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Could’ve Been A Disaster: A Conversation With Hey Colossus

Chris Summerlin and Joe Thompson of Hey Colossus talk to Bernie Brooks about their marathon cover version of a Patrick Cowley and Jorge Socarras original

Photo by James Birtwhistle

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"I think the mixing and the choice of sounds in anything that Patrick Cowley did is flawless," says Chris Summerlin of Hey Colossus. "Especially the instrumentals on School Daze – you can imagine the places they’re in, the planets they’re on, and I think that’s a good approach to mixing any type of music."

I’m sitting in my kitchen talking to Summerlin and Joe Thompson about their group’s mammoth, nearly album-length cover of ‘You Laugh At My Face’ from Catholic by Cowley and Jorge Socarras, commissioned by The Quietus for Sound + Vision subscribers. Coming from a band like Hey Colossus, known for their particularly heavy brand of heavy rock, a cover of an obscure synth-pop collaboration featuring pioneering hi-NRG savant Cowley might seem far out of left field, but Summerlin doesn’t necessarily see it that way, not entirely.

"I do think that as a rock band in inverted commas, you can take things from [Cowley’s approach]: your choices about how you mix something, to make that little sonic world like he does in every single mix. It’s intimidating to cover something like that," Summerlin continues, "but at the same time, it’s freeing because you can kind of do anything. I did the mix on it, and I really enjoyed doing it – even though it was quite terrifying."

The result is the group’s latest high-water mark. Over its almost 22-minute runtime, Hey Colossus make the song their own by utilising an expansive arsenal of dub-like tactics. Excepting a rough-and-ready surprise near the track’s conclusion, their ‘You Laugh At My Face’ is a genuinely gorgeous, psychedelic exploration of the Cowley and Socarras original.

"It’s hard – we’ve been in this lockdown period, and it’s very liberating to suddenly be able to do things again," Summerlin says. "But actually, it’s quite difficult. This is the first thing we’ve finished since the last record, and we did that, what, three years ago? It feels good. I’m really grateful that The Quietus asked us to do it."

Thompson chimes in: "Could’ve been a disaster."

Why choose this track by Cowley and Socarras?

Chris says, “I’m a huge fan of Cowley. Paul [Sykes], our singer in the band, forwarded me the Catholic record. He works for a record distributor, and when Dark Entries reissued it, he got a copy. He knew that I liked School Daze and the more high-energy Patrick Cowley stuff. I really liked the Donovan cover on Catholic. They cover ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’. I think Paul forwarded it on for that, but I remember thinking, when I first heard ‘You Laugh At My Face’, that it kind of sounds like the way he sings. Had a similar quality to it.

“I’ve been bugging the rest of the band to cover it for ages. Everyone was like, ‘Ah, how are we going to do that?’ But I thought was an interesting choice for a band like ours, that is supposedly a – I don’t know what we are, but we are a "rock band" of guys in our 40s. I think our interests are maybe slightly broader than we sometimes get credit for. That song in particular – it’s a beautiful song.”

Joe adds: “Plus, I think that having been in this rock band for as long as we’ve been in it, which is almost 20 years, you don’t really listen to that much rock music when you’re at home. You dig elsewhere for your sounds.”

Hey Colossus are known for being record collectors, or at least Joe is anyway, thanks to the Wrong Speed Record interviews which he publishes on YouTube.

He explains: “We all are. I’ve said it many times. We basically play places that have good record shops. Yeah, we’ll get there early to go to the record shop. And we’re all the same. So, I’m not having this entirely on me.”

It had been tempting to assume that the selection of this song related to that tendency. There’s an obscurity to the track. Even after the reissue, it remains crate-diggery. To the extent it’s fair to ask if there’s a little bit of a record collector flex going on here?

Chris says, “I have to defend myself and say I don’t own the record. So, if it is a bit of a crate digging flex, it’s not about ownership. I just thought the track has an emotional content to it. I responded to it when I first heard it, and I thought we could do a good job of it. I still slightly think we might have murdered it. But you’re supposed to think that, aren’t you? Supposed to think that the original is better than the cover? But I don’t know if it’s a record collector flex? Maybe it’s a dork thing, not a record collector thing.”

Joe laughs and adds, “But the point is, it wouldn’t even occur to us that it was a flex, and that is a sign that it probably is.”

Their interpretation of ‘You Laugh At My Face’, in its full glory, is nearly 22 minutes long – much longer than the original. It begs the question how this came about.

Chris says it was due to panic: “[It’s] because we said we would do it six months ago – and we kept going to recording studios to try and come up with ideas for a track. Am I being too honest here, Joe?”

Joe answers: "Last time we went, we booked a studio to go in and record something for the track. At that point, it wasn’t going to be the Cowley cover. What we actually came out with was four relatively normal length songs that are going to be on a future album instead. And as we drove home that day, it was like, ‘We’ve not fucking done it again!’"

Chris laughs: "We forgot! Shit!" It was like, ‘What the fuck are we doing?’ It was a difficult time. And we were really enthusiastic about the things we were coming up with, and then we all messaged each other on the way home. ‘Fuck! We forgot the fucking Quietus thing we’re supposed to do!’

Photo by Julie R Kane

“So, I think that because there’s a metronomic thing to it – it’s not really dance music, that song – but there’s a metronomic thing to electronic music that enabled us to do it remotely. Everybody just chucked their ideas on the framework of the song. Then, we mixed it like it was a dub mix – just turning things on and off when we felt like it was going to work. And the time restrictions made it great for me. We finished it on Tuesday night, and John [Doran]’s asking for it on Wednesday morning. So, it’s nice, you know, to be forced into these decisions quite quickly. Maybe if we’d laboured over those decisions, we’d have made it worse.”

Everyone at The Quietus thinks the track turned out fabulously, and there’s something of a lighter touch going on there. I was listening to it this morning, and my wife came in with her cup of coffee, you know, and asked if it was one of the Peel sessions they’ve added to that reissue of Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One.

Chris is disarming: “I freely admit that I’ve never had an original guitar idea in my life. Everything comes from that record. I don’t own any other Yo La Tengo records – I own that one, and I really like it. And weirdly, I play in another band, and all the people that are in that band, the one shared album that we all like is that record, even though we don’t own any other Yo La Tengo records. That record, for some reason it sticks around. The atmosphere of it. You don’t feel like they overproduced it – it feels like the textures are in the room, but they’re kind of cool. There’s a slightly My Bloody Valentine feel to some of that record as well.”

Joe adds: “Elisa and I, when we got married, the song we walked down the aisle to, although there wasn’t an aisle because it was a registry office, was a Yo La Tengo song – ‘Our Way To Fall’. So, that’s my Yo La Tengo story.”

Chris concludes: “But we’re not Yo La Tengo fans, are we? [laughs] We’re not obsessive fans, but yet – hang on! It’s the secret bonding agent of all people in our age group.”

In some ways, this cover seems like it could be a spiritual successor to ‘The Mirror’, that track the band did with Mark Lanegan; but do the band think about it that way?

Chris says: “Maybe? I guess the vocals are quite similarly delivered, aren’t they? We’d just done an album in the lockdown period that was going to have Lanegan as the vocalist, and maybe this came out of that a little bit, because we were making music for him to sing.”

Joe says that they provided the singer with 14 or 15 instrumental tracks.

Chris says: “We sent them all over to him, but we didn’t hear from him for a week. We were like, ‘We’ve fucking blown it.’ Then it turned out that he had died. It was fucking awful. And we had made this record for him.

“Now, we’re trying to work out what to do with it. And I think there is a little bit of a hangover there, where we are maybe making music with a more prominent vocal in mind. Not that we don’t do that normally, but Paul is very good at adapting to whatever he’s given. He’s not asking for a platform to sing, but he’ll always find one. But I think on the stuff that we did, thinking that Mark was gonna sing it, we definitely have verses and choruses. Fuck knows what we’re going to do with that.”

Joe chips in: “I’m actually hoping [this process] kicks our ass into finishing the thing that was gonna be Lanegan’s. I’m hoping it makes us bend and twist to make that finished. But yeah, you’re right, it was probably hangover.”

And – apologies for the spoiler – ‘You Laugh At My Face’ turns into The Fall at the end.

Chris says: “The idea was there’s two songs. We were looking for the lyrics for ‘You Laugh At My Face’ and the thing that came up was a garage rock track called ‘Laugh In My Face’ [by The Apolloes]. [Robert Davis], the other guitar player in Colossus, also does a band called The Mute Servants – like a Billy Childish, The Fall type thing. He was like, "I’ll cover that." So, he did, and then it was like, "How are we going to fit this in?" We stuck it on the end with loads of reverb like it’s a mistake. I think it sounds almost like a Lee Ranaldo Sonic Youth song. When it comes in, I keep thinking it’s ‘Mote’ off Goo.”

Joe adds: “Like the sort of thing Guided by Voices used to do, and Sonic Youth used to do, is you used to have the next song or the first song off the next album fade in at the end.“

Chris says, “Yeah, that means our next record is just going to be all shouting about stuff.”

Joe concludes laughing: “Might well be!”

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