"I’m my own biggest critic" - DiS meets FOE
Few debut albums have been quite as striking for quite some time as Bad Dream Hotline. It's a record riddled with small town anxiety and big screen [day]dreams, made by Fleet (yes, that place known for its service station on the outskirts of London) dweller, Hannah Clark, better known as FOE.
Ahead of her performance headlining the DiS stage at Camden Crawl, and after loving her music for a couple of years, we finally caught up with FOE to have a chat about Radiohead, Reuben, sordid sex in suburbia, making a video for twenty pounds, being a new artist on a major label in 2012 and what happens when your label suddenly no longer exists just as your debut album comes out....
DiS: You’ve been making music as FOE for three years, I first saw you playing a late night show at the Great Escape, and people like the editor of NME turned up. Was that one of your first shows?
FOE: Yeah, that was literally our first gig, I think.
I was wondering what you’ve learnt or been surprised by since then...
I guess the biggest thing has been learning about The Industry. I had no idea what it would be like, and no idea that I'd get signed, it was never really something I set out for. I always knew that I needed to make music. I mean, that Great Escape show was booked, and we literally just did it, just after putting stuff online. It’s sort of crazy the amount of hype that can get built up on the internet.
You’ve been making music for a little longer than that, I found some tracks you’d done under your own name?
Yeah, I’d been in a college band for about five years before FOE. We did lots of gigs, but I never really took the band too seriously as I knew I’d be doing my own thing. We never really met industry people or anything like that.
Did you have any preconceived ideas or preconceptions about what The Music Business might be or look like? Did you think it would all be quite professional and organized?
I honestly don’t know, I think the main thing is I’m quite trusting, and things one thing I’ve learned I maybe shouldn’t be. People tell you things and you believe it, and people are nice to you and it means a lot, you know? People can change their mind so quickly.
You recently parted ways with your label, would it be ok to talk a bit about that?
Yeah, I don’t mind.
You were signed about a year ago, is that right?
Yeah, I signed to Vertigo toward the end of 2010. It was a weird one. I always had doubts about major labels, from stories that I’d heard.
The clues are in your lyrics...
Ha, ‘Genie in a Coke Can’ was literally about my inner turmoil, of do I want to do this or not, because do I believe in this or not. This isn’t something a lot of people get offered, I’m young, I shouldn’t turn it down. Through the whole thing, I’ve come out the other side and I’ve realise it [the major label world] is not for me, and it has made me want to get on with things so much more. Things get sort of jaded, and you forget why you’re doing it. I hadn’t written a thing for months, because I was just focusing on what I was looking like, and just bullshit basically!
That’s bonkers. It seemed from the off like you had quite a defined style and a great online identity. Were they encouraging you to do more of something, like wearing more wigs?
Believe it or not, I never really got people on my back about anything, they were actually quite easy to work with. It was quite a self-conscious thing, in my own head, I was just like they’re gonna wanna be selling a lot of records, so I just felt like I should be someone I’m not. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work. But anyway, they’re not a label any more, so there are other factors, shall we say, but yeah...
It doesn’t sound like they or you particularly adjusted things musically, it was all quite similar to those early demo tracks I heard...
No, no, I felt like, some sort of things got out of my control a little bit. But musically, I’m still really really happy with the album, and hopefully I’m going to have the right people behind me now with for the next thing I do.
I’ve moved on already quite a lot from that album now. My second one is half done, I’m just really looking forward to getting on with the next thing really. I’d like to be able to set-up my own label, but that’s quite ambitious.
Are you thinking about the Vertigo situation as being a bit like having a sort of lottery grant from a major label, and they’ve given you funding to get things going? It’s not a terrible situation to be in.
It’s definitely not a bad thing. We pretty much just used them as a bank account. I mean, I did everything myself really, but we’ve used most of the money already. I don’t regret it at all. Everything just helps you understand who you want to be and who you are as an artist.
So, the record came out in January, how did it feel having a debut album out?
Funnily enough, I went to HMV and it wasn’t there because of a balls up, which was quite disheartening. It was quite, and I did eventually find it in a HMV, it was just an incredible feeling to see it. It’d always been my dream to have a CD in the shop, so it was amazing.
What was recording the album like for you?
I recorded it with Entrepreneurs, in Henley, and we just did it ourselves for a month. It was drummer from Jethro Tull’s studio, and it was really cool, actually.
