Hookworms made our favourite album of the year while challenging the conceived limits of a DIY band

A lesson in evolution

I first interviewed Hookworms for Loud And Quiet in 2011. They were playing a hometown show at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and had their gear set up on the floor, a fairly common occurrence for bands that aren’t likely to fill out the venue. I’d seen them previously a few times but this show felt different – pivotal – it being their last of the year before taking a break from performing, leaving behind most of their debut EP material too to focus on upcoming recordings for their debut LP. I remember distinctly the bass on the opening ‘Medicine Cabinet’ rumbling and groping my innards with a tricky, almost malevolent twinge, as the hissing guitar filled the room like a poisonous gas slowly creeping in. One of the two men responsible for that, SS, was hunched over with his legs out-stretched looking like a deranged lumberjack ready to swipe the head clean-off anybody that caught his eye-line. The caterwaul screech that came from the echo-laden vocals shattered the room, while the drums hit tautly, feeling mechanical yet vivacious. It was the kind of performance that reaches the levels of intensity that have you wondering if you might put your teeth straight through your bottom lip, jaw locked.

Two years later, almost to the day, I both interview and witness Hookworms play on another pivotal occasion, this time igniting the main stage of ATP that, truthfully, in a weekend loaded with psych-heavyweights and noise monsters, is one of the weekend’s most pulverising and seismic performances. But most importantly, in-between all of this, Hookworms released their debut LP, ‘Pearl Mystic’, which while it may have catapulted them in terms of stature, notoriety and critical acclaim, it also derailed their hurtling psych train.

It’s almost impossible to read a Hookworms-related article without the mention of some psych-behemoth in a comparative form but ‘Pearl Mystic’ probably paid more heed to the contemporary cosmic haze of Pure X than it did Spacemen 3. It opened up a side to them that hadn’t – and, most interestingly, still really hasn’t – been seen by the band in a live environment. What ‘Pearl Mystic’ did was split the scope and potential of the band wide-open. The ferocious, life-sucking vortex of ‘Preservation’ will strip paint and burn through sound-desks, but in the context of the album it is sandwiched between two of the albums finest but slowest moments: the dense, atmospheric groove of ‘Since We Had Changed’ and the lullaby-like ‘What We Talk About’.

The band has proved that knocking out psych-stompers comes easily to them and of the nine songs on their debut only three really fit into that category. ‘Pearl Mystic’ is a bold record; one that’s spent the year challenging peoples’ perceptions of Hookworms before they even fully had chance to establish one.

“We had absolutely no idea if [‘Pearl Mysic’] was any good,” recalls SS, one of the band’s two guitarists, thinking back to the album’s February release. “I remember doing an interview before it came out and just having no idea of the kind of reception it was likely to get.”

“I was worried too because it had a lot of slow burners on it,” says MJ, keyboardist, singer and producer. “Now that’s fine because most people know us from ‘Pearl Mystic’ and they know that’s how we are, but before a lot of people viewed us as just a rock band, so I was really nervous about the slower songs being on there.”

Some superlative press and hype surrounding the LP soon hit new highs.

“It was sold out before it was even released,” MJ recalls.

“It got a 10/10 on Drowned in Sound and that was when a few realisations started to creep in,” says SS.

“That was the week I went to master the Menace Beach song at Abbey Road,” says MJ of his spin-off band. “The ‘Psych for Sore Eyes’ comp [a limited 7” from Sonic Cathedral that featured exclusive Hookworms track ‘The Correspondent’] came out and got a 9/10 on Drowned in Sound and then ‘Pearl Mystic’ got 10/10, I remember that. So that was pretty frightening.”

Things then got “really weird” and “really intense.”

MJ: “We hadn’t played in a while, so we went out and played in these 200/300 capacity venues and we sold them out and that was really confusing for us because we thought we were maybe overreaching, so that was really surprising.”

The band then followed up ‘Pearl Mystic’ almost instantly with the non-album single ‘Radio Tokyo’ for the Too Pure Singles Club, which again sold out instantly, and it was around then that labels started to really get involved.

“[In 2011] we told them all to go away,” says MJ. “We shut them out, made ‘Pearl Mystic’ and gave it to Gringo. We didn’t even tell Gringo we wanted them to release it; I just emailed them saying, ‘hi, we’ve made this record. I wonder If you’d like to put it out?’ and that was it. So, yeah, I just shut all of that out and I think that helped us. I think some people took it as though we were trying to play the music industry, as some people do and it was just like, ‘no, we’re not bothered’. However, it got to the point where the people talking to us and the things they were saying, we thought we should at least entertain this. It sounded interesting. I was less than enamoured with the music industry at the time and I wasn’t sure how our band would fit in with it all and I didn’t want our band to end, which worried me about engaging with that. We could have signed with a hip buzz label two years ago, released a single and then broken up because we were being made to do things we didn’t want to do. It happens to loads of people and I didn’t want it to happen to us.”

Despite interest and offers from other camps Hookworms signed with Domino Records and their imprint Weird World, home most notable to Washed Out.

