FOR the first time, York band The Howl & The Hum are at last taking the “miserable disco” of their debut album, Human Contact, on the road, climaxing with a sold-out two-night residency at Leeds Brudenell Social Club this weekend.
Released in the dark shadows of the Stay At Home first lockdown on May 29 2020, the prescient songs were denied exactly that human contact.
What ensued for Sam Griffiths, Conor Hirons, Bradley Blackwell and Jack Williams was, if not an annus horribilis, then certainly very challenging months of doubt, disillusion and disconnection.
Months that led to the release of one-off single Thumbs Up, two days ahead of their first tour date at Gorilla, Manchester, and, with perfect timing, World Mental Health Day.
“The way we can talk about it is to say the band have struggled with mental health over the past few years, especially over lockdown, to the extent there was doubt we would even continue,” says principal songwriter, singer, guitarist and keyboards player Sam.
“We were very much presented with two roads: one where we could celebrate releasing an album, end it there and find work in hospitality or whatever direction studying ancient Greek and Latin at school can lead to.
“Or there was the other route, one that was terrifying, with strange noises down the road, that involved continuing but with me [temporarily] going back to work at a pub at Leeds and being hopeless at it.
“Then going to Europe made me realise how much I hated social media, and how much I love talking with people, and if our music can help people express how they feel, if we can go out and tour these songs, it’s such a ridiculous life, these weird little indie boys…but it’s the only thing we’re good at: better than I could ever pour a pint.”
Imagine Radiohead’s High And Dry, if it were written by the late Jeff Buckley – “that wasn’t me that said that, but I’m honoured,” says Sam – and the resulting Thumbs Up emerges as a “cathartic confessional from an artist in search of deeper connections in the wake of personal tragedy”.
“Thumbs Up is the confession that us men don’t know how to talk to other men about important stuff,” reflects Sam, who was striving to find silver linings in the darkest of days.
“This song was written in the silence after suicides of friends, during depressive episodes, and over non-existent conversations about how we communicate our feelings: our highs, our lows, our loves and losses. It also references 80s’ movie icons Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a brief admittance of vulnerability in the face of what we call masculinity.”
Sam, why won’t men talk? “It’s an odd one, isn’t it? But then I went to an all-boys school , where there’s so much silence and you only talk about objective truths, football, but not the emotional flow of feelings,” he says.
“It’s that masculinity; that thing of pride. But now we’re in age where masculinity can take a different guise and suffering is a huge part of that, and it feels such a shame that we can’t talk about it.
“The main thing that people don’t realise is that everybody has connections with the issue of mental health, be it your family, friends or yourself, and we need to address how we can’t talk about how we feel.
“There are still so many places today where people aren’t aware of it, so I’m trying to find a different language for it, which is why I mention the masculinity of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Thumbs Up, because you can’t imagine them ever discussing doubts and feelings about making their next film.
“Looking back, we may see our friends as being like superheroes at school, like my best mate at school, who killed himself a month after leaving. No-one No-one had taught us how to talk to each other.”
Thumbs Up has had a long gestation period. “It’s one I’ve been aching to write, probably from before the first album, but never got finished,” says Sam.
“But then we went into lockdown and things became very relevant. As a band, we lost out on a lot of promises, a lot of things that never flourished, from every angle, from tours and financial support to sales and merchandise backing the record company promised.”
Inevitably, that took its toll, but The Howl & The Hum re-surfaced, first for their York Minster concert in May and now for a dozen English, Scottish and Welsh dates that conclude on Saturday and Sunday at Leeds Brudenell Social Club, near where Sam now lives.
The Howl & The Hum are touring with Rory Welbrock deputising for Bradley, alongside Sam, Conor and Jack. “Rory is a wonderful singer-songwriter in the Elliott Smith mould, who used to play bass for Bull, and whenever he couldn’t play with them, I’d fill in,” says Sam. “That’s the beauty of the York music scene; it has that lovely village feeling and it’s good that we can be that fluid.”
Jack is not listed as a band member on the press release for Thumbs Up, but Sam clarifies that situation. “Jack still fills in as a session drummer, but he eventually wants to do other things. He doesn’t enjoy the creative element as much as Conor and I do, but he’s basically one of the best drummers around. He’s our clock at the back,” he says.
“At the end of the day, the band has always been a ‘fuzzy’ project. It’s my songs but it wouldn’t ever be complete without Conor’s guitar or his fantastic artwork, which is increasingly important.”
Meanwhile, discussions are on-going with Please Please You promoter Joe Coates for “something in York in the New Year”. Watch this space.
Looking ahead to the weekend in Leeds, Sam says: “This tour is the chance to play the songs for the first time on the road that we should have been playing 18 months ago, so it’s our chance to both welcome and say goodbye to Human Contact, as we’re about to start working on the next album. I guess we’ll be both celebrating our debut and giving it a Viking funeral, setting fire to it.”
Where might Sam’s song-writing take him next? “I’ve been utterly caught up in the 1990s, having been born in 1992. I was a huge Radiohead fan from my teens, Jeff Buckley and Oasis too, and as I’m from Colchester, Blur,” he says. “Thumbs Up came out of that.
“I was born in Swindon, where my mum knew members of XTC, so I’ve been listening to them too, and since this summer I’ve been taking a geographical and chronological approach, starting with Scotland: Arab Strap and Frightened Rabbit, who have set up a foundation for suicide prevention and mental wellbeing after singer Scott Hutchinson died, having written the song Floating In The Forth about planning his suicide and then doing it.
“I was listening to The Smiths, Joy Division and New Order when we were making Human Contact, and people say there were a lot of Eighties’ influences on there, so, after Thumbs Up and the Nineties, maybe the 2000s will have an impact on the next album.”
The Howl & The Hum play Leeds Brudenell Social Club on October 30 and 31, supported by Martha Gunn and Elkyn; both nights sold out; doors, 7.30pm.