VAST’s Jon Crosby is a poet that is able to seamlessly compose a song to suit the listener’s every mood. His back catalogue and extensive accomplishments as a solo artist, author and in his band speak for themselves. Over here in the UK and at home in the States, things have been a little quiet over the last few years. We had a brief chat over the phone with Jon about what has been going on recently. We delve into the past, alongside talking a little bit about technology, the record industry and British tea.
“Technology is generally used for evil”
S] The music you create under VAST has a varied emotional effect on those that listen worldwide, can you describe the thought process that you went through, or the series of personal events within your life that led up to the creation of VAST?
JC] I started playing music when I was pretty young, and when I was younger, between like 11 and my teenage years, I was thinking about music on a more intellectual level which is what I think most musicians do when they first start. You are still just learning the craft, about how it works and playing your instrument whilst finding your first songs. I think just going back to what you said about having an emotional effect on people, as I got older and gained more life experience, having disappointments, set-backs and break-ups and those kinds of things, I started to insert those experiences into songs. That’s when I think my song writing started to become a little more “real” for lack of a better word. I think it’s important to have experiences whether they are good or bad in any form, as any artist whether you are a writer, film-maker or a musician you have to have something to draw from.
S] Do you have a favourite place in which to write your music?
JC] I think that there are all kinds of great places on the planet, for me going to new places is always inspiring, I think that anywhere I haven’t been before inspires me. It gives me a new experience to draw from. I went to Japan in March. It was really inspiring as I had never been there before. I think it’s important for musicians to travel, because when you tour you don’t ever get a chance to experience the places you are going to. I have had the opportunity to spend more time in England other than touring and it was great.
S] I read that you became bored of creating electronic music so within ‘April’ and your solo work, the music became a lot more raw and acoustic – was it because you wanted to try something simpler?
JC] I would say so, I think bored is a very strong word though, I probably didn’t use that one. I think from the time I was 16-to-17 to when I was maybe around 30, I was doing a lot of self-produced electronic music with keyboards and computers and it was nice to take a break from that for a little while. With that process it is, for lack of a better word tedious to create a song because you have to construct it. It’s almost like building a house. It’s cool and it is fun but at the same time you can’t just jump into a song.
With a lot of the Generica stuff I did, I wouldn’t call it VAST because it was such a departure stylistically. It was really nice for me to be able to grab my guitar, sit in front of a microphone and just bang it out and record it. It was refreshing for me, and it was something I did for me. Really, it was something that I didn’t have high commercial hopes for it was just something that I enjoyed doing. I also enjoy electronic music too and I am going back into that direction now, I feel a little bit re-energised so I can do that, because I have taken the last two years to do something different, I feel that I can jump full-swing back into the more produced stuff. I can now enjoy that style more because I have had a vacation away from it.
S] Was there a specific event that inspired this return to your electronic roots?
JC] I think for me, strangely enough, it was because I ended up writing this book called Bang Band SiXX which is kind of this dystopian satire-futuristic-dark-sci-fi thing I worked on. I decided that I also wanted to release some music with it, because it was about a band in the future. I realised that it probably shouldn’t be acoustic so I did some programmed electronic music for it, and I think that it turned out really very good. When I played it for everyone they were like, this is really cool and it really sounds like VAST [laughs] everyone seemed to like it so much more than a lot of the acoustic music I did. I really enjoyed making it and listening to it. I was coming at it from a new angle and a new place, it wasn’t just me sitting down and writing music I was coming from this place as this character of Davey Jones who is one of the main characters in the book. It was like that old Oscar Wilde quote, ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ The idea is that we feel like when we have a persona we can show a side of ourselves that we normally wouldn’t feel comfortable showing.
To me, that ‘Bang Band SiXX’ EP kind of had a sexually darker feel to it and it was more shock-oriented than the Generica stuff I did which is all about love and it’s very sentimental. I realised that I kind of like doing this rock thing, it’s not really always sentimental and it’s nice to do something that just really rocks.
S] Do you see Bang Band SiXX as a form of expression for your darker side, and had you always wanted to write the book as a natural progression from your solo work and the work with VAST?
JC] I didn’t really always see myself going in that direction, I just felt like I had to get it out. It was really cathartic for me. I had more to say than I felt like I could in just song lyrics. The good thing about a book is that you get 80-to-100,000-plus words to say what you want to say. So there is more opportunity for satire and to allow for subtleties in the language than you get within a three-to-six minute song where you don’t have a lot of time to say what you want. There’s a lot of humour in the book too. I am generally not a big fan of funny music because I like my music serious so, in a book or a film I feel like humour works better.
S] So it’s almost an expression of your lighter side, rather than a darker one?
JC] I would say so, I mean the story is darker, but it is a dark satire. So there is a lot of humour in the book that I wouldn’t be able to throw into the music so easily.
S] What came first the music from BB6 or the story?
