Following 2018’s acclaimed ‘Psychic Data’, TVAM’s Joe Oxley has reappeared with a second long-player, ‘High Art Lite’, all cranked-up synth distortion, shoegazey euphoria and white-hot noise. Get ready for a vertiginous wall of sound

One day, in roughly 7.6 billion years’ time, the Earth will slip from its orbit and plunge into the burning heart of the sun. For those of you misanthropic enough to welcome this oncoming Armageddon, I have good news. Listening to TVAM’s fierce and fiery new long-player, ‘High Art Lite’, feels like a dress rehearsal for this unavoidable solar apocalypse.

The album is surf garage in a furnace. A synth orgy in a barbecue pit. A blistering barrage of fervent guitars and guttural synths, washed in plastic luminosity like a nuclear spill at Wigan Pier.

“It’s certainly louder,” says TVAM’s scorcher-in-chief, Joe Oxley. “The record company said this was the loudest thing they’d put out. I’m happy with that.”

‘High Art Lite’ is TVAM’s follow-up to 2018’s ‘Psychic Data’. The first album’s dreamy psychedelia prompted comparisons to Suicide and Boards Of Canada. The new work follows the same aesthetic, with woozy vocals wavering over distorted electro. However, this second long-player is more visceral. The shoegaze of the first has become a seething glare.

Take its glorious introduction, ‘Future Flesh’. An extended organ shimmer bursts into a beat-heavy explosion of sound, complete with giddy helicopter bass and searing guitar lines. It’s like strolling along the beach and watching the entire sea catch fire.

“The whole start meshes together,” says Oxley. “You go through this sub-Elton John zone, then the curtain rises and the entire band’s revealed. There was a time I thought this was the closing track because of the scale of it.”

And the choice of organ?

“It’s me trying to do the Inspiral Carpets!”

He swears by his Philicorda electronic organ, no doubt a staple instrument for psychedelic hippies and trippy vicars everywhere. Although don’t ask him for an organ solo, because he doesn’t consider himself a virtuoso on the keys. Far from it.

“I’m not the deftest of players,” he shrugs. “I’m very much a MIDI-to-CV kind of guy. When it comes to playing, I let the computers do the work.”

From the opening explosion, with every cobweb dutifully singed from your earholes, there’s largely no let-up on ‘High Art Lite’. Largely. That adverb will need explanation later in this article. ‘Every Day In Every Way’ leads with a staccato riff and the chompy energy of Pac-Man eating all the pellets at once. The single, ‘Double Lucifer’, matches corroded rust-drums with spiralling waveforms and a hurricane guitar line.

I want to talk about the sheer power overload of the production, but Oxley points me towards something more esoteric instead – English novelist JG Ballard, whose books have given us some of the most vivid moments in literary history. Think of the wartime scavenging of ‘Empire Of The Sun’, the tower-block violence of ‘High-Rise’, people getting horny in Ford Fiestas in ‘Crash’.

More specifically, the scuffed and sun-drenched ‘Piz Buin’ is Oxley’s tribute to Ballard’s 1996 novel ‘Cocaine Nights’, which follows the dodgy goings-on in an exclusive Spanish resort. The ‘Piz Buin’ video is a kaleidoscopic collage of tropical holidays and utopian home robotics. Imagine a Thomas Cook travel agent in ‘Blade Runner’ Los Angeles. “Escape life for a little while,” say the lyrics while referencing sunburn, heart attacks and being generally annoyed with other people on vacation. Utopia burned with streaks of dystopia.

“I was using such bright sounds, with sunshine coming out of them,” he says. “The book and the track are about ultimate wealth and things that go on in a boxed-off enclave.”

For legal reasons, we must point out that the title of that piece is absolutely not a satirical take on the sun-care brand, Piz Buin. No sir, not at all.

“To sidestep any confusion, Piz Buin is actually a mountain range in the Alps,” says Oxley with knowing emphasis. “Some people have, er, told me that it’s also a common feature of holidays in the sunshine.”

We’ll leave it there, Joe.

JG Ballard is not the only bookish reference Oxley drops into the interview. He also namechecks US postmodern novelist Don DeLillo, whose consumer control phrase “psychic data” gave him the title of TVAM’s first album. These references are no surprise because Joe Oxley has a hidden past – he’s spent a whole bunch of his adult life working in public libraries.

