Interview There’s no place like Suburban Home: producer MJ shows us around his rebuilt studio

After the Christmas floods destroyed MJ’s riverside studio, he rebuilt the entire thing from scratch. Half a year on, he gives us a guided tour.

“It’s five years since I went full time doing this, which is pretty wild,” Matthew Johnson - lead singer of Hookworms, and Leeds-based production whizz - enthuses. Sat on a sofa in his Suburban Home studio, there’s a definite sense of excitement in the air. To those familiar with the producer’s prolific output, that will come as no surprise. Suburban Home has seen no shortage of favoured acts creating their craft within its walls. From Drenge to Doe, The Magic Gang through to Martha, Honeyblood to MJ’s own band, the studio has birthed an abundance of brilliance.

From the moment he was given a four-track recorder for Christmas at the age of fourteen, MJ’s aspirations were set. “It’s pretty much all I did ever since,” he laughs. “I messed up my A-Levels because there was a recording studio at the Sixth Form college and I was more interested in that,” he admits. “It’s worked out okay though.” Indeed, in the half decade since he quit his desk job “on the spot” to pursue what had always been “a hobby,” he’s experienced no uncertain amount of success.

What started out as a pastime recording his friends’ bands has progressed to the point of turning down “maybe more than half” the bands who contact him about recording – and it’s every bit a labour of love. “It’s very unfair for me to work on someone’s record if I’m not into their music,” MJ states, and the passion shows. Describing the greatest compliments of hearing a band say “they’ve never felt so relaxed when they’re making a record,” or listening back to the recordings to remark that “it sounds like us,” MJ has perfected the knack for bringing out the very best in the bands he works with. “I just want people to feel like they can relax and give the best performance that they can. I think that’s more important than anything.”

“If it all ended tomorrow I’d think it was amazing that I got to do this, even for five years, and live off it,” he continues. Scrolling through his calendar, listing some of the bands he’s working with over the coming month alone, an end is the last thing on anyone’s mind. But it’s taken a long time to get here. Rewind to any point over the past seven months and the story was completely different.

“I’ve had my own tiny little version of Grand Designs now"

Normally a time for festivities, last Christmas overflowed with a sense of chaos. On Boxing Day the River Aire burst its banks, leaving a huge number of homes, businesses, and buildings completely flooded; some beyond repair. “I could see it was going to happen,” MJ recalls. “I got a flood warning to my phone.” Making it out of his parents’ home in Ilkley just before the roads were closed to deal with the damage there, he arrived with just enough time to protect what he could.

“I went to B&Q and bought loads of sandbags, but it was never enough,” MJ explains. “You never think it’s going to end up like it does.” Blocking off the rising waters and moving as much as possible into the attic may have saved some expense, but by this point damage was inevitable. “To leave, we kind of had to flood it all, which was quite surreal,” MJ says. “You kick the barrier down and that’s it, all the water comes in.”

Giving into the floods to escape the building, there was little more to do other than wait for the damage to be done. “It was definitely scary, and strange,” MJ says, “but the worst bit was at the end.” Returning to where he thought was safe to park his car (it wasn’t), the worst was yet to come. “We tried to drive my car, and it went for about fifty yards, then I suddenly realised the steering wheel just wasn’t controlling. We were just floating down Kirkstall Road,” he recounts.

Escaping his car, only to return the next morning and find it with the electricity shorted out and the belongings inside stolen, it certainly was a sorry state of affairs. “I’d got some nice coffee for Christmas and it’d made a cold brew in the back of my car, so it smelt really nice,” MJ laughs. Assessing the damage to his mud-caked and sewage-scented studio, the outlook was nothing short of dire.

“There were meant to be flood defences in Kirkstall, but it got cancelled a couple of years ago,” MJ mulls. “But I think that’s a symptom of every recent government policy towards flooding. They’ve always been very reactive rather than proactive.” Plans for flood defences in the area are now firmly in place, and though that did little to help with the disaster when needed, the producer has nothing but a positive light to shed on the response the situation received.

