Ah that hard, old, oft-fabled nut in the music biz that is the tricky second album. With the wonderfully organic, character-driven, colourful debut that was 2015’s Highest Point In Cliff Town neatly tucked away in their back jeans pockets, how would the four best mates collectively known on these shores as HOOTON TENNIS CLUB cast themselves adrift on the tide and sail into the sunset with their second offering? With their trademark ease, lack of pretence and knack for melody, some added pop sensibilities and the help of one Edwyn Collins, it would appear, after they washed up in his Clashnarrow studio at (almost!) the highest point in Scot-Town, Helmsdale.
“I think there was enough space in-between writing this one, wasn’t there? Not to be confident, but to be like, ‘Alright, this a new thing, let’s do this’,” James (Guitars, Vocals) offers when I rendezvous with the four-piece in Ye Cracke’s leafy beer garden to talk through their second album, Big Box Of Chocolates. Wary of the tendency of some artists to take a complete left turn at Avenue Album Two but equally wise to the perils of making “Highest Point in Cliff Town squared”, the Heavenly-signed group have struck a balance between being themselves and adding a good, healthy dollop of pop to proceedings.
“There was a big effort to be more pop… Poppy as in out of the sludge of our first album,” James reassures. Pop here is no dirty word; it entails a world of cleverly-crafted Beatles references, infectious melodies and swinging, sophisticated 60s go-go guitars à la Jacques Dutronc. “Yeah, pop as in classic 60s pop – I think it was, like, a backlash from sort of being labelled a ‘slacker band’, which I don’t think we ever really thought we were,” Cal (Bass) chimes in before Ryan (Vocals, Guitars) adds: “We all just thought, ‘We’re not like that; we’re gonna show them!’ We had the idea in our heads that we were gonna be smart and wear suits and work on it like it was a proper job. Recently, the hashtag is that we’re #GoingPro.” Behind the jokes, however, there does lie a genuine sense of frustration in being tarnished with the ‘slacker’ brush, as Harry (Drums) expresses: “We try really hard to play our instruments and record songs and everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s slack’ – [but] it’s just that we can’t play! We try really hard; we’re just not that good.”
Don’t let this modesty or their flannel shirts and beat-up trainers fool you, mind. With BBOC, Hooton have captured some of that 60s pop aesthetic without losing their trademark fuzz and thoughtful lyricism. When I observe that the record does sound very Beatles-y indeed, Cal muses: “I wonder how that happened… I wasn’t listening to The Beatles for, like, six months,” before Ryan taunts his bandmate: “Not this story – not at John Lennon’s favourite pub, Cal! Basically, Cal only listened to Abbey Road for six months.”
Ah, so is that why the album sounds like it’s been produced by George Martin – full of texture, imagination and little quirks? “Yeah, that’s Edwyn’s great gear as well, isn’t it? He’s probably got stuff that was actually used by The Beatles; he bought stuff from Abbey Road,” Harry offers. Gifted with a grotto of retro and analogue gear – music geeks and freaks and Orange Juice/Edwyn Collins superfans everywhere, brace yourselves – they also made use of the BM fuzz pedal from A Girl Like You and the Mu-Tron pedal from Rip It Up. And, between the nitty gritty of recording when they could snatch half an hour, they would devise hip hop alter egos on Edwyn’s Kaossilator, a Gameboy-like four-track recorder. Here’s hoping they get issued as B-sides.
As well as being so generous with his “Buckingham Palace of music recording”, the band cite Edwyn’s ear for melody and hook, his speed of working and his ability to minimalise arrangements as integral to the process of making the album. “There were a lot of times where he’d just press the intercom button and he’d sing the melody to someone and say, ‘No, it needs to be like this! No, like this! No!’ And you’d do the melody again.” The designated “tastemaster”, he would be the one to have the final say on each take, keeping everything moving along swiftly, and preventing the band from becoming too “dithery”, during their two-week recording window: “That was also what was so good about working with Edwyn – we’d do a take and he’d be like, ‘Great lads, great lads, let’s move on – what’s next?’ Whereas if it was down to us we’d be painstakingly going over it.”