“My wife always tells me I’m a really slow reader,” he says. “I feel like I should be more literary than I am. But what working in libraries allowed me to do was dabble a bit more than I perhaps would have, had I not been in that environment. I enjoy exploring ideas through reading.”

Having self-produced ‘Psychic Data’, a big change on ‘High Art Life’ was having Invada Records come on board. The label, of course, was co-founded by Geoff Barrow, of Portishead/Beak fame.

“We got the chance to play with Beak in Paris, and they showed an interest in us as a band,” says Oxley. “The most important thing for any artist thinking of joining a label is to ask yourself if you can see yourself on it. I definitely could have seen the first album coming out on Invada.”

On his Facebook page, Oxley thanks mixer James Trevascus and masterer Grant Berry for “sacrificing their ears so you can play it loud”. He’s not wrong. The way he describes Berry’s mastering technique, I imagine the process behind the mixing desk went as follows. Step One – ask Berry to embellish something that perhaps sounds a little distorted. Step Two – watch him respond by cranking the faders through the roof until the windows shatter. Animal from ‘The Muppet Show’ with twiddly knobs instead of drums.

When it comes to James Trevascus, Oxley appears in awe. Trevascus, it seems, added oomph that would have been impossible on a solo-produced record.

“Had it not been touched by James, it would have been purely uncomfortable, rather than uncomfortable and enjoyable!”

We chat in detail about specific sounds. He talks about Trevascus making the hi-hats grate, reaching frequencies Oxley felt he was unable to hear, and about bass being something that “surrounds and envelops you, and keeps you in a space”. He recalls early TVAM gigs held in deliberately small rooms to make sure that space was as up-close and personal as possible.

All this is plain to hear. Just listen to the corrugation of the cymbals on ‘Say Anything’. When I praise the rustiness of his sounds, Oxley lights up.

“I’m less interested in the pristine,” he says. “Distortion and degraded sounds can work harmoniously. If you start to distort things, the whole thing sloshes and everything pulses at the same time. It’s like a texture.”

Using all of the frequencies all of the time – a wall of sound for a generation that doesn’t remember Wall of Sound.

“There’s space there, so why not use it?” adds Oxley.

Earlier, I said the album “largely” didn’t let up. In fact, it does let up. As well as what he calls his “Michael Mann LA” instrumental, ‘Shallow Ends’, at the end of Side One, there are two ‘Club Nautico’ interludes. Named after the nightspot in Ballard’s ‘Cocaine Nights’, whose manager is accused of murder, they provide welcome gasps of air in the record’s fiery sea.

‘Club Nautico (Part 1)’ has lapping waves and chirruping birds while an electro track plays merrily in the distance, as if it’s on a bar stereo at the side of a swimming pool. This diegetic tune was originally meant to be a main track, but it was too pop for Oxley’s taste. Later, it all muffles as we plunge underwater. This is his deliberate metaphor for how overwhelming he wanted the album to feel. Everything loops back around on ‘Club Nautico (Part 2)’, where we resurface with a big splash. And breathe. The effect has a curiously personal inspiration.

“I’m not religious, and my dad isn’t now, but he was baptised by total immersion,” says Oxley. “The phrase ‘total immersion’ stuck with me. That aspect of leaving one’s sense of self. I can’t get away from the fact it’s an album that’s aware of itself.”

On that divine note, I wonder if there’s any religious inspiration behind the excoriating Nine-Inch-Nailed single ‘Double Lucifer’? An uncle who joined the Satanists, perhaps? An aunt who stole biscuits at church coffee mornings?

“It’s just a snappy title, mate,” he shrugs. “It made me laugh because it sounded like a wrestling move.”

The release has been partnered with lyric videos – Super 8 nostalgic video collages emblazoned with words in massive sans-serif capitals. Like being pelted over and again by the Hollywood sign. The vocals are so washed-out that having this captioned clarity seems like a rare treat.

“TAKE OFF AND NEVER COME BACK,” shout the words on title track ‘High Art Lite’. On ‘Semantics’, we read the pithy rhyming couplet, “WE’LL ENTER INTO PARTNERSHIP / OF NOUGHTS AND ONES AND MICROCHIPS”. This video text effect was used on the first album’s release, but everything seems ramped up this time. With the words so large, it’s a surprise to find Oxley’s attitude to lyrics so, well, small.

