Human Memory, Human Contact, and Releasing a Debut Album During Lockdown: An Interview with The Howl & The Hum

The Howl & The Hum
The Howl & The Hum
The Howl & The Hum discuss their debut album, ‘Human Contact,’ and lead singer Sam Griffiths comes to the revelation that, in an age of contrived digital memories, forgetting can be just as important as remembering.

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With undeniable hypnotic allure and a sound that can make you feel nostalgic for a life you haven’t lived, The Howl & The Hum are primed and ready to release their debut album, Human Contact. At a time when human touch and interaction is so limited and unavailable, Human Contact is an aptly named record. Although the name was coined long before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the international lockdown, its uncanny timing will allow it to resonate in an entirely unexpected way.

The Howl & The Hum Album
Human Contact – The Howl & The Hum

Since releasing their debut single, “Godmanchester Chinese Bridge,” in 2017, The Howl & The Hum have made a name for themselves as true musical storytellers with a remarkable ability to create an all-consuming live atmosphere. Physical interactions, shared experiences, and memories form the epicentre of our lives.

Human Contact discusses these themes in the contexts of the digital era and dementia, a disease that proves the real mortality of human memory.

The album manifests moments of happiness, sorrow, and frustration while shape-shifting through a variety of genres – although frontman Sam Griffiths does ponder whether genre is dead.

Atwood Magazine spoke to Griffiths about the band’s accidental premonition, the unnecessary pressure to be creative during a lockdown, and how it feels to release a debut album in 2020.

The Howl & The Hum
The Howl The Hum © 2020

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Atwood Magazine: Hello there! First of all, congrats on the upcoming record. It must be really exciting to be dropping your debut album. As the date approaches, are you finding yourself becoming nervous for its release, or are you just happy to finally set it free into the world?

The Howl & The Hum: Well, there was a time when we were worried we would have to delay it because of the Coronavirus. There are so many artists delaying the releases of their albums because they’re a bit further into their careers than us. But we thought because people still don’t really know who we are at this stage, we’ve kind of got a leg-up in that we don’t have to push the record forward or back.

So, we can stay as excited as we’ve always been and go ahead and do what we want with the release because there aren’t so many expectations on us to follow anything up, which is kind of nice! It means we’re eased into it as opposed to it becoming a scary process where we have longer to wait and panic. So, I think we’re worrying a lot less.

I guess that’s one good thing that’s come of it!

The Howl & The Hum: Yeah, something like that. I keep worrying about it! I spoke to my friend on Zoom the other day, and he said, ‘Hey man, it’s nice to see you guys have been profiteering off the international crisis!’ I was like nah, we’re making no money! Obviously, the whole Human Contact thing, and us still going ahead with the marketing for our album, probably means we could be seen as Bond villains, we could be like chemical warfare mongers, but we’re not! I promise we’re not and if we were we’d be terrible ones.

No, I’m sure no-one sees it like that! The name of the album is obviously something we have to talk about. Human Contact is an incredibly apt name considering the current situation. How are you feeling about how that’s played out? Does it feel like extra pressure?

The Howl & The Hum: Apt is a kind word, I’ll utilise that word in future! I don’t know, but we’re trying to identify ourselves with The Simpsons writers who predicted Trump’s inauguration. So, really we’re accidental sages or prophets. Who knows what our second album will be about, but I reckon if you’re a scholar of the future get your book out for our next album, who knows what we’ll predict. But really, it’s fine.

I think it’ll lead to a couple of articles saying, ‘well this is wacky isn’t it, they’ve got an album called Human Contact when none of us can touch each other’, and that’ll be it. Hopefully, the album just goes to show the importance of human contact and interaction in a more digital time, even more so now when it’s difficult to see friends except through a screen. So, hopefully, the album touches on those aspects of life.

Watch: “Human Contact” – The Howl & The Hum

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Yeah definitely, I think the name will lead to it being received well. We’ve heard some singles from the album already, but out of the unreleased songs, do you have a favourite? Is there one that you’re particularly excited for your audience to hear?

The Howl & The Hum: Oh yeah, definitely! It might sound really pretentious and like a marketing ploy, but my favourite songs on the album haven’t been released yet. We’ve got a song called “Sweet Fading Silver” which is a fan favourite and it’s been in the live shows for about two years, so we haven’t released that because we know its ammunition for us. I keep describing us like we’re violent people, we’re really not, we’re not warmongers in any way.

I’m not going to use the word ammunition again! But that song is very special to us as a band because it’s the first one that really told a story through the music as well as the lyrics. That one really sticks out on the album. It’s also the only one on the album that we recorded as a full band, in a room together. We were all facing each other, with Jurassic Park being projected onto the wall to provoke some strange mood that the producer thought would benefit. I don’t know if it did, but I think it’s a pretty good version.

There’s also a song called “Got You On My Side,” which I think is the simplest song I’ve ever written and therefore one of my favourites. It’s got about a sixteenth of the words I’d usually put in a song, and it was quite hard to keep it at that! I’m proud of it, and it’s got a cool vibe.

Amazing! So, it’s looking like those songs will be released during the UK lockdown period. Has that changed the way you’re approaching the release, marketing, or your communication with the fans at all?