Collins would, though, follow this up with a booming “and one more time for Jesus!” and have them play it again, just in case. Collins’ catchphrase was of such significance that they came very close to christening the album with it, but were wary of its varied connotations and it feeding into their rep as ironic, sonic slackers; instead, you’ll find it etched into the sweet, shiny black platter on the run-out groove of the vinyl release. Quite literally making a mark on the album, Hooton assure me that, “If you listen on some of the tracks, you can hear Edwyn at the end going, ‘Wahey, that’s the one; it’s great lads!’, dead quiet because he’d leave the tannoy on and the engineer would be like, ‘Edwyn, you’ve just spilled into the track!’ He still had that enthusiasm for some songs that took 20 takes.”
The band absolutely glow with adoration and appreciation as they assimilate their experience of recording there. To hear them describe the studio itself, perched overlooking the Moray Firth is a marvel: “His house is at the bottom of the hill, and then you walk these 50 steps or so up this hill and there’s the studio and the artist accommodation that he’s built with it, and then behind is a shed, a big, huge outhouse, which is his equipment base.” Ryan likens it to Tracy Island from Thunderbirds, while James reinforces that, “Basically, the whole strip from the sea up into the mountain, he owns.”
An immersive experience, when things were getting a bit cabin fever, Grace, Edwyn’s wife and Helmsdale’s resident angel, would take them on trips out in the community minibus that she drives for residents of the village. Cal recalls: “There’s a documentary about Edwyn, The Possibilities Are Endless, and you know where he goes down the big steps – Whaligoe Steps – she took us there, and it was just like my life-affirming moment; it was like looking around like, ‘Why am I here? What’s going on? Why do I deserve to be doing this right now?’.” Escorted down the steps by “Davey, the local eccentric and master of the steps”, a friend of Grace and Edwyn’s who invited the band to his garden and had them attempt to ride a bike with backwards handlebars successfully for 50 quid (“You’d steer right and it goes left – he doesn’t tell you that the handlebars are the wrong way round – and everyone falls over”), perhaps the experience mirrors the profundity and playfulness to be found in the album itself.
Growling, existential opener Growing Concerns and gorgeous, emphatic closer Big Box Of Chocolates are both very much on the profound end of this spectrum, questioning the value of making art – although the album perhaps answers this for itself. Bootcut Jimmy The G, sounding like a character who’s just strutted straight out of The Beatles’ Get Back (read: Loretta’s ‘high-heel shoes and low-neck sweater’), is definitely on the silly side – you won’t be able to un-hear the Lennon and McCartney in James and Ryan’s vocals either, nor on the go-go groovy of Statue Of The Greatest Woman I Know. The album is awash with Big Star guitars and harmonies (with a Mersey and Deeside twinge as opposed to Memphis and the Mississippi) and Jonathan Richman realism, wit and melody.
Discussing some of their loopy and lovely lyrics, James explains that, “Usually they’re something that springs to the top of your head and you think, ‘Oh, that could be funny to explore’ or, like, a certain character or a certain time or something you’ve experienced. So most of the songs are about 30% non-fiction,” before Ryan finishes his sentence for him, “and then you make a story around it.”
With a high non-fiction content, the infectiously playful Lauren, I’m In Love! is an ode to 6Music DJ Lauren Laverne, so it’s only fitting that it has a melody that’ll roll straight off the radio, burrow into your brain and make a little nest next to your pineal gland – a faux serotonin fix to keep you happy, warm and full-on fuzzed-up through winter. Sit Like Ravi and O, Man Won’t You Melt Me are deeply heartfelt and cosmonaughty, and Meet Me At The Molly Bench and the familiar recent single Katy-Anne Bellis are heliotropic wonders, shimmering jingly-jangly golden odes that’ll have you forever leaning towards the sunny side of things. Bad Dream (Breakdown On St George’s Mount) sounds like Blur at their best, Frostbitten In Fen Ditton has a little Gilded Palace Of Sin about it, while Lazers Linda is fast-paced, fizzy rock ‘n’ roll fun.
All in all then, quite a pretty peach of a second album and one that is quietly rooted in Helmsdale, their hometown for a fortnight. But don’t just take it from me; let them talk you through their take on all 12 tracks themselves overleaf.
Big Box Of Chocolates is out now on Heavenly Recordings. Hooton Tennis Club play the Invisible Wind Factory on 9th December.