An interview
I caught up with The Hi-Life Companion as they were busy finalising their second album, with primary recording of the new suite of songs behind them.

‘Say Yes!’ the first long-player from these Wye Valley-raised brothers, presented an intelligent mix of influences and moods. On it they moved from straight-forward power-pop to a face-full of indie fuzz only then to detour pleasantly into their British twist on Americana.

For this second album the duo, both of whom have settled in Bristol in the UK, have metaphorically returned to the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean of their Brockweir childhood. Along the way they delve into histories both personal and local.

Brothers Jon and Matt form the core of the band. They do all the writing, arrangements and primary recording. But to capture the full sonic invocation of their ideas they then recruit a range of talent to enhance the sound, do the final mix and play live.  Many, but not all personnel appeared on the first album, ‘Say Yes!’ which was released in November 2010.

The Hi-Life Companion’s first single was released in 2008 and since then the band have featured on innumerable independent compilations, internet web-radio stations and pod-casts across the US and Europe, as well as enjoying airplay on Colin Murray on BBC Radio 1 and Tom Robinson on BCC Radio 6.

The Bloodbuzzed blog included their impending release in the ‘Music To Look Forward To in 2012’ list.

This e-interview with Jon Troy was undertaken in June 2012. Jon is one half of the song-writing duo, rhythm guitarist and singer. Together with his brother Matt, he also recorded the album.

Q: Let’s get the obvious questions out of the way first. Is there a working title for the new album yet?
‘Our Years in the Wilderness’.

Q: Will the people who bought ‘Say Yes!’ be disappointed or surprised?
I’m not sure; we’ll have to see I guess. Hopefully not disappointed – it’s much more ambitious, certainly, but still has the love of a good tune that ‘Say Yes’ hopefully had. On that record we were just really trying to write good pop songs, but in the end neither myself or Matt were at all happy with the end result even though other people seemed to like it. We’ve always felt we’ve had much better songs in us, and of course, in our heads they always sound magnificent…

Q: Which track from the first album would, musically, fit most comfortably on the new album?
I’m not sure many of them would really. Sonically, it’s {the new album} a vast improvement.  As with ‘Say Yes’ there are trumpets and harmonies and strings, but the new tunes are fuller sounding and more densely layered. I guess there are just more harmonies, more trumpets and more strings. It’s a much more rounded and realised extension of the first album.

Q: This album isn’t a concept album in a prog-rock sense, but there is a narrative to it. Tell us about it.
All the songs are about the West Country in some way, mainly the Forest of Dean where we grew up, but also Bristol and the surrounding area. Lyrically, there is a connection between all the songs, they all interrelate in some way, and it’s meant to follow the path of childhood, growing up, exploring frontiers, love and loss and ending your days looking back on it all, lived through different characters and different times.

Q: Which came first, the narrative or the songs?
The songs. In that the music came first; I worked on the lyrics afterwards. Lyrics take ages, and there’s always that gnawing feeling that you’re repeating someone else’s.  A bit like when Matt comes up with a riff and I have to tell him that it already belongs to Black Sabbath.

Q: At what point did the narrative emerge, and why did you feel it was something worthy of exploration?
Probably after we’d been working on four or five demos, the lyrics all seemed to join up and reflect local places and times in our lives. There seemed to be a real connection in the geography and stories: some autobiographical, some wrapped up in local myths and legends around the Forest of Dean. They all seemed to belong on an album together. I also love songs that mention specific places; you find that a lot in American music where certain places, towns or cities become mythologized through music. I wanted to do the same with the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley.

Q: It seems like you pretty much did the whole thing by yourselves – just you and Matt. And yet you still chose to bring others in and call it a Hi-Life Companion record rather than an album of your own work. Why?
Matt and I aimed to play everything ourselves, and then get people in for the things we couldn’t. There’s not really a ‘band’ on this record, although obviously there will be when we do it live.

Having said that, it’s much more musically ambitious. Perhaps things did go a bit Brian Wilson in terms of the number of vocal and string parts, as well as the flute, harp, horns and on one song, we even had a colliery band. But that’s the beauty (or curse) of having computers and using programmes like Logic – with effectively unlimited tracks you can completely indulge yourself.

Overall, though, Matt and I tried to do the majority of it ourselves largely because we work so instinctively together. It’s a partnership that stretches back to when we were kids. We know how we work, and what our strengths and breaking points are. There’s just an unspoken understanding which makes recording together easy. Recording other people is always harder: you have to be on your best behaviour.

Q: What new influences are on this album which weren’t there on ‘Say Yes!’?
‘Say Yes’ was a bit of a hodgepodge of influences. I guess this was partly as a result of us consciously trying to write a song that sounded like A or a bit like B.

On this album there was less intent, and the songs arrived through a more organic process – we just played what we felt like playing at
the time. But we were listening to a lot of Richard Hawley, John Grant, Gorky’s and early REM, so some of that may have seeped in.

