In the spotlight – The Vaulted Skies are an original four-piece rock band from the UK, fronted by kohl-eyed singer-songwriter James AJ Scott. The band brings together influences from goth, indie, dance, grunge and psychedelia. I spoke with James about his creative process, ‘pinch me’ moments and more.
How did the band start?
“I formed The Vaulted Skies after being inspired by The Cure’s 2012 performance at Pinkpop Festival. I’d only watched it online, but it had a profound effect on me. They included a song called ‘Wrong Number’ – which I’d always loved but had never seen performed live before – that demonstrated perfectly how to meld rock guitars and electronica to create something greater than the sum of its parts.”
“At the time, that was a key aspect of the sound and energy I was aiming for. But I’ve always valued eclecticism and originality, and music that can make you think, experience deep emotions, and make you dance; preferably all at the same time. Now that’s a challenge!”
“We started out as a five-piece, with Ben Singleton on keyboards, but once he moved to guitar, we found that it made more sense for us to work as a four-piece and use backing tracks for the synthy stuff. So now it’s me (guitar and vocals), Ben (guitar), Andy McFarlane (bass) and we’re just bringing a new drummer into the line-up.”
Were you in any other bands before forming this band?
“Yes. I started making music in the year 2000 under another band name. It was really more of a solo project at that point, as I was learning my craft, finding my voice etc.”
“I had a brilliant mentor in Pete Bilk (son of the jazz legend, Acker) and enormous support from my wife, Joanna, who would also do vocals and play bass sometimes. We started getting interest from labels and management companies, and I was told I had to get a live band together. But that fundamentally changed the nature of what we were doing. It morphed from a singer-songwriter type of vibe into an indie rock proposition. With hindsight, I should probably have hired session musicians; but I was broke, and when you can’t pay professionals to play in your band, you have a certain duty and necessity to collaborate more openly on the writing and other aspects of the creative process. What followed was a decade-long rabbit hole of learning the hard way. Every time the band would start to see a bit of success, the dynamics between people would shift, and someone would leave, and it would take months to find a replacement and get them up to speed on the material. And because I was still not in a position to pay session musicians, that would kind of bring the band to a halt in between complete line-ups, and I/we missed out on some amazing opportunities. Painful! By 2011, I’d had enough and decided to ‘go solo’ again, but found myself struck with inertia. I had become so used to the collaborative aspects of making music that I didn’t really do anything. Until I saw that Pinkpop performance by The Cure!”
“And although The Vaulted Skies has also suffered from band members coming and going, the core is now strong, and we have been a bit smarter in terms of using backing tracks to fill certain gaps, hiring session players, shapeshifting from a five-piece to a four-piece, and being able to operate as a three-piece or a duo etc.”
How did you end up with The Vaulted Skies as a band name?
“It derives from the last line of a poem by John Clare called ‘I Am’. The poem really sums up the alienation I’ve felt at times in my life. It’s a dark, bitter piece that see-saws between melancholy and rage, but it’s also a reminder that things can be beautiful if we let go. And that’s something else the band stands for… To face reality; to be without denial that life is hard, while embracing the freedom and escapism that comes from an active imagination.”
For anyone reading this who does not know The Vaulted Skies, why should they check out The Vaulted Skies?
“I think people connect with our material if they value authenticity. There’s nothing contrived here. Even the most escapist narratives are based in an emotional truth. There’s an A&R Factory review that references our “ability to create an atmosphere where hearing the music becomes secondary to feeling it”.”
Honestly, we’re just not good at blowing our own trumpet, so I’ll just quote the final paragraph of that same review here: “The Vaulted Skies is easily one of the most criminally underrated alternative acts in the UK right now. Anyone with a proclivity towards pensiveness and pioneering alt-rock should be paying attention.”
In the release talk for ‘Hollowhead’ you mentioned your dad was cast in musicals and had a good singing voice. Did your environment growing up cultivate your passion for music?
“Yes and no. I was certainly encouraged to pursue all kinds of creative and artistic endeavours as a child, but I was otherwise left to it. My parents always made sure I had tools and materials with which to express myself, but there was no technical guidance whatsoever. Come to think of it, maybe they were just trying to keep me occupied!”
Who was the first artist to knock you out?
“The Cure. Hearing the song ‘Burn’ in ‘The Crow’ movie changed my life. It was a beacon that led me to explore the rest of the band’s catalogue, which would in turn ignite my passion for songwriting. There were lots of other artists along the way that I also loved, ranging from Beethoven and John Williams, to Michael Jackson and Genesis, to The Police and Tears For Fears. And since discovering The Cure, I also fell in love with Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Elliott Smith and so many more.”
