Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Feature: James Vyner

James has set up an online audio tour company for London walks, Soundmap. I discussed this in a feature (approx. 700 words), talking about how he ended up going from achieving reasonable success as a musician to becoming a ‘tour guide’.

James Vyner used to play bass in promising indie-rock outfit Seachange, signed to the Matador label. You might remember them? They were big in Germany. Since leaving he has got married, become a London tour guide, and now plays in a band that sing about their bikes. Curiosity got the better of Audio Addict, so we went to find out more…

Ok, so we weren’t being completely truthful. Vyner is a tour guide of sorts, but very much one for the times. His online-based company, Soundmap, offers downloadable MP3 audio tours of London walks, complete with narration and a musical soundtrack associated with each area. Currently in production is a Fleet Street ‘walk’, based around the recent ‘Sweeney Todd’ film. “We were commissioned to do that by Warner Brothers. We got to interview Tim Burton for that, which was very cool! I got to use the score, and straight away that makes it sound brilliant, makes it sound like you’re in the film” he explains.

So a tour guide with rock and roll credentials maybe? Vyner laughs. “I’ve always had a horrible sensible streak,” he explains. “I once stole a game called ‘Bomberman’ for the ZX Spectrum from Boots in the ‘80s. I went back home and I couldn’t sleep because I felt so bad. The next day I went in on my bike, handed it back to the woman and said, “I’m really sorry I stole it” and then ran out of the shop”.
How about early musical memories? “I remember sitting with my Dad’s copy of Graceland, and listening to ‘You Can Call Me Al’ again and again until learnt all the words. I still know them now…”

Perhaps not then.

Nevertheless, Vyner does have a rock and roll grounding from his time in introspective indie rockers Seachange, achieving reasonable success while based on the Matador label.

The band released two acclaimed records, 2004’s ‘Lay of the Land’ and its 2006 follow-up ‘On Fire, With Love’, the latter making it in to the top fifty albums of 2006 in the German equivalent of Q magazine. The country really took to the band, and the band reciprocated by touring there many times. This led to some insight in to the German psyche. “The last gig we ever did on tour was in this massive venue, we were like “who the hell’s gonna come and see us?” recalls Vyner. “Adam [guitarist] and Dan [vocalist] had gone off to do a local radio interview, and Adam told this story about Dave [guitarist] having a threesome in Paris at some crazy art party. Then at the gig all these people suddenly turned up [dons generic German accent] “which one is Dave? Who’s Dave? The horny guy, yeah?” Dave’s backstage just going “oh my God…”

The transition from rock and roll bass player to virtual tour guide isn’t an obvious one. How did it come about? “It all comes from my skills as an audio editor.” Vyner explains. He recalls talking with Mark Spivey, an arts developer with Leicester Council. Spivey had heard an early Seachange demo that the band had made on a Fostex 16-track, and mentioned that they could probably produce themselves. With that encouragement Vyner started up a studio and recorded bands outside of Seachange, before moving in to teaching at Confetti, a professional studio with educational facilities based in Nottingham. “Those skills developed in to making audio documentaries, audio tours. What I’m best at is editing, so I’m building my business around that.”

By the time Seachange had disbanded, Vyner was already on to his next musical project, joining London-based The Grave Architects. The four-piece currently have a single out about the love they share for their bikes, aptly titled ‘The Bike Song’. “We’re not a comedy band…” he assures us.

Light-hearted maybe? “Yeah…I don’t know. It’s something that Matt [Vocals/guitar] battles with. Secretly I think we probably are a comedy band, although there’s too much emotion to it to be comedy!”

So, Audio Addict is desperate to know, who has the best bike? “I think Matt’s probably is. James [Johnstone, keyboards] doesn’t really like cycling much. That’s why we keep him at the back and don’t let him say much!”

As the conversation has moved on to Grave Architects, who appear to be a much more cheerful outfit, perhaps now is when we should follow journalistic convention and ask something along the lines of which celebrity would Vyner donate a kidney to. “Bill Hicks,” he answers without hesitation. Well, that clears that up.

So how many tour guides do you know that have toured the world signed to a cult indie label, would freely admit to knowing every word to ‘You Can Call Me Al’, and would have donated a kidney to Bill Hicks if needed? “Although a pancreas would probably have been more handy! Oh dear, poor Bill……”

Visit Soundmap at

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