King Hannah: the sound of the American West comes to Liverpool

Getting to know a cinematic two-piece who aren't sorry for being themselves

“My favourite kind of films to watch are from a period in American cinema between the late 1960s into the 1970s,” Craig Whittle considers over Zoom. “Badlands,” he exclaims, “I think that’s my favourite film. I suppose that’s where the wide, cinematic sound comes into our music; I love when songs sound the way those films look.” 

The King Hannah guitarist’s fondness for Terrence Malick’s 1973 directorial debut chimes with the influence of cinema on the band’s output. Beginning with their early singles through to their considered debut LP – the brilliantly titled I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, due February 2022 via City Slang – King Hannah’s expansive arrangements effortlessly encapsulate the dusty, vast terrain of the south-western United States. Delving into storied narratives set to sparse instrumentation produced by any act will often lead back to the master of this style: Bruce Springsteen, an artist who, coincidentally, also found inspiration in Badlands when penning the title track to his 1982 record, Nebraska. Closing side one of that record is ‘State Trooper’, a song covered by King Hannah with such ease that a Springsteen novice may think it was a work of their own design. Such is the strength in the colloquial nature of King Hannah’s lyricism, which is transported by the haze of Americana cast upon their immersive arrangements. 

“We love film and I love film scores,” Whittle continues. “So it must seep into the music somewhere. It’s not a conscious thing, though. I used to love listening to film scores when I was writing or reading, so I guess it’s always there in the back of my mind.”

Since the Liverpool-based duo, completed by vocalist and lyricist Hannah Merrick, who sits beside Whittle on a comfortable-looking white couch during our conversation, came to prominence off the back of their debut single ‘​​Crème Brûlée’ in mid-2020, all aspects of their music has exuded a filmic sensibility. It’s in the expansive (and often suspenseful) soundscapes, the striking artwork for their debut EP, Tell Me Your Mind and I’ll Tell You Mine, and the Lynchian shots of a car travelling down a darkened, seemingly isolated road in the video for ‘A Well-Made Woman’. The accompanying visuals effectively enhance the sensory experience for the listener. Musically, there’s an inherent sophistication borne from the unrushed temperament of both Merrick’s almost spoken delivery and the instrumentation across the songs. The textural atmosphere established early in their already impressive trajectory is taken to the next level on I’m Not Sorry…, which confidently presents a variety of sonic suites over the course of twelve songs.

The minimalism of their initial releases (notwithstanding the raucous guitar solos of the early singles), remains intact. Behind the album’s sardonic title, the debut King Hannah album is an unapologetic display of Whittle and Merrick’s broader musical tastes as well as being a marker of their artistic maturation. 

“I feel like with the EP, we tried to layer too many things into it,” reflects Whittle. “Maybe that was an insecurity thing; a lack of confidence in how we recorded. Sometimes when I listen back to it now, I think we could have had less instruments and a bit more space in it. We were conscious of that for the album. We tried to be a bit more confident in the parts as we recorded them. The album still has that cinematic sound through it. We didn’t want it to be like, ‘Here are the new songs’ and step completely away from the old songs. It was important to us to have a flow between the old material going into the songs on the album and I think we’ve done that.”

I’m Not Sorry’s tonal progression mostly draws from late-’90s acts. The sinister edge permeating the rhythm section of ‘Big Big Baby’ comes close to more spacious Nine Inch Nails propositions, while ‘Foolius Caesar’ is instantly reminiscent of Portishead, with Merrick heralding Beth Gibbons’s ethereal cadence. Introspection abounds, and amongst the many highlights are the intricacies stitching the songs together across the tracklist; notably on the instrumentals ‘So Much Water So Close To Drone’ and ‘Death Of The Housephone’, the latter drawing on Broadcast’s eerier compositions. 

As debuts go, the band have struck a balance between presenting a raw portrait of themselves through a relatable appreciation for solitude (“I like being on my own most of the day,” Merrick reveals on the title track) and earnest concerns of the future (“I wanna be a mother one day / something tells me… Oh that I’ll be waiting a long, long time”) whilst maintaining some mystique, leaving the listener wanting to know more about them. 

Beyond an anecdote of Hannah and Craig’s first encounter at a gig – the latter watching in awe at Merrick’s performance – during their uni years, plus a spell in which the pair were employed in the same pub, little exists online about their history as a band. Although they’ve been building a substantial portfolio of music throughout 2020 into 2021, they began tracking demos as far back as 2017.

We had actually recorded a lot of stuff [in 2017] but didn’t like any of it,” recalls Merrick. “We made the decision to not release any of that material, except for ‘​​Crème Brûlée’ which was the only recording from that time that we loved. So that’s where the length has been.”

In that regard, the absence of live music as a result of the pandemic afforded the duo time to comfortably hone their sound, as Hannah remembers: “Lockdown, in a way, did us good because we weren’t gigging anyway. We were solely concentrating on writing the EP during the first lockdown. So when the second lockdown came around, we used that time to write the album.” Craig expands upon Hannah’s initial point, a common occurrence throughout our conversation that sees the pair picking up where the other left off, or further expanding upon the other’s train of thought. It’s a sweet reflection of the synergy between them that is so apparent in their music. “If it wasn’t for the lockdown – I mean, we would have been fine,” he says, “but I think it would have been slightly too soon for us to start going out and playing to crowds. Throughout 2020 we grew a lot musically.”

With a live set-up expanding King Hannah to a quintet, they’ve finally experienced life on the road, completing their first UK tour in October 2021. They’ve benefitted from reading audience reactions to unreleased material from their debut LP; having spent the best part of four years leading up to this point has enabled them to gain a new perspective on their work.

“We came away from touring having learnt so much about ourselves,” Merrick suggests to Whittle. “Yeah, like seeing what songs really landed with the crowd and what ones didn’t as much. We also thought about ways to emphasise parts of songs, and obviously, we played new songs that nobody had heard so it was really interesting to see which ones people responded well to at all the gigs.”  

“We noticed it was the same pattern for every show, more or less,” says Merrick. “The songs we love the most were the ones in the set that the crowd gave the best reaction to. Which makes you feel like you’re doing something right.”

Photography by Katie Silvester