Did you have a manifesto of what you wanted the record to be like, so you have the sort of vaudeville musical, horror movie side of things, and then the slightly more brash rock side...
Well, not really. I always knew it was my first record, so it’s not gonna be 100% perfect or 100% me already. It was mostly just trying lots of things, and seeing what worked. All I really knew was the songs I wanted on it, and me and Adam (Entrepreneurs) just went in, and tried a load of stuff out. A lot of the sound is his stamp on it, and the next stuff I do is moving away from kind of electronic vibes... It was like a very joint thing on the vibe. I mean, I did do demos, and wrote all the parts, but some of the songs were literally just guitar and vocals, so we went in and built everything up.
Did you have any albums in mind that you were sailing in the same direction as. Weirdly it reminded me a little bit of Panic at the Disco’s debut album, and I mean that as a compliment as it’s one of my favourite albums.
I actually quite like that album too. I dunno, I didn’t really.
Interesting, because it seems to have a really defined sound and a clarity to the vision, which you don’t really get with debut albums. I guess what I’m trying to ask is if you had a destination in mind when you started recording...
Not really. I think because I did have a long time to get it together, so all the songs are written together, so they fit together, maybe. And Adam’s production is very, like, he knows what he’s doing. That maybe makes it all fit. I never really had, like, I want it to be like ‘this’, I just wanted to do it, like giving birth, pretty much, and see what happens. With most of my songwriting, I don’t put that much thought into it, I just get the feeling I wanna do it, and it’ll come out, and a few weeks later it might start to make sense. It’s always quite spontaneous.
The lyrics seem to be aimed a little more at themes, than individuals. Was there anything that was a little more direct that you reshaped or left off?
I’m quite sort of shy, I guess, so my music is a bit of a chance to me a bit of a brat, sometimes.
So some of the lyrics are like things you wish you’d said in the heat of the moment a hour or so ago?
Yeah, exactly. I’m not really the best talker, but I can get my point across through lyrics. Much like the music, it just kind of passes through sometimes, it feels like that anyway. It feels kind of out of body.
Tell us about your recent video for ‘A Handsome Stranger Called Death’. Is that done in some fancy green screen software?
Yeah, it was very DIY. We made our own green screen, with a huge piece of green cotton - which I think was about twenty quid - and hung it over the curtain rail in our living room. It actually took it quite a while to sort it out, because there were loadsa shadows and stuff, but we made it work. I just used my digital SLR and a lamp from Ikea. We got some footage from YouTube, and also we drove around the local area in my friend’s cool old car. It’s supposed to look like I’m driving the car and I see myself in the road at night. We actually got in trouble, this posh woman, followed us for about ten minutes, so we pulled over and she kept asking us what we were doing. I was dressed as an angel and I tried to lean out of the car and in the process I snapped my wing. She didn’t believe us, and said if we do that around here people will call the police. Clearly, I’m making a music video, I wouldn’t try burglaring your house as an angel!
I noticed from quite early on people seem to have quite a divided reaction to your music, swinging one way or another, which is probably a good thing. Did you expect people to dislike your music more?
I don’t read reviews, I’ve made a decision not to. There’s always going to be people who like it and those that don’t. It’s a headfuck, if you read something that’s good, and it’s an ego massage. I’ve found that I’m own biggest critic anyway. It’s the same with any music or art, there’s always going to be a negative reaction. I’d rather my music creates some emotion. I mean, if it makes someone feel some kind of reaction, even if that really hate, I’d rather that than them being impartial. I wanna make something that does get people’s attention.
Indeed. I was quite struck by your presentation of who you are online. I was wondering if there were any artists that inspired you to build this sort of texture and aesthetic? Or is it that a reaction?
Yeah, I think it’s important to make a show of things. It makes everything more exciting. The music I grew up with and always loved, like Radiohead and PJ Harvey, they’ve always done interesting things. I just aspire to that really. Especially Radiohead, their approach has been massively influential and their website is always insane. I think it’s the tortured artist element of Thom Yorke. I guess I just like people who sound like they’re in pain.
I really like doing my own artwork. I think having strong visuals is really important, as people really judge things by what they see.
I like how it feels like wandering into your world by seeing your videos and your blogs...
I guess that’s because I kind of am in my own little world. There’s nothing going on, so I have to amuse myself, in some ways. It’s just outside of Fleet town centre, but that’s only charity shops and banks really. I was at art college for a bit, so I’ve always been into artwork. I’ve always done painting, illustration and stuff. My music and everything is just me spewed out really, and the art is just part of that.
