“We came back to it for a very simple reason: we started enjoying writing songs again.” Sam Swallow’s description of how The Hoosiers re-formed, and in doing so reconnected with what had made them start a band in the first place, is matter-of-fact, but the expression on the keyboardist’s face as he says this is passionate.
Sitting beside him and nodding in agreement, Irwin Sparkes, Martin Skarendahl and Alan Sharland convey a similar sense of having emerged, blinking, into the light, having endured some pretty dark times. The 12 tracks that make up The Hoosiers’ comeback album, The News From Nowhere, offer further evidence of renewal: produced by the band, and recorded in the East London warehouse where Martin has amassed a collection of vintage recording equipment and instruments, The News From Nowhere is an astonishing return to form. “Doing it on our own terms,” says Irwin, “and actually having a proper say in it, felt wonderful.
We have nothing to lose, but a lot to prove.” “It’s the first time we’ve worked without a producer,” adds Sam, “and that has it pluses and its minuses. We ended up asking someone to come in and help with the last stages, just to have an objective pair of ears and get a different opinion on one or two things we couldn’t resolve.” Such as? All four Hoosiers exchange glances. “We’re a democracy,” says Irwin, “and that can have its drawbacks.” “Especially when there are four of you,” ventures Al, “because that two-against-two thing can occur.” Sam: “But then Irwin instituted the sitting-on-the-fence idea, too, which complicated things even further.” “And I’m really good at it now,” laughs Irwin. “I can lie down on the fence.”
As the above exchange demonstrates, The Hoosiers are in a good place right now, and no wonder, so vibrant and brimming with ideas does The News From Nowhere sound. Engaging directly with fans via Facebook in a continual dialogue has enriched and revitalised them, they say, not to mention vindicated their decision to self-release the album, and miss out the middlemen. Yet there were times, as each member of the band will readily admit, where things were altogether less open and easy.
The multi-platinum success of their 2007 debut album, The Trick to Life, and singles such as ‘Worried About Ray’ and ‘Goodbye Mr. A’, raised huge expectations for its follow-up, not least at The Hoosiers’ record label. The prophetically titled The Illusion of Safety was, all four agree, a troubled project from the start. “I look back now and think that we were in this very specific and very narrow place,” says Martin, “as band on a major label. Music ends up different in that world; artists are swept along by its rules and standards. When we were making The Illusion of Safety, this producer went, ‘This is how the bass drum should sound, because that’s what Lady Gaga does, and Lady Gaga is all over radio right now’. So it isn’t surprising that a lot of music ends up being affected by that environment, by that way of thinking.
It should have been just about what the four of us were doing, but it wasn’t. And that was the biggest difference on the new album.” “It’s in the language, though,” argues Irwin. “The word ‘hit’ is substituted for ‘good’. There’s an art to writing under those conditions, but it wasn’t one that worked for us. It exacts a toll on too many writers. You give up too much if you do that.”
The image of the band that was being pushed at this time didn’t help, either. “In my head,” recalls Al, “all I wanted us to be was original and to do something that meant swimming against the tide. And people then took that to the shiniest nth degree, and it became almost comical.” “The problem is,” Irwin reflects, “that you can get saddled with various perceptions very quickly. People start saying, ‘Is this just novelty?’ We were so preoccupied by the sound, by the songs, that the aesthetic sided of it sort of crept on us. But there was a sort of indiegeddon at the time, photos with bands stood in doorways wearing shades, lots of muted colours, and I guess we went the other way. But we had a lot of fun doing it, and really made each other laugh. And let’s not forget, for one of our videos we got to pretend to fly, on wires, with Superman’s stunt double.”
Such a negative experience of the creative process – the odd laugh aside – would have done for many bands, and there was indeed a period where The Hoosiers went their separate ways. “I remember getting to this point,” says Al, “where I said, ‘I need some space from this’. I think we all knew it. We needed to forget about it for a while.” “And it lasted for about a year,” says Sam, “and then we got together again and everyone went, ‘I’ve got some tunes, how about you?’” Even then, says Irwin, it would be another year before they hunkered down to record. “But I look back on that now and think it was a good thing, because what we had then wasn’t remotely on a par with what we have now – though it’s been a really tough process. I’d love to be able to say, ‘Yeah, it’s just been four people in a room, falling in love again. But, you know,” he says with a chuckle, “at least the tension this time around has all been just within the band.”
Tension, creativity, democracy, arguments, time apart, coming back together, sitting on the fence (in Irwin’s case). And songs. Lots of them. The product of years of pent-up emotion and a longing to make music together again. From the opening bars of ‘Somewhere in the Distance’ to the closing notes of ‘Nathan’s Loft’, The News From Nowhere is the sound of a band who have rediscovered what they love about music, and why they need to make it together.
Gone is the self-consciousness of the dog days around their second album; gone, too, the self-doubt. In their place is a deeply rooted – and hard-won – confidence, and a determination to lock back in to the freedom and joy of the early days. The cowbell that propels ‘Make or Break (You Gotta Know)’; the baroque-pop of ‘Fidget Brain’; the combination of forlorn vocal and descending chords on ‘My Last Fight’; the brass flecks and squelches beneath the propulsive piano on ‘Weirdo’; the self-knowing and impassioned lyrics, and Beach Boys-go-barbershop harmonies, on the title track: all these moments are evidence of a band who have travelled a long and occasionally difficult path, and emerged on the sunlit uplands, older, wiser – and sounding better than ever.
So we can’t be blamed for concluding that the lyrics to the first verse of ‘Somewhere in the Distance’ contain more than a hint of what the band have been through, and where they are now. “We’ve got a lot to lose – the stakes are staggering,” Irwin sings, “but we don’t choose the use the brakes that only ground us down. No, when the times are tough, we’ll turn them round.” And then the killer lines: “So make hay while the sun shines on your face, ’cos you’re young but only once / It’s ok, life won’t stop if you make mistakes. Cling on to that sweet, sweet hope, somewhere in the distance.” Amen to that.