Before lockdowns, before pretty much all of 2020, there were bars. And in those bars, there would be the obvious: shelves stacked with everything from your go-to cheap whiskey to that Don Julio you swore you'd never drink again, sticky floors ringed with past spills, and a tucked-away space for something a little more magical—a stage. And while this stage became a catalyst for so many iconic acts back when the internet was but a distant future, we've watched it slowly transform into an afterthought, a background noise to ease your drunken stupor. But for London's rising dance trio, PVA, it wasn't just a supplement to online fame, it was their studio, their brainstorming session, their family gathering, and the thing they stood to lose the most when lockdowns first began. "I found the other day an old tour poster that we didn't even get to release and it had all our shows from like June, July, August and I was like, 'oh nooo,'" Ella Harris laments, seated promptly in front of her monitor beside bandmate Josh Baxter, rays of a fading sun softly illuminating the corners of the bedroom visible through my Zoom screen. "It's been a really good break for us," she continues. "We've had some time to kind of sort out our personal lives, so you know, have a bit of rest, have a bit of a break, and I think creatively we've really thrived in this time, really updated the live set for 2021. I personally I don't know if you'd echo this, Josh," she slightly turns to him to admit, "but I feel more self-assured with the kind of set we're gonna present in, like, whenever live shows come back, I'd say."
The two, joined by the final band member, Louis Satchell, originally got together by chance—a chance encounter, to be exact. "Me and Josh had, like, bumped into each other a couple of times," Harris explains, "and then, house party one night, he was just showing me some demos he made, and I had this show coming up at the Five Bells, which is like this small kind of music venue pub that's closed down now, but I used to work there. And yeah, basically, I was just like,' oh, I've got a spare slot at the show in two weeks. I dunno, should we try and just play some songs?'" That same impulsive, idgaf attitude that took three seemingly strangers and turned them into a cohesive band has also helped them achieve something that is almost unfathomable in today's day and age—gain a loyal fanbase without a single song listed on a streaming service. Driven solely by their intimate live shows consisting of midi keyboards, electric guitar and a love for '90s rave culture, they've captured hearts and piqued interests all over London long before officially releasing their debut single "Divine Intervention" in late 2019.
"We've been writing a lot." Baxter opens up about their experience in the post-live entertainment world we now live in, taking comfort in the space they've been given to grow. "And like, we're still thinking about the shows and our music in a live sense. I mean, I have—I've always— tried to write music for the idea that it's going to be played live in front of loads of people, and just the kind of music that we play, like, try and position it in a way that's going to be satisfying live and exciting live. So you still try to continue that kind of philosophy into writing music now, but we haven't had so much time to play live to people. But we've got some stuff planned next year, and I think, it does come back round to me being really excited to kind of try out some of these new kind of sounds and progressing some of the sounds that we've already been kind of working with previously, but diving into that even more, and refining that even more, like trying out even more different genres and stuff."
Though their live material has once been described as "disco-punk," it is still too early to try and stuff it into any one box and slap a haphazard label on it. The truth of the matter is, PVA's music is more of a memory than it is a movement. Sleek synths stir up visions of '80s underground music videos while Harris' steel-cut vocals slicing through an acid-washed bass flood your senses with color changing lasers and the musk of moving bodies pressing up against you in a collective trance. On their debut EP, Toner, their three tracks —accompanied by three remixes—playfully jump from one era of electronic music to another, blissfully ignorant to the invisible lines crossed in the process. "I definitely— while I think about music— especially with PVA, is often like a specific kind of vibe or something, like a specific energy," he notes. And while they are equally stumped when it comes to labelling their sound, they are perfectly content with simply creating something out of a feeling, a desire, and letting everyone else in on the secret. While you can dissect a track like "Sleek Form" into its building parts— its bpm, its chiming effects, the rousing drums that seek to define the trio not as a dance act but as a band— it's much easier to simply describe the way it makes you feel: Alive, aroused, and abundantly liberated.
It's not explicitly mentioned in their sparse lyrics, but there is a rebellious tinge to Toner that sets it apart. An intention behind each track—not to make it onto every radio channel in the UK and beyond, but to bring an entire experience, the noise and sweat of it all, to a play button on your phone. While Baxter admits to debating whether some of the songs needed to be adjusted to be more commercially accepted or viable for radio, ultimately it came down to staying true to their live show roots. "We wanted to try and keep that kind of liveness [sic]. And so we did a few takes kind of as if we were playing it live, like playing the songs in sequence one after the other." On the closing track, "Exhaust/Surroundings," the dark bass line reminiscent of early '90s grunge effortlessly gives in to chirping synths, Baxter's deep voice reigning them in, just before letting it all collapse in a medley of discordant chords, slyly introducing a soft acid tempo to the mix to transport you from wherever you may currently be to their custom-made dance floor. This approach is partly brought on by the city that birthed them, raised them up, introduced them to their first live show or rave, and then welcomed them into its labyrinth of artistic freedom. "London's a very creative city, we all grew up here. And we were born and raised in London. So to me," Harris notes, "I guess I kind of just like transitioned into going to gigs and stuff quite easily. And yeah, I think it's definitely just meant that we're kind of constantly meeting and being around lots of musicians and creative people. It's definitely— it encourages you to just make the best possible stuff you can make and just like share ideas with like-minded people."
With so much noise and a breadth of sound on Toner, it would seem natural to assume that each song is like three separate ones fighting for airplay, but in truth, it's more of an assimilation than it is an annihilation."Sometimes, as an individual, you might have an idea where the song wants to go," Harris ruminates, carefully finding the words to describe how it all comes together. "I think you learn to compromise in a way that doesn't necessarily feel like compromising, you just feel like you're kind of looking at a song from so many possible different angles, and almost are working together to find the best way to present that. So I know in the past, like, I've been a bit maybe upset because the song hasn't necessarily taken kind of maybe a route that I would have liked to have taken, but then we kind of look back in the reflection and go, you know, it wouldn't have quite been this thing if maybe we've just done that or done this. So I think it's quite a nice compromise. And you learn just to kind of listen, I think, a bit more to other people."
If "Divine Intervention" was PVA's official introduction to the rest of the world outside the comfort of their hometown stages, then Toner is the invitation to bring the rest of the world into their hometown stages. "I think the EP is far more rounded collection of kind of what we've been, you know, going out and playing to people for the last few years. And you know, I see that as, like, a really nice summary of the last however many shows, but kind of a really refined version of that, and that we really thought about before we went and recorded it. I think that's quite a nice way of kind of having this break from playing live as well because it feels like now, at least when we start playing again, it's going to be kind of this new chapter, this new start. 'Toner' is almost this, like nice summary of this chunk of time and now we're moving forward."
Stream or buy Toner here.
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