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In 2002, shortly after "Britain’s largest small band" Hefner ceased operations, Jack Hayter released his first solo album ‘Practical Wireless’. Hefner had always described themselves as a "band of four songwriters playing Darren Hayman’s songs", and 'Practical Wireless' showed how fair that description was. Indeed, one review at the time said, "Hefner’s been holding you back, Jack."
Most other reviews commented on Hayter’s vocals, "a voice like silk, old torn silk that's stinking and slightly rotten" in the words of Impact Press. If not likely to be a universal taste, it fitted his sad, slow songs perfectly and gelled well with his collection of pedal steels, accordions and harmonicas to make something that wasn’t quite folk but certainly wasn’t rock.
Since then, however, fans of his songwriting have had to content themselves with the occasional solo gig and songs posted on MySpace. He has continued to play music and did a series of shows with Darren Hayman where the pair performed Hefner songs, but had not released anything else.
In the meantime, Hayter - a science graduate with a degree from Liverpool university - had initially worked as a gardener and then as a motorcycle courier (he describes himself as a "petrol head"). Eventually, he decided to use his degree by retraining as a teacher, teaching science initially before switching to teaching media and film. He talks enthusiastically of his love of helping students express themselves, although he is sometimes more sceptical of their choice of musical soundtrack. He is, he says, lucky to work in a school that takes his subject seriously.
A minor heart attack last year may not have seriously threatened his health (he did not feel any particular pain, but was lucky that precautionary tests picked up what may have been a far more serious problem in time), but it did give him the thought that he ought to do something with all the songs he had recorded in his garden shed, at home in Lewisham. The result is the four-track EP ‘Sucky Tart’, his first record of new material in eight years.
Shortly before the record’s release data, he met me in a pub by London Bridge, and over a pint of Chiswick Bitter, talked me through his new songs and answered questions about his long musical career.
"Sucky Tart’ is an anagram of ‘Cutty Sark’, the title of the EP’s first track. I was trying to be clever", Hayter explains, "And I wanted to use an anagram. I’m actually keen on crosswords, but I have to confess that I actually used one of those online anagram things. I saw this phrase and knew it had to be the title.”
The trigger for this release was Hayter’s "relationship of mutual admiration" with the singer-songwriter Benjamin Shaw. Hayter explains,“Like me, he writes songs and records them at home. His songs are fantastic, strange little tales about his life. There’s a line in one of them, ‘there’s a fine line between talented and me’. I think that’s fantastic”. Shaw had released an EP on the fledgling Audio Antihero records, who have now invited Hayter to join him and do the same.
Although the pair have still not met, he asked Shaw to design the cover to his new EP. "Almost immediately, he sent back a brilliant cartoon drawing of me wearing a dress applying make-up. I don’t think I inherited the part of the brain that allows you to draw, I can’t do anything like that.”
Seemingly unsure whether Audio Antihero’s promise of being "specialists in commercial suicide" should be treated as a joke or a badge of honour, Hayter is unsure how his latest project will perform. But he clearly admires how hard AAH’s Jamie Halliday is working to promote the release (the label’s third), mentioning this on several occasions during our conversation.
Jack had a large group of songs, all recorded in his garden shed. These were all presented to Audio Antihero as possibilities for the EP, and from there the songs that made up ‘Sucky Tart‘ were chosen. “He picked the four songs that I thought were the best. I think that gave me the confidence that this relationship would be fine”.
Asked if he would be keen to do more with the label, Jack seems keen, although he stresses that the success of ‘Sucky Tart’ will be the main factor. “I would rather work with someone who is obviously very keen and I’m quite familiar with commercial suicide myself! I suppose it depends on how well this one does, and keen Jamie is to do another one. I have lots more songs recorded.”
“I like the idea of doing EPs”, he adds. “I suppose it fits into the commercial suicide theme - you send lots of them out for review and just have lots of magazines saying that they don’t review EPs. But I realised that I like them. I’m not much of a record buyer - I seem to give lots of records away. But I’ve realised that I never give EPs away. If I have, say, a nice 10” vinyl, I always want to keep that. So that was the reason for wanting to do an EP.”
I asked Jack to take me through each of the songs on his new record. Interestingly, for someone who is best known as an instrumentalist, he chooses to describe the story each song is telling and doesn’t mention how any of them sound.
This reminded me of a comment that Darren Hayman had of his old Hefner band-mate, “I often got the impression with Jack that he was playing to the lyrics rather then following what the music was doing, which was great.“
Fans of Jack’s album won’t find anything here disappointing. But, where ‘Practical Wireless’ contained a series of snapshots, some nice melodies and few memorable lines, the songs here are more developed - longer stories on which the words are more evocative, with broader instrumentation.
“I like to write stories, I don’t really write in the first person”, he says, “but I like to put personal elements into the songs.”
The EP opens with ‘I Stole the Cutty Sark’, written about a man Jack knew who had suffered alcoholism after a broken heart. Stealing the Cutty Sark is Jack’s imaginary idea of the kind of crazy thing someone in that position might do. The song begins quietly, with Jack singing over the barest instrumentation. Slowly, he adds a thicker accompaniment, and the tune takes on life.
