It Hugs Back returned this year with their second album, ‘Laughing Party’ – twelve tracks that circle around the whole alternative rock spectrum, taking in indie-pop, alt-rock and psychedelica, with nods to dub and electronica. Once tipped for big things in the ‘NME’, this was the sound of a band returning to their roots.
I hadn’t realised until I saw their picture on the back of the CD that they were all two years below me at school. The four were all classmates, although they didn’t form their band until leaving for university. All their records continue to be recorded in guitarist Matthew Simms’ garage, which the band have re-named ‘The Record Room’, stuffed as it is with microphone, amps and vinyl.
Their most recent recordings are the latest instalment of their annual Christmas EP, available to download now. “It’s what we have been doing today,” Simms tells me over the phone from his home “It’s become a tradition – I don’t really know why, but it is one of those things that once you’ve started, you can’t stop.”
Joining Simms in It Hugs Back are keyboardist/guitarist Jack Theedom (who also works as a chef), drummer Will Blackaby, and bassist Paul Michael (who also plays regularly with jazz bands at Ronnie Scott’s). Simms splits his time between It Hugs Back and playing guitars with Wire – who he joined as a touring guitarist, before appearing on their forthcoming album. When we spoke earlier this month, he had just returned from playing with them at Shellac’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.
PB: So how was All Tomorrow’s Parties?
MS: Yeah, it was good – I got to see some good music. Though it was a bit cold… Have you been to one of those ATPs before?
PB: I’ve been to a few, one in the winter when it snowed, and that was freezing cold.
MS: The sound in the venues there is always a bit rubbish, so it’s not always the best way to see bands. But I enjoyed it, I saw Kim Deal do a solo set, which was really interesting. I didn’t really know what to expect. I don’t think she really planned it. She just played through all sorts of stuff.
PB: How did you first start playing with Wire originally?
MS: It came through the guy who originally signed us to Too Pure, who is friends with the main guy in Wire, Colin Newman. They were looking for someone and he recommended me for the job… that was about it. They initially wanted a guitarist for a tour, which they were doing after releasing a new album. That was going to be for nine months, but I have just stuck doing it. It’s really good fun.
PB: So how much of your time is devoted to Wire and how much do you spend on It Hugs Back.
MS: This year I have spent slightly less time with Wire. We recorded a new record in April, which is coming out next year, and after that there have been little bits and bobs of touring, but nothing like the year before, when I was away on tour with them for pretty much the whole year. So, it’s shared pretty equally between the two bands.
PB: So next year, you’ll be away with Wire far more I assume?
MS: Yeah, I think there will be more – the new album comes out in March. But, they all have their own projects as well, so it works out really well. The others in the band are a bit older than me, so they are not up for touring quite as relentlessly as some younger bands might be.
PB: Were you a big Wire fan before you joined the band?
MS: I was definitely a fan. I wasn’t a superfan, though. I didn’t know every single thing that they’d ever recorded, but I probably do now.
PB: Do they vary the set-list around a lot? Do you play all those old songs?
MS: The good thing about Wire is that they are always doing new stuff. That’s the most fun thing about being in the band. They are always looking to do something new rather than re-treading old ground.
PB: So you started playing with Wire between the first and second It Hugs Back albums?
MS: Yeah, I can’t remember exactly when I joined Wire. It was a couple of years ago now. The second It Hugs Back album, which came out earlier this year, was recorded while I was playing with Wire. Basically, whenever there was a break in their touring and I came home, we were working on that album.
PB: I’ve read that after you’d done the first It Hugs Back, there was a point where you weren’t sure that you would make a second album.
MS: What happened with the first album, which made it slightly odd, was that there was a point where – after we had started recording – the label that we had signed to got dissolved. Most bands got dropped, and some got put on to 4AD. On the face of it, that is really exciting, so it didn’t seem like a problem at the time. But the issue was that the people who had signed us and were fighting our corner either lost their power or lost their jobs completely. And that means that all the good things about working with a big label get lost and you just get forgotten about.
