Human Contact (Through a Screen) With The Howl & The Hum

As far as new bands go, The Howl & The Hum are considered as somewhat of a revelation. In a year where sickly sweet guitar pop is reclaiming the throne (hello, Sea Girls and Inhaler), the York outfit have managed to turn heads with their dark, intense and gripping blend of indie-meets-post punk with a splash of film noir. Jack Parker held a Zoom chat with frontman Sam and guitarist Connor to discuss their upcoming debut album Human Contact, the irony behind its name and the desire to connect with one another.

Hey guys. How are you doing?
Sam: Yeah, good. I’m keeping surprisingly busy in isolation which I was not expecting. I expected myself to go through each and every XBox game, but I’ve not touched my controller in three days which is great for me. 

Connor: I’ve been really busy for some reason. Normally there aren’t enough hours in the day to get things done but now there are and I’m still really busy.

Your debut album, the now-ironically titled Human Contact, comes out next month. Can you tell me a little bit more about how this album came to be from a creative point of view?
S: We didn’t realise that there was going to be a pandemic, which is something I want to point out first and foremost. You can call us all fortune tellers but it was definitely accidental. The album is a longing for human contact; we can all relate to this as the world is in a digital time and there’s so much space between people. We’ve tried to spin it in a positive light and make it as relatable as possible so that people can get as much as possible from the songs. 

We wanted to reflect the darkness of that longing, and so there are some dark themes on the album. It gets quite bleak at times but there is also some light and hope in there, moments of humour and moments of joy in the lyrics, production and arrangement of the songs. Pining for human contact isn’t just a bad thing, it’s helping us get through connection and loss.

C: Sam sums it up pretty well. You’ve nailed it Sam. 

S: Thank you. 

I think this is the first interview I’ve done over Zoom. Same for you?
S: Yeah, although I am doing a podcast right now. I’m asking friends of mine who create art of their own to talk about creation during quarantine, and I’m doing that on Zoom. It’s a little bit awkward though as they have to record themselves. It’s very different from face to face but it comes close. 

Jolyon Thomas produced the album. What did he bring to the table from a production perspective?
S: Jolyn is a weirdo, which is great.

C: Don’t put that in. 

S: No, put it in! Nobody liked Jolyon at first because we all thought he was a weird nerd, and then we ironed out the edges after a few pints down the pint. He’s a weirdo who we all grew to love. Jolyon’s really good at capturing the raw energy we have in our live shows. He’s so good at capturing a certain vibe. He introduced a whole focus to percussion as well, which was really interesting. In each different stage of the band’s incarnation we’ve changed a lot, at first we were more folk-y but then during the first album sessions it got darker and more ambient until it became this big poppy thing with an indie edge. Jolyon is great and smashing those two worlds together. 

C: Jolyon would basically make us try everything. Even when you might inherently think that you don’t like the idea of something he would tell us to give it a go and record it and see how it sounds.

S: He’s good at pushing you. He’ll push you from being a person playing an instrument to being a musician. 

Sam, you have a background in philosophy and literature. How much of that plays into your songwriting from a topical point of view?
S: Some of these songs have been lying around for a while and some were even written while I was still a student. The more philosophical stuff usually leaves me overthinking, which is a day to day vice of mine, and if I were to keep namechecking poets and authors the album would be very dull. Bob Dylan can get away with that, and Fontaines DC sounded great doing it, but I rely too much on proper human connection. I can’t really put down all of the influences I have, but I’ve been reading a lot of William Butler Yeates’ work lately; the beauty of his work is that he can write so elegantly. I’ve been reading a lot of TS Eliot’s early stuff too, and I love the way both men write about modernism and embrace it. I also really like The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is about an eccentric Spanish family. I’ve been writing more atemporally lately, which is when one thing takes place more than one time. It’s something I learnt from Tchekov, Bob Dylan and The Watchmen graphic novel series. The TV series was also fucking excellent. 

Do the tracks on Human Contact carry more weight for you now considering the circumstances?
S: Possibly. There’s more talk of loneliness and isolation too. The lyrics hit home a bit more, but by the time the album comes out I hope people will have grown accustomed to this way of life and embrace it more. If the album had come out now then it wouldn’t work, I just want to listen to ABBA all day at the moment. There are downbeat moments on the album, but when it comes out I think people will want to be embracing that misery more. 

C: I think it’s interesting how the idea of human contact has changed from technology stopping human contact but now being the sole thing which makes everything possible again. It shows what a mad world we live in. 

I don’t want to make this interview about the pandemic, but it’s such a massive elephant in the room that it’s impossible to avoid. Do you not feel at all apprehensive about releasing it during such a weird time for the world?
S: There were definitely talks to move the release like other bands have done. For a lot of people it’s a wise decision, but if you’re a band with a reputation to hold up or big touring arrangements it’s different. We’re so new to all of this, and we don’t need to rely on a pre-existing fanbase to get going – we’ve also moved our tour to later in the year. We hope that people will just find this album on Spotify and embrace it. I’m glad we’re still releasing it at a time where the album is more relevant than ever. It’s kind of funny to have an album called Human Contact come out in a time like this, but it was very important to us when we wrote it and even more so now. 

