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A Quietus Interview

The Northwestern Sam Herlihy Interview
John Doran , January 6th, 2010 03:43

Post rock/indie good egg Sam Herlihy talks to John Doran about The Northwestern, the end of Hope Of The States and his new Quietus food column

It was a bright day in 2006 when Hope Of The States announced that they were calling it a day. The sun was cracking the flags on the way to Reading Festival. The gig itself, was one of the best sets of the weekend, the players having surreptitiously invited what seemed like half of the crowd to dance on stage with them. They certainly captured that sense of them as a celebratory band - despite the obvious irony, they were a band obsessed with triumph in the face of adversity. (It was their amazing set at the same festival just three years earlier that had earned them a feverishly devoted fan base.)

HOTS song writer and frontman, Sam Herlihy and drummer Simon Jones formed the backbone of new act The Northwestern in 2007. And although the name has poetic associations of Victorian engineering or the merchant navy and many other things that possess the suggestion of post-rock, what they do is closer to mainstream rock. They have the assurance and intellegent bombast of Elbow, the heartfelt drive of Doves and the itchy clatter of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

They already have a couple of killer releases under their collective belt (The Ghostrock EP, 'All The Ones'/'Telephones') and a string of exciting live dates. We caught up with Sam just before Xmas to see how it was all going.

It's good to see that you are acknowledging the North West of England as the Cradle of Civilization. Which is odd for a Chichester boy now that I come to think of it. Or have I got the wrong end of the stick? What does the name mean?

Sam Herlihy: After a fair few years in a band named Hope Of The States... I had to have a band name with no grand meaning or nonsense theory behind it. While we were writing songs we went through loads of names and finally had to stick with something once we started playing shows. Despite my attempt at a band name which would not invite any questions as to it's origin / meaning, I've been asked about it in every interview so far! It sounds like a ship or a train? It's something to do with fishermen? It is a tribute to the wonderful raining North West of this fair isle? It just sounds cool to me, and STRONG!

The band features you on guitar and vocals and Simon from HOTS on drums - can you introduce me to the other members? What do they play? How tall are they? And how fragrant?

SH: Simon and myself started the band with Jonny Winter, who plays guitar. Everyone else just drifts in and out as they see fit. After we booked the first run of shows we suddenly realized that getting a band together is easy in school or college. When everyone has got jobs and grown up things to do, it's suddenly much harder. So far we have had an ex-HOTS man, an Olympic standard sprinter and criminologist, and an Italian ice cream salesman playing bass for us. On guitar we have had a mathrock mini wizard, a leather seller, an East End record shop hipster and professional dog walker, and an Italian museum barista. None of them ever seem to stick around for long though unfortunately, so we are either not as fragrant as we believed or they just all hate us and our idiot ways.

I guess I should ask separately about Ian McCullagh's past as a TV star in Grange Hill. I wasn't allowed to watch it, so I don't really remember anything about Naughty Nigel Brinworth - but how fondly is he thought of by TV fans and what scrapes did he get into?

SH: Different Ian i'm afraid, unless he kept his kiddie acting past a secret. Also Ian helped us out when we started off, but has never played a show with the band.

Now that it's nearly impossible to make a living being a rock star, what keeps you strapping on the flying V in 2009?

SH: Cliched as it is... apologies in advance: I love music. I hate it all at the same time but mostly I love writing songs, recording, playing shows. I love the fights and rows and the fact that one in three conversations is a repeat of one you had five years ago. I love wasps flying into splitter vans, moaning about how much other bands suck or playing people records I'm excited about only to receive an utterly unimpressed shrug in return. I like people sidling up to ask for a scrawl on a record of ours. The lack of women at any show I've ever played and the head scratching sessions afterwards when everyone curses our lack of musical pheromones. All of it I love for the few completely elevating moments on a stage or in a studio when a stupid song, just fucking works like it should, perfectly and with every spark flying. It's a blessed thing to be able to do and hopefully I can find a way to pay the bills with it.

Are you working on an album and what is that going to be like?

SH: Not yet and no idea. I don't think I know what I want to sound like yet. We started this band with a weird set of somewhat arbitrary rules for what we could and couldn't do. As we go along we seem to be breaking them all. That White Stripes dogmatic rulebook thing just doesn't suit me at all. I love the idea of it but I don't have it in my locker. I much prefer just running full pelt into whatever ridiculous plan that pops into my head. The new songs don't sound anything like the first stuff and so by the time we make a record it will be something else again, hopefully.

Why do you hate The Smiths so much? Surely they're awesome!?

SH: Never ever got close to liking them Sir. The guitar is pretty cool on a lot of it but I cannot not abide the singer. Arrogant, smug, not half as bright or funny as he thinks (much like myself I imagine). These days he plays Ocean Colour Scene bside-esque Luddite nonsense that people seem to forgive for his "witty" lyricism, infantile teenage girl pouting views on vegetarianism etc, I am however, fully aware, so hold on to your piles of bile, that my dislike for the man Morrissey could quite possibly be colouring my view of The Smiths and their musical output. I understand why people love 'em. I understand why people think he's a legend (hallowed history of Indie music / You wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him etc etc). Ignorant I'm not, I just don't roll with any of it, apart from that How Soon is Now and the album titles which I think are awesome.