Most of the bands on 4AD were more popular than we were, and that meant we were always second best. Whereas on Too Pure, we felt that we were in the right place. I am a fan of almost all the bands that they put out. I’m a massive fan of Electrelane, Stereolab, Scout Niblett, Mclusky and Future of the Left. The label had a great identity, and if you like one of the albums they put out, you’d like them all. Obviously, in their heyday, 4AD had some excellent albums as well… I feel like I’m always sounding bitter about it!
PB: I think it’s a story I’ve heard before, that a relationship with a label can go sour if the people who sign you move on…
MS: Yeah, there is the big Wilco story of course, where they ended up being signed to the same company twice, for ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, for more money!
PB: So, the label that you did ‘Laughing Party’ with, Safe and Sound, how did that start?
MS: It is really us doing it ourselves. It has been really good. We had someone at 4AD helping with press and we got proper distribution through Cargo. It’s been a good experience. In a way, it was the opposite of being at 4AD, in that everything we’ve achieved has come out of our own hard work. It may not have sold millions, but it has done quite well, and we’re happy with it.
I don’t know how much this really matters, but it was reviewed in ‘Q’ magazine and in ‘Uncut’, and the first album didn’t get any of that coverage. If you release a record on 4AD and can’t get reviewed in ‘Uncut,’ it’s kind of mad. But then I am definitely happier with the sound of the recent album, so maybe that’s why.
PB: There is a pretty huge range on this album… long instrumental tracks, then shorter pop songs and then some songs that are a little more alt-rock. Is that a product of recording it in breaks from touring rather than all at once?
MS: I think it’s mostly a reflection of that fact that all of us are really big record collectors and fans of all kinds of music. I like records that jump about a bit and don’t repeat themselves. There’s definitely a bit of that in there hopefully.
PB: Did you always have in mind that it would be a long album?
MS: When we started making it, we weren’t intentionally making an album. We were just playing together and spending time together, after a period of not really seeing each other. I think after a while we realised that we had a load of tracks, and we started trying to see what went together. There are songs that we left off, because we wanted to cut it down to the point where it was a full listen. But I think if you took the two longest tracks off it, it would be half as long. But I think both are essential to the record.
The way we record is that we will often get together and play three or four tracks as a band live. We will do loads of takes, and then we try and edit a ‘best bit’ of that, or pick out the best parts of a jam.
PB: It’s interesting when you say that. I suppose when I think of bands who jam, I’m thinking more of those American ‘jam bands’, all disciples of the Grateful Dead. Whereas all of your songs, even the really long instrumentals, sound quite structured…
MS: I think it is a maybe a bit of an exaggeration to say it is totally a jam. I often already had the bass line and then we developed a rhythm, and then we would play it over and over, gradually adding new ideas around that. But some of the songs really are just all four of us in a room playing, and then we see what happens. Other tracks would be recorded as demos, usually the ones with more prominent vocal parts, and then we’d see what the whole band do with them.
PB: How does it work when you play live – are you able to replicate the recorded versions?
MS: There are always lots of layers on the recorded versions which we can’t repeat when we play live, so we are always more stripped back. But we try and pull it off with more energy. Unfortunately we’re not able to play fifteen guitars as once!
PB: So, going back, tell me about how you all met and formed the band. I think I’m right in saying you were all a couple of years below me at school – is that where you met?
MS: Me and Paul had been friends since school, and were in different bands back then, which is a scary thought! We did all know each other in school. But, weirdly, it wasn’t until we’d all left school and had gone to university that we started to get together over the summers and form It Hugs Back. When we started the band we were all living in London, and Jack was actually living in Leeds, so he played on the recordings, but he didn’t too many of the terrible early gigs! We never really played in Maidstone. Even when I was growing up, I didn’t see many gigs there. It’s so close to London, so it was easy to get on a train and see bands.
PB: And you were signed to Too Pure quite quickly?