The next track, ‘A Doll’s House’, Jack believes to be the saddest on the record - the tale of a couple who suppress their ambitions in favour of building a perfect home, the doll’s house of the title. ‘A Simple Song’ is just that - "a simple song about someone leaving, the end of a relationship." Finally, there is ‘Jacquie I Won’t Mind’, my favourite of the four. Jack had been told about a man who had fallen in love with his sister-in-law. Without knowing the names of anyone involved, or what happened next, he imagined what might have happened in his song.
Whether this proves to be a one-off release, or the start of a regular series of releases, it is a worthy endeavour. Though Hefner’s fanbase will probably be most interested, Hayter is a different kind of songwriter to Darren Hayman. His lived-in voice, dry wit and imaginative, occasionally surreal songs veer between country, folk and the songs of the pre-rock era. Fans of Vic Chestnutt, Randy Newman and Tom Waits should really be taking notes.
But, Hayter is quite happy to be remembered for his time in Hefner. Clearly proud that his old band are remembered and admired, he says that he has come to terms with the fact that it is what he will be known for.
He rates his old band-mate Darren Hayman as "probably the best songwriter alive in Britain today", but also stresses that Hefner were a collaborative band. He sees John Morrison, the bassist, as a vital part of the band, and emphasises how much he learned from his skills as a musician and arranger.
The day before this interview, he had recorded vocals on a new Darren Hayman song as part of Hayman’s 'January Songs' project. This is far from the first time he has played with Hayman since Hefner - he can be heard on almost all of his post-Hefner albums.
Before Hefner, his band had been the luckless Spongefinger, whose music is still available if you look hard enough. This relationship has also endured, with Jack collaborating with his old bandmates in two bands, Dollboy and Woodcraft Folk, since Hefner’s end.
It was at a Spongefinger show at the Paradise Bar in New Cross that he first met Darren Hayman. “It was a show organised by the label that had released a compilation of lots of bands from this Lewisham scene. Hefner weren’t actually from Lewisham, but they rehearsed in Greenwich and had also done singles with the label, so Darren was there. I think we were the only band who actually enjoyed the evening.”
Writing about this first meeting, Darren Hayman said, “They had a pretty weird line up, including saw and pedal steel, and a drummer who had his parts notated, though none of that interested me as much as the fact that the band were laughing a lot on stage. The only other band I knew that laughed a lot on stage was Hefner. The pedal steel player seemed to be having the most fun. His name was Jack Hayter and of course was set to become the fourth member of Hefner.”
Yet, he didn’t become an ‘official’ member of Hefner until after their 1999 second alabum ‘The Fidelity Wars’ had been released. He been contributing to Hefner recordings and joining them onstage on a regular basis long before then.
“This was before pedal-steels were fashionable, slightly before the alt-country thing became popular. Not many bands used them”, he explains. “Now, they are very expensive. I found one in a second-hand shop, which I bought for just £40. They are quite easy instruments to learn, if you have the time. I spent a month quite intensely learning to play it.”
At first, he struggled to find the right slide to play it with, finding that the metal fret used for a slide guitar didn’t work at all. Instead, he opted for a Duracell D Battery, which is what you can hear on his first few performances with Hefner.
Jack then demonstrated how he plays the instrument, which requires one hand pressing the strings, one plucking the strings and then both legs operating pedals. And knee levers “Apart from drumming, it’s the hardest work on stage”, he says.
Unlike a slide guitar, it does not have frets or markings. “My first instrument was the violin”, he explains. “I’m used to having to listen for the pitch.”
Hayter had already played pedal steel on several Hefner recordings (his first recordings were ‘The Hymn For the Things We Didn’t Do’ and ‘Hymn For the Alcohol‘) before they found out that he could also play guitar. Soon after that, he was brought into the band as a full member - joining the band for a recording on the Steve Lamacq show on Radio 1 was the first time he had played guitar in public. “I remember being on stage, wondering what on earth I was doing there,” he recalls.
Hefner’s relationship with their label Too Pure was not always a smooth one (it ended with Hayman successfully winning a legal action that gave him and not the label the rights to the Hefner catalogue), and it seems that Jack’s presence in the band was one of the bones of contention.
“I don’t think Too Pure ever liked the idea of me being in the band. They liked the idea of the symmetry of a three piece, I think, and didn’t want an extra member to spoil that”.
“They were possibly right”, he concedes. But, there is little doubt that in my mind that the colour Hayter added to Hayman’s songs made Hefner a markedly superior band. To my ears, the songs recorded for 1999's ‘The Hefner Heart’ (released on a Spanish label only) have far more going for them than the songs Hefner chose for ‘Breaking God’s Heart’, their debut. Hayter’s presence is a big part of that.
Though Jack downplays his abilities as a pedal steel player, regularly referring to himself as only an average musician and to several others as being superior, he has often been asked to add to other band’s records. He has worked with the American singer songwriter Mark Mulcahy, who he met through his brother’s girlfriend’s window cleaner, who suggested Hayter to act as soundman for his first UK tour. Hayter’s pedal steel can be heard on the side project of the Wildhearts’ Ginger, the Silver Ginger 5.
“I’m very lucky”, he tells me as we begin to make our ways back to London Bridge station. “I’ve worked with some fantastic songwriters. There is no one I’ve worked with who I haven’t already admired, or come to admire very much. I’m the luckiest man in music, in that respect.”
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Ben Howarth talks to former Hefner member Jack Hayter about his first new EP of music in eight years and his long absence from the music scene
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