Hookworms talk synths in the studio, crowdfunding and how to avoid sounding like Muse

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Hookworms (Photo credit: Hollie Fernando)

On the run up to Hookworms’ show at Invisible Wind Factory, Getintothis’ Cath Bore settles down for a nice long chat with bass player Matt Benn.

Hookworms released new album Microshift earlier this month, the Leeds band’s first new work in over three years.

On the record they transformed their entire way of working, the studio itself central to the creative process. On first two albums Pearl Mystic (2013) and The Hum (2014), Hookworms’ live sound was the basis for songwriting and formation of song structure. With Microshift, the introduction of synthesizers, drum machines and loops, changed all that.

Microshift took its time arriving for another reason; in 2015, lead singer Matt Johnson’s Suburban Home studio was flooded when the nearby River Aire burst its banks, forcing an entire restoration, the shiny new studio made possible by a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign.

We spoke to Matt Benn, Hookworms’ bass player and instigator of the band’s new direction.

Our conversation takes place a couple of days after Hookworms announce the dropping of support Nervous Conditions from an all-dayer they are headlining and curating in Leeds.

Getintothis: I have to ask about Hookworms’ approach when it comes to safety at gigs, for audience members and fellow musicians, but especially women?

We would not have been comfortable having either our audience or our friends who were playing in the bands being in the same room as someone who has now numerous allegations against them of sexual assault.

We got told to hold fire on (Nervous Conditions’ singer Connor Browne’s ) statement but it quickly became clear without even seeing the statement it was going to be a bit of a non-apology a sorry not sorry kind of thing, and it’s not enough really, it’s not enough for people to feel comfortable or safe. We had a couple of comments made against us, you’ve only done this because they’re a small band, you wouldn’t do it if it was a big band. (But) I think if we were playing a bigger bill and we found out something we didn’t like about a band above us in that situation we’d have to drop off the bill. We’d remove ourselves. We didn’t want to be associated with those kind of people and I think that people aren’t going to learn about consequences unless you do something about it.

I guess it’s maybe been a bit of a lesson learnt, that we shouldn’t veer away from our group of friends that we know are good people. I’ve seen that they’ve split up and I do feel really sorry for the rest of the band. I know they’re an eight piece band or a nine piece band that’s seven or eight innocent people but I think they’ve done the right thing by no longer working with that person.

Getintothis: Let’s talk about Suburban Home. When the studio flooded back in 2015, there was massive support via the crowdfunding campaign but also the music community. You’ve stated as a band that were it not for that support, Hookworms might not exist anymore.

The studio is so central to what we do, we practice there every week, we do our recording there all our writing we keep all the merchandise there, all the equipment’s there. If we didn’t have a permanent space we’d have to very drastically change how we function. We’re very thankful we’re not in a position other bands are and have to pay for three hours then you have to drag all your equipment to a room, set it up as quick as you can, practice then drag all your stuff back out again. We did that for a little while and it was a real drag.

The crowdfunding thing was incredible really. We set it up on a whim just because it quickly became clear that the studio was completely gone and it wasn’t insured for flood damage because of its proximity to the river. It costs tens of thousands of pounds to set up a professional recording studio that’s acoustically and electrically sound so we knew straight off that unless a large amount of money came our way, it wasn’t going to reopen. We expected a grand, a couple of grand but it shot up and in the end was about ten grand. Phenomenal really. It was nice to know people cared about out band, Matt and the records he’s worked on.

Getintothis: We heard Hookworms going electronic, so to speak, is your fault. Matt (Johnson) said recently that you kept turning up to rehearsals with synths, unrepentant!

He’s done that to safeguard himself in case people go “we really like the album except for all the electronic stuff”, so then he can point the finger at me!

I guess that was the case. I’ve been messing around with that stuff for the last four or five years. It made sense to start bringing it to recording sessions, practices and stuff like that. I’ve been playing guitar and bass for 14, 15 years and you start to get a bit bored with it.

Getintothis: Is Microshift an ironic title, given that there’s been a mighty change between this and the first two albums?

Not intentionally. It’s named after a plug-in we used on the computer quite a lot on the record, an audio effect that was used on Matt’s vocals.

It took quite a while for us to work out how to do (the recording) successfully and still sounds like us. There’s always the worry you’ll sound like Muse.

Getintothis: Good grief. You don’t want to do that.

…epic rock songs with arpeggios! The main difficulty was incorporating machine like elements to a live band that speed up and slow down. So a lot of it was Nash on drums, him being able to hear and play along to the more electronic elements and keep us all in time together.

Getintothis: But it worked.

Yes, it worked. It took about a year, a year and a half messing around with that stuff. To be honest there’s one or two songs on the record we’re only just playing together for the first time because we wrote them together in a room and played them together in the studio.

Read our review of Hookworms’ new album in Album Club #22

Getintothis: With everything being such a different creative process altogether this time, new studio, new sound, seems serendipitous somehow .

