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Nine Songs

MB, MJ and SS go deep on the songs that resonate with them personally and as members of Hookworms

19 January 2018, 09:00 | Words by Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Hookworms are not a band to be defined by any one musical genre.

“If I had my own way, we'd be an indie rock band. If MB had his own way we'd play some kind of intolerable saxophone freak-out thing for an hour,” says vocalist, synth-player and producer MJ. The huge wealth of musical interests of the Leeds-based band stems from all five of its members and feeds into the group’s forcefully vibrant sonic output.

From their 2013 debut album Pearl Mystic to next month’s long-awaited third studio album Microshift, the band’s sound has remained true to their thrilling live performances, full of loops, drum machines and homemade samples. They aren’t quite a noise band, but definitely don’t stick to the features of standard psychedelic rock either. Guitarist MB struggles in the same way to define Spacemen 3’s 1987 album The Perfect Prescription as a purely psych rock album – it has blues and soul inflections too, he says, and that’s what makes it so great.

It’s no wonder that he’s just as keen to rave about John Coltrane and the jazz greats, and that his fellow guitarist SS gets just as excited talking about Ronnie Ronalde, his Grandfather and yodeler, whistler and music-hall singer of the 1940s’ and 50s’, as he does early-noughties Glasgow-based indie group Life Without Buildings.

Helped along by this maelstrom of interests, Hookworms continue to allow inspiration from all corners of the musical world to bleed into the bubbling synths and off-kilter rhythms which made their name.

“Feel So Good” by Spacemen 3

MB: “When push comes to shove, this song is probably off my favourite album ever – that'll be why I chose it. I feel like around the time we were doing the first Hookworms record, I was obsessed with The Perfect Prescription and I wanted our album to sound a lot like Spacemen 3. I'm not sure the others did, but I did! Weirdly, I wasn’t after the loud element of Spacemen 3 – I know they did some other stuff that's quite loud and fuzzy, which people would maybe associate more with our band – but I really like that record because it's almost like a blues or soul record. It doesn't sound like it was released in 1987.

“I really like the horns on this track, they remind me of the Rolling Stones in the late 60s’ or early 70s’. Whilst they're considered to be a psychedelic rock band, I don’t think it sounds like a rock record, there's lots of acoustic tracks, slide guitar and organ. I love the fact that this track is very subdued and very repetitive. They do the hypnotic, repetitive thing but without it being super loud and brash and in your face. It's almost like a ballad – it's quiet and stripped back, just acoustic guitars and drones and horns. It's right in the middle of the album and it's my favourite off the record.

“I got into them when I went to see My Bloody Valentine when they first reformed – maybe 2007 or 2008 – and Spectrum were supporting them, which is the band Sonic Boom (Peter Kember) did after Spacemen 3. That was about ten years ago, when I was 18 or so and influence-wise I found out about a lot of other music through reading about the music that Spacemen 3 liked. Sonic Boom did a really great compilation a few years ago called Spacelines– it's got lots of weird 60s electronic stuff going on.

"It's always been an album that I love, and an album that I used to fall asleep to a lot. It's one of those records that has a really weird effect on me. As soon as it starts playing it's like sleeping tablets – it knocks me out. If I'm ever really stuck it's a good one to put on. I rarely make it past the second or third track before I fall asleep!”

“Ascension” by John Coltrane

MB: “I spent a while really not getting my head around jazz. Every time I listened to it I felt like I was missing something and I didn't understand it. But I was very keen to get into it because I don't really understand people who like to hate music – in an ideal world I'd like everything.

“Weirdly enough I didn't get into jazz through John Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, which are the records that people who don't like jazz like. I got into it through this record, Ascension, which is a forty-minute gig band, live free jazz ensemble freak-out. I don't know what it was about it, but it clicked with me the first ever time I listened to it. It was like someone shining a light in my face, a bit of a crazy experience.

“I picked this one because since then it's opened up a whole new world of music to me. You can hear all the people who orbited John Coltrane, a bunch of great musicians like Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Freddie Hubbard and Archie Shepp. This album is Coltrane's version of Free Jazz, the big ensemble record Ornette Coleman did, a forty-minute one-track record.

