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Happyness vegetable

Happyness have honed in on the art of transformation whilst reflecting on their two-year break

28 April 2020, 08:55
Words by Katie Cutforth
Original Photography by Holly Whittaker

Although the global pandemic has hit the music industry hard, artists everywhere have wholeheartedly refused to accept defeat. Seemingly from nowhere, a world of livestreaming shows and lockdown creativity has already bloomed; and as life slows down for many, digging into new records feels like an ideal way to find solace.

Luckily, Happyness’ music has always felt like an escape. Their distinctive lo-fi slacker rock stirs up instant nostalgia, with hushed vocals and blissed-out guitar melodies that inject romance into the most mundane of scenes. It’s music that is full of endless pleasant surprises and understated joy - their return couldn’t have come at a better time.

Even without the COVID-19 outbreak, this was never going to be an ordinary time for Happyness. Their third record Floatr comes after a period of considerable change, which they describe as “the best and worst years of our lives”.

Formed in 2013 by Jonny Allan, Ash Kenazi and Benji Compston, Happyness quickly became known on the London indie scene for their intelligent guitar music and fluid approach to both genre and musical roles. But two critically acclaimed LPs later, Happyness went quiet, only to reemerge in 2019 as a duo comprising of Allan and Kenazi.

On top of the line-up change, the ‘break’ saw them endure testing and formative times—break-ups, health scares and location changes—and perhaps most significantly, Kenazi’s coming out and his venture into the world of drag performance.

The pair dial in from their isolation base where, aside from indulging in video games and BoJack Horseman, they have also been redecorating. Behind them is what they call the ‘Beach House’, which is the slightly dizzying magenta backdrop adorned with shimmering grass and inflatable palm trees, from where they have been broadcasting their own unique brand of livestream.

“We’re already addicted to livestreaming!” Kenazi says. “We thought we would revolutionise the livestream - we did one song followed by 30 minutes of ‘otherness’, which included a reading of Harry Potter with funny voices. I was in drag which was fun because I thought I wouldn’t be able to do drag during isolation. We also did a section where we got clips from The Exorcist and played them over cheesy porn music.”

Despite normally living apart, Allan and Kenazi decided to spend the lockdown in one place, in the hope that the isolation would spur their creativity.

“We thought we’d be really productive and make loads of music,” laughs Kenazi. “But then we remembered we also have an album coming out that we still need to… do.”

The world in which Floatr was created feels far away from the one we all live in today. As the band look back at the process, it’s as though they are revisiting a different lifetime. “When we made it, we were having the best time,” says Allan, recalling an idyllic stint the pair spent living in Northampton with free access to a studio.

“But then it got weird. We got a call to say that the guy who owns the studio owed his landlord a load of money. He had shown up and taken our stuff or smashed it up. We had to go to his house and get it back. He was a very angry man.”

Floatr feels like a rebirth: that familiar Happyness fuzz imbued with euphoric moments of clarity. Lead single "Vegetable" follows the bands’ ’90s trajectory, with vocals reminiscent of Elliott Smith over a grungy, Nirvana-like guitar; while the soft lyricism of "When I’m Far Away From You" reveals one of their most tender moments yet.

As the primary songwriter, Allan finds inspiration in anything from relationships to drag queens to sci-fi. “I can’t really put my finger on it,” he explains, “I just write down things I hear. It’s just a little moment in time.” Cass McCombs was a big lyrical influence on the record, with "What Isn’t Nurture" a response to McCombs’ "What Isn’t Nature". Chumbawamba’s "Tubthumbing (I Get Knocked Down)" also gets a reference, as well as Dark Star —the John Carpenter student film that inspired Alien.

When it comes to exploring personal trauma through songwriting however, Allan finds it easier to put feelings to music once he has already processed them, rather than when they are still raw.

“This record goes back to explore a lot of the stuff that meant we had to make a bunch of changes. It’s not all flowers and butterflies; it’s pretty sad. It’s a break-up album. A lot of the songs were originally love songs which I changed to break-up songs. It also goes into the place where Ash got to before he came out, which was awesome when it happened but was a long time coming.”

The pair explain that their two-year break was more of a pause than a hiatus, throughout which Happyness still very much existed. “We were still doing the band,” says Allan, “But loads of things were happening at once; we were both dealing with a lot of shit. Brexit happened. We basically had to refigure out how to write music.”

The reemergence was most notably marked by Kenazi’s move from supporting band member to co-fronting the band as a stunning drag queen. But despite boldly entering this new phase of life, he saw it as natural to return to the band, and to incorporate his love of drag into the act.

“Happyness had always been a lens for us to focus our thoughts and our emotions through,” he explains. “It’s a part of me. I felt that now that I had accepted my identity, it would actually be more real for me. I could enjoy it more, feel it more.”

“Drag changed a lot about how I approach my emotions,” he continues. “It showed me how people can be so vulnerable, but also so fabulous. I think something about the indie scene had taught me to be just vulnerable. Thankfully, there seems to be a lot more of it going on now—acts like Lynks Afrikka, PVA, Walt Disco. It’s been super fun to be a part of and to watch it happen.”

Allan and Kenazi agree that the response from both fans and the industry has been brilliant, admitting they had expected at least some backlash. “It shows that the guitar world is accepting,” says Kenazi. “I just think there’s something learnt in indie which channels out some of the fabulous element you get with pop. That archetype of bands in jeans can be hard to break out of.”

“I think there’s something inherent in my personality that requires me to perform,” Kenazi elaborates.

“For whatever reason, I feel the need to be on stage. I always have a fear that maybe I should be a doctor or something that’s seemingly more important. But drag has taught me that when you take the time to express your own identity, the power that it can give to other people is huge. There is such a need for people to express their emotions. It helps people. Since I’ve been doing drag, it’s been really emotional speaking to people and hearing about the joy that they’ve experienced through being represented.”

For Allan too, it’s all about letting people know that they can express themselves. “It’s a sad and beautiful world,” he says. “If you’re feeling something that nobody is expressing, it can be really isolating. Music has the power of a drug, to completely change your state of mind. It can be really damaging if music is dominated by people that you don’t relate to.”

At its core, music has an incredible power. At very the least, to entertain; at the most, to heal. Through both listening and performing, music can be a guide, a role model, a companion. We are blessed to be able to enjoy it even when the pandemic has put a stop to so much else. As Kenazi concludes, “Music is therapy, basically." One that we need now, more than ever.

Floatr is released 1 May via Infinit Suds
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