Photos by Andrew Benge.
It’s been three years since the last Hookworms record was released, and a lot has changed. From the start, singer Matthew Johnson – MJ – had a clear idea of what he wanted to write the new record, Microshift, about, and he put it as bluntly as possible. “I kind of had certain topics I wanted to approach on this record and it was like ticking them off – Alzheimer’s, the death of a friend, depression, a breakup, masculinity, emotional labour, body image and anxiety in public spaces,” he tells me. Straight to the point.
“Working out how to approach these things without it being crass was really hard and I hate writing in the first person – I spent about a month sat in the car park this summer pulling all the lyrics together.” Most importantly, Microshift has provided the band a space in which to process all of their emotions without the added stress of everyday life. In a way, this record served as a timeless bunker away from reality, despite the record specifically being about crushing pains of reality. “I think for the first time ever, I forced myself into an uncomfortable place to make the record and it’s really hard to write that without sounding like a pretentious artist,” he says, with a hint of uneasiness. MJ tells me that songwriting has been undoubtedly cathartic – almost like he’s been fighting off sadness with sadness – and more often than not, uncomfortable reflection is a necessary process.
“I THINK THIS RECORD GAVE ME THE CHANCE AND TIME TO REFLECT ON EXPERIENCES IN A WAY WE DON’T OFTEN LET OURSELVES…”
But that wasn’t the only important process that was employed to make this record. The way Microshift was written, recorded and produced was entirely different this time – it was mostly built on a computer. On first listen, this comes as no surprise – their sound has taken a brighter-sounding turn, with nods to the DFA-inspired synths everyone loves the record label for. “This time, the songs again came from a loop or bassline, but rather than playing them out in a room, we added synths drums and guitars around them one by one and then I arranged a lot of it around the vocals I wrote. Most of the melodic movement in the band comes from me and Sam, whereas Jonny, Matt and Nash are largely locked-in with each other,” he tells me. The way they interact as a band is largely based on a push-and-pull dynamic; if a song is getting too ‘poppy’, someone interjects the track with something more experimental for the sake of balance. “I think Hookworms works, not because we have egos, but because we’re mature enough to have let it go from the beginning. So much of what each of us is doing individually is incredibly dull – and we’re good musicians, it’s just no one feels the need to show off.”
This ideology not only exists in their music, but also in their personal lives. MJ regularly engages in the discourse surrounding mental health and the stigma surrounding it – especially when it’s a result of toxic masculinity. “I think something I experienced a lot over the last couple of years that is reflected in this record is male friends that come to me asking for help because they’re scared of their mental health – especially people experiencing it for the first time,” MJ sighs. “I think it’s really scary that as a society we’re still at a stage where poor mental health is symptomatic of a failure of masculinity.” Both issues exist on the same plane and feed into each other – yet, somehow, there is a collective failure to recognise both issues as one big sum, rather than individual problems that negate each other.
And it’s this same failure of masculinity, always spoken about in hushed tones, that inspired one of the most prevailing topics on this record: body image and anxiety in public spaces. These problems are usually seen as ‘feminine’ mental health issues, but MJ is quick to point out that its effects are debilitating to everyone. “I know loads of men that have supreme hang-ups about their bodies, but these problems are always presented through a male gaze of virility, rather than how much societal expectations fuck us up. And those same societal expectations teach us to repress emotions beyond being angry. I think finding a way to have a public conversation about it without stepping on the toes of feminism is something we haven’t quite worked out yet. So much of the dialogue is built entirely in opposition to feminism which isn’t helping anyone,” MJ tells me.
Since their previous record, The Hum, MJ has faced grief in its various forms. After the death of a friend, his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease shortly after – something he has been extremely vocal about ever since. “The song ‘Ullswater’ is incredibly important to me – it’s about my dad, and how Alzheimer’s is taking his memories. I first wrote about that on the b-side to ‘Radio Tokyo’ in 2013 before he’d had a diagnosis. That song is called ‘On Returning’, and it’s about coming though the other side of depression and wishing you’d been there before everything changed. Then I did ‘On Leaving’ for The Hum which is about someone else’s depression and wanting the best for them. I feel like ‘Ullswater’ is a companion piece to those, because depression is a huge part of dementia and it doesn’t get talked about enough,” he says with conviction.
But despite it all – through all of the trauma, hardships, setbacks, grief and inexplicable loss – Hookworms are moving forward. Even though at times it’s a hard listen, Microshift served Hookworms in the way they intended for it to; a collection of complex and challenging songs, used as a vehicle for self-expression and, ultimately, comfort. “I think this record gave me the chance and time to reflect on experiences in a way we don’t often let ourselves. At some points over the last couple of years, it felt like we’d never make a record again, but now I don’t have that fear anymore.”