“I've got into improvising myself and it's made me want to improvise with other people I've never played with before, which I've done outside of Hookworms. I think that really changes how you look at music. For quite a lot of stuff on the Hookworms records we improvise something and keep the first take. We might have to edit it a bit, but we don't like doing 40 or 50 takes of an instrument. I tend to find that the first or second one that you do is the best, because you're not over-thinking it. That's the magic of jazz.

“More than anything, it's the intensity that I like. When you listen to live recordings of John Coltrane's band it's heavier and way more intense than most rock bands. Something that we always try to do – even when we're being really melodic – is to make it intense. That might be because it's super loud or because it's fast or because there are really intense lyrics. There always needs to be some kind of intensity to our music and that's definitely something that I picked up from jazz. It's crazy thinking that drums and double bass and saxophone can be way more intense than a loud rock band. That's how I relate to that kind of music.

“We don't sound like a jazz band, obviously. But we have the jazzy ability to be quite weird and discordant and for it still to work – because if there's enough melody there, it works. You only need to have a hint of melody and you can keep a song together. I think we do that quite a lot, where there's quite a lot of feedback and noise, but because Matt's vocals and organ are quite melodic, it stops us from turning into a noise band.

“There's a bit, maybe about 35 minutes into the track, where the whole band stops for a second after a drum peel and then it all kicks back in together. I love the way that in free jazz they start the songs off with the melody, the catchy part of the song, and then they go off on a tangent for a while, and then they always come back to the melody at the end, no matter how chaotic it's got. That's what keeps you listening to a really long John Coltrane song: you know at some point the melody is gonna come back, and when it does, it's a big relief.”

“Open” by The Necks

MB: “The Necks are maybe one of the best live bands I've ever seen. My other band played with them earlier this year in Manchester and they're always unbelievable live. Again, they improvise everything and all their albums are improvised pieces. There's something about them. It's usually piano, double bass, drums and they do this weird thing every time I see them – it doesn't matter where I see them play – but they seem to play the room. It's a weird thing to say, but they seem to find the resonant frequency of the room and then tune the drum kit to it and play in that key. It's very strange, but the effect of it is amazing live.

“I'm a big fan of the space in the music on this record. If it's influenced me in any way it's realising that everyone doesn't have to be playing all of the time, and actually a lot of space is a really good thing. The silence on this record is more affecting than the music in a way.

“They're an Australian three-piece who have supported Nick Cave and other people. They seem to be a musician's band – other bands always talk about them but they've never really got particularly big. When we played with them in Manchester we only played for a couple of hundred people and they've been going for 20 or 30 years. Its weird music: I can understand why they're not massive, but I feel like they should be bigger than they are regardless. I seem to only ever see other bands talking about them. I guess it's that appreciation of their craft. They do something and they do it very well.”

“Requiem for Dying Mothers” by Stars of the Lid

SS: “I chose this for a bit of a stupid reason - I've known this song for about 15 years. The version I listen to most is a recording of it from about ten years ago from a show that they did in Leeds, and ever since that show, because I've had trouble sleeping, I've listened to it every single night. I figured out that I must have listened to this song nearly 9,000 times, which is pretty silly. I've also figured out that the set's an hour long, and I'm close to listening to it for a solid year. That's insane, isn't it?! I did the maths and I was like "Fucking hell! Nearly a year listening to that one piece of music!" I fall asleep quite near the beginning and then if I wake up in the night I listen to it again, so most nights I listen to it twice.

“It makes me think – some people might think that when you listen to a piece of music that many times, you'd know it really, really well. But actually, because the listening is so passive, I couldn't tell you how many rounds different sections were. You don't get to learn what a piece of music is if you just listen to it, you have to be a bit more active than that, but if someone messed with the recording, even just a little bit, I'd definitely tell you. I'd know where it was.

“I think it's a really, really beautiful piece of music. The actual recording is amazing, it's so world-building, it’s almost regal. What they do really well is make use of all of the frequencies – they've got a strong bass as well as the melodies on the higher frequencies, it's really well-designed. They are definitely noisy – in the sense of noise music – and we have unstructured pieces of music on all of our albums. Our first two records had three instrumental tracks that were droney and our new album has one on as well, which is very Stars of the Lid, actually. We definitely do lift from this kind of music.