MS: Yeah, I think we started the band in 2006 and we were signed to Too Pure by 2008. At the start, everything seemed really quick. I think it was our fourth or fifth gig that was reviewed in the ‘NME’, and it felt like there was lots of interest right from the start. In a way, it was probably too soon, because we still finding our own sound. We did quite a few singles before the album. That was on purpose, because we were still developing.
PB: Listening back to that first album, are you still happy with it?
MS: It is a good reflection of how we were at the time. There are definitely things I would do differently now, mainly around how it was recorded and mixed. Although they are mixed in a way I would change, there are songs I am proud of though.
PB: You have always recorded at home – right from the start.
MS: We got a computer and microphones from Too Pure, and they are still what we have got now. It’s all set up in my garage. At first, we just had a multitrack, and then we upgraded when Too Pure were able to give us some equipment. I’m really interested in the production side of things.
PB: Would you consider producing other bands?
MS: I have done a little recording, just helping other bands out. I would potentially be interested in doing something more serious, if it was the right band and I thought I could bring something to it.
PB: I have to say that the record doesn’t sound home recorded.
MS: That’s definitely a really good compliment. I don’t want the albums to sound home recorded. You get some bands who are trying to sound lo-fi, but we’re trying to make the recordings high quality.
PB: You must be fairly used now to getting compared to lots of American bands. I can definitely hear echoes of bands like Yo La Tengo. Are you happy with that, or do you find yourself thinking people have misunderstood you?
MS: I’m a huge fan of Yo La Tengo, and they are a really big influence on me. I like the way that they will play radically different styles of music, and make it work as an album. I think that is what some people miss with them – they are not afraid to mix soul-pop with freak out jams. Some of the other bands we are compared to, I am less sure about. We used to get compared to Dinosaur Jr a lot, and at the time we started the band, I had never even heard them. I’m a fan of them now. Someone else told us we sounded like The Sea and the Cake, and I’d never heard them. Now I love them!
PB: I suppose that’s quite a nice way to be introduced to a new band, to be told you sound like them.
MS: Provided they turn out to be good. It’s not so good when they end up being rubbish!
PB: Where you depart from some of those bands that you’ve mentioned is that you have a lot more electronic sounds bubbling around.
MS: Yes, definitely. Jack started listening to lots of electronic music, before I did, but I think recently there has been some amazing electronic music. In particular, there is the label Not Not Fun, from Los Angeles. A couple of years ago, I really got into Pocahaunted and Sun Araw, this really dubby, trippy music. That was a big influence. And then we always listen to older electronica – Kraftwerk have always been around.
But I don’t think I’ve ever been around something where we’ve deliberately tried to sound like someone else. I think you can tell the bands where they’ve deliberately tried to sound like someone else, and it usually sounds really bad. Not to sound too pretentious, but I think you should never do things that are pre-ordained, you should always have a creative vision.
PB: Just to begin to wrap the interview up, are there any big ambitions that you feel you want to achieve with It Hugs Back?
MS: I really wish It Hugs Back could tour more. But there are reasons, not just financial, why we can’t do that – for example, Paul has just become a dad. But I would love to get to America with It Hugs Back. But I am lucky, with Wire and everything else I do, to just keep getting to make music every day. I can’t complain.
We have just finished another record, which is coming out in March, so it would be nice to do more touring at the back of that. We finished it last week – everything is done now. It’s a lot shorter – only 35 minutes. It’s more concise unintentionally. It just ended up that way. Everything is a bit more upbeat.
PB: So it is coming out in the same month as the Wire album? That may not be a bad thing…
MS: I hope so. I’m hoping I will be able to juggle both bands. The plan, I think, is for Wire to do some festivals, but not much touring other than that, so I should have time to do gigs with It Hugs Back. Hopefully I may get to play two sets at each festival.
PS: Well, I was going to finish by asking about your plans for next year, but you’ve covered that fairly well. Thank you.