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A Quietus Interview

Thee Hypnotics And The Breakthrough Album That Never Was
Julian Marszalek , April 4th, 2018 08:03

With 1993’s The Very Crystal Speed Machine set to get its first UK release as part of their Righteously Remastered box set, reunited rock & roll preachers Thee Hypnotics tell Julian Marszalek about the album that should have made them but instead wore them down

All photographs by Steve Double

It should’ve been the album and tour that broke Thee Hypnotics’ incandescent rock & roll through to a wider, global audience, yet circumstances beyond their control conspired to turn their dreams into the stuff of nightmares. Instead of taking the States by storm, Thee Hypnotics found themselves cast adrift in America travelling in a dilapidated school bus with no tour or press support, but with just enough camaraderie to see them through to the other end.

Having been signed in 1993 to American Recordings with the help of The Black Crowes’ frontman Chris Robinson, Thee Hypnotics transplanted themselves from London to the sunnier and altogether more exotic climes of Los Angeles to record what was to be their third album, The Very Crystal Machine.

Not that Thee Hypnotics were strangers to the United States. Contemporaries of Spacemen 3 and the leather-era Primal Scream, the Detroit-influenced ramalama of Thee Hypnotics came to the attention of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm. At his urging, Thee Hypnotics became the first British band to be signed by Sub Pop and their debut album, Live’r Than God found itself in the company of Nirvana’s Bleach and God’s Balls by Tad, among many others.

Hanging out in Seattle, Thee Hypnotics immersed themselves in the city’s musical culture, while certain members began to develop some particularly anti-social habits. Indeed, their debut studio album, 1990’s Come Down Heavy, was remixed by Jack Endino after the band heard his work on Nirvana’s debut.

It was around this time that Thee Hypnotics came to the attention of southern rockers The Black Crowes who were touring their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker.

“The Black Crowes discovered us when they were on their first tour,” recalls Thee Hypnotics’ frontman Jim Jones. “They had all this music on their tour bus and as luck would have it, they took a load of LSD and someone played them Come Down Heavy. And they played it over and over again. And they were tripping and looking at the cover and for them, they were perhaps thinking, here’s a band that has captured that rock & roll genie in a bottle.”

So enamoured were The Black Crowes of Come Down Heavy that they offered Thee Hypnotics a crucial support slot on their debut UK tour, an experience that proved instructional.

“It was a proper learning curve,” says Jones. “This was the real rock & roll: you had to deliver a killer fucking show for the crowd.”

It was around this point that Chris Robinson offered his production services, though nothing would come to fruition for another couple of years. An agreement was eventually reached in muddy field in Somerset.

“We went to meet him at Glastonbury where The Black Crowes had their own tent that was lavished with Persian rugs,” remembers guitarist Ray Hanson.

“The conversation picked up where we left off. We gave him the demos and we stayed in touch,” continues Jones. “He then arranged for the album to come out on American Recordings so the next thing was we were making plans to go out and record in California.”

Finding themselves based just off the Sunset Strip in LA, Thee Hypnotics soon realised that they weren’t just in another city, but a whole different world.

“Chris Robinson would take us to the Sunset Marquis,” says drummer Phil Smith. “It was weird; you’d walk in and suddenly, most people would get up and make a table for you. I remember going to the bar and someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the Crowes’ tour manager and he says, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ ‘I’m getting a round in.’ ‘Not tonight, you ain’t. These drinks are on the house.’”

Finding themselves at parties frequented by a variety of A-listers only too keen to hang out with the band, Thee Hypnotics lifestyle was becoming increasingly unhealthy.

“I don’t think that I ate for the first month I was there,” says Hanson. “It was all whiskey, coke and heroin. We’d be doing whippets [nitrous oxide], given a mandrax at the end of the day to bring you down and then it’d be, ‘See you in the morning for more cocaine.’”

“Everything had become rock star shit,” continues Jones. “This was the lifestyle they’d become accustomed to…”

“…so we borrowed a bit of it!” chuckles Hanson mischievously.

“It was quite the A-list experience being around that Hollywood scene and quite the head spin,” says Jones. “Our feet didn’t touch the ground in many different ways.”

Focussing on the matter in hand, Thee Hypnotics decamped to Rumbo Recorders in Canoga Park, California. Built and owned by Daryl Dragon of pop duo Captain & Tennille, Thee Hypnotics were encouraged by the studio’s sense of history thanks to gold discs from Guns N’Roses, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers and Kiss among others that had been recorded there. Yet any hopes of a harmonious working relationship with Chris Robinson were soon dashed by a clash of egos between the producer and the band’s singer and guitarist.

With the benefit of hindsight, Thee Hypnotics have come to appreciate the pressure that Chris Robinson was under, as well as the pressure he exerted over the band.

“There were tensions with Chris Robinson because he’d make us rehearse for 11 hours a day in pre-production,” remembers Phil Smith. “And if he noticed something that sounded like something else, he’d make us re-write it: ‘You can’t play that song! It sounds too much like Motley Crue!’ and I think Ray and Jim felt a bit defensive. But he was right. He liked it when we sounded like Humble Pie or Free. He wanted us to sound like the definitive English rock & roll band. He didn’t want any of that LA thing.”

“Chris was a big character and he’s a very talented guy, but he knows it,” states Will Pepper. “And I guess that Jim and Ray, individually and together, tried to challenge him a couple of times. And rightly so, because the writing of the songs for The Very Crystal Speed Machine was very collaborative and it’s the only album where the songs aren’t all Hanson-Jones songs. So I guess if Chris made suggestions about the songs, the response would’ve been, ‘This is my baby; don’t tell me how to dress it.’”

