INTERVIEW: Hookworms | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image by Hollie Fernando

Many records suffer a troubled gestation, yet few experience the rotten luck endured by Leeds psych kingpins Hookworms in the run-up to their remarkable third LP, Microshift. As well as various personal issues, the quintet suffered a series of crushing misfortunes, including (but by no means limited to) the defraudment of their bank account and the destruction wreaked on leader MJ’s Suburban Home Studio during the Christmas floods of 2015.

Undeterred, the band channeled their frustrations into a record that’s already being hailed a modern classic; a vibrant song cycle infusing their trademark motorik pulse with fresh electronic flourishes and lyrics centred around themes of mental health. With the album in the UK top 20 and sitting pretty atop the indie charts, I spoke to MJ about opening up, the recording process and Microshift’s early success.
The circumstances which led up to Microshift have been well documented. Was there ever a point where you seriously considered giving it all up?
Yeah – I still do to be honest. It’s really difficult, both financially and emotionally. I’m only speaking for myself, but I still struggle with everything, and I still don’t know whether I really want to do any of it anymore.

Has the early success of the record helped at all?
Erm… No. It’s really nice that people are being kind about it, but we made it because we wanted to make a record and we were in a position where we were able to do that. It’s humbling that people have enjoyed the record, and it’s cool that people have bought it and everything else, and everyone at our label has been super kind to us. I’ve been playing in bands for years and making music for years and I feel really lucky that people are interested in what we’re doing right now – but I’d still be doing it even if they weren’t, because I was before and I think I will be long afterwards.

Mental health themes have formed the basis of Hookworms lyrics before, but you’ve never explored them in such an open and direct manner. Was this something you wanted to achieve from the outset?
I think it was a reaction to wanting to have my vocals up front much more than they have been in the past. I knew that I couldn’t be quite so abstract, so I wanted it to be more straightforward as well. It was definitely an intentional thing, and I worked really hard on the lyrics this time. In a way I’ve probably tossed off lyrics before, whereas this time I spent months writing them.

You’ve said in the past that you’re not fond of the idea of tortured artists, yet many songwriters delve into subjects such as depression as a means of self-therapy. Is that true in your case?
I’m sure it’s true to an extent. My point [regarding tortured artists] was more that I don’t like people who revel in it and want bad things to happen to them so that they can make art. I think that’s a terrible idea. I’d still be making music whether bad things had happened to me or not and I think I’ve found it quite hard – especially over the past couple of months – to separate the trauma of the things that have happened from the success of this record. I find it a little hard to deal with because you start questioning yourself, thinking ‘would we have made this record if these bad things hadn’t happened?’ I think we would have done. I think it would be very similar, but I still find it hard separating those things in my mind because I’m always going to associate this record with all these things which have happened.

Is that making it more difficult to perform these songs live?
Yeah, but I think that because the music’s so euphoric now it’s not really that bad. I kind of turn that part of my brain off a little bit, so it’s not too bad. It’s mainly the record itself… I don’t think I’ll ever listen to it again. I’ve never really listened to any of them after we’ve done them.

Mental health – particularly male mental health – is very much on the agenda at the moment. Did this inspire you to open up more on the new LP?
In a way. I knew there was already a conversation about it and I thought it was important that I continued to spark it if possible. I still think that a lot of the ways in which male mental health is discussed in the media are almost constructed from an anti-feminist standpoint. I think you often see the narrative around it being like ‘what about men?’ and that kind of thing, which makes me really uncomfortable and it’s not something that I stand with particularly. Male mental health and suicide are huge problems, and I think it’s important that we talk about them in different terms rather than an ‘us vs. them’ kind of thing.

In Static Resistance you discuss how it’s okay to feel fragile, but other lyrics on the album – notably Opener – suggest you’ve not always felt that way. Is that fair?
Opener is written in the first person for another person that doesn’t exist, like a construct. He’s that kind of man who’s been conditioned to keep his feelings to himself, or sees his masculinity as being an incredibly powerful thing and doesn’t want to show any fragility. That’s the general kind of thing I tried to get through the whole record, though; that it’s okay to have these feelings and that we can talk about them.

The songs on this record are a lot more upbeat and melodic than those on its predecessors. Did you find writing in this style challenging or was it something which came naturally?
I always wanted to do that. I was given more of a free reign that I was on previous records and I think I gave the others – in particular Matt (MD), who writes a lot of the music – lot more of a free reign with his electronic synthesisers. I think before we’ve all been more concerned with channelling ourselves down a certain path, and sometimes we’ve stopped doing things that we probably should have done or should have tried, whereas this time everyone was freer to try things. I was definitely nervous about some of the ideas I had and some of the things that I was doing.

