Meeting Hookworms

Late 2011 saw a Leeds-based outfit known only by their initials emerge to the forefront of our consciousness. They came armed with a new sound that their hometown Leeds would soon become a staple for, paving the way for Eagulls and Autobahn amongst others to follow and a sound far removed from the citys previous best exports; lad-indie types Kaiser Chiefs and Pigeon Detectives. Hookworms debut EP, released on Faux Discs, came onto us untamed, untrammelled and immersive in its psychedelic forays of the late 60s as well as the Krautrock experimentalism of early 70’s Cologne, Dusseldorf and Munich.

Last November saw the release of The Hum, Hookworms second full length offering, which came eighteen months after the band's debut album Pearl Mystic a record that steadily went on to become one of 2013's most impactful breakout statements. Speaking with Hookworms frontman MJ, the debut and its reception is still something of a mystery to him I didnt expect anyone to listen to it at all comes his initial and timid response. But listen they did, and the devout DIY outfit were soon being touted as creators of an album of near perfection and the best British psychedelic album since the 90s. MJ modestly recalls how we just made it and gave it to our friend to put out. I think he pressed 2000 copies originally and we were really worried about it, thinking they would end up under our beds for the rest of our lives. But did the reception of Pearl Mystic change what it felt like to be in a band? MJ alludes that it wasnt the case. People always comment on the juxtaposition on the live band and the recorded band as were quite different and we wanted to make something that represented where we were in a visceral way.  

Credit: Steve Gullick for ZERO Magazine

The blueprint of Pearl Mystic was an awe-inspiring hybrid of proto-punk, garage rock, Washington DC hardcore and 80s British space-rock all collated together, but embarking on the second record came from a more mature standpoint. By the time we started making The Hum, we were a good live band and when we made Pearl Mystic we probably werent. There is Hookworms live and then there is Hookworms on record, but as the wealth of acclaim surrounding both albums testifies, both are equally thrilling sides of one coin. Yet in the bands eyes, the formula of Pearl Mystic didnt always transcend to the live setting, despite frequent positive live reviews implying otherwise and that was something they were keen to avoid on album two. It was really important that we could play the whole album from start to finish and we did on our last tour, whereas there are some songs off Pearl Mystic weve never played live and never will.  

“That record is so different to how we are now, and it’s not like I dislike it, but we’re in a very different place now.”

Whilst their debut album was a great unknown to the band, the thought behind its follow up couldnt have been any different. The main thing is that we didnt want it to just be the record that came out after Pearl Mystic we wanted it to be an entity on its own. We just wanted it to be one of many records that we make, whether its 5 or 10. And The Hum oozes the bands seal, something MJ felt as integral. We were quite adamant that we wanted it to represent us as a band I dont think there was a time in Pearl Mystic that we were all in a studio at the same time working on a record, whereas with The Hum we definitely were.” 

The Hum as a record is leaner and more propulsive than their debut, boasting both the most straight-up punk the band have written alongside previously unseen moments of patient, widescreen beauty, and this is in great part down to the record being preconceived as such. While Pearl Mystic had a kitchen sink feel to it, with the band guided by making a record for the sake of it, MJ feels that The Hum came from an equally original place. There wasnt really anything to guide us in terms of aesthetics on that record because our previous record didnt really sound like how we sounded at the time as well. But times have changed, and the outlook for Hookworms suggests continued exploration. That record is so different to how we are now, and its not like I dislike it, but were in a very different place now. In the same way The Hum is very minimal comparatively, I think our next record will sound different in a similar way.

Whilst The Hum varies from their debut offering, there is a constant between both records the vocal role of MJ, who dispatches his lyrics in a raucous manner, usually heavily shrouded in effects. He puts this style down to his initial insecurities over singing live. When we first started doing it, it was a comfort blanket I was scared to sing, I didnt really want to sing, so I was doing it to cover up the fact that I wasnt really comfortable. MJs nerves soon passed and on album two, his delivery became undoubtedly more ferocious and assured than before. It then became an instrument in itself and in the band its just another part of our music and I think on the new record the vocals are a lot more forward than previously. I think the next record will be even more forward because I have more confidence in singing now. Theres only so much you can do singing into a space echo like that without running out of things to do.  

“This time, I think the songs are a bit more about coming out on the other side of depression and learning to deal with it.” 

While The Hum marked significant changes for the band musically, there were parallel changes in MJs personal life in the 18 months leading to its release, which gave the record its emotional shape. By the time we started writing The Hum and recording it, I was a lot happier than when we were doing the first record because I had a lot of unfortunate events in a row and I had a real lapse into depression. Mental illness is a difficult issue with a strange stigma of shame attached to it, and MJ has been very vocal about the effects of depression. The lack of understanding among people of mental health propels a sense of guilt around the subject, but it wasn’t a battle he was alone in having. Theres a song on the record thats about a friends struggle with mental health as well, so its also about other people rather than just about my own struggles with it. But having pulled through, The Hum followed a more positive influence. This time, I think the songs are a bit more about coming out on the other side of depression and learning to deal with it.” 

Credit: Steve Gullick for ZERO Magazine

On the day we caught up with MJ, he had just finished another stint in his now much-lauded second vocation, mixing a new record for Chichester three-piece and psychedelic punk inspired outfit, TRAAMS. Its surprising MJ even has the spare time in his schedule to chat to me, as I seemingly receive weekly updates on his latest works in a host of PR mailouts. His CV reads like a whos who of exciting emerging acts, with producer, recording and mastering credits tied to the likes of Blessa, Teardrop Factory, Shinies, LUSTS and The Magic Gang to name but an impressive few. But is he pressed for time? Apparently not. MJ has been working constantly on producing and recording for others over the past few years, yet despite the constant submersion in others work, he maintains that there is no conflict of interest or struggle with keeping ideas back for use on his own work. I never struggle, I see each album I work on as a project in itself as I would with Hookworms or Menace Beach or any other band that I play in. I love it I feel really lucky that I can do this for a job and that I get to pick and choose who I work with whose work I really enjoy.

“Sometimes it’s really hard because your hobby becomes your work and then you realize that you don’t have a hobby anymore. You come home from work and you’re like, ‘what do I do now?’”

Though Hookworms currently enjoy international distribution through indie powerhouse Domino, he insists their group is nothing more than a hobby. Absolutely, Hookworms is never full time and it never will be. It appears that the 9 to 5 grind still dominates the lives of all five members of the band, and thats not something they want to change. My studio is my full time job. Two others work in education, one of us works for a record shop and one of us works for a charity. That said, the hobby at times becomes a fine tightrope for him. Sometimes its really hard because your hobby becomes your work and then you realize that you dont have a hobby anymore. You come home from work and youre like, what do I do now?

Having been quite vocal over the dubious roles of music industry middlemen such as managers, agents, promoters and the like, Hookworms’ firm DIY aesthetic sees them still operating without a manager. It’s a bold approach, but one which seems to be gathering traction amongst many artists as the industry continues to necessitate business acumen as well as musicality from its artists, and new online tools provide an ever more stable platform for bands to communicate with their fans and become increasingly self sufficient. There is a definite sense of the project being an intimate part of the band’s lives, and even though it may serve as a hobby more than a profession, it’s a hobby that they’ll continue to play on their own terms. 

Words by Jordan Worland
Interview by Rachel Grace Almeida