Q: social media and the internet have seen your recordings seep around the webosphere; do you see this as a threat to the band’s commercial viability, a challenge to the control of your work, or as a compliment or tool to get content viral?
If I had to balance getting paid for people downloading our music or it being available to a much wider audience for free I’d certainly choose the latter.

At the level we’re at, file-sharing is both a pleasure and a necessity: its people passing on music they like by recommendation, and I’m still amazed at the thought that someone in Argentina or Canada can listen to us. Knowing that someone in South America is listening to ‘Times Table’ is bizarre when you think we recorded it ourselves in a bedroom in Bristol. When we first started out in bands that was unthinkable. The only people who heard us were the neighbours.

Q: the cover of your first album had a Peter Blake, British working-class feel which complemented the songs. Should we be judging the content of this album by its cover? Is the design already in the bag? Is this side of things important to you?
That cover was a painting called ‘The Big Kick’ by Tim Wright, a Cornwall artist. It’s pretty much about the only thing we’re happy with on that first album! We haven’t got anything definite for this one yet but it’ll be something ‘local’ for us; something related to the Forest of Dean of Wye Valley. The art-work certainly needs to reflect the content, and I love an album with a great sleeve, or something interesting when you open it up.

Q: Personally, you first recorded with Airport Girl playing drums on both their ‘Honey, I’m An Artist’ and ‘Slow Light’ albums (both on the Fortuna Pop! label). Do you still compose and record the drum parts for The Hi-Life Companion and only get Mark (Freeth) in for live duties? Did you find the drums a creative stifle?
I roughly work out the drum parts and then Mark plays them. I did the drums on one track on this new album but the rest are Marks. It’s been quite a learning curve recording drums. On the first album we just stuck a couple of microphones near a set in an untreated room and I bashed away. To give you an idea of the level we were at, to try and dampen down click-track bleed through the headphones we just strapped pillows to my head…on this one we’ve taken longer to get a better, more professional sound. Besides, Mark is a much better drummer at blasting through the quicker numbers.

Q: How much of the arrangement is done away from the recording stage?
Pretty much all of it really. We worked out demos for most of the new songs a couple of years ago, and they’ve served as the basis for the proper recordings we’ve been working on since then. But we still added and improved late in the recording stage, and this is often the most enjoyable and creative bit, suddenly adding a part that you’ve just thought of. So much of recording is endless takes of a given established part that it’s fun to be creative and do something which takes the song in a slightly different direction.

Q: Do you have a complete picture of the layers you want to add to a demo, or does this arise out of the playback?
Mostly it’s just getting it down onto tracks, but as I say, there are always new ideas and other additions that happen once we’ve got the majority of the song complete.

Q: You’ve turned 40 since the first album, does this mean the second album is more reflective than the first. Is it darker? How much are you guided by the sound of the first album, by which I mean is there a ‘Hi-Life’ sound you find you’re looking to maintain even if the theme is different?
The new album is definitely more reflective and considerably darker, but I’m not sure whether that’s related to my age or not. We wanted the album to have an overall theme and feel, and that has turned out to be a fairly dark, melancholic and romantic one. ‘Say Yes’ didn’t really have a cohesive sound at all – like the first Airport Girl record it sounded like lots of different songs recorded in different places at different times by different people. But just as Rob did with the Airport Girl follow-up ‘Slow Light’, we wanted to avoid that confusion as far as possible. I wanted it to sound like the same band throughout, even though the ‘band’ is for the most part just Matt and me. I’ve never really been happy with our ‘sound’ before. In fact, I think we sounded terrible on record, so hopefully there’s an improvement with this new material precisely because it is a more consistent and organic reflection of ‘us’.

Q: You presented touring with Airport Girl as a mix of euphoria and exhaustion. What’s your approach to live performance with The Hi-Life Companion?
Mostly I’d have to say it was exhaustion. I haven’t really enjoyed having to organise so many different people for rehearsals: it’s been a real struggle getting people together. The last time we were preparing for gigs attendance at rehearsals was pretty inconsistent. I guess I’ve had to accept that for some people the band just isn’t as important as it is for us, which is understandable. When we get around to putting a band together to play live again we’ll have to have a re-think in that respect.

In terms of actually playing live my enjoyment has always been tempered by that feeling I get when playing songs I don’t actually like. Again I think it’s a process of admitting ‘I don’t like playing that song and it sounds dreadful’ and focus instead on what we want and would enjoy playing. It’s accepting that often the most painful part of a gig is where you’re playing a song you hate, badly. Basically, I need to be more assertive!

Q: What are you most proud of with this album? How many tracks were surplus to the final number which will feature? Is there a stand-out obvious first single?
I’m proud of the fact that between us we’ve worked at it and worked at it, and now we’re within sight of the finish line. I think we’ve got better songs, with better lyrics and better singing. In fact everything sounds so much better.

There are 11 tracks on the album and we’ll probably have at least one more left over, which might find its way onto a compilation – or we might give it away through a free download or something. I think it’s only when all the tracks are fully mixed that we’ll know what really stands out. Some of the songs sounded great as demos, but you never know if they will sound as great when recorded and mixed ‘properly’.

Expect the new album to be ready by the Autumn of 2012.