You Never Know Who’s Listening: An Interview With Hey Colossus’ Joe Thompson

Joe Thompson of Hey Colossus talks the band's killer thirteenth album, and why he launched his own label Wrong Speed Records at the height of the pandemic

Photo: Julie R Kane

It would be a near-impossible task to draw a family tree-style map, setting out the many, many individuals who make up the sprawling network of underground musicians, artists, producers, promoters and labels of New Weird Britain. It would be an enormous, constantly shifting matrix, its links made up of the bands people have joined and left, the records they’ve put out for one another, the live line-ups they’ve shared, and simple acts of kindness. If someone were to take on such a task, however, one of the biggest names on the page would be Hey Colossus. In 17 years, they’ve released over a dozen albums across almost as many labels, with a constantly rotating line-up of musicians, all of whom have myriad projects of their own.

The band’s bassist, Joe Thompson, has spent his lockdown adding yet more tendrils to the tree, with the launch of his new record label Wrong Speed. So far this year they’ve released six albums. There’s the motoric and uncanny Reigns, the spiky and uncompromising Sweet Williams, the searingly intense Thee Alcoholics, the turbocharged mania of POHL, Acidliner’s fuzzed-out psychedelia, and a vinyl reissue of dance project Bass Clef’s essential 2011 cassette Inner Space Break Free. Almost all of them comprise of former or current Hey Colossus members, or Thompson’s friends. “The only thing they have in common with one another is the personnel,” he says over a zoom conversation from his home in Somerset, where boxes of LPs are gradually taking over the garage.

For the most part, Thompson was driven solely by a desire to see his friends’ music given the proper release that for one reason or another they couldn’t obtain elsewhere. Reigns, for example, “had had to just put out a digital version of the album on Bandcamp because their label fell apart. The Acidliner album was cassette only and I wanted it on vinyl, the same with Bass Clef. Sweet Williams is normally a band, but this time was just Tom [House, former Chartlottesfield frontman] and an 808 drum machine and he didn’t think there’d be a label interested but I really loved it.” He released POHL, the Bristol-based project of Hey Colossus guitarist Will Pearce, because it appeared the band might be reaching their end with Pearce’s relocation to Sheffield and they’d never had a physical release. He remains tight-lipped on Thee Alcoholics, whose members wish to remain anonymous, although says it’s easily guessable to those who are au fait with left-field British music.

It’s easier to work with your friends, Thompson says. “If you’ve got a good bond with someone you can talk entirely honestly about how you’re going to do it. You can say ‘we’re gonna do 50 cassettes’, whereas they might want 1,000 LPs.” It’s advantageous to keep things small-scale, he says. “If we’re releasing music on a label like M.I.E. or Rocket or Riot Season, my first thought is ‘Please do not let them lose money on this.’ If we have to do 50 gigs or buy stock from them, they must not lose money. At this current time, where you can’t gig, it’s an enormous risk to go out on a limb. At the minute there’s no way I’m going to be releasing enormous albums by uknown bands and desperately trying to push them and pay for PR. You have to keep it in your world so you can be honest with people.”

It’s very unlikely that Wrong Speed Records will make much money, if any at all, particularly during a pandemic which has wreaked unprecedented havoc on the independent music industry. “I’m hoping to break even,” Thompson says. “But it’s certainly not my day job.” Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, musical exploits are a side-hustle. By day, he’s a postman in the town of Glastonbury. A few days before our interview, he was bitten by a dog while on his rounds, “a complete cliché!” When the coronavirus pandemic began, he spent some months on furlough while his wife recovered from a major operation, and with the added time and reduced financial outgoings, “I thought ‘Now’s the time to start a label!’”

Photo: Maria Karlakova

To an outsider, one of the most severe economic downturns in human history is very much not the time to start a label. But then again artists of Thompson’s size are nothing if not adaptable. As the financial stability of independent musicianship has been gradually eroded over the last two decades, its practitioners were already finding external ways to sustain their craft. “You’ve got to love it at this level that we’re all working at,” Thompson says. “This whole thing hasn’t affected the bands at our level in the way it’s affected those the level or two up. The band I feel really sorry for is Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, who are that step above us in every way. They had everything in place, this massive tour, they were going to America, it all looked so impressive. That’s not to say it won’t happen whenever it all gets back together again, and I really hope it does for them, but it really felt like this was supposed to be their year.”