How did the recording process compare to those of your previous LPs?
It was kind of similar to [debut album] Pearl Mystic in that we had to learn to play the songs because we wrote them on a computer. The Hum was kind of a reaction to Pearl Mystic. We struggled so much performing songs from Pearl Mystic that we went and wrote that record in the practice room and then recorded it, and it was very much just a document of what we did. This time we went back to how we were doing it before. It was much more of a studio album.

We finished the music together, then I went away for a while and wrote the vocals and lyrics. Maybe the vocals will drive the music a little more in the future. We’ve started to construct songs with that in mind, because the aesthetic of the record didn’t really come together until right at the end.

You do a lot more actual singing on this record. Was this another means of opening up and showing more of yourself than you have done previously?
Yeah, I imagine so. It’s quite a scary thing. I try not to look at reviews, but you end up doing it anyway. I think one of the nice things that’s come out of it has been the compliments towards the vocals because I never wanted to be the singer – I just ended up doing it, and it’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable not singing through a ton of effects.

One song that’s garnered a particularly strong reaction is Ullswater – perhaps because so many people have personal experience of Alzheimer’s. Do you write your lyrics in the hope that listeners can relate to them in some way?
I think so, yeah. There were certainly things that I knew I wanted to write songs about, and this was at the top of the list because I think in a way the attitudes towards Alzheimer’s are like you read about how people reacted to cancer in the ‘60s and ‘70s; it’s still spoken about in hushed tones, people don’t really understand it and are scared of it. It’s a ticking timebomb for our generation because so many of our parents are living longer and longer, so it’ something that we’re all going to come up against and there isn’t really that much support. My dad has Alzheimer’s and he had cancer as well a couple of years ago, and the support available for a family coping with cancer was radically different to that available for Alzheimer’s. The funding for Alzheimer’s is only a fraction of what cancer receives.

I wanted to write a song from an artistic standpoint, and it was important to me that I did it; but there was also an awareness having done two albums before this and knowing what happens with press cycles that if we did write a song about it it’d give us a chance to talk about it in the media a little more. I think it’s important that in society we have more of a conversation – a better conversation – about it than we’re having at the moment, because at the moment it feels like we’re ignoring what’s going to happen, and it’s only going to get worse.

So in a sense, one of the record’s chief aims is to stimulate discussion?
Yeah, though I’d hope that all art is like that. All art and all music is political. Maybe we’ve been a little more upfront about it this time, but I think it’s important with the way things are now…

Even with things like the NHS crisis this winter… because of the austerity and low funding from the Conservatives, the NHS are buying beds in private hospitals and care homes for people who need beds in their hospitals. It’s meant that my Dad hasn’t been able to go into respite care which usually happens every six weeks, and that’s the only chance my Mum gets away from being his 24-hour carer. It’s amazing what she does for him, and I think it can be quite hard if she feels like she’s not going to get that time off. Its like a perfect storm: an aging population, a Conservative government and austerity. It’s really worrying.

How have the new songs translated on the live stage?
It’s been alright, people have been nice about it. I think we’ve found a way of playing old songs and new songs and making it feel coherent between them all. It’s fun to play these songs live, and I think it will be more so in the coming months when people have had a chance to digest the record a little bit more. These UK shows are going to be totally different to the European ones because we’ve never done a European tour before – because of our jobs we’ve not been able to. I think we’re much more popular in the UK and we’ve got this run of sold out shows now, so I think it might be quite different – a bit of a victory lap, without wanting to sound smug.

Do you feel that this record is changing the way that people view your band?
I think it probably is, and it’s almost a surprise to me that people have reacted to it so strongly. It worries me sometimes that bands aren’t given the space to change and develop. I think it’s particularly a problem in the UK music industry. If a band does one record that’s perceived to have performed poorly then that’s pretty much the end of their career. If you look back at the ‘60s and the ‘70 album artists who were given the chance to develop a career over 10 records. Think of a band in the US like Wilco, who only made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with their fourth album – and Jeff Tweedy did three albums with Uncle Tupelo before that as well. We’re very lucky that we’re on a record label who are incredibly artist-led. It means that we’ve had the chance to grow and change, and I think it’s more of a UK problem than an American problem. Again, if you look at bands like Liars, Deerhunter and Animal Collective, they’re bands who’ve had massive aesthetic changes throughout the course of their careers – Animal Collective in particular, even though there’s a theme running through everything that they do. But there aren’t that many British bands who get time to do that. It’s disappointing.

I think we’ve been trying to get to this point the whole time. It was always a disappointment to us that there was the whole new psych thing and we got lumped into that, because we didn’t feel inclined towards any of that music, and while we play what you could broadly describe as ‘psych rock’ I think we come at it from a completely different standpoint to most of those bands. A lot of people in that style of music are very apolitical, whereas we’ve come from a punk and DIY background. This has been the first time that we’ve made a record that we’re proud of, I think. It’s been nice to see it resonate with other people as well.

Hookworms play The Cluny on Sunday 18th March. Microshift is out now.



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