The Howl & The Hum: Well, we were meant to go on tour, so that’s really sad. A few weeks ago Brad, our bass player, said: “Oh just to let you guys know today we were meant to be in Paris, tomorrow Antwerp, and a few days ago we were meant to be in Amsterdam.” We had all these amazing tour dates lined up that we’ve obviously had to move to next year now. So, that’s really strange because you get physical contact with fans at shows.

You get to stand a few metres away from people while performing and interact with people before and after shows. It’s such a treat, and it’s the oldest style of marketing really, being able to actually go out and talk to people about their tastes, the album, and their stories. Not having been able to do that has been really difficult. We’re thankful for being in an age where digital marketing is so easily available, and we can do all these Facebook and Instagram live streams so that we can talk to people in as many ways as we can.

We’ve started a podcast and stuff like that to try and help people engage with us and find out who we are. I think that’s heading in the right direction, but we wrote an album about it, we miss human contact! It’s been difficult to bridge that gap. We’re not expecting this album to blow up, but we’re looking forward to touring it when we are all able to go back into a communal space, back to the natural way.

The Howl & The Hum © 2020
The Howl & The Hum © 2020

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So, would you say it's going to be particularly sweet when you actually get to go and perform those shows?

The Howl & The Hum: Oh man, yeah! I was talking to a friend about it actually. I think when gigs actually come back, and they’re not going to be back for a good while now, they’ll be fucking nuts! I think gigs are going to be mental. My friend thinks mosh pits are going to come back in a big way. I’d like to see one of those happen at our gigs because our music is quite melancholy and a lot of the time quite slow. If people want to mosh, go for it, as long as no-one’s getting hurt.

I think people are gonna start having a good time at gigs again and it’ll get a bit mad, I hope so anyway. I think we’ll plan some extravagance because one of the strangest things is how insular the writing process is, which I guess we’re in at the moment. We feel like we’re storing up energy and hibernating. At gigs, it feels like a release or a payoff, the expulsion of the energy you’ve stored up like a bear in hibernation.

I think everyone who’s into music is missing gigs and festivals right now, and you're clearly missing performing. When live shows go ahead again, do you think they’ll be any noticeable changes in behaviour or protocol, or do you think everyone will just muck in again the same as ever?

The Howl & The Hum: I think there’ll be over-arching anxiety about it because I don’t think this problem will go away anytime soon, or possibly ever. I think the way people act in crowds will change. I’m no expert on how they’re going to implement changes or limit the number of people who can go to a gig or how close you can stand to people next to you. But I think there is going to be anxious about it and people are rightfully worried about what can happen.

I just hope it doesn’t deeply affect the mindset of gig-goers and people going out to enjoy things. Maybe if people are moshing, and bumping into each other that could be a bit more of an issue. But, for people who are just going to enjoy music and art, there’s something so human about being in a crowd, I don’t think you could ever take it away or extinguish that.

I think that gig mindset is quite built into people now, so I don’t think it will just go away. It will come back eventually I just don't know how quickly?

The Howl & The Hum: Yeah exactly, I hope for the sake of safety it’s a gradual thing, but I hope for the spirit of live gigs it does go back to normal. We’re just going to be considered a very strange generation, who don’t know how to act around anyone!

Watch: “The Only Boy Racer Left On The Island” – The Howl & The Hum

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Yeah, I think we will! As a writer, I've found during lockdown that some days I have so much to say and it all just spills out onto the page, but on other days the craziness of the situation has overwhelmed my creativity entirely. As a musician, how has the current situation impacted your creative process? Have you found that lockdown has spurred you on to write music and create, or has the opposite happened?

The Howl & The Hum: I guess little bits of both. I’ve definitely written and finished one song in isolation, which I really enjoyed making, and still enjoy the final result of. Everyone in the band has been creating their own things, whether it be artwork or writing music as we can start building the lyrics and melody. So, everyone’s been really busy, which is great. But, I also think there’s a mild pressure, and I don’t know where it’s coming from, to be creative and productive in this time even though you’re completely askew and out of sorts with what you should be doing, but there’s this odd pressure to come up with something.

At times I do feel it if I’ve been playing with software, the keyboard, or guitars and I haven’t come up with anything. It feels like a pressure saying ‘but you’re inside, you’re a creative, shouldn’t you have created something by now?’ which seems a little daft. It’s one of the reasons we started this podcast, to try and talk to other creators about what they’re doing in isolation and how they conjure up ideas, or how they accept the idea of not being able to conjure up ideas. I think that’s a healthy way to think about it, but you’re right, it comes, and it goes, and you can’t force it out. Lennon Cohen said, ‘If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.’

That’s a good quote!

The Howl & The Hum: Yeah, you have to sit around waiting for inspiration a lot of the time, and I think inspiration is hard to come by when you’re just sitting in your room playing with your belly button or something. It’s a lot more difficult than being able to go to the pub and see your mates or see real-life unfold. I and our guitar player have been running a lot, not together, but I find that’s a really good headspace to go, clear your head a bit and remind yourself what the outside world is like. Just watching people along the Leeds and Liverpool canal, there’s a bunch of stories in those people, so just conjuring up little ideas out of them can be good. It is a lot more difficult without seeing real life and all its weird magic happening.

