Interview: Hookworms: “We had a real problem after our first album”

Hookworms: “We had a real problem after our first album”

Hookworms hadn’t expected the praise nor the fans that came with their debut, ‘Pearl Mystic’. ‘The Hum’ is a worthy successor, explains frontman MJ.

Sinister, biting and potent from start to finish, ‘Pearl Mystic’ was one formidable debut album. With touchstones ranging from krautrock, to Suicide and Spacemen 3, Hookworms’ influences read like a who’s-who in filthy, dirty, psychedelia; the kind that moves into your garage without asking, bringing an amp stack, a rusting organ, and a blatant disregard for anything undistorted in its fuzz-blitzing wake. The praise for their debut record was almost universal; words like perfect liberally thrown around. It’s an unpredictable final destination for an album that Hookworms didn’t expect anybody to listen to.

“We didn’t really think anyone would really want to hear it,” admits MJ, the band’s frontman. “We were just making it for the sake of making a record, and didn’t expect everything that came after it.” The ethos of Hookworms remains much the same now. Several of the band still have day jobs working in education - they insist using mysterious initials so that kids can’t Google them. Meanwhile MJ runs a recording studio in Leeds - Suburban Home - and it has become something of an epicentre for the city’s music scene. Leeds-based bands Pulled Apart By Horses and Eagulls have both gone there to work with MJ, and the studio doubles up as Hookworms HQ. 

Anyone who has witnessed the spectacle of Hookworms unleashed and live will know that they are a force of nature, and an altogether different monster to when they’re contained in a record. ‘Pearl Mystic’ and Hookworms’ on-stage onslaught are two distinct things, and going into album number two, this was a bit of a stickler for MJ. “I feel like we had a real problem after our first album,” he assesses, bluntly. “We’d made a studio record where we recorded loads of extra stuff on top. It was kind of naïve at the time because we didn’t really think about how to translate into playing that live. This time that really influenced how we approached making our new record. We all wrote it together in the live room at my studio, and we could play the whole thing from start to finish, right now, if we wanted to.”

Default ad alt text goes here

“Before we just made records that we knew our friends might listen to, or say they’ve listened to.”

MJ

The major challenge of making ‘The Hum’ was the insane pressure Hookworms felt to equal its predecessor. “Before we just made records that we knew our friends might listen to, or say they’ve listened to,” MJ laughs. “I was really aware of how many copies of ‘Pearl Mystic’ we’d sold, and the weird, kind of overly positive reviews it’d had. Then there’s the theoretics; we didn’t want to make ‘Pearl Mystic Part 2’. ‘Pearl Mystic’, at the time, felt like the best thing we could do. ‘The Hum’ sounds different, but it’s from the same world, I think. There was that fear that we didn’t want to repeat ourselves; we didn’t want to not be Hookworms. It was a strange thing, because you start kind of second guessing yourself all the time.”

The roman numerals in the tracklisting for ‘The Hum’ pick up where ‘Pearl Mystic’ left off – but apparently it’s not a nod to the band doing the same musically, at all. “I know we’re not an inherently funny band,” starts MJ, “but I thought it was funny. It was a joke that spilled over into the actual record. You have stupid songs, you know; if you had a song that sounded like Sleater-Kinney, you’d be like ‘that’s the Sleater-Kinney song’. It was the same with the drone tracks,” he laughs. “What I found funny about it was that I knew track three was going to be called ‘iv’, and I think I’m the only person who finds that funny. I think sometimes we might come across as a little bit po-faced,” MJ laughs, “but we’re not.”

While writing their second album Hookworms discovered a new, surprising facet to their sound. ‘The Hum’ has a very specific pop sound that’s less Mariah Carey and more ‘Soon’ by My Bloody Valentine, or Suicide at their most melodic. It all started when the band recorded a single for Too Pure as a one-off. “We knew we had to write a song that would fit onto a 7”, and we didn’t just want to do a drone track for four and a half minutes,” jokes MJ.

