Any modern psych connoisseur worth their salt will know of HOOKWORMS. The Leeds outfit have taken the scene by storm ever since their 2013 juggernaut of a debut, Pearl Mystic. They have proved themselves to be as ferocious live as they are on record, selling out headline shows across Europe as they’ve hurtled towards LCD Soundsystem levels of genre-straddling brilliance.
As the years have gone on, the band have proved themselves as more than just a meat-and-potatoes rock band and very much an ongoing artistic concern. New album Microshift is as emotive as the previous two albums, dealing with themes such as death, heartbreak and even natural disaster; but the band’s third LP has evidently given them more room for experimentation with electronic elements, twisting their freeform sound pieces into more standard song structures. Georgia Turnbull spoke to bassist MB about the group’s reinvigorated approach on this record, what caused this shift and how, without the help of fans, the band might have ceased to exist.
Your new single, Negative Space, appears to show a significant shift towards electronica, especially compared with The Hum. What inspired this change towards sequences and loops?
I think it was to do with the gear we had at the time. When we first started the band, we didn’t have very many instruments, and all our gear was broken and a bit rubbish so we made do with what we had. We’ve gained more equipment as time’s moved on and we spent a bit more money on synths and other equipment. It got to a point where we were using this stuff a lot more when we were practicing and writing songs, and I guess it ended up being the focus of the songwriting this time around. It happened pretty naturally, to be honest, it wasn’t really an executive decision that we all made. A couple of us do other things that are more electronic so that fed back into Hookworms. It’s also a continuation of things that were creeping in on The Hum: going more electronic seemed like the obvious thing to do.
You’ve also said that this album is centred around the studio, in regards to production and dynamic. How did the creation of the album differ from the previous two?
With the last album, we had the songs completely written and finished before recording live. There wasn’t a great deal of thought [put] into post-production and making it fancy, we just wanted to play the songs as we had written them. I guess that was pretty much a straight rock record, whereas this time around, rather than writing songs with us all in the room together at once, we recorded little ideas here and there and dug them up over a period of two or three years, using the computer to piece things together. There are definitely some songs where we used the computer as more of a tool and an instrument. And we improvised a lot more, listening back and picking out short sound bites. It was a cool and different way of working.
There are also collaborations on Microshift from the likes of Richard Formby [producer of Spacemen 3 and member of The Jazz Butcher], Christopher Duffin [XAM Duo] and Alice Merida Richards [Virginia Wing]. How did these collaborations come about and how was the experience of working with musicians outside of Hookworms?
It was a really fulfilling experience because, other than a friend on the first album who played a really small trumpet part, we’ve never had anyone else involved in the band, and never had any other artistic input. Richard’s one of our friends and we talked about doing something with him before, so we set up in the studio with him and just jammed. I think we recorded an hour and a half of music, and then we worked back and edited it down. We also did a live show with Richard where we improvised again, and it all fed back into the album. Richard’s got a big modular synthesiser and tape echoes that he uses, so we challenged ourselves by working around that. I play with Chris in XAM Duo and his other band have recorded with MJ [Hookworms vocalist and chief producer] a few times, so it seemed obvious to get him involved.
And then with Alice, we toured with Virginia Wing and I’ve played on a couple of their records, so we’re really good friends with them. With that, it was another different way of working: we emailed her a demo we had and she sent it back with demo vocals over that, which completely changed the direction the song was going in. We rewrote it a little bit and MJ rewrote what he was going to do, so working with her was collaborative in the truest sense. We had a bare bones instrumental that she turned into a bit of a pop song, and it might be my favourite track on the album just because of how different it was putting it together.
The album has been described as a “euphoric catharsis”, the music counteracting the lyrics dealing with the likes of death, disease, and heartbreak. Would you agree that it’s euphoric and cathartic, and did it feel that way when recording the album?
Yes, definitely. The subject matter of the lyrics within some of the songs is obviously quite dark, so I purposefully wanted the music to juxtapose and counteract that, so the final outcome would be heavy lyrical content with an uplifting, euphoric musical backdrop so it wouldn’t become a really heavy album. We’ve always tried to make the music cathartic and euphoric. I do think that the way we build and write tracks has a lot more in common with electronic and dance music than it does with rock, the way we build stuff and drop it down, but again we’ve done it differently this time around and that’s fed into this sound.
Microshift was fully recorded in your studio, Suburban Home, that was devastatingly hit by the River Aire flood in 2015. How you feel about the incredible response that followed, and would you say the album became a response to the disaster?
Yeah, we’re incredibly thankful. If people had not donated money towards the studio, I don’t think it would exist now, and there’s a chance Hookworms wouldn’t have carried on either because we can only do our music the way we do it because of our studio space. We get to practice, record demos, write and record in there, so if we didn’t have that space like that anymore, we might struggle to function as a band. We can’t do what most bands do and drive their equipment to practice once a week because of the amount we have, so we need a static space like Suburban Home. I don’t know if it was a reaction to the flood itself but having no studio for six or seven months, then rebuilding it ourselves gave us a kick and a spark to keep making the album. The flood caused a massive delay to the album: Microshift has ended up coming out six months later than we wanted, so when the second studio was ready, we went full throttle on writing and recording again. You’ve gone through all that effort, you’ve got to make it worthwhile.
Microshift is released on 2nd February via Domino Records.