Glass Vaults Explain That ‘Braingasm’ Thing Ahead of Coastella

Indie-pop shapeshifters Glass Vaults want to bring you a little bit of a cerebral thrill. Their latest release The New Happy mixes twisting guitars with spasms of digital blips and dashes – all intended to get you moving. Ahead of their upcoming appearance at Kapiti Coast’s Coastella Festival, Richard Larson talks to Tim Gruar about raising puppies, creating spine tingling ‘brain orgasms’ and maintaining long distance relationships with his band mates.

When I ring Richard, he’s feeling happy chilling at his Christchurch home. He moved down there last year to become an Intermediate School Art teacher, and still on holiday, he’s found time to ‘potty train’ his new Huntaway-cross. “Very loyal dogs. They love walks and the sunshine,” he says, “and a pretty big eater, too.”

I ask him what the band scene is like down there now, a few years on from the earthquakes and in the midst of a construction sprint. “I feel it’s a pretty supportive scene. Wellington was, too. For those small bands, lots of venues now and plenty of musicians to support you and help you find your way. Auckland was more fragmented, and I don’t think I really found my way up there.”

Formerly based in Wellington, the band is now scattered across the country. Richard’s band mates – Bevan Smith, Rowan Pierce and Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa (also of French for Rabbits) – live in Wellington and Auckland. And he’s ensconced in Canterbury. How do they manage to record and play together? “By email and internet,” he says, “Well mostly. We’d like to be a full-time band but we have it together. We’re a pretty tight unit. We get together for two weeks in holidays and such to record and rehearse. It works somehow. For festivals and gigs we can just fly in and play. I have about 3 albums on my hard drive. I can email stuff around to the band to work with. Then we get together for two weeks and work it up.”

The band released their second album, The New Happy, late last year, following on from their previous release Sojourn. Recorded live over three days, The New Happy is a record full of dreamy synth-pop constructions and gently seductive rhythms. It’s a record that equally soothes and excites.

According to the accompanying information, it’s a collection of songs “built around golden frequencies.” It continues on to say that the album’s concept is “constructed around the creation of “Brain Orgasms” – or in science-speak: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR.) This is a sort of fleeting, spontaneous physical thrill, a sensation affecting the entire body leaving leaving a sense of euphoria and general wellness. “That’s a rough description – but I like ‘Braingasm,’ because music can make you feel that way, doesn’t it?”

Well documented in psychology journals, ASMR is sometimes triggered by a particular pattern of rhythms and sounds. So, here I am, conjuring images of mad scientists in lab coats with Devo hats and guitars. Richard pulls me back to earth. “Well, it’s a pop record, at the heart of it, but while we were making it, Bevan got really fascinated with ASMR and decided he’d try and get the music to trigger those responses by some sort of mysterious tinkering in his studio.”

Where did the idea come from? Richard tells me that the band first started recording this new album back in May and June 2015, just after their previous album was released. Sojourn had been layered with washes and reverbs. “This time we wanted to change it up. Bevan was really interested in ASMR and started showing us videos on line. He was also really interested in New York pop from the 1980’s. Stuff that was more synthesizers based. Stuff that had vocals and synth upfront but quite percussive. Bands like Talking Heads, Grace Jones, Tom Tom Club. So, we were mixing all these elements together to get to that ‘Happy’ sound.”

Getting Richard to elaborate more fully on how the band uses that musical formulae to deliberately set off these ASMR responses is tricky. He says it’s all down “tight room reverb and careful sound modulations which build as the song sounds as a song progresses. On stage, we may get to see this inaction. Or a band twiddling many knobs.

Richard claims that The New Happy was something of a departure from the ethereal, ambient aural architectures of Sojourn. This follows the trajectory of the band, who were initially a duo when they started life back in 2010 under the name ‘Vaults.’ But after going online to sell their music they changed their name to Glass Vaults. “The name change was intentional. We wanted this sound like a cavernous cathedral, high vaulted, endless and reverberant but also fragile and ethereal.” And that was the intention for the first two EPs and then their debut album. That was the direction of Sojourn, he says. But when Bevan arrived, that changed. “Instead of making it ambient (like they had in their previous album and ep), we wanted to bring those 80’s pop sounds into the room so it sounds like a kooky, off the wall texture.”

Ok, so some of that ‘flavour’ still remains on the The New Happy, particularly with the song Sojourn reappearing mid album. But elsewhere everything is upbeat and nervously ‘jiggy’. Apparently, this musical style was also inspired by Paul Simon’s Graceland and Patti Smith, Roxy Music – even Crowded House. The late 1970’s and early 80’s contribute many elements including all around percussive beats and harmonies. These are the kind that built David Byrne’s career, the kind that make a really good ‘funky-jiggy’ hook.

On stage, the band often brings a mix of music and visuals via a slide show. That’s to be expected because, after all, Richard and Rowan have art school backgrounds. In fact, this is where they first met. Very Pink Floyd. “We met at art school. So, the band has always been from an art perspective. We don’t specifically use ASMR in our shows, but we do reference it to keep the vibe, I guess.”

Live, the band expands and contracts, with the four core team members (Richard, Bevan Smith, Rowan Pierce, Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa.) “But then it can expand into a five piece, which sometimes includes a percussionist, depending on who’s available. Lately, we’ve been playing with Ben Levy (Trinity Roots).” If they can swing it, Richard plans to bring in some vocalists to the Coastella show. Depending on the timing, they may bring some visuals too – something psychedelic. That will depend on the changeover times, he says. “But I can promise that whatever we do. It’ll be ‘Braingasmic’!”

Glass Vaults’ The New Happy is available now at:

Tim Gruar