“There’s a bit of me that wants to wipe my voice out,” he says. “It’s another texture, not necessarily the focus of the track.”

His shyness certainly adds to his charm, and we laugh awkwardly when we get too deep.

“There’s a part of you that’s really proud and a part of you that’s full of shame,” he says. With a smile.

We’re meeting at Oxley’s home in Wigan, an occasion that includes polite interruptions from his cat and his son. The room is full of nods to the past. There are shelves of board games, including Buckeroo! and Pictionary. And there’s a proper old-school stereo with racks of albums. Records on display include Grand Prix’s ‘Mach 1’ and Takeshi Terauchi’s ‘Nippon Guitars (Instrumental Surf, Eleki & Tsugaru Rock 1966-1974)’.

There’s even a sunburst clock – a home furnishing I’ve not seen since I interviewed Molly Half Head in the early 1990s. All of which reminds me that nostalgia plays a significant role in TVAM’s aesthetic.

“In the first couple of years of TVAM, the visual aspect was about exploring when I was six or seven years old, about the age my son is now,” explains Oxley. “It’s dated, but the moment you introduce other aspects like text, it begins to feel like something discarded that’s been found again.”

The nostalgia informs the music more directly than you would think, especially in the choice of synthesisers. All the synths used in Oxley’s records were made between 1977 and 1989. Or thereabouts.

“I appreciate that’s a pretty big span of time,” he says.

He praises the joysticked Enya favourite, the Roland D-50 – a synth that soundtracked television during his childhood. He likes the ARP Quartet and Korg M1 for strings and the Roland SH-2 for basslines.

And he remembers buying his first synth, a Korg MS-10, because he was really into two particular bands – London electronic outfit Add N To (X) and a very recognisable bunch of plastic-domed brothers from Ohio.

“When I was younger, I wasn’t a fan of British synthesiser music. I’m more into characters like Devo and their interplay of punk and electronics. That’s why I got interested in Add N To (X). They’re not just a synth band – it’s the guitars too. At the time, I was playing in a band that did Devo surf music, sort of like Man Or Astro-Man?. I still like that combination of guitars and electronics.”

There are other nods to the 1990s, with the title inspired by the Brit Art movement. Oxley mentions no names, but sharks in formaldehyde come to mind, as do messy beds and other Cool Britannia things that made The KLF burn £1 million of their own money in frustration.

“It’s specifically about the presence of money within the art world,” says Oxley. “The cynical edge-lordliness of it. Art that thinks it speaks for something but speaks for nothing.”

It’s not long before we chat about that staple of millennium American indie, The Dandy Warhols. Two tracks later on in the album, ‘Say Anything’ and ‘Host’, feature traces of the Vodafone-plugging power pop pedlars.

“I love The Dandy Warhols for that ear for melody and harmony,” admits Oxley. “I like the idea of melodies being as primitive as possible. I’ll side with three chords over being virtuoso any time.”

So fiery it feels like falling “into the burning heart of the sun” is probably not the best advert for TVAM’s ‘High Art Lite’. Apologies for that. At least we can soundtrack that advert with some retro synths.

Joe Oxley’s next job is to take all this brash brightness and foist it on an unsuspecting public. He’ll perform alongside Jason Hughes, his long-time “wingman”, on keyboards, and drummer Liam Stewart, who first played with TVAM at Cardiff Psych & Noise Fest a few short months ago.

“The three-piece has been more powerful than I thought it was going to be,” says Oxley. “I’ve really missed getting out there and doing shows. I’m even looking forward to the boring moments between soundchecks.”

‘High Art Lite’ ends with the climactic chorus of the title track. The vocals soar. The drums splash. An acid bass frolics lightly over it all. ‘A Storm In Heaven’-era Verve on poppers. Man Or Astro-Man? after too many strawberry laces. It’s an exhilarating end to a shiny and luminous album. The lyrics? Let’s write them in capitals. “IF DREAMS CAN BE BOUGHT / THEN THIS WHOLE THING FALLS APART.” TVAM’s ‘High Art Lite’ is, of course, on sale now.

‘High Art Lite’ is out on Invada

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