What has been the most prominent inspiration behind your music so far?
“I think my father dying in 2000 was such a maelstrom of emotions that I needed an efficient medium via which to express myself. I had always found that writing things down would help me process my feelings, and there was something even more satisfying and comforting about then setting those words to music.”
What inspires you to write songs and what is your creative process?
“It’s changed over the years. It used to start with words – observations on different aspects of life – and then I’d form melodies for the words and build chords around them. Now it can be a bassline or a riff or even a sound/tone that sparks an idea, and sometimes new words will form around that, or I might dive into notebooks to find something that fits. I suppose the thing that’s a constant is that I’m interested in metaphor and in saying something in a new way, with a twist.”
“Once I’ve developed the idea of to a certain level, I’ll share a demo with the rest of the band, and when we’re focusing on new material, we prioritise a number of demos and attempt to stand them up in a rehearsal setting, to see how readily each one excites us.”
Are you someone who continually writes?
“Yes. I mean, life really gets in the way sometimes, but i think the longest I’ll go without writing something is a week.”
Are you also thinking about how songs might sound on stage when you’re writing and recording them?
“When I’m writing – no. At that point it’s all about what am I trying to express. Then I start to think about how the concepts could be best articulated through sounds and arrangements. So, the sequence usually starts with writing the song (or at least the defining parts of a song and recording a demo), developing it with the band in a rehearsal room, performing it live and then recording it properly. And then things that happen in the recording process can often influence the way you then play the song live thereafter.”
What do you feel when you walk on stage and what is your favourite thing about playing live shows?
“I usually feel really happy and excited when I first go out on stage. I used to suffer with nerves, but it’s such a waste of good energy, so I worked hard on managing my state so that I could enjoy the privilege of performing more readily. My favourite thing is when it’s clear that the audience ‘gets it’, and is connecting with the material. For the more energetic tracks I like to see the crowd pulsating in time with the music, and I also love those moments where make eye contact with someone who’s nodding in appreciation.”
I read somewhere you supported David Bowie. How did that come about? I can imagine that’s one of the biggest ‘pinch me’ moments in your career so far. What have been other highlights and what would you still like to achieve?
“Ooh… well, we didn’t support David Bowie; we supported Reeves Gabrels, who was David Bowie’s creative partner for a long time, and is also the guitarist in The Cure. So that was still the biggest ‘pinch me’ moment to date!”
“There’s been a number of other particularly memorable gigs over the years though. One at 93 Feet East in Shoreditch where I felt really connected with the audience, and the atmosphere was just wonderful. Playing overseas for the first time was special, when we opened for Kadeadkas and The Faces of Sarah in Belgium. More recently we supported Actors when they came to the UK. I think that was a good combination because although we’re quite different sonically and aesthetically, we share a lot of fans, and as a live experience I think the contrast was quite fulfilling for the audience.”
“In terms of things I’d still like to achieve… There are so many things that I’ve dreamed of over the years, and should probably knuckle down and see what I can do to make them happen, namely:
What’s your motto or some good advice that you live by?
“All we really have is time and feelings. Do what you can to maximise the amount of time you can feel good, without hindering anyone else’s opportunity to do the same.”
Any plans for the rest of the year?
“It’s The Vaulted Skies’ 10th Anniversary, so we have some special releases and celebratory events planned. An illustrated lyric book called ‘The Nine Lives of Love & Death’ is also due out this year, featuring artwork by founding member, Joanna Scott.”
What’s your favourite song from the Cool Top 20 and why?
“I was really thrilled to find ‘Faceless’ by The Great Gray Funk on the playlist. I’ll definitely be exploring the rest of their work.”
What song would you like to add as a bonus track and why?
“It may seem rather self-serving, but I genuinely have no idea whether other bands are technically indie or not, so I’m just going to pick another The Vaulted Skies track. In fact, it’s going to be a track that was featured in a previous Cool Top 20 ‘Hollowhead’.”
Website and social links:
(All photos by Paul Hudson.)
Written by: leancool20
Actors Andy McFarlane Ben Singleton Burn David Bowie Elliott Smith Hollowhead James AJ Scott Joanna Scott John Clare Kadeadkas Nirvana Paul Hudson Pete Bilk Pinkpop PJ Harvey Reeves Gabrels The Cure The Faces of Sarah The Great Gray Funk The Nine Lives of Love & Death The Vaulted Skies Wrong Number
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