Not Bad for Starters: Happy Meals on 'Apéro'

Happy Meals didn't have a name a year ago, now they're dark horses for the SAY Award. Lewis Cook and Suzanne Rodden talk us through their brilliant debut LP, Apéro.

Feature by Simon Jay Catling | 15 Jun 2015

It's nearly two weeks since the Scottish Album of the Year shortlist was announced, but Happy Meals' Suzanne Rodden still brims with the reactionary enthusiasm of someone who's only just found out Apéro, the gorgeous, slightly dubby continental-evoking synth pop debut LP she and partner Lewis Cook released on Night School last Autumn, has been included. "It was the loveliest shock you could possibly get," she chatters exuberantly from the other end of an Orkney phone line. "It's really been such a heartfelt project that we've put together. It's something very precious to us so it's hard to find the words..." 

Rodden speaks with a sense of disbelief, but Happy Meals inclusion is wholly warranted among the likes of friends Errors, last year's winners Young Fathers and established acts like Belle & Sebastian. With last year seeing the more traditional nominees trumped by Young Fathers in the final reckoning, judges appear to have increased their thirst for music that posits a fresh narrative for contemporary Scottish music (we'll ignore Paolo Nutini for a moment), and with their debut bouncing back and forth within a trans-Atlantic ballpark of artists and labels like Peaking Lights and 100% Silk, as well as French cold-wave and European disco, Rodden and Cook are producing material that wheels away from tired pre-conceptions of what it is to be a musician from Glasgow. "It's why Night School were the first people we gave the record to because I really admire that they were putting all sorts of really interesting stuff out across the board," says Cook later on in the evening from Glasgow, "it caters for all these things that are outside already existing scenes, so it was really special for us to be taken on." 

Cook's doing an admirable job of holding conversation after touching down a couple of hours earlier from a heady weekend at Eindhoven PsychLAB with his other band, Cosmic Dead ("lots of late nights going into early mornings," he chuckles only slightly ruefully). With a number of other projects past and present – he currently also makes more techno-leaning pop under the guise Mother Ganga – Cook is no stranger to collaboration, but working on an album with his girlfriend of the last eight years was something different. "It's a weird thing where you have to both flick another switch on. There's a new side to the relationship because in order to be creative you have to be quite frank with each other," he says. "But once we'd started to finish some pieces of music it became a lot more easier."

"I really let my voice go wild and really enjoyed singing without trying to sound the way you're 'supposed' to sound" – Suzanne Rodden

Both agree that the process sat easily within their existing relationship, and Rodden echoes sentiments made to us when we previously spoke to the duo, that it was a course she took at not-for-profit studio The Green Door that was the true catalyst for the record"I'm actually classically trained on piano and flute, and growing up reading music I found it harder to make up things myself," she adds. Writing and recording at Green Door was something of an awakening for Rodden, who cites an exercise in covering a Devo song as a fillip for using her voice. "I forget which one it was, but it was just like any Devo vocal, pretty crazy, and I absolutely loved it. I really let my voice go wild and really enjoyed singing without trying to sound the way you're 'supposed' to sound." From there she asked Lewis to record, the pair already coming up with song titles on the taxi over for their session, including Crystal Salutations – the first track on Apéro – and the rest was proverbial history.

"More than anything I've ever done I felt we knew exactly what it was going to sound like," says Cook. "We bounced words off each other and then went in to write. There were a couple of avenues that didn't feel natural for us, but we kind of knew how we wanted it to be and it was just a case of actually doing it and realising it. We're both on the same wavelength and so it came quite intuitively."

As a record Apéro is far cleverer than it initially lets on. On first listen there's a sense of simplicity, even on Crystal Salutations' swirling synth opus, the pair lay foundations around repetition, a selective sound pallette and just a couple of hypnagogic-soaked hooks; Electric Disco meanwhile has the feel of a 70's R'n'B hit left out in the sun too long, woozy and warped. Listen again though and you find more, the way Altered Images gradually adds more and more to its tapestry, or how Visions of Utopia seems to fit together like a tangram, with varying digital patterns feeling each other out and pivoting in order to fit. Any sense of methodology though is played off by the pair's contentment to allow happy accidents to slip through, the over distortion of a Korg or the muddiness of a drum machine. "There were things where I deliberately left in distortions," confirms Cook. "The first chords of Altered Images you can hear a distortion and it's coming from the mixer I bought. I kinda liked it. Rather than trying to fix anything I wanted the process to be there. I think that's really ugly about a lot of electronic music: a polished finished hi-res sound that resembles a product, rather than a process or reflection of a process – which I think a lot of great music is."

There's also the much-commented on bilingual aspect of the record, with Rodden singing in both French and English throughout the record, the former sinking comfortably into the languidly dream-like nature of Apéro. "I prefer it" says Rodden, who has been living in the Orkney Islands since last August teaching French. "It's very naturally expressive and to me it feels like in English we're a lot more matter of fact and a lot more direct with how we speak. In French you can hint at things and you can play with the language a lot more, which I think makes it a little bit more poetic."

What's incredibly exciting for Happy Meals is that they've not even really got started yet. As the title Apéro suggests, they only really intended their debut to be an introduction, and as such they've not yet been able to build on that thanks to a combination of Rodden's time in Orkney and Cook's other musical engagements; that's going to change this summer with performances at Electric Fields on The Skinny stage on 29 Aug in their native Dumfries & Galloway (they also play Manchester on 1 Aug) and time planned around that to truly focus on what they're doing both live and on record. "Part of the reason it was such an enjoyable process the first time was because we went in completely without expectations and were lucky to have found the time to just focus on making music – so if we can just do the same thing for the next record that would be great!" As, no doubt, would be a win on Wednesday.

Apéro is out now on Night School Records. The Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award winner is announced this Wednesday evening. Happy Meals play The Skinny Stage at Electric Fields on 29 August.