The resulting single, ‘Radio Tokyo’, ended up on ‘The Hum’, and influenced how Hookworms went about writing the rest of the album, too. “It was by far the poppiest thing that we’d done – at the time,” agrees MJ. “People reacted to that song really well, and it was the kind of song where when we played live, people got excited when we played it, so…” he pauses, “we were thinking about how your audience influences your music and becomes the context.”

“It felt like a clean break,” MJ continues, referring to ‘Radio Tokyo’. “It’s much like the other stuff we’ve been doing since, where we’re more confident in our instrumentation, and the way that we all play. We have a more coherent way of operating. I think the new record is slightly more minimal than the first one, less down in the dumps than ‘Pearl Mystic’. ‘Radio Tokyo’ was the first time that we’d done that, and it’s definitely a confidence thing, being able to play our instruments and songwriting.”

“We didn’t want to make ‘Pearl Mystic Part 2’. ‘The Hum’ sounds different, but it’s from the same world.”

MJ

Despite any initial worries the band may have had about needing to produce something that would move forward from ‘Pearl Mystic’ without alienating it, ‘Radio Tokyo’ was something of a breakthrough, and it set the tone for ‘The Hum’ as a whole. “I think we’d have made the same record whether we’d made ‘Pearl Mystic’ or not,” MJ concludes. “I’ve been asked if we made a more poppy record because it was coming out on a big label [Domino imprint Weird World],” he adds, “[but] we had total artistic control. In our minds, nothing’s changed.”

Hookworms are heading out onto the road in support of ‘The Hum’ soon, and they’re touring the album before it’s even out. “Two of us work in education,” explains MJ, “so we’re using the holiday in October to go on tour. We’re going to try and do some one-off shows and a few little tours, too,” he adds.

Looking back over the last whirlwind year, there’s a one-off show in particular that stands out. Hookworms were booked to play ATP’s Jabberwocky, but the festival was infamously slain at short notice. The response from London was to rally together in the face of disaster and to book as many shows as possible. Hookworms played at DIY’s own Jabberwocky fallout show at The 100 Club, alongside Speedy Ortiz and Cloud Nothings. Perhaps it was the low ceilings and crammed audience, or maybe it was the hasty spirit with which the show was assembled – either way, it clicked with Hookworms. “It didn’t feel like a normal show,” enthuses MJ, “we were grateful to get a show, and then it turned out to be two bands that I really like, which is great.” As for Jabberwocky itself, Hookworms are happy to let it go. “In the end it cost us nothing not to play,” he reasons. “We didn’t end up any worse financially.”

Looking forward, things are only set to get more exciting. “We’ve been talking about doing split 7” with Vision Fortune, and Faux Discx, and we’ve been talking a lot with Richard Formby, who produced Wild Beasts, Ghostpoet and Spacemen 3 - he’s a friend of ours - and we’ve been talking about doing a collaboration with him. He’s got this great big modular synth that he’s going to bring down to my studio,” gushes MJ. 

Modular synths aside, Hookworms can’t wait for Christmas to arrive. Most offices lay on a couple of supermarket traybakes and some box wine, MJ and co. have something spectacular planned instead. They’re supporting Slowdive – one of the best and most iconic shoegaze bands in the history of, well, ever. No biggy, then.

“It’s going to be our work night out,” jokes MJ. “We’re going to try and take our girlfriends and have our work night out.” The Hookworms Christmas party? “Yeah,” he sniggers.

Hookworms have a reputation for being a very serious band, MJ is right. In many respects, Hookworms are a very serious band indeed. There’s an intensity and sheer focus that pours into everything that they make or do, but by shaking free of the expectation hanging off ‘Pearl Mystics’, Hookworms seem to have come alive again, in a different way. ‘The Hum’ is no throwaway record, and it lingers in no shadows. Lightning might not strike twice, but Hookworms most certainly do.

Taken from the November issue of DIY, out now. Hookworms’ new album ‘The Hum’ is out now via Weird World.