More Than Money: An Interview With Hey Colossus

As they announce their compact and killer new album In Blood and share first track 'My Name In Blood' exclusively with The Quietus, Hey Colossus speak to Bernie Brooks about folklore, community, and what it means to be in a band for 20 years

"Not everything we’ve done is a political thing," says Paul Sykes, vocalist of longstanding heavy rock heroes Hey Colossus, "but the way you get crushed by this country, being together for this long is in itself quite political. It’s kind of a ‘fuck you’. We’re not supposed to exist. We’re supposed to creep back down into the margins and not operate and get on with our stupid jobs. I’m being a bit of a teenager here, but I think just working together for this long is sort of a middle finger."

It’s Memorial Day here in the States, and I’m talking to Sykes, bassist Joe Thompson, and guitarist Chris Summerlin over dodgy Wi-Fi. Sykes is sat outdoors, transmitting a backing track of loud birdsong from his perch on a patio – much to the good-natured chagrin of his bandmates. As far as marginal American holidays go, it seems more than appropriate for this conversation, which finds the group looking backwards as they prepare to move forward.

"I’m really just proud of being in a band that’s gone on for 20 years and never made a penny," says Thompson, a founding member of the group. "Whether it’s because we’re hopeless, or whether it’s because we’ve focused on having families and jobs, or whether it’s because we’re not privileged enough to be in a position where we can tour places like America without enormous funding in the first place, I don’t know. But the fact that we’re here now, and we have this record that we’re really happy with, I think it’s just a personal pat on the back – if we’re allowed to say that without sounding like absolute knobheads."

So, hurrah! Hey Colossus are 20, and yes, they’re announcing their 14th record, the compact and killer In Blood, due in September, plus a stunning new video by David Hand to boot that’s premiering exclusively with tQ, but following the release of Dances / Curses in late 2020, however, reaching this point didn’t seem certain – or even likely. Rattled by lockdown and an inability to gig, the group was drifting toward dissolution, even in the wake of their most successful album to date.

"I’ve been in the band since 2018 and it never ceases to amaze me how it operates," says Summerlin. "It’s like something else beyond the six of us is steering things and I’m amazed at the scrapes we emerge from. Even with that in mind, around 2021 I really couldn’t see how the band was going to continue. Half of us had moved house during lockdown and completely relocated to new areas. We were never living on top of each other anyway, but now the distances felt insurmountable. We kept booking gigs and having to cancel them – first for lockdown and then because of family illness – and just getting us all together for a practice felt impossible. It started to feel like everyone was just too far apart both geographically and in terms of what they wanted from the band.

In an effort to overcome those creative challenges, "Joe came up with an idea that we would start work on some new music, and whoever wanted to come and be part of that could do so,” says Summerlin. “The original plan was that we could perhaps write songs for other people to sing or find a way to write out of character, somehow, as a way to kick-start something."

Thompson’s plan acted as a catalyst, prompting decisive action from the Dances / Curses lineup of the band, with Rhys Llewellyn and Will Pearce amicably stepping away from the group. Brothers Roo and Tim Farthing of Reigns, both former members of Hey Colossus themselves, rejoined the band, cementing the lineup that would go on to create In Blood.

"I really liked the music that the band made with Tim and Roo before I was in it," Summerlin says. "But I replaced Roo on guitar, so now he’s the drummer. This absolutely shouldn’t work, and I would have bet money on it being a lot harder than it was. But again, without getting cosmic about it, something steers the band, beyond the members of it. We never sit discussing. The only time we ever get an idea of what anybody was intending is through interviews like this. So, it does feel kind of weird when I look back."

"I think there’s strength in the belief that something should just carry on," Thompson offers. "You build your little community. Tim and Roo both rejoined, I’ve been in other bands with them before – like Henry Blacker, and I was in Reigns for a bit. A little community is really important – you can have a slightly fluid lineup. I just think it’s a beautiful thing."