“It’s hard to talk about as we can’t say a lot, but there were other labels we talked to before Domino,” says MJ. “Domino is my dream label, so I’m very excited about that and they’re very nice people. It’s a label that releases music for the sake of releasing music, and nothing else. I think with us having that kind of DIY background, there was a realisation that these are good people, they’re not going to screw us over. I don’t doubt any of them, they’re all good people and it’s not just a job to them.”

I ask if remaining DIY during an ever busying year has been a challenge for the band.

“We split all the roles in the band,” says MJ. “Someone does merch, someone else does finances, someone else emails – we all do different things. We’re still self-managed [but] it’s becoming hard. We have a booking agent now, especially for sorting the American shows, as we needed that. My attitude has always been that if it’s something we can do, we should do it ourselves. Our booking just got to the point where we couldn’t do it anymore, we were dealing with a side of the industry that we just didn’t understand. It’s kind of an off-topic analogy but there’s this magazine called Tape-Op which is like an indie recording magazine and they recently published an open letter in the front of the magazine, saying that they had dropped all of their advertising rates because they felt really ashamed and guilty about the way it was negotiated. People would come to them and say we want to put an ad in the magazine and they would say, ‘sure, it’s $, but what you’re then meant to say is, ‘I’ll give you $150’, and then they settle on $200. Now, everyone had $200 in their mind the whole time but it’s just this fucking circus that everyone has to do and they said they felt uncomfortable about that because a lot of their ad-revenue comes from small independent pedal makers and microphone manufacturers and a lot of them didn’t know that they had to go in with this farce, they just got told that price of $300 and paid it, and it was upsetting Tape-Op – they found it unethical and that’s something we struggled to deal with. We played a lot of these festivals for very little money compared to all of these buzz bands who might not actually have all that many people wanting to come and see them but they’re just getting forced onto the bill, getting paid thousands of pounds and we weren’t even breaking even to pay for ourselves to be there. So, that’s why a booking agent came in. I mean, we’re signed to Domino now – we’ve got to accept aspects like that.”

Similarly, any money made has just carried as an extension of the bands ethos, as MJ points out. “All the money means is we have some nicer equipment,” he says. “That’s it. It sounds really sad, but even just being able to have my own microphone is a big deal – it means I’m not licking someone else’s spit but that was a bit of an ostentatious buy for me.”

Of course, the Nottingham based indie label Gringo were sad to see Hookworms move on to Weird World, but SS notes that there’s been no bitterness towards the band’s growth from the DIY world. Of Gringo, MJ says: “I’ve loved that label for years. I’m glad I was able to be part of a record that has helped them be able to put out more great music. I fully support Gringo Records.” And yet Hookworms’ habit of selling out their limited releases is something that doesn’t sit well with them. “Everything we’ve done that’s been a limited edition has ended up going on Ebay or Discogs for a lot of money,” says MJ. “I don’t care about the money, it’s just like if some kid wanted to buy it and couldn’t afford it because they’re being priced out, it’s ridiculous. I’d like to keep our records in print and keep the prices as low as possible. It won’t quite be like Dischord but I want to keep it as cheap as possible.”

Live – where Hookworms’ reputation was forged and where fans are still won – the band have spent the year performing in the Loud And Quiet tent at Beacons Festival (“That was massive and rammed and surreal,” says MJ), playing with Pissed Jeans (a coveted spot due to the Philly band’s insistent on liking everyone they play with) and a trip to New York’s CMJ. “We played a show as soon as we arrived,” says MJ. “We had about 10 minutes there before being driven to the venue and I went outside to buy an orange juice from a vender and it was like, ‘shit, I’m in New York!’ It’s like being in a film. I’d never been, and it’s very overwhelming and simulative.”

“It was around this time I submitted a Wikipedia page for the band but it got turned down, so we can’t be that big,” says SS. “They’re really serious now, it used to be in the old days you could write any old shit on there.”

Which brings us to this weekend: ATP ‘End of an Era’ Part 2. The band play the best show I’ve ever seen them play on the festival’s main stage, blasting with jet engine force. “I had a very nice time,” says MJ after the set. “I liked it when the house lights went up and I could see the mosh-pit; that cheered me up.” “When I was a kid there was an untouchability about artists and music,” says SS. “There’s a mental barrier between them and us and when you start getting into music in your scene, there isn’t that division. All the things I used to do when there was a division I don’t really care about anymore, like Leeds and Reading festival when we played that, it doesn’t matter because it’s not yours anymore, but ATP is the only one that’s an event I used to go to and it’s very weird playing it, I think it’s the only event where I’ve felt that way. Going to a festival as a kid, none of them felt weird when we ended up playing them, but ATP did… I just hope the next record isn’t a disappointment.”

On that point, MJ feels all too aware of the fickle nature of the modern music world. “We’ve reached a point now we’re we’ve been given so much praise that people seem to enjoy hating us,” he says. “It’s cool, I don’t like The Smiths, it’s not the end of the world, but the Internet is very binary and it’s like, ‘no, no, I fucking hate them. The singer’s a cunt, I’ve never met him but he’s a dickhead’ – that was a post on Drowned in Sound last week. It was basically that. He didn’t like me even though he’s never met me. It’s quite disappointing. I know I’m a dickhead but at least give me the opportunity to live up to it.”