JC] It was the book that came first, and I just thought to myself about what kind of music this group would do and I made some songs around that. They are not totally attached, as far as the lyrics. The songs don’t really have that much to do with the book per say, it was just more that I thought, ‘these are the type of songs that I think this guy would sing’. But then again, I think that everyone knows that a lot of the characters that you create fictionally are bits and pieces of yourself too.
S] In what ways do your more recent releases showcase how you have grown and developed as a person over the last few years from ‘Nude’ in 2004 until now?
JC] I think that I went through a few bad years personally where I started to become apathetic about life and I started drinking too much and I gained a lot of weight. I also went through a bad break-up with a fiancée and a bad situation with our label at the time back then. I started just not really caring about life and kind of going through the motions. Over the last year and a half I have done a real 180 turn and I have started making major changes, with quitting drinking and losing lots of weight and all these kinds of things. I think that everybody in life goes through different phases where they have good years and bad years and I think for me personally, 2004 and 2005 were not particularly great. We didn’t really release much during those years. I released some old stuff but I wasn’t feeling particularly creative and I certainly wasn’t very happy. 2008 was when I really climbed out of it and 2009 is the first really good year I have had in a long time. I am getting older you know? I feel a lot different at 32 than I did at 22 about a lot of things and I really think differently about life now on the whole.
S] You prefer to release groups of songs for download rather than singles – you are a big supporter of the digital age in general – what do you think about the whole ‘pay what you like’ scheme championed by the likes of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails?
JC] Well, we were doing a lot of things digitally before Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead because they were both in contracts. I am not saying that I am this genius and we were ahead of our time, but we were in a situation in 2003 where we were free from our contract, we released our ‘Turquoise and Crimson’ downloads for $2.99 and we were one of the first bands to do that. I remember seeing an interview with Trent Reznor a few years back where he said that as soon as he got out of his contract with Interscope he was going to start releasing music directly, kind of like we were doing, though he didn’t mention us. Then with Radiohead, they got out of their contract and that freed them up to price things how they wanted to. I think it’s kind of a strange time. As the labels have less money they cut their contracts with artists, and then the artists are free to do what they want and in turn release their music for whatever price they want or for free.
Even ten years ago when I first started I thought the records were over-priced I think that music should be less money. There’s plenty of money to go around if you are a successful artist so, it doesn’t have to be $15 dollars or £10 pounds in the UK it’s crazy. So I think that created a lot of the piracy right there, because people just didn’t and still don’t want to pay these exorbitant prices for CDs you know? Now we are in a place where music is cheaper but it’s also free. The way that I look at it, I am not so concerned about the financial investment, it’s just the time investment. It’s difficult to invest a year of your life into an album, and it is work, and then people get it for free. I mean, I don’t regret that, it’s just that I would rather spend two months on an album and spend the other ten months in the Caribbean. I mean anyone can afford to go to there and be a bum. I could just go and travel the world with a backpack and that would be more interesting than spending ten months of my life in a recording studio sitting in front of a computer screen just so people can get whatever I do for free.
I don’t think that this is really popular for musicians to say because everyone is supposed to be like, ‘yeah everything should be free.’ When anybody does any kind of work, I mean, if someone were to take this interview and re-publish it in their publication without even mentioning your name, it’s like what are you doing this for? There’s better things to be doing, for you it’s like ‘I could be down at the pub instead of talking to this jerk Jon Crosby, but I have to do this because it is work.’ It’s like, though it is work, I will always love it. I don’t do music to get paid, but there is a difference between doing music as a hobby and doing music as a profession. When you do music as a hobby you just do it whenever you feel like it, but when you do it as a profession you show up at 10am and then you work for 10 to 12 hours and that’s how it is done. I think that bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have always made a lot of money on the road. I think they always have. That’s how rock and roll will always be. I think that even back in the day, like 20 years ago bands were not even making that much money from their record companies, they were making money from touring. The irony is that I guess it doesn’t really affect musicians as much. I guess the difference is that we are getting ripped off by the public more than the record companies but it really is six of one and half a dozen of the other.
S] Are you a technology geek, if so how does this side of your personality coexist with your musical side?
JC] I wouldn’t really consider myself a tech person, I feel like I am into older things. I enjoy things that are not so technology based like sailing. Which for me is romantic because I am using the power of the wind, I like things that are old, whether it is red wine, or sailing or whatever. Things that have been around for thousands of years to me are more mysterious. As far as technology, I use it as a tool and I view it as such. A computer is just a tool and that is all, but I think it has become much more than that and it’s kind of dangerous. It is a simple tool in the same way that cars are also just tools. In America at least we act as if life without a car is not really a life. I don’t have a car, I mean I hate cars! I know how to drive, when I used to live in California I drove every day but it’s just, to me it really sucks, you know? I find cars to be dangerous, expensive and annoying and it’s just so much easier to walk around so in a lot of ways I feel like I hate technology but at the same time, it is a tool to use for good or evil. It just generally seems to be used for evil.