For his part, Sykes didn’t even expect to feature on the tracks Davis, Thompson, Summerlin, and the Farthings laid down, but his interest was piqued. "I knew it would be good," he says. "There’s a natural alchemy with this lot that is rare in my experience. They knew I was out of action somewhat, as I’d moved the furthest away from the southern hub of band operations, and there seemed to be plans to see if the recordings would fit another singer. I had to stick my oar in and offer to write as much of the vocal parts as possible, I couldn’t leave it alone. Maybe that would have been disrespectful to whoever came in, but I was compelled. It was up to them what they did with it, if anything. Not my baby."

Ultimately, almost inevitably, Sykes sang every word on the record, delivering his finest and most versatile vocal performance on a Hey Colossus release to date. "I’ve always slightly struggled with the identity I’m supposed to inhabit as the singer," Sykes continues. "With this project the pressure was off. I felt comfortable stepping out of anything that was expected of me. I think the band has always operated well because we’re never tied to be one thing. Warner isn’t jabbing their cold steel finger into our spine to make a certain sound, every time, for the units to fly out. Thank God."

Photo by Julie R Kane

Working from his home base in "a rural-ish part of the Wirral," Sykes turned to themes of natural rebirth and folklore as a way to address the pervasive trauma and grief of the pandemic years. "So much has been lost for everyone," he says. "I’d been reading a lot of poetry and stories that stretch back though a history of British lore and folk song, anonymous grief tales from Middle England, gruesome ghost tales from the Isle Of Wight and the like. These all helped to provide ways into the songs, to hopefully conjure something hopeful and reverse that polarity of loss in the way nature always inevitably has. I very easily found myself writing through someone else’s vantage. I could drop them in a part of the British Isles at different times through history, real or imagined, and let them fend for themselves.

"We wrote approximately twice as much material as appears on In Blood," Sykes continues. "Chris really proposed the final track list, but it’s become obvious which are the most natural performances, the most fluid songs, the most successful spirits. And that’s what we’ve got here, I hope."

"In Blood quickly became a Hey Colossus record proper, but some remnants of the ‘writing out of character’ idea stuck around," Summerlin adds. "Some of the record feels like new ground for me as someone who’s listened to the band for 20 years both as a fan and a member. It feels like all of the stress and drama of forcing the music into existence was somehow part of the plan all along."

"It feels apt that the record starts in a miserable halfway house with a corrupted figure but ends on a rush of positivity," Sykes concludes. "I could ruminate all day, but essentially this record can be boiled down to being about the land and the regrowth after death, scratching through the knotty, coiled hedgerow of ghosts to find the new life."

On In Blood Hey Colossus indeed sound like a band rejuvenated. These tunes feel lively in a folkloric sense, without calling to mind embarrassing Spinal Tap visions of "Stonehenge floating down,” as Sykes puts it. And though it’s heavy as ever, the record toys with sounds you wouldn’t immediately associate with a long-running noise rock sextet. You might hear a bit of Wipers here, a Depeche Mode nod there, perhaps a touch of The Cure. In a sense, this is Hey Colossus at their most pop, but perhaps more importantly, this may be Hey Colossus at their most free. Buoyed by their little community, they’ve tapped into a palpable energy the courses through every song on the album.

Photo by Teresa Moody

"I’m not trying to crowbar this in," says Thompson, "but around 2000, Tim spent like two long years doing an enormous world tour with a very popular band. Apart from the financial side, maybe if you asked him, he would say he prefers making music with friends. You get more out of it than money. Having said that, everyone I’ve ever met has wanted to be in PJ Harvey’s band."

"I’m gonna be honest with you," Summerlin laughs, "I’d love to say that I think it’s better to make music with you, Joe, in a practice room for no money in Birmingham, but I would really like to play on Letterman and at Wembley Stadium in PJ Harvey’s band."

"But it’s never gonna happen," Thompson says laughing, "so don’t worry about it."

Hey Colossus’ new album In Blood is released on 1 September via Wrong Speed Records. Pre-order it here.

The band tour the UK in September and October. For dates and tickets, click here

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