Hooton Tennis Club have made one of 2016's finest albums with Big Box Of Chocolates, the follow-up to last year's debut Highest Point In Cliff Town. Produced by Edwyn Collins, the album recalls Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish and The Kinks' English Green Preservation Society in its romanticism and storytelling, where everyday characters and oddball eccentrics gain a whole new lease of life.
Currently on a six-week tour that will see them venture into mainland Europe later this month, DiS caught up with the band - James Madden (vocals/guitar), Ryan Murphy (vocals/guitar), Callum McFadden (bass) and Harry Chalmers (drums) - prior to their recent show at Nottingham Bodega.
DiS: How's the tour been so far?
James: It was timed as the album came out so I don't know how much promotion went into it to be honest. We went over to Dublin and played to about five people, which was a bit of a nightmare after an eight-hour ferry but we still played well. We played to Harry's brother! Generally, the tour's gone well. Glasgow was really good. We played there on Halloween weekend.
Callum: We don't dress up or anything... Not any more!
What was the response like for the new songs? Did it pick up once the album had come out?
Callum: People knew the single.
James: There's been a lot more people come up to us after the shows on this tour and say things like it was great. I guess people are a bit more open to what we're doing now? I don't know. Maybe we've become more approachable on this tour.
Callum: I think we were dead shy on our first few tours. We're not exactly super confident now, but I think as time's gone on we've grown into it a bit more.
I first saw you play with H Hawkline at the Chameleon in Nottingham about 18 months ago. When I compare that with the last time I saw you at Eurosonic in January it was clear you'd become a lot more comfortable on stage.
James: We were still learning to play together as a band back then. It was the first time we'd been on any kind of tour.
Harry: Jeff Barrett from Heavenly sent us out specifically so we could play together and hopefully become a good band. We'd never done any touring before so it was a great experience.
James: We couldn't have picked a better man to do it with. Huw (H Hawkline) is just the nicest man I've ever met.
The album's received a wealth of critical acclaim from all sections of the media and yesterday you were in session for Lauren Laverne on 6Music. Did you expect it to get such a positive response?
Ryan: No. I felt really nervous, almost weird about the songs. I didn't think we'd done it right. It felt like the album wasn't finished.
James: We all had moments like that while we were making the album. Ryan and Harry would think it was great whereas me and Callum would say: "No, it's not right." Then we'd swap! Those two would think that whereas we'd be really happy with it.
Callum: I think a lot of it is because you don't know what to expect on your first album. You don't know what's going to happen. And that one seemed to get a fairly good reception as well. I don't think we ever felt under pressure to live up to the first record, but you always have those gut feelings inside. The first album's new and you're fresh and new. We're older now and supposedly wiser.
Big Box Of Chocolates came out very soon after Highest Point In Cliff Town. Were any of the songs off the new album around at the time the first one was made?
Ryan: 'Frostbitten In Fen Ditton' was recorded during the sessions for our first album. But it sounded like Oasis! We didn't know how to play it. James did this demo which had a really sweet vibe and then we kind of stadiumized it.
James: We tried recording it but even after a dozen or so takes it didn't sound right. We wanted to make it good because it sounded really nice on the demo, so it was always going to be released at some point. We got to Edwyn's studio and there was this old 1930s lap steel pedal guitar, and I was like: "That's going on that song!"
Ryan: We were listening to a lot of country, stuff like Lee Hazelwood. The song's not really countryish at all, but it has that atmosphere about it.
James: It's a country song in parts.
Ryan: We want to make a country album one day but I'm not sure whether songs about northern industrial towns would work in that kind of format.
You've always written about personal experiences and characters you've encountered, but Big Box Of Chocolates does feel and flow like a concept album. Was that your intention?
Ryan: We had a concept of the songs all being different. Like not being scared to write a fast, punky one to a slower, country style one then something that sounds like hell at the end which we did with 'Growing Concerns'.
