Vincent Lum has taken many different guises within the Auckland music scene over the past decade: drumming in a punk trio, playing bass in a metal covers band, fronting his own blues-rock group, Whipping Cats. Now he’s released a new album, Weird Days, under the name Vincent HL. Gareth Shute talks to him about his fuzzed-out take on country rock and a set of songs that cover everything from death to hangovers to strange mystical vortexes.
It’s odd in 2018 to find a band like Vincent HL whose popularity exists mostly offline – the kind of band that can fill up Whammy Bar or Wine Cellar but, until this week, has only bothered posting on its Facebook page when it had a gig coming up. The new Vincent HL album, Weird Days, follows this old-school trend by coming out on the vinyl-only label, 1-to-12 Records (though it’s also available digitally).
In order to understand Vincent HL, it’s worth taking a brief look at the history of the musician behind the name, Vincent Lum. He was a 14-year-old half-Chinese kid with a big curly fro when his interest in music began in earnest. At the time he was a student at Massey High, where metal music reigned supreme. But Lum’s musical tastes went beyond metal – he was such big a fan of Billy Ocean and Huey Lewis & The News he even considered taking up the saxophone, but in the end picked up guitar instead. He started out playing bass in a covers band that specialised in Tool and Shihad, but they kicked him out when he started studying design at Unitec, arguing he should instead have got a job so he could buy better equipment.
At Unitec, Lum met Straton Heron who’d started playing the harmonica and wanted to form a garage blues band. Lum quickly learnt the rudiments of the 12-bar structure and together they bought the cheapest drumkit on TradeMe, enlisting another student, Chanel Bristow, to play it. The result was Whipping Cats, a trio that went on to tour the country with Connan Mockasin, play Camp A Low Hum and even appear on the cover of Sunday magazine. In the meantime, Lum had also been roped in to play the drums with Brad Fafejta (Thousand Island) and Chelsea Nikkel (Princess Chelsea) as TeenWolf.
Both bands rose to prominence within the Auckland indie scene, though fell short of wider success. Whipping Cats managed to release an album, but it came out the same month that Heron moved to the UK to live permanently. Lum found himself at a loss about what to do next. “I felt a bit disappointed and there were definitely some lost years after that,” he says. “I was reliant on other people – like Straton did a lot of the Whipping Cats recording and CD pressing – so I didn’t really know what to do. I did get pretty down about it if I’m honest. It was part of my identity and when it finished, I lost that. I partied a lot instead. I did start a new group for a while, but I’d already made plans to move to London so it was super short lived.”
It was only once he returned from overseas that Lum began working on the songs that would eventually appear on Weird Days, slowly teaching himself Pro Tools and recording all the parts himself. At the same time, he was being pulled back into the local music scene by old friends. “Matthew Crawley asked me to play keyboard with The Conjurors. I still had the organ from The Whipping Cats so I’d tinker on it now and then but I was still pretty nervous because I really didn’t know what I was doing. Then a few years later, the guys from Magic Factory must’ve seen me in Conjurors and figured Vincent can play so I joined that band as well. I’m not really all that good, though no one seems to notice.”
In the meantime, Lum had also started a third band, Hang Loose, alongside James Dansey (The Sneaks) and Chelsea Nikkel (Princess Chelsea). It was only when Magic Factory played Gonerfest festival in 2017, that the Vincent HL live band got started. “Bozo were touring in the states at the same time as Magic Factory. Harry [Harriet Ellis] who plays bass in Bozo volunteered to play bass. So we started talking about it and getting amped up. I was hanging out with Matt Short [Magic Factory, Opensouls] playing table tennis in Memphis and he was like ‘I’m keen’. We got back to New Zealand and Dan [Ward] from The Sneaks and Droor had just come back from living in New York and was at a loose end, so he joined too.”
Lum’s years of playing different instruments in multiple bands came in handy when it came to finishing off the album since he was able to lay down all the parts himself. His approach was always to record the vocals and acoustic guitar together first to capture the feel of the song, even keeping takes with fudged notes and sliding tempos if they had a good feel. Yet Lum admits that the album took much longer than he’d intended. He even wrote the song ‘Get Off My Couch’ partly as motivation to himself to stop lazing around.
Elsewhere on the album, Lum repeatedly returns to the subject of death on tracks like ‘Yeeeaah’, ‘Way Down Low,’ and ‘Off the Cliffs’. “Death is all through blues and country. My song ‘Off The Cliffs’ is a re-telling of a John Steinbeck story which I really like. It’s called ‘Flight’ and it’s about a teenage boy who kills someone so his mother has to help him escape town and go on the lam. He tries to get out through all these mountains, but doesn’t make it…”
Back in the Whipping Cats days, Lum did write some dark songs (‘These Murdering Hands’), but his new work has the weight of experience to it. He takes a similarly circumspect attitude when it comes to singing about partying and getting wasted – often focusing on the dangers of overdoing it (‘Snacks’ recalls a ‘green-out on the lawn’) or the subsequent hangover (‘Up All Night’).
“With Whipping Cats, it was all about living inside the moment, not really conscious of what’s around you. Now my songs are more likely to be looking back on what happened or focusing on different kinds of moments – the walk home at four in the morning with the sun coming up or those hangover days, where you sit in the lounge all day. They’re nice times, but they’re also sad in a way.”
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The sound of the record echoes these themes with warped waves of distorted guitar that come in and out. Lum is a fan of country acts like Slim Whitman and Townes van Zandt (he’s even done whole solo sets covering the latter) but wanted to balance this out by injecting some of the heavy guitars you’d hear in bands like Sleep and doom metal band, Electric Wizard. His friend, Michael Logie (The Mint Chicks, F In Math), also put him onto early Beck tracks like ‘Fume’, where the strummed acoustic is contrasted with noisy, fuzzed out guitar.
This moody, Lynchian approach to folk music reaches its trippy peak on ‘The Unknown and the Infinite’ which Lum says was inspired by a trip to hippie-town Sedona in the US. ‘They’re supposed to have spiritual vortexes located around there – pools of mystic energy,” he says. “We found a piece of paper that had vague directions to one, so we drove out into the desert to try to find it. We got to the end of the road and just walked into this rocky section of desert, with mesa in the distance – big flat-topped mountains – ragged rocks and turquoise bushes, all under a big blue sky. The kind of place where you think a snake might jump out to bite you at any second. So we went along trying to find this vortex – apparently, you’ve got to look for trees all twisted from the power of the energies. It was pretty surreal, even if we didn’t find anything definitive, so we found a river and swam in that instead.”
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