When the River Aire burst its banks in Kirkstall on Boxing Day 2015 many people were left counting the cost.
Among them was Matthew Johnson – otherwise known as MJ – singer, keyboard player and co-songwriter for Hookworms, whose Surburban Home recording studio was among those plunged several feet underwater.
When the River Aire burst its banks in Kirkstall on Boxing Day 2015 many people were left counting the cost. Among them was Matthew Johnson – otherwise known as MJ – singer, keyboard player and co-songwriter for Hookworms, whose Surburban Home recording studio was among those plunged several feet underwater.
A new EP the band had planned to release was shelved while the studio was repaired but just over two years later MJ appreciates that particular loss may not have been a bad thing.
“We binned most of it because we weren’t happy with it,” he says. “I don’t think we were really happy with it at the time and we knew it, we just hadn’t admitted it yet. We kept one of the songs, which became the second song on the album and we kept some other little parts of it and built on them for the record, but most of it went.
“It was less the rebuilding that caused a change of approach,” he continues, “more the time we had to reflect on what we wanted to do next, I think.”
Rebuilding the studio took “exactly six months”, and was helped considerably by an online fundraising appeal. While the work continued the five members of Hookworms reconsidered their own musical direction. MJ sees the switch to using the studio more as tool, with a greater emphasis on electronic sounds, as “more of a natural evolution than anything”. The resulting album, Microshift, is their best and most accomplished record to date.
“I’ve had a few people say to me that they’ve been surprised by hearing the first single off this record [Negative Space],” says MJ. “I can see why it may come as a surprise but when it’s been three years that we’ve been working on it it’s been a very slow thing to get to this point.
“We knew we wanted to make more of a studio record this time and we knew we wanted to incorporate more electronics – that came from Matt [Benn, aka MB] doing XAM Duo as well with a friend of ours Chris [Duffin] who also plays saxophone on this record. He’s way more interested in synthesisers than anything now and he kept bringing them along to practice. It took a long time for us to work out how to cohesively implement that with what we were doing, because it can be kind of tacky putting synthesisers with guitars. It took a long time to work out and for it to still feel like the same band.
“It was more working out how to fit the current instrumentation around the synthesisers so the guitars are much more processed on the record, my organs are much more processed on the record and then ironically I guess my vocals are much more up-front than they were before.”
I’ve always really struggled with standing on a stage in front of people, it’s not something I particularly enjoy doing but I like playing music for my friends.MJ
Electronic loops became the starting point for each of the songs. “On some of them the loops have gone away but on most of them they stayed,” says MJ. “It was fun doing it like that because in the end we’re a band that’s based on repetition. I guess the repetition this time comes from the loop more than anything.”
The song Negative Space is a reaction to the death of a close friend of the band. “I think a lot of the record comes from that, the grief that we all suffered through that loss,” MJ says. “Also my dad has Alzheimer’s and I also went through a break-up at the time. It’s mainly a record about grief.”
While mental health is an issue that MJ has addressed before in his work, this time he sees it differently. “Before it has been much more wide brush strokes about depression whereas this time I wanted to address certain things more clearly.
“The last song on the record [Shortcomings] is about body image and anxiety in public spaces. I thought it was quite important that a man in a band writes about that because it’s not something that’s necessarily addressed as much. I think body image can sometimes be seen as less of a masculine concern but it’s definitely something that not only me but a lot of my friends have suffered from as well. I’ve always really struggled with standing on a stage in front of people, it’s not something I particularly enjoy doing but I like playing music for my friends. We’ve been really lucky to be as successful as we have been so it means I stand on a stage in front of even more people but it makes me incredibly anxious and I know I’m not the only one in the band that feels like that and about people staring at you and I wanted to write about that.
“There’s another song on the record, Opener which is more about masculinity and male friendships and how it’s important that we don’t just have women doing emotional labour. It’s important that we perform emotional labour as men as well for our friends because it’s important to talk to each other.”
MJ says the juxtaposition between “a very light aesthetic with the music” and “very dark lyrics” was something he “set out to do quite early on”.
“Then there were times where if you put anything that is too bright or too optimistic over the top of this incredibly optimistic music it might have been a bit saccharine, so I was trying to pull it back in places as well.”
Microshift is released on Domino Records on February 2. Hookworms play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on March 2 and 3.