Are The Northwestern a band for the coming decade? Now that we've got to the end of the noughties - in a lot of ways I find indie and alternative rock's stock to be perilously low but you're obviously a music fan and still feel it has redemptive, communal qualities. How much faith do you still have in British guitar music?

SH: I'm not sure if I have faith in "British" guitar music. I don't hear a huge amount of stuff I love - particularly from Britain - at the moment. I do always remember how much certain records have meant to me when I first got into music though. I will always have faith in a record's ability to move you a little. I think people will always want to hear music, whether it's guitar nonsense or something else. On the few occasions it's something transcendental I never care about what it is or what the genre's "stock" is perceived to be at that point. Awesome songs are awesome songs and I carry on with this stuff to try and hear them. Whether they are indie rock songs or dubstep songs doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if the flavour of the month is not the music I'm doing at that moment. I will still want to write songs I consider to be special on a guitar, a piano or a laptop.

Not that i'm asking you to necessarily cast the goats entrails across the floor, but what do you see for the period ahead in music? Less landfill indie? Less atmospheric post Coldplay stuff?

SH: I have no real idea. I think the post Coldplay thing is probably being replaced by this post Interpol / White Lies / Joy Division thing. Baritone vocals and reverbed guitars, doom and gloom, and a giant slab of U2 stadium filling importance thrown in there too. I probably got sucked into all those sounds a while ago but it just sounds a bit tired and dull to me now. I'm hope some band somewhere is about to "pull a Strokes" and move the goal posts but it seems like that's close to impossible these days with attention spans being so brief and the industry set up being what it is. I think there is a shift away from the 'record sales equals artistic achievement' thing though. A couple of years ago was like the tail end of Britpop, which sucked.

I've heard some talk of people not liking your singing voice. Now even though I like it, I guess for some people it must be quite Marmite? What do you feel about your vocal style yourself if that's not too weird a question? I mean, I've always thought that in the UK we've got a grand tradition of rock singers with distinct and unconventional singing voices from John Lydon to Mark Smith via Ian Curtis and Dan Treacy. Why do you think the UK is more likely to go for a 'characterful' voice than the States?

SH: I got a kicking for my voice more here than in the US actually. Listening back to the first HOTS record I understand bits of the attacks for sure. That record was full of these dumb refusals I made: no double tracking, no overfixing of mistakes. I think thats a huge amount of the appeal of that record though. We didn't want sheen and perfection and those songs wouldn't have worked any other way even though I would have got less of a kicking! Having only been singing a few months as well, that was my voice at the time. Ever since, some people like my voice and some people hate it. Ultimately there's not a lot I can do about it, I'm as God made me Sir! Often it's just a peg to put the band on because people read stuff and just swallow it whole. I like some singers and can't stand others. Anyway it's not school sports day, horses for courses, each to their own, it's a game of two halves, a bird in the hand.... and a hundred other cliches. Fuck 'em.

I remember seeing you on the day that you announced that HOTS were splitting up and you seemed almost relieved - you certainly seemed quite upbeat. Is that a fair assessment?

SH: It was a fifty-fifty split of relief and excitement and sadness, panic and loss. It was completely the right time to stop. We just didn't want to carry on with the band. I was totally looking forward to a new start with something else, we started this band two weeks after HOTS ended. It was fucking sad though to know we would never do it again. We'd never get on a stage and play some of those songs again or go out on tour together again. Ultimately I think we all probably felt a little beaten up by circumstance and history and the weight of everything that had gone before to try to keep going.

Were you tempted to jack music in?

SH: Not at first, then I did feel that way for a while, then not again. It comes and goes with every success and setback but ultimately I have a very vague, doubting and struggling faith in my ability to make awesome songs appear. If I start to feel that way all the time then I won't bother being in a band or making music. I will try and find something else I can do! I have always felt incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do all this as my job. It is a truly blessed position to be in and I suppose that getting back to that place, without repeating mistakes I made then, would be something really special.

So you've just started writing the 'Come On Fry Young' column for us on The Quietus; but what's your cooking actually like? What do you like to cook and how do you cope with the food on the road?

SH: I am by no means an amazing cook but I like to think I have some "game"! I like to think I know how to make good food. Unfortunately I have not a single perfectionist bone in my body and I drink too much while I cook. Therefore occasionally things go a little haywire and my presentation skills are not great. I go though phases though. I can hit a rich vein of form, my South East Asia phase was pretty awesome but then I moved into some rustic Italian nightmare for a while. I actually enjoy the process more than the end result though which is the total opposite to making music for me. Food on the road largely hits different levels of dire. There is something to be said for service station trash on occasion but after a few days I dream of decent food. I do miss the act of being in my kitchen cooking though more than I miss the food itself.

Why is Predator 2 such a great film?

SH: We talked about this in the van the other day. If any of the following is actually in the film, then I totally agree but none of us could remember the film clearly so we may well have imagined all of it. It has an awesome Vangelis style soundtrack. Danny Glover dies in a proper eighties video shocker bleeding mess [He doesn't die but he does get properly mashed up, Ed]. There is an Alien skull trophy in the walls of the Predator spaceship at the end. It's some sort of allegory for the military industrial complex. It's incredibly bleak and incredibly slow paced especially at the end. The Predators themselves look like the most hardcore dreadlocked crabfaced frogmen ever. And, it's always dark!

We will hear more from The Northwestern in 2010. Sam Herlihy's Come On Fry Young column starts on The Quietus tomorrow

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