C: That’s the main point, but even from a selfish standpoint we just want it out there. It’s been a long time coming, so we wanted to release it. If you push one thing back you push everything else back as well. It’s trying to not alter things too much; you have to keep doing what you’re doing as much as possible. 

(c) Netti Hurley
(c) Netti Hurley

You guys are all based in York. How much has it helped shape your work, your art?
S: Strangely enough I’ve just been sent 73 videos of myself playing in pubs and bars in York, both with and without the band. I played a lot in bars around York and it was part of the founding of the band. I was 18 and I’d go to all sorts of open mic nights. York relies heavily on pub trade – there are more pubs than days of the year, which is kind of scary considering how small it is here. We all met through the geography of this city and how regular the open mic nights were, we would just play a lot with each other and also join one another during jam nights. We would build up songs from there and then get into a room. It’s why we say we’re a York band as opposed to a Leeds or multi-county band. Our bassist is from Coventry, he and I both moved up to York for university. 

C: If there’s one way to learn how to play music, then it’s in a pub full of people just having a pint and a chinwag. That means chat.

I know what it means.
C: It’s such a Yorkshire word.

I just want to focus on two songs in particular: The Only Boy Racer Left on the Island and Sweet Fading Silver (two clear highlights). Can you outline how those tracks came to be what they are today?
S: The Only Boy Racer Left on the Island is about a boy racer who we saw on the beautiful Scottish island of Orkney, which is where we’d been on tour in our shitty little van. We kept getting overtaken by this one boy racer and we wondered who he was racing, and then it turned out he was by himself and just racing – and overtaking – us. It was very beautiful and lonely, which I hope is our vibe. 

Sweet Fading Silver was written on the journey back from our first ever recording sessions near Bath. I wrote it because there was a big baritone guitar at the studio, and I’d been playing these lovely deep chords. I wrote this lovely, sad short story which was based on a friend’s dad’s car, and then the words I had managed to fit exactly to this little tune I had. I rounded it off with a chorus which fluttered away into the ether. Since then the song has become a live favourite, and I really hope we can do a music video for it. I think it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written, and it’s definitely one of the standout moments on the record. If the record is about missing human contact then this track sums it up the most. 

C: When we were discussing the album we talked about how that song was almost like the centrepiece. That song was the beef on the Sunday dinner plate which pulls the entire record together. Sorry, I’m really taken aback by my neighbour outside. He’s 70 and he’s smoking a cigar wearing a leather waistcoat.

S: I should get a leather waistcoat. What shoes is he wearing?

C: I can’t see, he’s at waist level. 

S: I hope it’s crocs. 

Every few years there’s a resurgence in big indie rock bands all set to make it big. What do you think it takes nowadays for indie bands to remain relevant when there are simply so many of them?
S: I guess it’s the songwriting. A lot of bands will define themselves by swagger, and they’ll shift the focus to identity as opposed to the songs. At the end of the day, though, the songs are what make a band great and our songs are so great which sets us apart. If you come back from a show impressed by the singer doing a backflip then you’ll probably never go back because you’ve already seen the backflip, but if you come back from a show and there’s a song which really reminded you of your Dad then you’d probably want to go back for more.

C: I’m for and against it, but a lot of bands pride themselves on being a guitar band in a more throwback way. We just do what we think works in a song. If it needs synths, for example, then it’ll have synths. I don’t want to sound like I’m up my own arse but just consider yourself as a musician and not a guitar band. It doesn’t matter what you play, as long as it’s good. 

S: We’ve incorporated more electronic sounds into our music too. I think we’re more of a disco ballad band, whatever that is. 

C: I think that the guitar band thing is not about guitars, but just what’s big in the charts in terms of if it’s pop, grime or whatever. Guitar music gets put in this one corner; bands come around all the time but we just write good songs and play them well. 

Looking forward, how do you see this record set you up for the future and where would you like to see it go? Especially when times are so uncertain.
S: Through sheer hope, I hope that they find a virus cure tomorrow and that all of our gigs can go on. I would love to tour but I understand all of the precautions in place, so to some extent we’d just like to go back normal. I doubt it will ever be normal, though. We’ve had the pleasure of playing everywhere, from the Netherlands to America, so it’d be strange if this pandemic cuts it all short. Hopefully we can go back to touring for as many people in the world before we start work on building a second album, but at the moment it’s really strange because all we can really do is hope. We would have been on tour in France right now, which is sad but also understandable. All we long for is a bit of freedom. Human Contact comes out on 22 May. Pre-order it here.