Nematode Noise: An Interview With Hookworms
, March 12th, 2013 06:27
John Freeman meets Hookworms to find out how the Leeds group's debut album, Pearl Mystic, became a blast of rage and sadness, and why parents shouldn't be let loose on Facebook
Tucked away on an industrial estate in Leeds lies Suburban Home, the recording studio and nerve centre for psych-rock five-piece Hookworms. The studio shares the inconspicuous space with an 'exquisite' cake-making company, and there is something distinctly homely about the whole set-up. The control room may be packed with all manner of gadgets, but also houses comfy armchairs and a well-trodden rug, while a constant smell of freshly-baked cake wafts through the building. It's the place where MJ – Hookworms' singer and chief tinkerer – splits his time between production duties (albums by fellow citizens Eagulls and Spectrals, as well as Ores & Minerals by Mazes are recent credits) and developing Hookworms' expansive mix of temple-pulsing space rock and more delicate, Spacemen 3-like comedown mantras.
Four years since forming, and after the S/T EP via Sun Araw's Sun Ark label and a split single with drone-merchants Kogumaza, Hookworms are about to release their hugely impressive debut album, Pearl Mystic. It's a record with a split personality, balancing the anger-fuelled slabs of distorted venom typical of a Hookworms show, with a more gentle side. The album's two standout tracks, 'In Our Time' and 'What We Talk About', are both beautifully introspective and inspired by MJ's long struggle with depression.
Today, however, Hookworms are a hoot - with MJ and MB doing most of the talking during our interview (we eventually get onto the reasons for the use of initials). Bassist MB is a constant source of energy, whether berating me for my cross-Pennine football allegiance or cringing at the recollection of ruined street cred when his mother asked for a Hookworms t-shirt via the band's Facebook page ("I was like 'for fuck's sake, mum – just text me'"). He happily admits that Hookworms jumped at the chance to submit a track for Sonic Cathedral's excellent Psych For Sore Eyes EP when they found out it "would have 3D artwork and come with 3D glasses" - although the revelation that ex-Spaceman Sonic Boom would be on mastering duties undoubtedly sealed the deal.
As we wrap up our chat I get to hear a section of the new "super-poppy" single the band have just recorded. "I liked the idea of trying to shoehorn the music we play into three minutes," MJ tells me over the fuzzy guitars that cascade from giant speakers. "It's as close as we are ever going to get to pop," he concedes, as we exit past the bakery and I get another whiff of glorious cake.
You have a great set-up here – did having access to your own studio create endless opportunities to perfect Pearl Mystic?
MJ: Yes. We record things here and then I spend a long time procrastinating. These guys recorded their parts in early 2012 and I then spent a long time messing with it. I spent most of last year being almost nocturnal, as the only spare time I had here was during the night. The cake factory people think I am pretty weird, as the only time they'd see me was when they were coming to work at 5am, and I'd be stood outside with a cup of tea looking really confused and paranoid. I did definitely become completely obsessed.
Why the over-procrastination?
MJ: I just wanted it to be good. I scrapped a lot of bits and then unscrapped them, and then procrastinated about lyrics. You never finish a record, you just kind of abandon it.
Debut albums are such a huge statement of intent – there must be huge pressure to get it 100 per cent 'perfect'.
MJ: Yes, that was definitely at the back of my mind the whole time. Also, it is such a long time since we recorded S/T - almost two years – and we have moved on so far. I listened to S/T recently and and I can hear exactly what we are trying to do on each song, but it is not a coherent piece of work. The album is more coherent and sounds like us playing together, as opposed to being quite aesthetically disparate.
Over the four years Hookworms have been together, how has your sound evolved?
MJ: This band came together from three of us being in a hardcore band, playing very 80s revivalist stuff. So, I was coming at Hookworms' music from a hardcore point of view and from a more confrontational standpoint than many people who play psych stuff. So, when we started it was very loud, but then we began to write quieter songs for the album. Everything we were coming up with was super-depressing.
Why do you think that was?
MB: Well, all I had been listening to was soul and really bummed-out stuff like Lee Hazlewood. I also think we knew that we couldn't do an album that was just loud noise. A record needs to ebb and flow. People may have being expecting an hour of space rock, so it might surprise them that there is quiet stuff on there. That's why we put 'In Our Time' online first. It will get rid of anyone who wanted to only listen to really, really loud Hawkwind. We keep getting these fucking Hawkwind comparisons. Let's have a show of hands for who likes Hawkwind [no one raises their hand].
So, if Hawkwind wasn't the inspiration for Pearl Mystic, did any other bands influence the songwriting?
MJ: All of us really like the Pure X record, Pleasure. It's one of my favourite records of the last decade. 'In Our Time' was consciously trying to sound like Pure X. I'm really pleased we managed to get that song on the record as I think it is my favourite.
You regularly use the Roland Space Echo on your vocals. Why is that?
MJ: I don't like to think of having a rock band with a singer, I think of the vocalist as being a separate instrument. The tape delay makes my vocals sound a bit blown out and weird. When the band started up, I ran my vocals through a digital delay and it became like a comfort blanket. Also, I'm not a confident lyricist and the tape delay helps me feel more comfortable.
With regards to the album's lyrics, a number of tracks deal with depression and loss. Were the words easy to write?
MJ: Well, it's the most personal thing I have ever done and I made a really strong, conscious decision to write in the first person, rather than than the third person, which I had done before out of fear of giving myself away. Before, I always felt quite shrouded – intentionally. I feel very awkward about the next couple of weeks when the reviews come in.
Why did you decide to make the change to writing in the first person?
MJ: Mainly because my counsellor told me to. She said I should try to be more open, and I find it very hard to be open. She suggested that I write a song in the first person and it came from that. I actually found it really cathartic and so I continued doing it. I don't want it to sound like one of those interviews where a band says 'it was like therapy' but it kind of was, because I had had a really bad time.
How do you feel about your 'therapy' now being out in the public domain?
MJ: I wasn't conscious of the way people might react to it. When journalists have asked what the songs are about, I've been honest. But, there have been consequences to that, and maybe I should have thought about it beforehand. My family was upset - but, in a way, it made it easier to talk about things with them.
How much has Leeds influenced Pearl Mystic?
MJ: Hugely - I moved here when I was 18 because I liked the bands that were here. Also, we all have a strong appreciation for the DIY aesthetic and that's a really big thing in Leeds. I think John Peel said that LS6 probably had more bands per square mile than anywhere in the country. It's partly down to the architecture of the buildings, as they all have basements that you can practice in.
MB: The Brudenell [Social Club] has been amazing. [Owner] Nathan [Clark] gave us our first gig without hearing a note. It was a sold out Wooden Shjips show, and we hadn't even recorded anything.
Finally, I should ask the stock question about your use of initials, instead of your full names. Why?
MB: They are not nicknames or stage names – it's just paranoia. I'm really not into the idea of someone Googling you and it bringing up all your interviews and articles. Also, there is the fact that I don't want my parents reading some of the stuff I say – because I am a wanker.
Pearl Mystic is out on March 4th via Gringo Records. For more on Hookworms, click here to visit their website.