Trying to take some positive from the lockdown, lots of musicians have found fun, inventive ways to connect with their listeners over the internet – like you guys with your podcast. Is there anything you’ve done, or seen done by others, that you’d like to keep doing when everything goes back to normal?

The Howl & The Hum: As you said, I think it will be a gradual thing, so I think there will still be those Instagram lives. I think because of the way the internet is connecting with the music industry anyway those sorts of things already existed, they just happen so much more regularly in isolation, which is fair enough and it makes a lot of sense. But I personally am not the biggest fan of the quarantine gig live streams. I think they’re great for being able to connect with people in this situation, but it just makes me miss normal gigs so much more. I think a lot of people feel the same way, you miss being either five feet or 500 feet away from a performer and being in the same space as them.

To be separated by screens with data flying through the air does feel a little bit strange. The podcast is something I’m really enjoying, it’s sort of an element of catharsis for me because it means I can talk to friends and even people I don’t know particularly well about how they’re getting through this. It’s not necessarily therapeutic, but there are some mindful elements to it. Being able to discuss craft is something I find very interesting. I really enjoy a podcast called ‘Song Exploder’ where they talk to a particular artist about how they made one song, and there are so many good ones on there.

When I’ve listened to an episode of that I usually go and write something, and when I finish talking to someone on the podcast we’re doing, I usually go and create, write, or draw something. It’s a nice inspiration, so even if it’s just for me and no-one is listening to the podcast, I don’t really mind, I’ll keep doing it.

Watch: “27” – The Howl & The Hum

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Yeah, I guess there are some mechanisms that help you forget, purposely, so that you can carry on.

The Howl & The Hum: Yeah, and that helps you become yourself, be more of the you that there is. I like that.

You’ve just released ''27,'' which in my opinion is a really exciting track because of its disco undertone. I think one of your greatest successes as a band is your ability to maintain a really cohesive sound, while many of your songs are different genres. Is that intentional, or do you guys have a really broad spectrum of influences and tastes that has led your music to unravel in that way?

The Howl & The Hum: Again, both! Our only rule is to put the song first. So, the songs usually begin with me at the piano or with a guitar, and with the lyrics, melody, or chords, then we try to tell the story musically. We are inspired by loads of stuff, the album preparation of us sitting and listening to stuff takes forever because we go in so many different directions. We just love music, so I guess we all started as little white boy indie fans, who learnt to play the guitar, bass, and drums through that, but then since listening to a lot more diverse albums and artists, then our music has begun to broaden as much as our taste.

When we released Portrait l a couple of years ago, there are disco elements in that that we didn’t even realise we could make, and then we started writing these parts and realised ‘oh shit, that sounds a little bit like this thing that I listened to last week and I didn’t even realise that was in my brain’. We’ve never intentionally given ourselves any genre. People keep trying to describe us as a genre, and I also quite like their definitions of it, but I don’t think we’d ever stick to one, because the next song that we release is gladly going in a different direction. As long as the songs tell the story of the song we’re happy to not be in one place. I think that’s always the aim of an artist, to never just burrow yourself and be in one place.

I’m still always amazed when I listen to David Bowie and to hear all the new genres that guy could put on one album, but over the course of his career as well. Stuff like that, to me, is the ideal musical life.

Definitely, I think people like Bowie were already playing around with genre, but I think it’s becoming so much more prevalent. Everyone is experimenting with genre and having different genres in their music. I think that’s one of the most exciting things going on at the moment.

The Howl & The Hum: Yeah, genre is dead, I read that the other day. I don’t listen to them a lot, but last year The 1975 were releasing so many songs of different genres that I genuinely thought that music would stop and it would just become The 1975 releasing songs of every single different genre and we wouldn’t know anymore. It wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world, but I wouldn’t have been that surprised!

Just to finish off, how do you feel when you listen to Human Contact, and how do you want your listeners to feel?

The Howl & The Hum: I don’t listen to it! I spent so long sitting at pianos, and with guitars that those songs… I can’t even explain. It’s not even the back of your own hand. I know those songs in and out so terrifyingly well that I can’t listen to them again. It’s not like nails down a chalkboard, it’s just incredibly familiar. In terms of other people listening to them, I don’t know, that’s a really good question that I’ve never been asked before. I haven’t thought about it before, but we write these songs to be accessible, it’s hopefully accessible pop music.

But we want to be able to tell a story that people haven’t heard before and created a vibe and mood that can be as uplifting as it can be melancholy. The comments and feedback that spur me on are the people being affected by things and how the songs can be applied to their own lives. I might write a song about a boy racer in Orkney, and then it prompts an Australian guy to go and make a film by meeting some guys in a parking lot outside a gun shop. It’s stuff like that absolutely blows my mind.

It’s the complete separation of the art from the writer that really excites me, that people take it into their own. As soon as the song is released, it becomes everyone else’s music, and that’s always really excited me. The most I can hope for is that this becomes everyone’s music.

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