Body image, anxiety and death: Hookworms' new album isn't for the faint-hearted.
"I never wanted to be the singer," MJ chuckles. "I never even wanted to play the organ in our band. I wanted to play the guitar, but that didn't really work out very well." In the three-plus years since they last released an album, things haven't always gone to plan for Hookworms. With two lauded albums under their collective belt, at the end of 2015 flooding in Leeds devastated MJ's Suburban Home Studio, derailing plans for an EP as the group more or less withdrew into themselves. With the release of third album ‘Microshift', the world is reintroduced to the sound of a band reinvigorated.
"We've all been through this over three years, and it's been a really slow thing to get to this point," MJ portrays. "We didn't want to make the same record again. We knew it was important to grow, even if it meant failing. We knew we wanted to move on." So, move on is exactly what the band have done. The result is a record brimming with characteristic energy and a newfound sincerity that presents Hookworms at their most open and addictive yet.
"It changed quite a lot as we were making it," MJ describes. "We knew we wanted it to be different, but we didn't know what that actually meant." To redefine what they wanted to create, the group turned their focus to defining exactly who they are as a group. "It was working out what Hookworms was, and how far we could push it while still being the same band," the frontman illustrates.
Taking its title from a plugin used amply throughout recording, ‘Microshift' bears its electronic influence on its sleeve with pride. "We knew we wanted to incorporate electronics into what we were doing," MJ affirms. "It took quite a long time to figure out how to do that. It just sounded really tacky most of the time. Maybe it still does," he laughs. "It might seem like quite a change to people who just suddenly hear ‘Negative Space' and they only know 'Pearl Mystic' or something like that."
The lead single from the band's latest release, ‘Negative Space' is a near seven-minute sprawling epic that dances and dives through stuttering electronics with a clarity that feels refreshingly new for the band. And it's not just their sound that's different. Gone are the abstract lyrics, replaced by earnest takes on disaster, loss, and acutely felt anxieties.
"Because of my job I've kind of always been really into songwriting, and styles of songwriting," MJ contemplates. "I wanted to apply that a little bit more to Hookworms in ways that I hadn't been able to before." Drawing back the blinds with euphorically dazzling grooves, it only seemed natural that the songs' lyrics were approached with a fresh openness too.
"I think all the way through I knew that the lyrical content of this record was super important to me," MJ recalls. "I knew I wanted to make my vocals more prominent. I wanted to bring them to the front of the mix a lot more than I have done in the past, use them in a more traditional manner." It might be a more traditional take, but finding influence in their contemporaries, everything about Hookworms' third record manages to feel fresh and new.
"A lot of the records I've been working on over the last few years, with bands like Martha and The Spook School and Trust Fund and people like that, have lyrics I adore," MJ enthuses. "I think they're amazing - not only amazing people, but the way that they can put those incredibly emotional or political lyrics into a pop song is really inspiring to me. I knew I wanted to do something with this as well."
The album reaches an emotive high point on closing track ‘Shortcomings', a rippling number that sees the lyrics mourn "I feel less than strong," before a euphoric climax offers the enduringly hopeful sentiment of "hold out, it'll come." "That song is about social anxiety in public spaces and body image," MJ portrays. "I feel that was quite an important thing to write about, especially from a male perspective, because not really that many people do it."
"It's perfectly possible and fine and okay for men to feel the same anxieties about their body and the way that they're perceived in public or the way that they think that they're perceived in public," he states. Addressing such personal issues through their songs might've been a direction the band were certain of taking, but that didn't make it any less of a challenge.
"I spent a long time working on the lyrics on this record," the frontman details. "Because of the last few years and some of the things that have happened, I think I knew that I wanted to write about those things. A lot of the record is about people around us who have died, or are dying. It was important to me to get the lyrics right."
"I can't say it was easy a lot of the time, but it was satisfying, I think," he summarises. "We spent a lot of time talking about what things should sound like and not really knowing what we wanted, just setting things up and recording and seeing what happened. It's taken a long time to get it down to where we're at now. I've definitely found it a rewarding experience."
It's an experience the group are showing no signs of shying away from anytime soon. "I can see us still making records in ten years' time and this just being another record that was part of that," MJ considers. "It would probably make more sense with the next record." Fans of the band can rest assured, because it looks like a follow up could be closer than you might think. "I'm already thinking about the next record," MJ discloses, with a laugh. "I want it to be much quicker because I've got a studio again now."
"I love making records with my friends, and I feel so lucky," he enthuses. "It's a scary thing. I think it's setting yourself up to fail on a pretty big stage, but I think I'm proud of the record that I've made with my friends. It's the first time we've made a record that we're all collectively proud of. That's really all you can do, I guess."
With tour dates and festival performances ahead of them – including two nights at Leeds' Brudenell Social Club with an array of musical friends – Hookworms are back at full force. "Even if it all stopped tomorrow, I'd still be thrilled," MJ muses. "But if I get to do it all for another year or two? That's amazing. That's all I really want. I just feel lucky to make music with my friends."
Hookworms’ album ‘Microshift’ is out now. Taken from the February issue of Dork, out now.