‘It was like being in a disaster movie.” That’s how Hookworms singer Matthew “MJ” Johnson remembers Boxing Day in 2015, when the river Aire burst its banks, engulfing the band’s studio and rehearsal space. He was having lunch at his parents’ house several miles away at the time. The moment he heard the emergency flood alert, Johnson abandoned the meal and drove through rising water to the studio, which was soon five feet under. “The electricity was off and there was an eerie calm,” he says. “It was genuinely scary. I’ve got strong legs through cycling but I kept getting knocked over.”
Because the building, in the Kirkstall area of Leeds, was on a flood plain, he’d been unable to get insurance (even though the last flood had occurred in 1866). By the time he went back two days later to assess the damage, the waters had taken his car, much of the band’s back catalogue, their new recordings and – since he ran the place as a commercial studio – his livelihood. “I looked around,” he says, “and there was nothing left.”
Two years on, the studio has been rebuilt, courtesy of crowdfunding, friends and other bands who rallied round. Hookworms have now poured their frustrations into Microshift, a glorious, electronic-psychedelic third album with motorik grooves and euphoric choruses. After two previous albums of brain-scrambling, fuzzy psych-rock, it is being widely heralded as a triumph. The Guardian called it “their most accessible work and their most intense”, while the Times, in another five-star review, hailed it as “an instant classic” comparable to such benchmarks as the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy and Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.
Not that the down-to-earth quintet are getting carried away. “The album got three stars in Crack magazine,” laughs Matthew “MB” Benn, the band’s synth player (an audiologist by day). They’ve learned to not take anything for granted. Microshift has a hymnal, giddy energy, akin to the ecstasy that can follow agony, which feels very appropriate – because floods aren’t all they’ve had to deal with.
“So much has gone on that I think there is a Hookworms curse,” says Benn. “We’d had such a terrible few years. So we wanted the music to be upbeat, uplifting.”
When the group formed amid the bustling Leeds DIY scene in 2009, lady luck initially smiled. The Brudenell Social Club booked Hookworms to support Wooden Shjips before they’d even heard a note. Then Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys started saying how much he liked Wooden Shjips. “So,” recalls Benn, “we played our first ever gig to a sold-out venue.”
Almost immediately afterwards, things started going wrong. Equipment was lost or malfunctioned, cars broke down, the band’s bank account was defrauded and a former booking agent sent them an abusive letter declaring: “You will never be successful.” Incredibly, Johnson’s first studio – a place in Armley he rented after quitting his office job to chase a childhood dream – also flooded. “The roof collapsed,” he says. “And it turned out the landlord hadn’t told anyone I was there, because the building had already been declared uninhabitable.”
None of this stopped Hookworms becoming the most promising Leeds band since the heady days of Kaiser Chiefs. But when their 2013 debut, Pearl Mystic, was acclaimed as a masterpiece, Johnson was horrified, having fully expected to end up with hundreds of unsold copies under his bed. “I had impostor syndrome,” he says. “If we were making perfect records, where could we go from there? And I didn’t think it was perfect.”
The frontman has battled “chronic depression” since his teens and was thoroughly unprepared when a comment in a press release he hadn’t expected many people to read (about a “half-hearted suicide attempt”) went viral. All he will say about the incident now is that it was “a cry for help”. Deep down, he says, “all my songs are about mental health”.
After rushing their second album, 2014’s The Hum, the band resolved to take their time with the third, spending the label advance on electronics to take their sound in a new direction. But during recording, the sound engineer – a close friend – died. He had loved their track Negative Space, having heard it in its early stages on one of the last occasions they were together. It is now Microshift’s surging opening song – and all about him. It hinges on the euphoric line: “I always see you when I’m down.” Says Johnson: “Soon after he died, I was in the supermarket and saw him. Then you realise it’s not that person.”
Ullswater, a frenzied electro shimmer of a track, refers to the Lake District beauty spot where Johnson’s father used to take him before he developed Alzheimer’s. “My dad was – is – into poetry,” he says. “When I was very young, he introduced me to Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and then Neil Young. A lot of those things went on to really shape my life, so it was important to get the lyrics right. Alzheimer’s is talked of with shame, in the way cancer was in the 1960s. But that absolutely needs to change, because it’s going to affect so many of us.”
Other songs on Microshift address male anxiety, body image and – on Opener – toxic masculinity. Given its subject matter, why does Opener sound so joyous? “I’m arguing that it’s OK for males to admit to failings. Even now, there’s still this notion that the man is the breadwinner – this 1950s, 60s culture that I find really weird.”
These are refreshing subjects for pop, but Johnson is keen to let it be known he despises the notion of the tortured artist: he says he writes some of his best songs when he’s happy. “There’s a certain type of man who reads Bukowski and wants bad things to happen to him so he can write terrible, deep lyrics. Personally, I’d rather be totally sane and stable and never have made any music than be depressed and make music that people like.”
The band members have yet to give up their day jobs, and feel grounded by their employment (pub work, teaching, Citizens Advice). Nor do they have a manager. Benn has taken over the role, answering emails and booking hotels. “We were being ripped off by promoters,” he says. “I was naive. It’s been a steep learning curve.” He’s not the only one doubling up: bassist Johnny “JW” Wilkinson looks after graphic design, while guitarist Sam “SS” Shjipstone keeps the books.
It’s rare to see a pop act have such a disregard for careerism, but Johnson points out that making records at their own pace – without management or label pressure – means they can carry on for as long as they want. “I never want to have to do gigs all month to pay the rent,” he says. “We can make a record like Microshift – but then our next one might be incredibly difficult and uncommercial. And that doesn’t matter. That’s really important to us.”
Two years after the flood, Johnson remains in “a ton” of debt but has enjoyed rebuilding the studio. “I taught myself joinery,” he says proudly. “I’d never done anything like that before.”
Hookworms suddenly seem to have a lot to look forward to. Do they think Microshift is lifting the curse? “It’s hard to see what else could go wrong,” says Benn. “I’d better not tempt fate.”