Hookworms' MJ on transcending "rubbish garage bands"

Following the release of their debut album Pearl Mystic and ahead of their appearance at Liverpool Psych Fest, Hookworms' MJ talks – or tries not to – about noise and necessity

Feature by Lucy Holt | 02 Sep 2013
  • Hookworms

It almost feels wrong to interview Hookworms. It’s probably the last thing they’d care for. As a band, the Leeds five-piece stubbornly retreat from the spotlight. They refer to themselves solely in initialisms and insist that their relative success is purely a product of accident and quirks in the system. Even their name is deliberately uninviting. In fact, it’s wilfully grotesque, and just another barrier you have to actively traverse when attempting to figure them out. Like their parasitical namesakes, their music is a destructive force that’ll find its way under your skin – but more fool you if you try to get under theirs.

Not only do Hookworms care little for the trappings of press exposure, but there’s also the nagging feeling that it’s all just a waste of their time. A 15-minute phone call could be 15 minutes better spent on their part, attending to one of the many other plates each member is currently spinning (note: there are a lot of them). Admittedly, when we speak to singer and guitarist MJ, he's watching tofu marinate in real time, but don’t be fooled by the illusion of domestic idleness – Hookworms are busy.

In March they released their debut record, Pearl Mystic, to roaring approval. Since then, MJ, MB, SS, JN and JW haven’t stopped running the entire post-album gamut of touring and promotional duties. It’s only the sort of stuff to be expected from a band in their position, but you have to factor in all the peripheries to get the full picture: MJ runs an increasingly in-demand recording studio in Leeds, the popularity of which has lately been positively correlating with that of the band, and the rest of the band have ‘real jobs’, some of which are in schools, restricting touring plans – and then there’s their multitude of side projects, which reads like a directory of Bands That Are Doing Things At The Moment.

"Hookworms is a very involving hobby, over-arching our lives" – MJ

“Everyone in the band has a day job, and are very strict about keeping [Hookworms] as a hobby, but it’s a very involving hobby, over-arching our lives,” explains MJ. There's a sense that the recognition and approval genuinely took them unawares, and is not always in their best interest. That’s not to say they don’t put the work in, but it seems they use a different scale by which to measure success. They were drawn together after years of playing in what MJ affectionately refers to as “rubbish garage bands,” and have since avoided even the faintest delusions of grandeur. “We don’t have any aspirations to be the biggest band or the best band, we just want to make good records and enjoy each other’s company,” he says. Such statements could easily reek of tiresome ‘anything else is a bonus’-isms, but there’s a certain conviction that suggests they’re not just toeing a well-worn party line, and that Hookworms is just another plate to be spun. 

The insistent perfectionism that plagues everything they create, however, seems somewhat at odds with their refusal to be consumed by the process of creating it. MJ describes their attitude as somewhat “anti-aspirational,” yet admits to finding it hard to listen to Pearl Mystic without wincing. As the sound engineer at his self-run Suburban Home studios by day, he can’t help but meticulously pick out the bad, the corrections that should have been made, though it may not just be from this perspective that it's a difficult listening experience – the album has some deeply personal issues at its heart. Scratch below the contorting winds of reverb and heavily distorted vocals, and there’s the altogether more human story of loss and depression. Sonically, it's back and forth from distant and spacey sweeps to heavy anti-melodies, but lyrically it’s painfully close to the bone (though it takes a few listens to begin to decipher what those lyrics are). You get the impression Hookworms aren’t making things easy for themselves, and have no intention to do so, either.

In fact, they might just be their own worst enemies, with MJ as a comprehensive self-critic. He talks of an “imposter syndrome” cropping up at every stage of their steady but sustained rise to a certain sort of fame. “I don’t feel anything we do is ever on the same level as Peaking Lights or Melody’s Echo Chamber,” two bands they particularly admire, he says. Hookworms are oft quoted in the same breath as genre-mates TOY, but have more of an affinity to their contemporaries on the Leeds DIY scene, citing That Fucking Tank and Nope as examples. They don’t consider themselves any better than their peers, who don’t tend to procure as much attention, and they “never expected to sell any records.” Weird World, an imprint of Domino Records, thought otherwise, and have signed them up for their next album.

Despite all the validation a band could reasonably want, the band still refuse to put all their eggs in one basket. Galaxians, Menace Beach and Cowtown are all credible and wildly diverse spokes of the Hookworms wheel, and, in a testament to their work ethic, all four acts featured on the line-up of the recent Beacons festival in Skipton, Yorkshire. Hookworms played a typically compelling and physically exhausting set on the main stage, after which MJ promptly slipped away to play with Menace Beach in a considerably smaller marquee, looking in need of a nap.

Hookworms are perhaps the most prominent anomaly in a landscape of musical apathy, so it makes sense that they profess to feel “an affinity to the ethics, as opposed to the aesthetics, of a band.” Naturally, then, MJ talks of carrying on much the same for the second record as they did the first; that is, as oblivious to external pressures as possible. But with all the noblest intentions in the world, the awareness that more people will be listening has unavoidably crept into the picture.

Pearl Mystic was in some ways a half-and-half album of songs we enjoy playing live, and the more blissed-out textural ones that used the studio as an instrument,” he says, tentatively describing the second record as “faster and heavier” – which would point to an expansion on the likes of single Away/Towards' drone melee, as opposed to the woozy aural dunes of interludes i, ii and iii. He also reassures that it will be a “more interesting, concise record on the whole” and, perhaps most significantly, more “fun” – an adjective you wouldn’t exactly leap to apply to the noisescape of light and shade that comprises Pearl Mystic.

Even if they don’t believe it themselves, what Hookworms create on their evenings and weekends and in the summer holidays is more interesting – and more fuelled by interest – than much of what is produced by careerists. The cynical observer could be forgiven for thinking that their dedication to avoiding publicity in all its guises is a clever construction of reverse-psychology – it’s the standard modus operandi for much new music, after all. But Hookworms are simultaneously more normal and more abnormal than that: normal in the sense that they make music for its intrinsic act, rather than as a means to some unspecified end, and abnormal in that such an ethos is all too alien.

Hookworms play Festival No. 6, Portmeirion, 13-15 Sep and the Saturday of Liverpool Psych Fest, 27-28 Sep, Camp and Furnace/Blade Factory, Liverpool. Their debut album, Pearl Mystic, is out now via Gringo Records