Gut Feelings: An Interview with MJ from Hookworms
With second album The Hum on the horizon, Hookworms' MJ explains why he’ll never listen to it again
When the first pressing of Pearl Mystic sold out and a second, much larger run was ordered, Hookworms had one important request. “One of the only things we asked [then-label Gringo Records] was ‘Can we not put them together ourselves this time?’” says singer, producer and keyboardist MJ, speaking over the phone from his home in Leeds. The weeks leading up to their debut’s release, he reminisces, had involved “evening after evening, just sitting here putting the LPs into their little cases, and then putting stickers on, and then putting download codes in them,” and the band were more than ready to leave this particular aspect of DIY music culture behind.
A little over 18 months later, Hookworms are readying the release of album number two; a tensely strung, densely textured creation entitled The Hum. This time, the band have Domino taking care of the stickers-assembly line, having signed to the label’s Weird World imprint in July last year. “It’s been interesting, definitely, doing it through Domino,” says MJ, when invited to compare then and now. “It’s been quite a positive experience but definitely very different – mainly because, for me personally, I’ve never made a record before where I’ve known that there’s a small amount of people who actually wanted to hear it. That’s been kind of strange and, you know…” He takes a quick breath. “It’s made me very anxious, I guess. Before I’ve only ever made a record because I wanted to make a record, whereas this was the first time I’d ever started making an album and thought ‘there’s going to be something at the end of this that some people are going to want to hear.’”
Considering the plaudits pinged Pearl Mystic’s way, this feels like an understatement. A genuine slow-burn success, interest in that album’s hypnotic, lysergic jams grew steadily across the last calendar year, stoked by rhapsodic reviews and capped by prominent placement in a swathe of end of year lists (including a top 10 placing in these pages). The Hum looks set to follow suit: from The Impasse’s furious palpitations and feedback squalls right through to the metronomic pulse of closing track Retreat, it whets and sharpens the traits that made Pearl Mystic so intoxicating.
"I still find it hard to discuss what these songs are about" – MJ
“I think we have more confidence in ourselves in the way that we play music,” says MJ of their approach this time round. “We understand our roles in the band better. On Pearl Mystic we were still kind of feeling it out and trying to work out what people do, and everyone kind of plays a bit of everything, whereas this time it’s very specific: there’s a guitar down the left, a guitar down the right, an organ, vocals, bass and drums, and everyone is playing their instrument on the record as it is when we play it live. But we’re very self-deprecating people and I don’t think we can ever be entirely happy with something, so it was definitely a weird strain knowing that people were interested in hearing it – especially since we were finishing [The Hum] around Christmas, when there were a lot of those ‘albums of the year’ things. People were very kind about Pearl Mystic which we didn’t really expect, and that added to the pressure.” The list of acts that have gone from dazzling debuts to sophomore slumps is long, and Hookworms were adamant they wouldn’t join its ranks. “I’m really intent that this new album is, you know, the second album of seven or eight or whatever, rather than just being the album that followed Pearl Mystic that people didn’t like as much. That’s really important to me – that it’s just another album.”
By this point in our conversation, it’s not a surprise to hear MJ anticipating future albums rather than reflecting on the present one. He repeatedly expresses an inherent urge to keep moving Hookworms forward (as a tweet back in September indicated, the band have already returned to MJ’s Suburban Home studio to start work on album number three), and he finds revisiting past work an uncomfortable experience. “When we signed to Domino and they re-released Pearl Mystic worldwide, I had to listen to a test press and I found it excruciating,” he winces, stating a wish to never have to listen to it ever again. Same goes for its successor. “I was obsessed with The Hum when we were doing it,” he caveats, “but as soon as it was finished that was it for me. I haven’t really thought about it since… I’m just really not that interested in looking back. I’d rather just say that something’s finished and then move on, and try and do something better. I think The Hum was the best record we could have done at the time, right now, and I’m definitely proud of it. I’ll just never listen to it again, I don’t think.”
An exception to this unofficial policy of finish up, move on and never look back is Radio Tokyo, first released as part of a Too Pure 7" last year and re-recorded for inclusion on The Hum. “I think it was important to us that that song was on the album because it was the first time we’d ever consciously tried to write a pop song,” he explains. “I’d just read David Byrne's book How Music Works, where he talks about the way context informs an aesthetic, and I was quite interested in the idea of purposefully writing for a 7". I think that was quite a successful piece of work for us, and it kind of informed how we went on to work on the rest of the album.”
The Hum also contains a call back to Radio Tokyo B-side On Returning, in the form of the correlatively titled On Leaving. “They’re very personal, both of those songs,” says MJ when asked how the two relate: the former is “literally about depression, and coming out the other side and finding a way to deal with relationships with people who you might have grown apart from, unintentionally,” while the latter “is really about being on the other side of that, where the other person has somehow grown apart from you.” Such acutely serious and emotionally thorny themes are typical of MJ’s lyrics, which confront and purge first-hand experiences of loss, depression and a cluster of related tumults. The precise words are only intermittently and foggily discernible under trademark Space Echo distortion, but the stricken delivery speaks volumes of their cathartic origins.
“I always find it quite difficult,” says MJ, when asked about baring all on tape. “It was harder with Pearl Mystic, when people started asking about depression and mental health problems a lot… because I hadn’t quite come to terms with it myself. But I think I’m a lot better at dealing with that now. I still find it hard to discuss what the songs are about, but at least now I know what happens so I can kind of prepare myself for it.”
Being frank about mental health has also had unforeseen but welcome side effects, in the form of fans thanking him for opening up about an often invisible issue. Towards the end of our interview, talk turns to another under-examined subject that’s close to his heart. “Only something like 5% of audio professionals are non-male and I find that very difficult,” he says, highlighting acute inequalities within his metier as a producer and sound engineer. “It’s strange because I think a lot of people that are audio professionals aren’t particularly masculine or macho alpha male characters, yet there is a really horrible train of thought through that industry.”
He focuses his ire on a recent issue of trade magazine Sound on Sound, “where there was a naked woman being used to sell a microphone.” At the time, the band used their Facebook page to urge fans to write to the magazine’s editor and protest the presence of such retrograde imagery, and MJ’s own displeasure is still apparent. “It kind of blows my mind that half of the population aren’t engaging with this field because it’s so uncomfortable for them, and I felt like the way Sound on Sound reacted to having a sexist advertisement in their magazine was, basically, fear – that if they upset the people who put adverts in their magazine then they’re going to lose funding. I understand that, but I also think it’s about time someone said something – if you actually want any women, or non-males, to engage in the recording industry. Because there’s so much scope for people to do amazing stuff but people are too scared because it’s such a horrible masculine environment.”
While MJ also stresses that Hookworms have “never tried to set ourselves out as a political band,” neither will they downplay or suppress their convictions. “I guess we realise that we’ve got a little bit of a soapbox for a short amount of time,” he says, “so if it gives us a chance to talk about things that matter, then I think that’s an important thing to do. So when people ask me for my opinion on something, I’m not going to shut up about it – because even if it only affects one person and the way they’re thinking about something, then that’s cool. I can at least be proud that I didn’t keep quiet.” If albums three-through-eight can maintain the quality of the first two, Hookworms should be able to hold on to that soapbox for some time yet.