James: The name Big Box Of Chocolates initially came because of the song. At the time, none of the other songs had titles that good enough to name the whole album after. We'd joked about the album being like a big box of chocolates. You could have the vinyl with a silver foil lining on it and a menu. Then that got thrown out the window and I came up with this comic strip trying to match up all the different songs.
Did you do all the artwork yourselves?
Callum: Yeah. James did all the drawings.
Ryan: James locked himself in his bedroom for months. Drawing and writing things.
James: I think it was Ryan who said the album was like a big box of chocolates and if there's something you don't like there's always something else you could swap it for. Almost like a get out of jail free card. Try it, see what you think, and if there's a song you don't like leave them out.
Have the people you've written about - 'Katy-Anne Bellis' being one for example - heard those specific songs and if so, did they like them?
Callum: She has heard the song, and her reaction was a mixture of being embarrassed and excited. She's flattered that we wrote a song about her, but also a little annoyed as she's a puppeteer, artist, and performer who's trying to establish a career under her own name. Whereas now when you search for her name in Google it just brings up Hooton Tennis Club! I genuinely feel bad about that now.
James: She'll be alright in a few months. We'll have dropped down the Google listings by then! She posted about the song on Facebook after Huey Morgan played it. She wrote I can't believe Huey Morgan just said my name on the radio. She's a big fan of the Fun Lovin' Criminals.
Ryan: She's so lovely and easy going.
What about 'Bootcut Jimmy The G'?
Ryan: We went to a party and saw this guy dancing and having a great time. So we assumed it was Bootcut Jimmy because it was his 30th birthday party - you know, it must be him because he's having the most fun. But it turned out that wasn't Jimmy. It was just some random guy, so since then we haven't spoken to Jimmy and told him there's a song about him.
James: We did. We bumped into him.
Ryan: We did but nobody said anything!
James: And then there's Lauren Laverne ('Lauren, I’m In Love!') who we were with yesterday. We didn't really mention it but she said: "Thank you, I like the orange creme!"
And 'Lazers Linda?
Ryan: That's some mad imaginary guru that you're asking questions. Almost like a therapist. When you get those names of people in songs like 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy', we tried to base it around that.
James: Not necessarily in the same way but looking at the structure, so if 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy' has those bars in that way then 'Lazers Linda' should have these bars in this way.
Were there any songs from the album sessions that didn't make Big Box Of Chocolates which you might use at a later date?
Callum: There were none that we recorded at Edwyn's because we were tight on days. There were ones that may have made the album if we had more time. We've got a secret Bandcamp full of demos that we often refer back to.
How did Edwyn Collins become involved with the album and what did he bring to the recording process?
Callum: It came about because he'd done a few records on Heavenly and he's good friends with Jeff Barrett. We were looking for a producer. We went in with Bill (Ryder-Jones) again but he had his own record and tour to promote so we had to find someone else. It ended up being a perfect fit with Edwyn. We didn't realise it at the time but his 'Gorgeous George' album is quite similar to our record in the way it flows from song to song. So maybe Jeff saw that in the demos and thought this could go really well with Edwyn as producer?
Ryan: It was the whole aesthetic as well. He made his own label and created his own sound.
Callum: He's got this whole museum of stuff. This big studio full of guitars and pedals. All kinds of instruments and gadgets.
Ryan: He was really encouraging and supportive of everything we did. We'd be down about not getting a take right and he'd be over the intercom shouting: "It's great lads!"
James: He broke the intercom with encouragement!
Ryan: He really did.
James: His tonal awareness is incredible as well. With guitar tones and melodies, he picked out little notes that perhaps didn't work and changed them around. It's like we were saying earlier about 'Frostbitten In Fen Ditton' originally sounding like Oasis; Edwyn changed the dynamic and gave us the confidence to make it sound how we wanted.
Where did the idea come from for the barking dogs sampled in 'Growing Concerns'?
James: That was originally demoed.
Ryan: I wanted it to be as aggressive as it could sound. What's the sound that makes you scared? Dogs barking.
Callum: You've got that horrible bit in 'Growing Concerns' and then you've got these lovely sweet songs about Katy-Anne or Lauren Laverne. I like that in albums where you can go from the sweetest thing to horrible then back to sweet again.