“The song hasn't lost its power, even though I've listened to a live version of it 9,000 times. I think it gains power by repetition. Sometimes you listen to an album so much you get sick of it, but when you listen that much I think it crosses over onto another line. I've never got bored of this music, no. I don't think I've listened to any other track quite so many times.”

“The Leanover” by Life Without Buildings

SS: “This is a shout-out for this band, I think they're absolutely incredible. The singing style is the thing that's most obvious, but my god! She sings so amazingly. It's so fragmented and beautiful and yearning. It's one of those songs that when I first listened to it, I thought ‘Gosh, this sounds like a break-up song.’ And then you have a break-up and you listen to the song and you're like ‘Oh, well that works out, doesn't it!’

“About ten years ago I was listening to this song quite a lot. It's one of those tracks that takes you right back. I don't know how music does that but it really can fit into a place in your memory and the past, and bring it alive in a way that other things don't. I think smells do that too.

“I liked a lot of indie pop at the time, and the singing on this track is instantly gripping. It's not like anything else, it sounds a bit like turn-of-the-century poetry. They tried to make poetry that operates in terms of how your thought processes work. I feel like it's a bit like that. The lyrics scan a bit like if you plugged a computer into somebody's brain and read their thoughts, the thoughts would be structured like this.

“Somebody pointed out to me that a lot of the lyrics in this song are musical references. I'd always wondered, because she says "MBV, MBV, MBV" – I'd thought maybe that's My Bloody Valentine – and then there’s "I like you mostly late at night" – I was listening to Robert Wyatt recently and realised it's from his track 'Sea Song.' Apparently there are others too. I like the correspondence: this song really places me in a particular time in my life, and I feel like these lyrics probably do that for her as well.”

"In a Monastery Garden" by Ronnie Ronalde

SS: “Ronnie Ronalde is my Grandad! I think the interest in music jumped a generation. He's my Mum's Dad and my Mum doesn't even listen to music for pleasure. It's very weird. It was written by Albert Ketèlbey in 1915, he was quite popular in his day.

“My Grandad was big for whistling, which is quite bizarre when you think about it. And it wasn't jokey, it was a craft. You get that in this song, it's a very, very weighty song: there's no messing around. When he was a teenager, or even younger than that, he went away to a permanent musical school and was with some choirboys for ages. He's never known a normal life. But I don't know where he learnt the whistling, obviously you learn singing and yodeling, but no-one taught him whistling.

“I remember when I was a kid he used to imitate football whistles if we were going past a football match, and it would mess with them. Or one time we were in an aviary and he was doing all the bird songs – every single one. It was an incredible skill. There are bird sounds in this recording and they're all him, they're not recordings of birds.

“Even when I was a kid my Grandad struck me as a really unusual person. When I became an adult, I realised he was always performing, no matter what. You never got to see the real him, he was always putting on a show. Some people are like that – they're born to play a character, that's what I felt like he was doing. He had a cockney accent, always seemed very professional, he wore velvet suits, very extravagantly dressed, always composed himself, always trying to entertain people. He had a really weird body! A really huge chest capacity, and I think he didn't fight in the Second World War because of his stature. He always used to whistle with his hands, but I don't know how he did it.

“I saw him perform and this song is very powerful when performed live – the kind of thing that used to get people back in the day weeping! There's something in the writing of this song: the main melody uses all twelve semi-tones in one octave, all twelve notes! I didn't think it would be possible to make a nice-sounding melody with all of that. I don't know whether the writer thought it'd give the melody a glissando feel, like he thought that it would drift around, float effortlessly.”

“Cowgirl In The Sand” by Neil Young

MJ: “This was the first song I learnt to play. Neil Young is one of my Dad’s favourite artists and he was playing it on the piano – I know it's not a piano song, but he used to play it a lot on the piano. I was really, really young, like five or six and he showed me how to play some of the bits of it. We had all the songbooks and that's how I learnt to play guitar. My Dad had all the tabs for Harvest and I used to copy all of that.

“Neil Young has been an influence on my music with everything that I've done. When I was a teenager I definitely went through a period of hating everything that my parents liked, but by the time I was an adult I realised that Neil Young was amazing.

