Leeds quintet Hookworms happily admit that their 2013 debut album, Pearl Mystic — an unhinged hybrid of garage rock, kosmische and psychedelia — constituted “a kitchen-sink record.” Certainly, this was a record made with no expectations, by five youthful music obsessives from northern England whose attitude to the idea of fame or celebrity is neatly encapsulated by the fact they choose to be known just by their initials.
Just 2,000 copies of Pearl Mystic were pressed, but the buzz around the band’s blowtorch-intense live shows was so deafening that all of them sold out prior to the release date. Eighteen months later comes The Hum, the group’s debut for Domino imprint Weird World, which neither dials down the ferocity — see explosive opener “The Impasse,” their shortest and most impactful song to date — nor vocalist/keyboardist MJ’s deeply personal angst. What we do find is a deepening of Hookworms’ sound, The Hum featuring several quietly reflective interludes, with sharp pop hooks exposed inside their raging blizzard. The Hum is not so much a case of Hookworms growing up, as growing out.
Wondering Sound caught up with MJ and guitarist SS to talk writing about depression, balancing DIY ethics with burgeoning popularity, and the appeal of noise for “a pathetic beta male.”
You’ve said that last year’s “Radio Tokyo” was the launch point for the new record. How so?
MJ: It was the fastest song we’d ever written and it was very much informed by the format it was written for; we knew it was coming out on a seven-inch single, so it had to be a short song, and that was the first time we’d ever done that. There’d never been a limitation with our songwriting before, so it was a fun experiment — and the constraint was great. Seeing that “Radio Tokyo” was creatively successful in our own eyes was really good, because it meant that we tried to do more poppy things.
You posted a playlist of songs that connect to The Hum and, alongside clear kindred spirits like Fugazi, Can, LCD Soundsystem and Nisennenmondai, are more conventional representations from Wilco and Low. What do you like about those bands?
SS: The Low song “When I Go Deaf” was a specific reference for “Off Screen” on the new album. I just love the way the guitar explodes.
MJ: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is my favorite album. I absolutely love it. I also like A Ghost Is Born, because I have a lot of time for Jim O’Rourke. But for me, Yankee is the perfect mix of great songwriting and interesting textures. Again, the middle section of “Off Screen” — where there’s a lot of weird noises and backwards piano — was heavily influenced by that album and by Jim O’Rourke.
MJ, around the time of Pearl Mystic, you were very honest and open about your ongoing battle with depression and anxiety, which was the subject of many of the songs. What gave The Hum its emotional shape?
MJ: The new record still has songs about depression. “On Leaving” is about a friend who has mental health issues, so I’m seeing it from the other side — when you don’t know how to help someone. “The Impasse” is very much about depression, and even just leaving the house, which is something I still struggle with all the time. The success of Pearl Mystic was what caused me to be frank about my depression, because I never thought anyone would read the press release, where I said what various songs were about. So, when parts of that press release started being read on the radio three months later, it was kind of crazy. I had to learn pretty quickly to be open about it. The most positive thing that came out of that was the number of people who wrote to me and said that the album had helped them. That means more to me than anything, because there’s still such a huge stigma attached to mental health.
It’s often hard to hear your lyrics, because your delivery is so raucous and heavily shrouded in effects. Is that a ploy to disguise what you’re saying?
MJ: The delay that I put on my voice [on Pearl Mystic] was absolutely out of embarrassment at singing my words. The only other time I’d sung in the way that I sing in Hookworms was with a garage-rock band where I was singing someone else’s lyrics. With Hookworms, I was really uncomfortable and anxious about what I was writing. Apart from wanting to copy the effects that bands like Comets On Fire or Thee Oh Sees use on their vocals, I also used it as a comfort blanket. On the new record, I’ve pulled the space echo back a bit. You can’t roll it off too much, because it’s become like an instrument in itself. But I’m more confident, definitely.
Is making music cathartic, or is that just a cliché?
MJ: It is cathartic, definitely. I hate playing live — I hate standing in front of people. I hate people looking at me or paying me any attention — but I love playing music with my friends. I know I’m in a situation where I have to [play in front of an audience], but it’s really hard when something takes me out of the experience and brings me back into the real world. It’s happened once, at ATP, when I fucked up with all the buttons I have to push and there was a massive noise. The other time was at End of the Road festival, when I had a total panic attack. I never wanted to be off the stage more than I did then.
SS: In Hookworms, it definitely feels like a group connection live, rather than just playing a part. It’s like what they call “playing in the pocket” in jazz. You start to feel like you’re not playing the guitar in a band any more, but you feel that the music is just happening — and that’s a really cathartic experience.
Do you like noise and volume for their own sake?
MJ & SS: [In unison] Yes!
MJ: Our sound engineer is getting a reputation as being very loud. He also does [fellow Leeds group] Eagulls, who are offensively loud. I like how the sound envelops you, and I like that movement of air. In the same way a lot of bass music makes you feel like your internal organs are going to explode — I really like that. For me, as a pathetic beta male, extreme volume is almost like a weird, passive-aggressive thing. When we play, I shout and scream and sweat, but sometimes people are disappointed when they meet me, because I’m quite softly spoken and don’t really have any aggressive tendencies.
It seems the success of Pearl Mystic took you very much by surprise. How did it feel at the time?
MJ: It was terrifying, definitely. People start misinterpreting what you say, and calling you out on stuff.
SS: Things are suddenly out of your control. People try to start talking to you about managers, when you just want to go upstairs and have a drink.
But if you hadn’t stepped up with The Hum, signing to Domino, employing a booking agent, a radio plugger, a PR… your music would never have extended its reach.
MJ: If that happened, I wouldn’t care. We never started the band thinking this would happen and we’re so grateful and so humbled by it all. The whole thing’s been amazing and it’s been great for my job [as producer at Leeds' Suburban Home Studios], because people call me because I’m in Hookworms, but this was not the intended end result of making that record. I genuinely think if nobody had bought Pearl Mystic we would still have made The Hum — and it would still have sounded like it does.