We usually record as we’d play it live. This time around it was more using the studio as a tool, as an instrument really cutting things up and looping things. We’ve had to go back and learn to play a couple of the songs for the tour. We realised actually piling loads of electronics on top of each other is a bit of stupid idea if you want to replicate it live. It means I’ve got to bring loads of gear with me…

It’s a bit like covering yourself. If you’ve ever been in a cover band I guess it’s the same thing. Go back to the song and rework your part out. Especially the synth stuff improvised in the studio…I’ve only ever played it once. Ever. Had to go back and work out what I’d used to make it, and try and recreate the sound and relearn notes and all the kind of stuff. It’s been a bit of a process…adding new songs to the set one at a time. Other than the slower quieter songs I think we’re playing the entire record.

Getintothis: On the run up to Microshift’s coming out, there was a palpable sense of excitement over its release, even more than with your other albums. Did you feel like expectant fathers, almost?

There was a lot of OTT reactions piled on top of the last couple of albums. When we did the first album, one of the first reviews was 10 out of 10, and where do you go from here? The only way from here is down! We thought a lot of those reviews were kind of silly but it’s nice people like us and it could have easily gone a different way and people turned their backs on us and thought we’d lost whatever we had, gone in the wrong direction, that kind of stuff.                           

Getintothis: On Microshift, Hookworms as a band collaborated with others on a Hookworms record for the first time. Richard Formby (on Opener), Christopher Duffin (on Boxing Day) and Alice Merida Richards (on Each Time We Pass). 

We’re going on tour with our friends Virginia Wing. Chris (who also collaborates with Matt in XAM Duo) plays saxophone on the album and Alice Merida sang on one of the songs so because they’re on tour with us they’re going to play live with us which should be nice.

Getintothis: How did the collaborations come about?

It’s a few different situations. I kind of made sense to get (Chris) involved…we wanted really noisy sax and he’s a really good saxophone player so that was quite an easy one to sort. The track with Richard Formby (Wild Beasts, Darkstar and Ghostpoet) came from before the flood happened. In 2015 we’d agreed to do a live gig with him, live improvisation in Leeds for a one off. In the lead up to that, we set up in the studio and jammed for a few hours that song stemmed from those recordings. We edited it down and formed a song around it it’s still pretty long but it’s not the two and a half hours it was before. What we’d made was very repetitive, more about rhythms and sounds than a song structure as such. That was more in keeping with what we’d done in the past, recording massive jams then going back and self-editing.

The one with (Alice) Merida was a very modern way of collaborating. We sent her an instrumental over the internet she recorded song vocals sent it back and it completely changed the direction of the song. We changed the song to fit around her vocals which is something we’ve never done before. Her vocals led the way, we had a basic instrumental one. Matt read her lyrics he scrapped what he had and rewrote his stuff around the same topic, which he’d probably never done before. I think we’d hit a dead end with the song so it was good to get an injection with someone else, a spark.

Getintothis: The lyrical themes on the album death, body image, definitions and limits of masculinity, disease, heartbreak, body image are as dark as they come, but the album is but musically bracing. Like there’s a massive energy behind it, a sense of urgency.  Microshift sounds so…big.

The production, you mean?

Getintothis: Yes.

We’ve always kind of done a euphoric thing but it’s always been a bit darker, more reverb, that kind of thing. The more I think about it, the way we structure songs and write songs has a lot more in common with electronic music and dance music, things building up, the climax of a song, the drop down, in that way it’s got more in common with euphoric dance music. It helped a lot that Matt really has come along in his mixing and recording we’ve got better gear to play with so it probably sounds bigger because of that and a really long time making sure the songs ebbed and flowed and built up and dropped down properly. It’s always something we think carefully about. It’s a lot cleaner this time round a bit more widescreen everything’s been tidied up and the fat’s been cut. A more streamlined version of ourselves. We got rid of anything we thought was unnecessary.

Getintothis: We can’t be the first to suggest that with Microshift, Hookworms have essentially made a pop album?

A lot of that’s to do with Matt’s side of things. His vocal is more cleaned up, he’s spent way more time working on his lyrics and his vocal melodies. In the past he’s had the safety blanket of lots of effects. It makes sense for us to do something like this. There was a bit of hesitation because we still wanted to sound like Hookworms. But it does because we can’t help but be a little bit weird. There’s still all the repetitive elements.

It’s poppy, but Hookworms’ version of pop!

Hookworms tour dates:

Feb 23 – Invisible Wind Factory, Liverpool 
Feb 24 – Patterns, Brighton
March 2 – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
March 3 – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
March 4 – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
March 9 – The White Hotel, Salford
March 10  – The White Hotel, Salford
March 17 – The Art School, Glasgow
March 18 – The Cluny, Newcastle
March 24 – Electric Brixton, London
March 25 – Picture House Social, Sheffield

 

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