.”
When creating music, what is your personal purpose or goal?
“Beauty and pride. I would really like to be the selfless creator of beauty, but I’m also the narcissist that craves recognition. I wish it weren’t so.”
What does the future hold for The Vain Travail?
“I have no idea, really.”
The Vain Travail is basically a virtual band. Do you have any plans to get together and do a tour?
“Well… All the other guys are involved in a lot of other musical projects, that had tours cancelled or postponed, so when performing is an option again, they will have a lot on their hands. So we decided to wait and see how this album will be received. If there are enough people that want to see us play, we’ll do that.”
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
“We are a band that doesn’t rehearse or perform, but for the release of our album we made an exception. Last October we spent one day in a studio together, for the first time ever with our own music – we were in a tribute band together long ago, but that doesn’t really count. We recorded a session and it turned out quite alright, we’re really proud of the result.” (The session is available here, ed.)
What’s your favourite song from the Cool Top 20 and why?
“It is ‘Feel That Way’ by Fake Shark. It could be different tomorrow or next week, but the last few weeks I’m just not in a guitar music mood. This song has weirdness, accessibility and a really nice bassline to it, and a sense of irony. I like that.”
What song would you like to add as a bonus track and why?
“‘So Far from Flawless’ by Tim van Doorn. He is one of my favourite musicians, and one of my favourite people actually. He is a singer and songwriter and a multi-instrumentalist, and a great producer/engineer too. And the fun thing is that he has difficulty choosing between being an indie-singer-songwriter or a badass pop/punk artist. So he released the “same” album twice last year: Skylines I and II, they have the same songs, but one is just him and his acoustic guitar and the other one is in full band mode. And he played most of the instruments himself. A true indie hero, living in Antwerp, Belgium.”
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