Story-truth is a genre of fiction that combines realism and the make-believe. Whether the events actually happened is not the point; it’s the themes, sentimentality, and shared experience that come out of it that truly matter. It’s this approach to storytelling – and songwriting – that Merseyside quartet Hooton Tennis Club have long since used.
The band, consisting of Ryan Murphy (vocals, guitar), James Madden (vocals, guitar), Callum McFadden (bass), and Harry Chalmers (drums) are four friends from the Wirral who write about their lives, their friends, and more. New record Big Box of Chocolates, released this October, showcases sharper comment alongside ‘90s pop instrumentation, as well as the storied highlights of their own lives and imagination.
“I think we tend to write about the stuff that’s happening to us at the time. It’s like a diary,” explains Ryan on the semi-autobiographical nature of their songwriting. “It’s just quite easy to write about something that’s around. People who inspire you, or things you’ve been to, and you’ve thought, ‘That affected me in some way, and I want to write that down.’”
Hooton Tennis Club is, as a whole, a joyous celebration of friendship. Debut Highest Point In Cliff Town was released just last year to critical praise, elements of ‘90s garage pop nuzzled into lo-fi guitars. Big Box of Chocolates does all this and more, and the group have clearly found their stride in how best they work together: playful lyricism, sharing life experiences, and giving them just an ever so slight edge of a creative twist.
Hooton’s truth-bending is most apparent on album track ‘Bootcut Jimmy The G’. In it, Ryan and James narrate the antics of Jimmy, who “Dresses like an old man… ‘Cause when he moves it’s like a flash dance”. Ripe with scrutiny and a case of mistaken identity, ‘Bootcut Jimmy The G’ was born after the two guitarists went to Jimmy’s thirtieth birthday party and thought the man dancing wildly in the middle of the room was Jimmy. It, in fact, was not.
“He was just grooving out, doing the best dance moves you’d ever seen,” says Ryan, chuckling at the memory. “The best dancing ever. So we assumed that was Jimmy.”
“It wasn’t!” says James.
“He was, not to discriminate, such a straight-cut guy,” Ryan goes on. “Neat shirt, looked like he worked at NEXT. But he was the coolest guy.”
“Sometimes you don’t have to appear cool to be cool,” explains James. “That’s what the song’s message is. It’s all a façade, it’s all internal. This other guy, not the real Jimmy, was nice. But we’d never seen him. He just exists in the song.”
“That’s the whole theme on this album,” says Ryan. “The truth is slightly bent. What’s real, and what’s not?”
Big Box of Chocolates was recorded over a three-week period in Helmsdale alongside producer Edwyn Collins, of Orange Juice fame. The result is a more polished record than the first, the strengths of their debut honed in on. There’s even an added ‘60s-pop sheen to it, which is unsurprising, given the band’s close proximity to Liverpool and the city’s long-lasting influence of The Beatles.
“That’s the whole theme on this album. The truth is slightly bent. What’s real, and what’s not?”
“I know it’s really obvious, but we’re all just stuck in the sixties,” admits James.
“I had about a six-month period of last year where I’d only listened to Abbey Road,” says Callum. “I couldn’t listen to any other music.”
“What was that quote…?” says Ryan. “That Abbey Road is the best album in the world, or something, but it’s not the best Beatles album. Something like that. Like, work that out. That’s amazing, isn’t it?”
“It was like The Shining,” says Harry of the jam-packed sessions that, at times, got a little intense. “Edwyn understood what we wanted really well. He knew that we didn’t want rubbish takes. He knew what was nice, what was sloppy, or… just good enough.”
“He was really encouraging,” adds Ryan. “He’d come through the intercom, like, ‘That’s great, lads! That’s fucking great! You’ve cracked it!’ to the point where the speaker broke because he was so overly enthused.”
“We were close to calling the album One More Time for Jesus,” says James.
“Edwyn used to shout that,” says Harry,” if he thought a take was pretty good but he wanted another. He’d shout it through the intercom: ‘One more time… for Jesus!’”
Even when tracks seem to be wholly about just one subject – like BBC 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne for ‘Lauren, I’m In Love!’ – there’s more to the story to unpack. There’s a sort of kaleidoscope effect with the songs. They are not one-sided.
“It’s about her,” says Ryan, “but it’s about the station as well.”
“And appreciating what that station stands for, I guess,” adds James.
“I remember when we went in to do the session,” continues Ryan, “and being really shocked by it. Like, oh, we’re in 6 Music. We’ve been listening to this forever.”
The song, one of the many highlights on the record, listens like an open love letter to both Lauren Laverne and the 6 Music team. “Walked in through the kitchen door and there she was / Lauren I’m in love,” Ryan sings, and it encapsulates the band’s appreciation of everyone around them – as well as their humility – perfectly.
“I wrote the melody to that song in the bathroom,” says Ryan. “In the same day. I got inspired. She literally walked into the kitchenette bit that was on the side of where we were setting up. She walked in through the kitchen door. And that’s when it all went round. And then it went round near the toilets.”
“That verse got dropped,” quips Harry.
There’s an obvious charm to the band, even in conversation. They answer questions as a group, finishing each other’s sentences, and take their turns with playful jest, teasing one another as if all four are permanently in on an inside joke. It’s not hard to see how the band’s undeniable chemistry has produced such fruitful output. ‘Meet Me On the Molly Bench’ is a standout tune that showcases the very best of their connected minds.
“It’s a real bench that me and Ryan used to go to,” says James. “In Mollington, near Chester. It was equidistant from Ryan’s house and my house. We just used to go there and talk about films. Life. That’s it.”
‘Meet Me On the Molly Bench’ is the most pop-embracing on the record, laced with glistening vibrancy. It’s a track that dabbles in nostalgia and bursts with emotion, the lyrics recalling memories shared between the greatest of friends. But even the band admit that the ambiguous-enough song title had sparked some confusion between the town of Mollington and, well, the molly drug.
“That’s what our manager’s worried about!” says Ryan. “I’d never heard of it before.”
“No, we didn’t know what molly was,” remarks James. “Honestly! We obviously didn’t know what molly was. We are the most sober band.”
Hooton Tennis Club are characterized by their clever approach to telling, but at the end of the day, it is their humility and their heart that makes them so unique. The semi-autobiographical nature of their storytelling showcase the band as one who wear their hearts on their sleeves, every lyric an opening love letter to something or someone they love, laced and exploding with feeling. The record is a celebration of their lives, individually and as a whole. Even when the band have hit their bucket-list goals of appearing on 6 Music, playing at the Kazimier in Liverpool, playing to crowds in Austin and New York City… they still remain grounded, nitpicking their own album even before it’s officially released.
“You wouldn’t be disappointed if you’d gotten a big box of chocolates,” says James on how they finally settled on naming the record.
“Each song is representative of a chocolate in a box,” says Ryan. “And some you might not like. Some of them you might. Some of them are your favourites.”
“You’re not meant to like some,” adds James. “And then you like them two months or three months later. You like your favourites, you take your favourites… and then you’re left with the orange and the coffee. And then you’re like, oh, okay.”
But maybe, just maybe, if you treat yourself to a Big Box of Chocolates by Hooton Tennis Club, you’ll find that there is no such orange or coffee chocolate at all.