TVAM

Listening to musical auteur Joe Oxley talk about his TVAM project is a wonderfully thrilling and illuminating experience. Ideas, concepts, themes, explanations… all are rapidly fired off; each view sparking another opinion, each assumption provoking a fresh thought.

Given the events of the last two years, coupled with the fact that TVAM’s second album, High Art Lite is ready to explode – literally if you gaze upon its provocative Pop Art-inspired cover – Oxley, unsurprisingly, is brimming with hypotheses. Whereas his first album, the wildly inventive Psychic Data – where the spirit of post-punk, electro rock’n’roll did battle with the hypnotic rhythms of Krautrock – focused on the unknown influences over our surrounds and the information that permeates our unconscious, High Art Lite has a wider, more colourful, although no less disconcerting, remit.

“This focuses on influences we readily consume and ideas we consciously lean towards,” Oxley explains, “and how these drive us both publicly and privately, often pushing people’s world views towards absolute positions.”

According to Oxley, High Art Lite centres upon the stories, characters and beliefs we absorb and how we latch onto these ideas to guide us through our lives.

“It’s also about how easy it is to feel so far away from our heroes,” Oxley expands. “The weight of our own expectations. The sadness at the core that, as we age, our options narrow, the universe shrinks, and we find ourselves in the shallow end.”

To the untrained eye – and ear – such a description might sound overly verbose. Too theoretical. One might expect an album weighed down by the heft of its own meaning. In reality, you couldn’t be further from the truth. From its playful title and unapologetically boisterous cover artwork to the barrage of sounds contained therein, High Art Lite is a joyous and euphoric listen. Granted, it’s ambitious and unafraid to take on lofty conceits, but it does so in an irreverent and spirited manner.

“Some people described Psychic Data as brooding and bleak,” Oxley recollects. “That there was a coldness to it. And I found that weird. I’ve never felt my music was cold. There are repetitive moments and that brings a certain hypnotic feel. But there’s a touch of humour and satire there too. In my head, at least, my music is halfway between the soundtrack for Threads (the definitive 80s dystopian apocalyptic war drama) and Vic and Bob. It’s small-scale satire.”

Written before, during and after lockdown, High Art Lite is unquestionably a giant leap forward for Oxley as a musician, writer and artist – lest we forget, the visual performances he incorporates into his live shows featuring a TV running long-forgotten video, is just as important to TVAM as the music. The new album is more expansive. More immediate. Livelier.

Writing with a band in mind has shifted the aesthetic. Oxley notes how the rhythms are more in line with live drums than the drum machines that powered his first album. Likewise, the electronics. They’re still present, but in Oxley’s mind they now occupy a different space and support a distinctive mood. Fundamentally, and without any audience feedback to bolster or inform his songwriting, his perceptions of his music have changed. “The pandemic didn’t influence the writing,” he says, “it just changed the circumstances. And it was only in the last month or so of writing that I realised that the songs hung together, in and of themselves.”

The end result is a refreshingly bold and accessible album. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes – the pop music sweet spot – the album treads a beguiling line between blissful harmonies (think the Beach Boys or Mercury Rev), crunching noise pop (Suicide, Velvet Underground, Loop) and a childlike innocence reminiscent of Boards of Canada and Cocteau Twins.

The opener, Future Flesh, sets out the album’s stall immediately. A swirling, crepuscular organ unfolding into a Kaleidoscopic kosmische groove. Every Day in Every Way is equally vibrant. A glam rock, electro boogie that Bolan would have killed for, it sees coruscating guitars duelling with symphonic synths. The nocturnal instrumental Shallow Ends hints at an alternative – and more sinister – soundtrack to Miami Vice; while the anthemic Double Lucifer is Heroes-era Bowie if he’d recorded in Los Angeles, rather than Berlin.

Elsewhere, Say Anything begins with a comforting, gauze-like splendour before being ripped asunder by jagged guitars and Piz Buin is a shimmering affirmation of Lauren Laverne’s apposite description of TVAM’s music resembling Spiritualized taken to the club. The album is both visceral and melancholic, drifting wonderfully across dream pop, shoegaze and synth-pop without ever permanently calling one camp its home.

As the song Piz Buin hints at, notions of holidays and leisure are apparent – sometimes literally, other times as more of an abstraction. But it’s always about pushing things as far as he can. Take Piz Buin for example – it’s a sun cream advert. But it’s also about the notion of too much leisure; too much free time – an idea that was prevalent during the first few months of lockdown in 2020. “There’s a touch of the film Sexy Beast in there and JG Ballard too,” he admits. “You know, when he was writing Cocaine Nights. Gated communities, that kind of thing. I’m interested in those things. Leisure, but with a really sort of dark undercurrent.”

Much like TVAM’s first album, the concept of nostalgia is never far away either. But not nostalgia as a means of providing succour to escape a horrible present – an emotional balm or crutch. Rather misplaced nostalgia and the half-forgotten memory. “Obviously since the internet there’s been this ability to easily bring back elements of your childhood, indeed a shared childhood,” he says. “I find that quite interesting because that’s when it gets weird. It’s whether your own personal experience of that time gets mixed up with other people’s. And what does that do for your understanding of yourself?”

Hence some of the sounds on the album – particularly the synth and keyboard sounds from the late 80s and early 90s that were used on UK TV shows at the time. Digital synths like the Roland DX-7, D-50 and Korg M1.

“I remember hearing those sounds watching TV in our living room and they always transport me back there.”

He continues: “I think there’s also a bit of repressed emotion and sadness in the mix, too. I find I’m more emotionally vulnerable watching a ‘weepy’ than I am in response to real events. I’m interested in whether this reaction is simply me responding to well-crafted filmic moments and I have more capacity/safety to feel an emotional response to a specific scene, or whether it’s simply a chance to vent my own underlying emotions. This occurrence isn’t always about sadness – there’s some of this that ties into wish-fulfilment and searching for positive emotions through fictional characters.”

According to Oxley, the myths of Hollywood’s Tinseltown play a big role in creating these tales. As such, an outsider’s view of LA acts as the spiritual location for the album.

And while Oxley describes the album as ‘musically-led’, the vocals, and the moods they add are just as vital. He describes the fluid textures of the vocals as akin to advertising – more subconscious, where elements shift into the next, providing an opportunity to reflect upon things without being direct or straightforward.

“I think in some ways you can actually arrive at more illuminating conclusions by having that space,” he explains. “When I write it’s very visual in my mind’s eye. I’m not a purely musical person and what I recognise is that in playing music and doing those things the visuals in my mind become clearer and stronger. I enjoy that pairing of music and visuals. It isn’t a purely musical experience for me to write a song. I’m almost daydreaming of a particular place. And when that’s locked in, the music catches up.”

Another progression has been signing to Invada, the Bristol indie, founded by Geoff (Portishead and BEAK>) Barrow and Paul Horlick. Previously, Oxley controlled everything, releasing his music himself. But signing to Invada was an exciting opportunity he couldn’t turn down.

“It felt like the right time,” he reflects. “I was a fan of the label before anything arose, so it was a comfortable move. I recognise the label’s ethos in supporting its artists.”

As for the album’s alluring title, Oxley says it describes the act of making art (in the broadest sense) in a tabloid world, where ideas are simplified and understanding isn’t the aim, rather polarisation. Art that exists within narrow confines, but with the motive of maximum impact.

“In a sense,” Oxley concludes, “it’s the idea of concentrating things. And that ties in with how the album is more colourful and vibrant in certain ways. It’s like it’s been compressed and condensed.” More ideas, more concepts, more theories: Welcome to the world of TVAM’s High Art Lite…






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