TVAM: to readers of a certain age and above, those four letters may summon nostalgia for mornings gone by, watching now-obscure celebrities in shoulder pads and permed hair talking up their latest project between weather forecasts and news reels. To anyone lucky enough to catch one of the Liverpool support slots TVAM has clocked up over the past year or so, those four letters will have taken on a different meaning entirely.
You might peruse an independent music magazine expecting to read about bands, artists, venues, promoters – the usual suspects fall into their usual categories. This subject, however, eludes such easy classification. In simple terms, TVAM is essentially a bloke from Wigan with a guitar, a wheel-on telly and a brilliant idea. He writes music, makes videos to match, records these onto VHS, whacks his videotapes into his wheely telly, plugs the telly into the PA system and plays and sings over them live. And yet, brief introductions aside, that in-a-nutshell explanation doesn’t do justice to the complex nexus of ideas and influences, as well as the sense of purpose, that underscore everything TVAM is and does.
When I speak to Joe Oxley – the Wigan man behind the enigma – over the phone, pure enthusiasm blares through the ether. It becomes apparent very quickly that it would be lazy to write TVAM off as gimmicky; if you scratch below the glitchy surface of his act, everything is intelligently and carefully considered.
“I like bands that change some of your perceptions of what a gig should be or what a band is… You know, bands from ages ago like Suicide – those kind of acts where they understand what rock ‘n’ roll is in a pop culture sense, but they’re quite happy to totally pick at it and push the audience on what they expect it to be,” Oxley muses. “So you get this interesting idea of something being less of a rock ‘n’ roll show or a gig; why not do something that almost feels like a presentation cos of the stillness to it?”
Not content with engaging on a straightforward solo act and having worked with videos before, it was a natural decision for Oxley, also a member of garage punks The Shook-Ups, to take this interest and use visuals to open up the idea of what a gig might be. The music – surfy-psychy dark garage rock – is written first before he loops together clips from old videotapes found abandoned in charity shops to create videos. These are not only used for the standard online promo, but are exported to his live TV-on-wheels act. But why go to all this trouble to dig up these lost VHS diamonds with the internet and its mine of video clips at his disposal?
“It becomes more interesting when you approach it like an archivist almost,” he replies in no-less enthusiastic tones. “You’re finding this thing, this piece of crap, that no one really knows or has seen and it’s like ‘perhaps there’s a use for that, a way to fit that in with something else.’ The videos that I’ve made, some of them are meant to work more in keeping with a feel and then there are ones that are more direct. With the new single Porsche Majeure, it’s more focused.”
Porsche Majeure, released in limited edition, lathe-cut clear vinyl format on Static Caravan Records, is TVAM’s latest single. Driven by the guttural, metallic churning of guitars and heavy synthesisers, a droning and dreamlike Gregorian chant-style vocal is matched by slow-motion, head-on collisions between cars, retro crash-test dummies, and distorted shots of purposely vulnerable yet sexy 20-somethings in a dystopian home. The lyrics are slogans lifted from adverts and they tie in directly with the images, which, in turn, sync perfectly with the instrumental breaks. The effect is both dizzying and disconcerting.
The video, music and lyrics are so heavily symbolic and interrelated that the piece can be read in numerous ways: an exploration of advertising and branding; a critique of the suburb-centric American dream; the significance of the passenger vehicle in identity formation. The idea behind the track is an amalgamation of all three and more, drawing upon the work of novelist J.G. Ballard and his influence on artists working in the late 1970s, namely The Normal, Gary Numan and John Foxx.
“It’s that whole idea straight from J.G. Ballard and it’s very Crash… that idea of the slow-motion car crash,” explains Oxley. “We can create machines that all of a sudden make you feel that you can be anything you want to be. You can aspire to this kind of lifestyle, but at the same time they’re just machines; the idea is that they’re breaking and dismantling. That’s where it’s really interesting for me, in the 70s where these bands pick up on how important the idea of the car becomes, and all these kind of highways intersecting with and cutting through the brutalist architecture that comes along at the same time. It’s just an interesting time. That’s why I’ve tried to put something together; its more for my own enjoyment. It’s quite addictive playing around with it, too – it’s like ‘Am I making an advert here? Is this what I’m doing?’ It’s interesting.”
The use of VHS is a further reflection of a fascination with this time; the format reflects both the fuzziness of the music and the era that informed the ideas behind the single. It is evident that every last detail – from influences to images to his enigmatic live show – is carefully thought through. TVAM has even crafted a world of branding around his music: in each of his videos you’ll find his logo, nebulous but discernible, emblazoned in the top right-hand corner, a gibbous moon or UFO-orb-like spectre. Between each track when performed live, instead of the usual tuning of guitars and mumbling between band members, the audience are greeted with TVAM idents – an adoption of the logos used by television companies that appear between programmes to remind viewers of their service provider. The visuals are not an afterthought but are integral to his act. But does this blur the boundaries between playing a gig and producing a piece of performance art? For Oxley, it’s a matter of perception.
“It’s difficult to say that you want something to be art because I just go about doing what I do and if someone sees it that way then, yeah, it’s art. I have to accept that it is like performance art in a way that there isn’t a straight forward rock ‘n’ roll desire to have a one-to-one interaction with an audience… the TV and the visuals process what I’m doing towards the audience, like a distraction almost.”
Live, you experience that strange 20th– into 21st-century phenomenon; how a transparent screen with a light behind it can be so hypnotically mesmerising that it becomes almost impossible to avert your gaze, eyes glued to the glass. The audience have to choose whether to focus on this or on the artist performing, all while engulfed in a dreamy garage haze. The reception so far has been generally positive, but Oxley acknowledges that, though it might not be to everyone’s tastes, the equal weight between music and visuals that defines his vision is best received in live performance.
“I think live is where it hopefully makes sense because you have the visual and you have the sound there, you have the song, and you have a way in which you put it out there that has its own character, that has its own feel, that brings its own kind of atmosphere to whatever gig I’m playing. I suppose really, as with some other acts, you can only understand it when you’ve seen it. Whether you like or not, you have to see it to get it.”
I guess the same goes for any other piece of car-crash television.