On their sophomore record The Hum, Leeds psych-rockers Hookworms tighten up their sound for a record full of punky highs. As disciples of subtle racket-makers like Jim O’Rourke and Stereolab, the record finds the band scaling back their layers in a less-is-more sonic approach. Far less cluttered than 2013’s Pearl Mystic, The Hum is very much a record made by a live band looking to release that energy on wax. The results are incredibly satisfying – each track punches through with raucous power, like the jaunty opener “The Impasse” or the hypnotic rattle of “Radio Tokyo,” will still finding sly ways to infuse fuzz layers even when they’re cooling off, like on the slow-burner “Off Screen.”
We spoke with bassist MB about the band’s confidence level on approaching a second record and how the dry mixes of artists like Jim O’Rourke, Liars, and LCD Soundsystem helped constitute their own record.
Northern Transmissions: You said in your press statement that the recording The Hum was very much about new freedom and constraints – can you explain that in a little more detail? What kind of constraints did you put on yourself?
MB: I think when we started recording the last record, we didn’t really have an album in mind – we just started recording songs. Whereas this time around, we knew that we were starting an album and that we were going to finish and have an album at the end of it. So that was a constraint in a way. And freedoms, I guess – the freedoms were that we found our sound in a way. We’d been together for five years and I guess we didn’t have to worry about what we sound like or anything else, we just write a song and it sounds like us now.
NT: Did you have more of a studio budget this time around and subsequently more breathing room to explore ideas?
MB: Yeah, I mean we put this album out through Domino, and the last record we just recorded it in our own time. We got some awesome synthesizers and some nice microphones, that sort of thing. It took us the same amount of time to record this record. We spent nine months on it, so it was a similar amount of time, but this time we were more concentrated on the fact that we were making an album.
NT: Was there a conscious effort to continue the series of drone instrumentals that are featured on the first album with the Roman numeral titles?
MB: It was definitely conscious as it was [part of] the flow of the record, like the last one. I think anything we do, even the first EP, we wanted the tracks to blend together and we wanted people to listen to them as one whole piece. It was kind of after we already had written the drums and decided on the track listing. I guess it was kind of a joke really. We thought we’d carry on the numerals. In a stupid way, we found it funny that track three is called “ix.”
NT: On your press release, you also made reference to the film Instrument, the documentary about Fugazi, and how there’s a part where Brendan Canty describes a song they’re working on as “good, but not Fugazi.” Did you find yourselves passing on songs that were good but not fitting the feel of the record?
MB: Yeah, definitely. Not many, as most of what we recorded went on the album. The song in the middle of the album, “Beginners,” that started out a little bit like a James Brown kind of thing. But as we carried on writing it, it just slowly turned into a worse song – it didn’t really work doing it like that kind of thing, but the influence of that is still in the song in the drums and the bass. Eventually, if we work on a song for a long period of time it ends up sounding like us. We start a song and think it sounds like another band, like Stereolab or the Modern Lovers or whatever but by the time everyone’s written a part, it starts to sound like us.
NT: Did working with new drummer JN affect the writing and recording process?
MB: Yeah, I guess so. He’s a really great drummer. He’s got a big interest in electronic music and he’s got a big interest in Krautrock. He’s really into Can and stuff like that. His style of playing is really kind of driving and upbeat. We definitely took influence from that. His style of playing definitely propels things forward. And the songs are also very rhythm heavy. We really like the album Drum’s Not Dead by Liars, and Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem where they have these really dry drums.
NT: What’s interesting about Liars is that they actually don’t listen to any music at all when they’re making records, which is kind of insane.
MB: I read about a lot of bands doing that. It’s a bit difficult for us because we spread the recording out for nine months and it’s kind of difficult to go nine months without listening to any music. We definitely don’t sit in the studio and reference records while we’re doing it, it’s definitely more this subconscious thing where we record something and we’re then like “oh, that sounds like so-and-so.” I mean production-wise, there are more references like when you’re mixing a record. You want it to sound like certain things off certain records you like. Drum-wise, definitely Sound of Silver. The slow song on the record [“Off Screen”], the middle section is filled with all these weird found sounds, like musique concrète with strings and pianos. And that was trying to rip off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco. We really like how they have pop songs with noise on the surface. It’s all really subtle but it really works sonically.
NT: Yeah, that’s definitely a prevalent sound on The Hum – that mixture of pop and noise.
MB: Jim O’Rourke mixed that record [Yankee Hotel Foxtrot] and he’s a big influence on Matt [MJ, singer of Hookworms] who recorded the album. Matt’s kind of in charge of the mixing.
NT: Yeah, Jim O’Rourke is very big on that mixture of quiet and noisy sounds together. I recently bought his second solo album, Eureka, which has a very similar feel to Wilco’s A Ghost is Born, which he produced five years later.
MB: That run of stuff he did – he did Eureka, and Insignificance and an EP that’s really good called Halfway to a Threeway. And shortly after that mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and then produced A Ghost is Born – that run of records that he did there is definitely my favorite of his.
NT: Much like those records, there’s a lot of controlled noise on The Hum. They’re definitely noisy but there’s an interesting level of compression of the sound.
MB: We wanted it to be more minimal. It’s stripped back in terms of layers and guitars. That was on purpose because we realized after we finished the last record that there was some tracks on there that we couldn’t play live. Like there was all these acoustic guitars and weird percussion and that kind of stuff that we couldn’t replicate live. This time around we wanted to play it all live.
NT: How would you personally compare the band now to where you were when you first formed five years ago?
MB: Probably confidence, to be honest. When we started off, I think we were always okay live, but we definitely had a few dodgy shows when we first started. And now I think we’re definitely confident in our own roles. We have our own sound engineer, and we know wherever we play, we’re going to be loud and powerful. I think just knowing that gives you confidence. I think that’s the main difference in the band.