You've been quite prolific so far in such a short space of time. Are there any plans in place for album number three?
Callum: We've got some songs that might make the next record but we're not prolific in the King Gizzard sense of releasing five albums next year.
James: It makes you think about music production. Should you be producing that much music in one go?
Callum: If they've got their own studio and that's what they want to do then why wouldn't they?
James: With us it's slightly different. Our songwriting is more experience based other than band jams. We tend to wait a few months for something to happen.
Ryan: There aren't that many Katy-Anne Bellis's to write about! We have got some ideas. Stuff laid down that needs working on. But then with this record, there were times where we'd make it up as we went along in the studio.
James: I think it was a good mix of improvisation and stuff we'd written before we went into the studio. That makes for a good recording session when you know what you're doing a bit but don't know how it's going to turn out.
Harry: That's why it was so good. We all learned how to make a good song better by fiddling around with it in the studio. Whereas with the first album, we never really did any of that at all.
Do all the songs off the new album feature in the live set?
Callum: There's a couple we haven't quite worked out properly yet. Again, 'Frostbitten In Fen Ditton' is one that we've struggled to recreate live, purely because the set up is just bass,drums and two guitars with a load of distortion which turns it back into the Oasis version. How do you make the sound sweet on stage? It's hard isn't it?
Harry: The lap steel pedal guitar is a big part of that song, just in creating the atmosphere. We've been practising all of the songs but there's still a couple that we're not quite satisfied with just yet. 'Big Box Of Chocolates' isn't quite ready yet but it's getting there. 'Lazers Linda' is getting there.
James: 'Lazers Linda' I'd say is pretty much done.
Will there be any more singles taken off the album?
James: We've done a video for 'O, Man Won’t You Melt Me' which comes out next week. Then the idea in the new year is to release a version of 'Bootcut Jimmy The G' as a single with perhaps maybe a guest vocalist.
Have you got anyone in mind?
Callum: Kendrick Lamar but apparently that's not doable!
James: We keep saying he's on the Internet, we can get him. He's online. Just tweet him and ask!
Do you feel an affinity with Heavenly Records and the other bands on their roster?
Callum: We get on with most of the bands we've met.
James: We all love The Parrots. They came on tour with us last year and they're a great bunch. Huw H Hawkline we've already mentioned. He's great. The King Gizzard lot too. And with Stealing Sheep we have a kind of parent-daughter vibe.
Callum: As for the label, if they like you and they like your music then that's good enough for them. It isn't about sales targets. It's always referred to as being a family rather than a selection of bands on a label.
You're all still based around the North West. Would you relocate to somewhere like London if the necessity arose?
Ryan: It doesn't feel as if we're missing out by not being in London. It would just be more of a stress because we wouldn't be able to afford to do anything. We'd all need full-time jobs and have no time to do any band stuff.
Callum: London isn't a very nice place. I had the best view of London the other day when we were just driving out of it.
Ryan: It's nice being slightly on the periphery. It happened when we went to Edwyn's where there's just nothing. There were no outside influences. We were just isolated. There was no excuse to go to the pub because there was no pub nearby. We were together twenty-four hours just talking and thinking about the album. I think there's this delusion that if you move to London there's a good chance you'll make it. But with the Internet being how it is that's not necessarily true. You can listen to anything anywhere at any time. You think places like Paris and New York have culture but they don't really.
Callum: They do but it's in more of a historical sense than the present.
Are there any plans to tour and play some festivals next year?
Callum: We haven't got any plans in place to tour. There are a few shows booked here and there, like the Heavenly Weekender at Hebden Bridge Trades Club in January. I expect we'll be doing a few festivals next summer as we didn't really do any this year. I like doing festivals.
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
Callum: If you mean giving advice on getting signed to a record label then I've no idea. But if it's just about making music and having a laugh with your friends then do it.
James: If you don't mind not making money then go for it! It's all about setting realistic expectations. It's tough.