“I’d got some nice coffee for Christmas, and it’d made a cold brew in the back of my car…."

“Leeds City Council have been amazing,” MJ enthuses. “The last thing you want is around here to become a ghost town, which is a possibility if no one invests in this area.” Invest the council did, helping a great number of the local establishments get back on their feet. “They gave all the small businesses around here who were flooded a grant, then I got another grant to pay for flood barriers.”

The council weren’t the only one to rush to the studio’s aid. A short time after the floods, fellow Hookworms member Matt Benn set up a page on crowdfunding site GoFundMe. “People kept saying to me I should do something because they wanted to donate,” MJ says. “I felt really uncomfortable about it.”

Initially holding out hope for perhaps £200, the response surpassed any sense of expectation. Look at the fundraising page now, and the money raised is over double the £5000 goal. “Matt kept changing that target,” MJ grins. “We wouldn’t be sat here right now without that, at all,” he expresses. “It genuinely saved me.”

It wasn’t just the money that brought Suburban Home back to its feet. “There were lots of times where I thought it wouldn’t happen again. I genuinely had no idea that anyone paid attention to anything I did,” MJ mutters. “Then people were donating this money, and saying that they really liked the records that I made and that they wanted me to be working again… I think it kind of kept me going, made me want to carry on.”

The music community could not have been more supportive. “Greenmount [Studios] gave me loads of free studio time, which they did not have to do at all,” he affirms. “They came to me and just offered,” he continues, “gave me weekends whenever I could…”

Able to continue working on the records he’d already booked in, MJ found himself on solid ground from which he could begin to repair and rebuild from all the damage. “They pretty much kept me going by doing that,” he concludes.

“To leave we had to flood it all, which was quite surreal. You kick the barrier down and that’s it, all the water comes in.”

Expressing his sincere gratitude to the point of speechlessness, the reaction he witnessed has left an intensely long-lasting impression. Without these wishes of support and funding, Suburban Home wouldn’t be what it is today. “It’s meant I’ve been able to make this place nice, which has been great,” MJ gushes. “It’s been intensely stressful the last six months.”

Essentially project-managing the rebuild himself, the studio that stands here today is nearly entirely MJ’s own handiwork. “I did everything apart from the plastering,” he exclaims excitedly. “I’ve done most of the joinery myself, all the woodwork in here. I’ve done all the acoustics, I built all of the panels…” Gesturing around the room, there’s no ignoring the sense of pride now the project has almost reached its completion. “Laying the floor as well. I’ve never laid a floor!” he laughs. “I’ve never done anything like that in my life.”

“The last few months while I’ve been doing all of this have been like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” he expands. “I don’t really know how I got away with it. Everything I’ve done has just been me making my mind up as I go along.” Sat on comfortable sofas, in illuminated rooms, surrounded by plastic potted plants, to look at the place now you’d never know the state it had been a mere few months previous. “I had no idea I was capable of making everything so nice.”

Finally functioning as a studio should, Suburban Home is back in business. “I was a bit worried before I started working again - ‘what if I can’t do it anymore?’” MJ groans. Every day I walk in here and I’m like ‘this is weird.’ It doesn’t feel like it’s mine totally.” Rebuilt by hand, the studio couldn’t possibly be anyone else’s. “Now it’s a nice place to be!” he exclaims. “I’m trying to keep things as minimal as possible. It’s a much better way. It’s much cleaner.”

Showing off the shelves he just constructed and enthusing about the potted plants, the sense of excitement is impossibly contagious. “I’m going to build my own studio in a few years,” MJ declares. “I want to do it all from scratch: buy a building and build a studio, or even buy land and build a studio on it…” Buzzing with ideas for future projects, the rebuild has only served to heighten his conviction. “That’s always kind of been my dream and my goal,” he explains. “I’ve had my own tiny little version of Grand Designs now, and I really enjoyed it, so I know I want to do it.”

Find out more about MJ’s Suburban Home studio on his website.

Photos: Andrew Benge.

Tags: Hookworms, Features, Interviews

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