And is FOE you or an exaggerated avatar of you?
Kind of. The older I get - I turned 22 last week - the more comfortable I get with being myself, which is the same for everyone I guess. So the two [identities] have become a bit closer. My dad was saying you get to a point where you just don’t care, and I was looking forward to that.
So, how has touring and getting away from your life on the edge smalltown been?
Touring is a lot of fun, I make the most of it. It’s my excuse for not doing anything else. I love touring and meeting people. There’s always some kind of adventure, like, weird things. Every town is kind of the same but different once you’ve been doing it for about a week. People always ask me about tour experiences, but I usually drunk, on a bus, eating a kebab, it’s not the healthiest existence.
Were you aware when you were touring that because your music is about small towns frustration, rather than big city glitz of The Killers or urban decay like The Clash or Joy Division or whatever, that people have connected a little more with your music in small towns?
I think so, yeah. In the smaller towns, there’s a lot of kids that remind me of myself in a way. I was just quite nervy. I think a bit about what I was like when I was younger. I mean, I lived near Staines when I was a kid, and I moved to Fleet when I was fourteen, and it did have a really good music scene when I lived there. I just used to idolize local bands, I still do probably to some extent, the same people who are 10 years older than me or whatever. I think that was something I wanted people to connect with.
You don’t seem like you particularly hate suburbia as much as it comes across in some of your lyrics...
It’s sort of a love-hate thing. It forces me to be creative, and I hate it because my parents are ten minutes away and there’s nothing going on.
Do you think there’s something about the limitations, like in the way Eno takes things away and by creating restrictions you become more creative, which has maybe inspired you by living there?
Inspiration, Fleet is very limited, but it forces you to look deeper than your normally would. I’ve definitely found inspiration in things I never thought I would. I was obsessed with suburban homes, and what goes on behind closed doors in commuter towns. That’s where ‘Deepwater Heartbreaker’ and ‘The Fox’ came from. I bet there’s so much weird stuff that happens in these sort of really nicely presented middle class houses. Everyone puts on such a perfect, but there’s probably affairs and so much weird shit going on.
I also like using a 4-track, as it’s really really limited, but you kind of put more effort into the parts you’re writing and you’re more focussed, so I think limitation is good. I really like the idea with next stuff I do being really limited.
What are you planning to do next?
Yeah, I’ve kind of started. I’ve been really obsessed with fifties music, like the American Graphitti soundtrack, so there are a couple of songs influenced by that [Hannah makes some duh-duh-duh noises]. I got an organ from eBay for £10, it’s a Casio, it’s really tacky but it’s amazing, but it’s got loads of drumbeats on it. I’m using the organ from that and the drum sounds, so I could probably play that and a guitar, and I could do gigs on my own. That’s my plan anyway. It’s still early days, but I’ve probably got half an album done. It’s not gonna be totally different, but probably more stripped back, production wise. You can make an album for pennies nowadays, so that’s what I intend to do for my next one.
How have the shows been? Has it been rows of young girls in green wigs at shows?
Not really, because that probably takes a lot of balls to walk through a town center with a wig on. It’s sort of been a mixture really, there’s been quite a lot of middle-aged gentlemen due to all the support from 6Music. It’s quite funny, because Steve Lamacq heard my music because my dad phoned in for Good Day Bad Day and told him about it, and now he’s like pals with my dad [laughs].
You’re playing the DiS stage at the Camden Crawl. I was wondering if you have any strong memories of coming to Camden as a kid?
Yeah, I came here for my thirteenth birthday. I bought some chokers and intense sticks, that was in my Punkyfish phase, but no specific memories. It was sort of exactly how I thought it would be, it was kind of full of goths. As I’ve gotten older, I see it through different eyes but it doesn’t seem all that different.
Have you played Camden Crawl before?
Yeah, but not as FOE, it was with Reuben. I sung on their last album and they invited me along. That was really fun. I remember getting their album when I first moved to Fleet and then seeing them at the West End Center in Aldershot. Everything was so exciting back then, I would love people to feel like that with Foe.
What films should someone watch the night before coming to see you to get into the mood?
Probably Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive and Wayne’s World! Or Spinal Tap!
...and then the conversation quickly descended into David Lynch fan kid chat about his album, his meditation, his coffee and his general awesomeness...
Foe’s debut album Bad Dream Hotline is out now.