I feel like in my music, the songs themselves have more emphasis on the lyrics, the poetry and the melody and these are the essential aspects. Yeah I do like technology when I am making music it’s true. We are inundated with technology so much now, that there is no choice. If I decided to take a stand against technology and not use computers to make music I would be pretty much not making music. That’s the problem as I’ve said, it becomes more than a tool and as such it becomes a way of life. We can’t escape it, you can’t tell people these days, ‘you don’t want to own a mobile phone!’ because you can’t really live without one anymore because they took away the pay phones. It’s like technology has over run our lives completely.
S] We picture you as a bit of a control freak, was it difficult to let other band members in on the creative process for the first time, as you had been doing it yourself for so long?
JC] I like collaborating with people but I always just want the music to be the best that it can be. The musicians that I am playing with now I am playing with for the first time in the last couple of years. They always come up with really great ideas and really good parts. Everything is really great. They just understand where it is that I am coming from and what it is I do, they are just really talented I guess. In the past, when I first got started, people would introduce ideas to me that were not good, I would tell them this and then they would get this idea that I was stubborn and controlling but I think that it was just that I have always been very serious about what it is that I release. I want to be proud of it. I don’t take myself that seriously but I will always take the music seriously. I try hard to make the best music that I can, sometimes I fall short but it’s never through lack of trying.
I do work well with people and without them, I can go both ways. A lot of time with electronic music it starts out just me sequencing on a computer. One of the problems I had with our last label Electra was that they would try and change my music or alter it and tell me what kind of music videos to make. I was just like, ‘This isn’t what I wanted to do, this isn’t fun or anything that I signed up for.’ I probably wouldn’t have signed the deal with them in the first place if I knew they were not going to let me have input on the music videos and things. A lot of my ideas were shot down. I am an artist and a very creative person. This is what I enjoy doing and the label said to me, ‘If you don’t do it our way then it’s the highway.’ I chose the highway. I don’t have any regrets, it’s not rewarding for me to do things and not have that creative outlet. That is why I do it first and foremost. It’s not to be a rock star. I mean I would love to be a bigger rock star but only if I could create my art. I wouldn’t want to be a bigger rock star and doing music that I didn’t believe in.
S] How have you managed working with other artists as part of your label 2Blossoms and how does that fit into your future?
JC] After Electra we signed with another independent label and that really didn’t work out very well, so we decided to release records ourselves through our own label and through a distributor. So, we came up with this idea of this company 2Blossoms. It became clear pretty early on though, by around 2006 that I really didn’t want to sign any other artists. I didn’t have the resources to promote them properly, the whole concept of signing them and then taking a percentage of their money seemed really wrong. I also didn’t want to take time away from my music to work on somebody else’s because it seemed like a waste. I think that other musicians can do their thing and I will do mine. I don’t mind collaborating and producing here and there but I think that it would be a bad idea for me to take a year off to produce somebody else’s album when I should be making my own. I guess if I was much older and I had stopped making my own albums it would make sense. I feel like it would be bizarre right now. I don’t want to be the A and R [artists and representation] man and I don’t want to be the CEO of a big record company. That’s not who I am and that’s not what I am interested in doing.
Once I realised that, it became clear that I really didn’t want to do 2Blossoms anymore. It always seemed a bit of a joke to say, ‘Yeah I have a record company, and we have one artist, guess who it is..? It’s me!’ it’s kind of ridiculous. Right now I would consider us as just VAST, as an independent or unsigned band or whatever you want to call it. I couldn’t imagine signing to a major label again because, there’s no deal that would be good enough for me to become comfortable about giving away the control. If someone gave me one million dollars to dance around in a pink tutu and sing cover songs it just wouldn’t be worth it because I am an artist and I just want to do my thing. I think we are out there like a lot of band’s now, I think the best word to describe us really would be freelance. We just do what we want, whenever we want.
S] You have enjoyed intimate gigs in the UK before now, will you return and do larger scale live shows at all in the future and what do you enjoy most about performing in the UK?
JC] We are coming to tour the UK in the fall of this year actually [Ed’s note: in September] and to us it really doesn’t matter if there are 10 people or 10,000. Of course, the more people we get to come to our shows, the better. It’s not about the money, like I said there is plenty of money to go around if you are able to reach a lot of people, that’s not a problem.
S] You have said that you travel to the UK for fun, how do you enjoy your time over here, do you head over to the pub for a pint?
JC] I don’t really drink a lot of beer here in America, I mean I had a beer when I was over there a year ago. I am not really a twelve-stepper where I don’t touch the stuff, I am sure the next time I am in England I will have one, for sure because it’s better than the beer in the States. The Indian food is great in England too. I love everything and there is nothing really that stands out to me that I don’t like. It’s fun to be around older architecture, and the parks are nice. Oh yeah, the tea is great! That’s probably a big thing for me. The tea we have in America is terrible. I always have my British friends send me tea.
S] We were in Boston, Massachusetts recently and we were sad because we couldn’t find Yorkshire Tea over there…
JC] That’s the brand my friends send me actually, it’s called Yorkshire Gold I think. I have a box at home and I drink it all the time.
For more information visit the band’s Myspace and website.
Check out the video for ‘Pretty When You Cry’ below: