Turn of the screw

Hookworms

13 February 13 words: Andrew Trendell
"I approach what we do in terms of 80s and 90s hardcore. We are more interested in hardcore or garage rock than we are in ‘psych’ rock"

Anyone who’s seen Hookworms live before will have walked away visibly shaken. They’re a multi-sensory attack that entrances you before punching you in the gut. Hookworms have a music producer and general tech-y nerd at their helm, but they don’t use technology as a crutch. Instead, they use the sheer scope of everything at their disposal to create something that’s huge but deceptively controlled but ‘confrontational’.

With their astounding debut album Pearl Mystic on the horizon (on the awesome Gringo Records) and hype looking to send that powerhouse wall of noise crashing over the whole country, LeftLion caught up with Hookworms ‘frontman’ Matt Johnson about sound, hardcore, aspirations and what ‘psychedelia’ actually means...

The first time I saw you guys was at the Gringo Records 15th Birthday Party at Nottingham Contemporary last year...
Ah yes, that was a great show. It was massive.

Indeed, and like a lot of Gringo bands, you’ve got a great fanbase here in Nottingham. How do you find the response you get when you come here?
It’s really nice. I grew up in Nottingham, so I’ve got a few friends there. We’ve done a lot in Brighton too so it’s a similar thing down there.

The room was rammed when you played the Bowery in Sheffield for Tramlines Festival just before Peace too...
Yeah, that show was weird. People were queuing round the corner to see us, which was a bit odd. There was such a nice atmosphere at that festival too. It was like a carnival and really wild.

Have you found that a lot more anticipation has been building around you for the last year or so then?
Apparently. I’ve spent a lot of the last year making the album, which is coming out next month. Because I’ve got my own studio, Suburban Home, I spent most of my time here anyway. We haven’t played that much in the last year, either.

How does it feel to be infiltrating daytime radio on BBC 6 Music and stuff like that?
I don’t know – that’s weird as well. We didn’t intend for any of this stuff to happen, but it’s all getting a bit wild at the moment. I know that we’re in the NME in the next couple of weeks for features and stuff. I think they’ve decided that psychedelic music is going to be ‘cool’ or something like that...I remember when we put out our first record, we were super-excited that we were doing that and that it was with Gringo because we’re all very much kinda DIY-minded. We’re not a very aspirational band, so everything that’s going on at the moment feels a bit weird. It’s cool though, especially if it can draw more attention to Gringo because it’s an amazing label.

So in your mind, is there a level that you’d be happy for Hookworms to reach?
I’ve never really thought about it. I’m really lucky that I get to work with a load of bands and labels that I love through what I do in my studio – so I kind of get my kicks from that. People crave it, and I guess you’d be lying if you said that you didn’t want people to hear your record – but I don’t need to have any ambitions towards Hookworms in that manner at all because I’m just totally happy with my studio. We all treat it like a hobby because we all have jobs that we like and enjoy doing Hookworms in our holiday time.

I guess it’s great that Gringo Records is the kind of label to give you the freedom to do what you want then, without any pressure...
Exactly – that was a very important thing for us. Matt (Newnham - Gringo boss) always wanted us to do our album on Gringo, and we were mildly entertaining the idea of ‘bigger’ labels but that was stupid because none of us want to quit our jobs and we’re happy how we are.

So he was never banging on the door asking “where are the hits?”
Haha, no – I don’t need any of that stuff.

So what you were saying about NME suddenly deciding that ‘psychedelic’ music is going to be cool – you read that word applied to Hookworms quite a lot, but it’s quite vague really. What is it mean to you and how do you feel about being called it?
I feel like we might get pigeonholed as that, but we don’t necessarily come from that point of view. There are bands like that getting popular internationally like Tame Impala and stuff like that, but I approach what we do in terms of 80s and 90s hardcore on Dischord. As a collective whole, we’re all more interested in hardcore or garage rock than we are in ‘psych’ rock. I guess it’s because we’ve taken influence from the same places that psychedelic bands have, but a lot of people think of psychedelic music as being ‘escapist’. I don’t think we are escapist – I think our music is more confrontational and exciting than that.

So did you guys start as a hardcore band and go through some kind of process to find yourselves here?
Yeah – three of us all played in a 80s revivalist hardcore band before this. When that band split up there was a bit of a crossover and we were meant to be a noise rock band like Pissed Jeans or Black Flag, but I think the confrontational element of that has stayed with us – but our songs are a bit more far out in terms of instrumentation.

Another thing I’ve noticed about you is that you’re not a typical frontman backed by a band, but that you tend to use your voice as another instrument and weave it into your massive wall of sound. Was that always the idea or did you just arrive at that?
Yes, definitely. That came on pretty quickly because I was putting my vocals through a pedal. I thought at first that it was a bit of a comfort blanket, but in my previous band I was the frontman who didn’t play anything and just sang and threw myself around a bit. Now, we definitely place the vocals on the same level as the instruments. People have said that the mix of the vocals on the album is a lot more up front, and it doesn’t feel like that to me but I can understand it.

I was talking to Graham Coxon last year, and you wouldn’t expect someone with a catalogue like his to say this, but he said he saw himself not as a ‘songwriter’ but as a man who just made noises. Do you see Hookworms as more a band trying to create a mood than just going ‘verse, chorus, verse’?
I think our songs are a lot more structured than people realise. They all come out of an idea or a jam and there’s a large amount of repetition in what we do, but I spend a lot of time taking the songs apart and putting them back together again, in terms of sequencing and structure. I’m very much into songwriting as a concept, but I’m also very much into sabotaging it a little.

I like the idea of subverting the medium a little bit. There are a couple of songs which aren’t on the album but are super-poppy. We gave ourselves clear direction that these were going to be three minute pop songs to fit on a seven inch. I was reading David Byrne’s book How Music Works, and he talks about how a lot of music is informed by the context in which it’s realised. I like the idea of taking our aesthetic and trying to write pop songs within that while still remaining coherent with everything else that we’ve done. The album is nine tracks but it’s 45 minutes long, and the idea of trying of trying to shoehorn that sound into something more concise is really interesting to me.

Do you ever think about the context of the digital age, and how Hookworms could just throw something out there into the ether to sit there and maybe be a little bit disposable?
We’ve put a lot of time into thinking about how the sequence of our records goes and we still think in terms of vinyl more than any other format. I guess I’m kind of old-fashioned and conservative in liking two sides of a record. I wanted to make an album that had slow songs, fast songs and dynamics and we go out of our way to make sure that everything flows. The only breaks are for turning the record over. If you listen to songs on their own then they just start and stop and that seems quite binary. I’m not really bothered about that upsetting anyone and people missing the end of a song, because I’d rather the whole thing be heard as intended because we’ve put so much time and thought into that.

Hookworms along with Cold Pumas and Hand play at Stuck On A Name on Friday 22 February 2013. Facebook event.

Their debut album Pearl Mystic is released on Gringo Records on Monday 4th March 2013.

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