From Russia with Love: Happy Meals interviewed
Scottish Album of the Year nominated duo Suzanne Rodden and Lewis Cook, aka Happy Meals, look beyond their roots with their brand of minimalist European disco. It's already proved a hit in Moscow. Now it's the turn of Supersonic festival
It is New Year's Eve in Moscow and a party is in full swing. Russian men dressed in ski suits dance on the frozen ground, seemingly oblivious to the minus-22 degree temperature. On a makeshift stage housed in a tourist information booth, a new synthpop duo are playing an addictive line of minimalist European disco. The vocalist sings in fluent French. Those unfamiliar with the group may presume they are from Paris, or perhaps Brussels. In fact, Happy Meals originally hail from Dumfries and Galloway, and are now based in Glasgow.
The story of how Suzanne Rodden and her partner Lewis Cook ended up seeing in the bells in the Russian capital – despite only beginning to make music together last year – involves an international love of "noisy techno" and a dash of Scotland's most infamous fortified wine. When The Skinny meets the couple at Glasgow's Flying Duck venue, ahead of the final show of their spring European tour, it's easy to think of them as battle-hardened veterans of the continental music scene. But their eastern adventure was actually their first gig outside of the central belt. "Before this tour, we had only played three cities before – Glasgow, Edinburgh and Moscow," explains Cook. "I did a release under a secret alias on a Russian label, and the promoters got in touch with me, heard about Happy Meals, and asked us to go out and play.”
Their hosts were not entirely unfamiliar with Scottish culture. "They specifically asked us to bring across Buckfast," Rodden adds. "I think they had a friend who had been to Scotland before, and he asked for it. When we were in the airport, we had picked up this beautiful whisky, Scapa, which I know from Orkney – it’s normally like 80 quid for a 70cl bottle – and we got it 50 quid for a litre. So when we were in Russia we were passing around Buckfast as well as this high-end Orcadian whisky."
"They like a lot of drugs out there," deadpans Cook. "Speed is their drug of choice. Buckfast seemed to complement that." Muscovites may share a fondness for drink and proscribed substances with many Glaswegians, but Happy Meals found the two places also have other, more wholesome recreational pursuits in common. "Their music scene is very segregated from mainstream society, more so than the UK," he continues. "It's actually very similar to Glasgow, in terms of the people you meet, and the sort of music people listen to. I asked a friend out there what kind of music people like in Moscow, and he told me 'noisy techno kind of stuff', and reeled off a few labels, and one of them was Opal Tapes – Steven Fisher, who runs the label, mastered our album. You go to the clubs here and people are listening to the same kind of stuff. But in Moscow, there's a segregation from mainstream society, which is good in some ways, as it's a little bit freer, and untamed."
There are of course downsides to being a promoter in a country led by Vladimir Putin. “They put on a lot of Russian stuff, but they also bring in a lot of artists from outside the country,” says Rodden. “But with the crash of the ruble it's made it so much more difficult for them, having to pay for visas and flights.”
Rodden and Cook got together at high school eight years ago, but it was only in 2014 that they finally worked together on the project that would become Happy Meals. Cook is no stranger to the stage or studio, recording material as Mother Ganga (in Rodden's flat no less), and as one quarter of prolific psychedelic rockers The Cosmic Dead. While the latter revel in branding themselves 'Scotland's foremost Hawkwind tribute band', Happy Meals are a rather different prospect – more sultry synthpop, in the mould of Stereolab or Goldfrapp, than sky-scraping riff merchants. “I can't speak for them, but they've all expressed that they've really liked it,” insists Cook. “Happy Meals has come on shuffle on the iPod in the car a few times, and there have been no complaints. All of our music tastes in The Cosmic Dead are very eclectic – it's not too far-fetched, really, that the rest of the guys like it.”
The first Happy Meals tracks that would eventually surface on the since SAY-nominated mini-album Apéro were formed at Glasgow's Green Door studio, a crucible for many of the city's musicians. “We went into Green Door kind of on a whim really – Suzie had some recording time as part of a workshop she was doing, so we went in together and started making music. We hadn't picked up any instruments, but we had song names, and a kind of idea of how we would do it. Some of the songs were written around an abstract idea rather than a structure.”
“I think because we have been together for so long, we have a lot of different ideas," Rodden chimes in. "The atmosphere of the Green Door is fantastic – Stu and Emily who run it, you can play the same thing over and over again for hours and they'll still be into it, or you can cut things short and they'll give you constructive criticism as well.”
With additional touches added at home in Glasgow, Apéro was released in November last year on Night School Records to positive reviews. It's a confident first statement that suggests even better things can be expected from them. With an experienced synth player like Cook on board, nailing down a tune was unlikely to ever be an issue, but it’s Rodden’s French lyrics and pure voice that mark them out as something different. Given that she teaches the language for a living, her mastery of it is unsurprising.
“When we were in London I overheard somebody saying, 'Oh, it's a French band that’s on next,’” she smiles. “I’ve sung in French before, but it's the first time I've properly written lyrics in the language. We were just jamming, and I just started singing in French. I find I can express myself a lot better in it.”
When asked if it was deliberate decision to adopt a more European sound, Cook suggests it was more of an organic process between two people who already knew each other inside out. “When we started the band, we didn't set out to make a type of music – it just became easy to share those abstract ideas between the two of us because we are so close. You can just say a few words, or a sentence, and then take something from that.”
The couple are already planning to record more tracks, hopefully in Rodden’s newly adopted home of Orkney, where she moved to teach last year. While it involves fairly regular weekend trips back south to Glasgow, she is clearly in love with the place and its incredible history. “There are burial tombs all over the islands, and some of them haven't even been opened. I've become a bit of a broken record as when I come down I rave about it!”
Next on the Happy Meals agenda is an appearance at June’s Supersonic festival in Birmingham, an event known for attracting inventive and sometimes challenging musical talent for the benefit of a curious and appreciative audience. Having already won over Muscovite partygoers in a cold climate, a summer trip to the Midlands should pose the duo no significant problems.