“Because Chris was a writer too, part of his thing as a producer was, ‘I’m gonna change the way you write’,” continues Jones. “He once said, ‘Let’s start the song this way’ and we were like, ‘Well, we all like it this way’, so he came back with, ‘How millions of albums have you sold and how many have I sold? OK, we’re doing it my way.’ There was a lot of ego on both sides.”

Jones and Hanson’s extra-curricular activities were also beginning to irk the producer.

“Both of them, on separate occasions, were banned from the studio for a day,” says Pepper. “Certainly, on some occasions, Jim wasn’t as with it as he should’ve been. So Chris then told his roadie, ‘Get the guys tomorrow morning but don’t get Jim.’ On another occasion, Ray fell out with him and it was like, ‘Get the guys but leave Ray behind.’”

“There were a few soirees that I missed out on because I was descending into the dope thing,” admits Jones. “Chris was convinced that I was bringing it to the studio and he really had it out with me a few times. I was like, ‘You’re wrong’. He was paranoid because of whatever trip he was on, but that was the vibe; it was very lush.”

From a remove of 25 years, Jim Jones says, “Chris Robinson put his arse on the line and went to American Recordings and said, ‘Listen, there’s this great band that nobody’s head of and no one cares about, but I think they’re really cool and if you let me record their album, I could be the person who makes it go massive’ He believed in us and he must have got a serious chunk of money.

“But you have to appreciate that me and Ray had been in the driving seat 100% of time, even to the tiniest detail, so it was kind of difficult giving up control.”

Whatever tensions had been endured during its creation, The Very Crystal Speed Machine certainly gave no indication of them. While tracks such as ‘Heavy Liquid’ retained Thee Hypnotics’ trademark riffola and heavy grooves, the narco balladry of ‘Caroline Inside Out’ found the band in mellower territories. Yet for all the band’s enthusiasm for the album and its upcoming promotional US tour – their primary territory – events would soon take a downward turn.

“We were told a few weeks before the tour that American Recordings had gone into some kind of litigation with their European distribution,” says Jones. “Consequently, they pulled all funding to put it into this and unless you were Danzig or The Black Crowes or whoever then basically, you were on your own. We were told that the album was coming out but there’d be no tour budget, no shortfall, no press.”

As a portent of what was to come, the Winnebago tour bus offered by the label broke down near Chicago as it was being driven en route from California to New York where Thee Hypnotics were about to start their tour. Desperately needing transport and with funds being, their US manager had to sort something quickly.

“He went to an auction and found an old yellow school bus with wooden seats and no air conditioning and no real security. He took out four rows of seats and laid down some foam and that’s where we were supposed to sleep,” chuckles Jones at the memory.

“We drove into a heatwave and did the whole tour on this fucking bus. It was very symbolic of one minute being in the bubble, then the next you were out of it.”

He continues: “When we played North Carolina, we all slept under the stars to the sounds of crickets chirruping all night. We’d be lying there drunk and stoned and admiring the moss in the trees.”

There would be further weather extremes to test the band. Driving through Kansas, Thee Hypnotics found themselves driving into a tornado.

“I looked up at the sky it was like nighttime, almost, and then you look at the ground and the sunshine was on it,” says Jones. “It was like one of those of old Bela Lugosi films where the lightning really was splitting the sky, and it was non-stop. And then you’d see the clouds swirling and the bus started rocking from side to side.”

He continues: “I looked out of the window and I could see this orangey-brown shape heading towards the bus and then suddenly the window smashed. It might have been pheasant or a turkey but it was big bird and it had probably been attracted by the lights from the bus. There were feathers and blood everywhere, which was followed by wind and rain coming in through the window. It felt quite apocalyptic.”

Though their shows in New York and LA had sold out and their Detroit show had seen them tear through The MC5’s ‘Kick Out The Jams’ with the addition of Scott Morgan from Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, the rest of the tour was sparsely attended.

“You’d get to a city to a play a gig and the record wasn’t in the stores,” says Hanson.

“We got to San Diego and there was hardly anybody there,” adds Jones. “Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols was supposed to be DJing that night. We were stood outside and you could see this cloud of dust coming over the horizon and it took ages getting closer to us. And then it arrived and it was Steve Jones on a Harley. And he goes, ‘I suppose you’re Thee Hypnotics, are you?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Has any cunt turned up yet?’ ‘No.’ ‘Right, I’m off. See you!’

“And he turned round and rode straight back to LA.”

Looking back at what could easily be viewed as a dispiriting exercise, Jones is proud of the tour.

“Despite not having a proper tour bus, despite the heatwave and all that, we still had a sense of adventure,” he states. “And a sense of privilege to be out in the States rocking. It was a time when there was camaraderie between bands and it was just about going out there and doing it.”

With Thee Hypnotics reuniting for a UK tour – their first in 20 years – and the re-release of their back catalogue, how does The Very Crystal Speed Machine stand up now?

“Like any recording, I can’t help but think back to the studio and where and when those parts where created,” says Jones. “But what does it sound like to me now? It sounds like furry freaks laying down heavy grooves against sunset cocktail of booze and drugs. “

Thee Hypnotics’ UK reunion tour takes place in April. Their boxset, Righteously Re-Charged, is out on June 8. The newly reinvigorated band play Raw Power Festival in May