Zuma – the album that this song is off – is one of my favourite Neil Young records. I like how ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ is a long-form piece of music. That is something Hookworms have operated in as well. I think it showed me how you can have a pop song and stretch it out to that length without it ever becoming boring.

“Some of the guitar playing is very minimal and I love that. It works into a lot of what we've done with our new record where we're all playing very basic, simple things, but together they coalesce into something greater. That's something we've tried to work on quite a lot with this record. I think the reason that our band has always been quite successful creatively is there's no real ego involved in it. We all play quite boring things most of the time, no-one's ever trying to show off and it works as a unit. I think that's something that I really appreciate about Neil Young's guitar playing as well.

“Neil Young was the second concert I ever went to. My Dad took me to see him at Sheffield Arena when I was twelve or thirteen, I saw him play with Crazy Horse. I didn't know the songs he played to the depths I know them now, but I definitely knew a lot of the songs he was playing just from hearing them in the house all the time. I went back and looked at the set list for that gig a little while ago and it was incredible! At the time I didn't appreciate quite how good the set list was, because I was a bit too young to. I've seen him quite a few times since and he's been either terrible or brilliant.”

“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” by Wilco

MJ: “The first time I heard this song, I was having a really hard time. It was one of those times that you feel really euphoric because of music. I was eighteen or nineteen and that whole record changed how I look at making music myself and how I record still – it's been super influential on my work. I really love Jim O'Rourke's mixes and production on this record. Again, it's a super long-form song with very simple chords all the way through and quite stark lyrics. But then there's all these interesting little frills going on all the way through. Each verse is almost a world in itself and I really like that. It’s the production of this song – the way it builds, and ebbs and flows – that interests me a lot.

“A friend introduced me to it. I'd been to see some friends in Durham and I was on the train home and it was snowing. It was one of those perfect storms. It seemed very theatrical, I’d had a very nice time in Durham with my friends and I was coming back to Leeds and I didn't really want to come back. Hearing that song just meant a lot to me.

“I love the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart too, but it is depressing. The first time I watched it, I watched it as a fan of the record. Then later on I watched it as someone who makes records for a living and I could definitely associate with a lot of the things that go on.

“I've never seen Wilco live. I've always missed the chance of doing it and I'm at a point now where I almost feel like I don't want to spoil it for myself by going and seeing them. I saw Sufjan Stevens a few years ago and I had built it up so much in my head, because I was so obsessed with Illinois at the time, and then it wasn't this amazing, life-changing experience. It was good, it was definitely good, but I didn't listen to his music for quite a while after that. I think I appreciate making records more than I like playing live or even going to gigs, because I really appreciate the perfection of a record. You can articulate certain moments quite precisely in a way that you can't live.”

“Dust, Juice, Bones & Hair” by Martha

MJ: “Again, it's quite specific to a time in my life. This is quite self-referential because I recorded this, but I was about to give up recording music for a living and this was meant to be one of the last records that I was doing, this Martha album. I was producing it, I had such a good time making it, and it completely changed my perspective on making records that I carried on doing it – that was the first Martha album and I'm about to start the third Martha album. It was genuinely quite a life-changing thing to be making this record.

“Apart from the fact that I love the song, the way they marry political lyrics to pop songs has been very influential with where I've tried to go with my lyrics on our new record as well. They're really inspirational people to work with. I had done a few things where I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with my studio and I was trying to do bigger records, or more corporate major label things, that I really wasn't feeling. And then I made a record with these people whose political views aligned with mine and they were amazing people to hang out with. They are incredibly kind, decent people and it made me realise that I do still want to make records for a living. I imagine they'll be friends for life.

“That's the thing about bands like Martha and another band I've worked with called The Spook School, who marry quite a lot of lyrics about things like gender politics to their music – personal politics interest me more than straight-up lyrics. I've cringed at some things I've seen people do recently where it's entirely well-intentioned – they're saying "Fuck Trump" or something super basic.

“I think writing about personal politics is something I knew I wanted to try and do more of on this record. All of our records have had elements about mental health, but I wanted to talk a little bit more about masculinity and the ways that men can be different towards each other. It took me a long time to get to the point where I felt like I was doing that without it being crass. I don't know if it's been entirely successful, but I tried.”

Microshift is released February 2 on Domino
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