The seventh Wrong Speed release is the 13th Hey Colossus album, the imperious double LP Dances / Curses. Here another advantage of self-releasing becomes apparent. Due to the pandemic, the label who were initially interested in releasing it wanted to delay the record until March 2021. “And also, it’s not very easy to persuade a label to release a double album. It’s quite a money haemorrhager. So I thought, ‘Let’s back our own horse on this one’.” Hey Colossus did self-release their first three albums between 2004 and 2006, and though the wider musical landscape has changed, “I don’t think there’s a great deal of difference really. It’s slightly more expensive, and mail order’s enormous, especially at the moment, but it felt time to get back on it.”

Dances / Curses is a record that deserves that second disc. It’s a gigantic album, one of the best, most uncompromising rock releases of the year. “We mulled over chopping a few songs off but every time we did it ended up feeling unbalanced,” Thompson says of the 76-minute epic. At the centre is the crushing sixteen-minute track ‘A Trembling Rose’, plus its 4-minute reprise. “That’s a whole side of a record really, and you can’t take that off or edit it.” After two decades of regular releases, it’s among their best, if not the peak of their career thus far. Thompson says it’s the proudest he’s ever been of an album. “I know a couple of people will say it’s bloated, the way people do with double albums. I’ve got a few double albums that could be trimmed a bit, I get that, but I’m backing it to the hilt. We put hours and hours into it.”

The record began before their last, 2019’s similarly excellent Four Bibles, was even finished. Guitarists Will Pearce and Chris Summerlin were new additions to the line-up, whose first act as Colossi was to record overdubs for the previous LP. The weekend session in Bristol they’d set aside for it ended up doubling up as the start of Dances / Curses. Pearce and Summerlin’s respective styles – Pearce’s love of classic prog, and Summerlin’s penchant for a “B-52s surf guitar sort of sound” – injected an extra dose of dynamism. “Will joined a year before Chris, when we got asked to tour with Sumac, and his excitement for that propelled us along. We did really good European dates where we got put up in beautiful hotels and played really big venues that are way beyond us. I think he thought it was all going to be like that.”

Photo: Elisa Thompson

Hey Colossus’ current line-up are based in Sheffield, Nottingham, Watford, South London and Somerset. They meet up for regular eight-hour recording sessions in Twickenham whenever possible, a location that’s “inconvenient for everyone, which seems like the fairest way.” For recording, they’ll meet up for “extremely long weekends, Friday to Monday evening, nine ‘til midnight.” In a pandemic, this kind of process is more or less impossible – one extra member and a Hey Colossus recording session would be illegal under current guidelines – so it’s a good job they finished the record in February. “If we hadn’t finished it by then it would have destroyed the momentum a bit. I do another band where we got halfway through an album and we’ve not seen each other for half a year now. It’s a bit of a bummer.”

Regardless of circumstances, Dances / Curses feels like a special record, a new peak among one of the most consistent careers in underground rock music. Hey Colossus might never be a household name, but it will only increase their considerable cult status. It says a lot that Mark Lanegan, a long-term fan, claimed it was a privilege to contribute vocals to the record’s lead single ‘The Mirror’. The band’s relationship with him began, appropriately enough, when they noticed his name pop up on their mail-out orders. In keeping with the general attitude of soundness that binds that great web of underground music together, he sent over his vocals within days of being asked, with no question of payment. “He’s been buying our records for years,” says Thompson. “Something I always say is that bands need to run their own mail order. You never know who’s listening!”

Hey Colossus’ new album Dances / Curses is out on November 6 via Wrong Speed Records in the UK and Learning Curve in the US. You can purchase it via Wrong Speed here, and via Learning Curve here.

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