Many of you will remember The Hoosiers, but for those that don’t: they hail from Reading, UK, and their well-crafted, foot-tapping tunes earned them a number one debut album in 2007 with The Trick To Life. Two more followed, one of which made the top 10, and now they’re back with a fourth, The Secret Service, which we at Headliner like rather a lot.
The big Hoosier songs were Goodbye Mr A, and Worried About Ray, and as good as they are, the material on this new record has a little something extra, and has caught us somewhat unawares. Yes, there are some great, catchy, upbeat numbers on there, which you’d expect, but there is a level of maturity and depth in the songwriting that wasn’t there before: the very touching acoustic ballad, Don’t Make Eye Contact, genuinely wouldn’t look out of place on The Beatles’ Revolver; and Dancers In The Dark is an absolute delight. So where did this come from?
“It’s funny,” smiles frontman, Irwin Sparkes. “I think we’ve just got a bit better at it all, really.”
We’re in a bar in London’s West End with Sparkes and the band’s drummer, Alan Sharland. Before taking to the stage at The Borderline club around the corner, they agree to chat about The Hoosiers' rise to fame, some eight years back. We start with those two big hit singles, and Sharland immediately looks like he wants to say something... He does.
“It’s actually three top 11 singles,” he smiles. “That’s how we prefer to look at it.”
This summarises The Hoosiers nicely: they’re not the type to take themselves too seriously, which is always so refreshing with any successful artist. They’re affable, warm, and amusing blokes, who just love writing and playing music, despite having had to cope with a few bumps in the road along the way. They parted with their label, Sony, a couple of albums ago, and in recent years, have funded pretty much everything they’ve done themselves.
“A lot of times, bands no longer with a major get chewed up by the grinder and spat out, and we appreciated that we’d be clinging to the vestiges of it all through social media,” Sparkes admits, openly. “We are able to have a constant relationship with our fanbase; a pattern of dialogue that we haven’t dropped at any time. If we didn’t have that, people would have assumed we’d vanished into thin air.”
Which they certainly have not done. The Hoosiers recently passed the 20,000 follower mark on Twitter, and have never stopped writing music. It’s testament to their hard work and their music, especially when you compare the way the industry was then, to now.
“But we were fortunate that we had the muscle and the market from Sony to break through at all,” points out Sharland. “We’ve maintained a love, and eked out our own existence through the live circuit, as we need to exist. And we’ve made a little money, too.”
“But it all took a lot of adapting,” insists Sparkes. I ask him to explain. “You think, ‘great, it’ll continue after the first album’, which it didn’t, largely due to pressure on creating hits. It’s ferocious. We wrote our own stuff, and the label wanted us to do co-writes, and we were one of the only bands not doing that at the time. They always relied on co-writes, but we thought, ‘no, we’ll do it ourselves’. Maybe that was a little arrogant, but look where it got us... [pauses]... So the moral of the story is, do co-writes, people! [laughs]”
Without major label support, a little thinking outside the box is often required, which had a real impact on the songwriting and overall creative process on The Secret Service.
“We’re trying to reshape as we go, really,” explains Sharland. “With the first album, we spent £100,000 on just the physical recording, and on the second one, maybe more. Now, we’re eking that right down, and when you hear Vampire Weekend recorded their first album for a grand, you think, ‘fuck!’”
“And as we’re doing it ourselves, it’s about investing in the songs, and what feels like a Hoosiers song,” adds Sparkes. “It occupies more of a part-time space, as although we’re full-time touring, we have to do other things out of necessity - even creatively - but that’s also inspired us to write the fourth album [leans into our voice recorder] which is out now on Hoosiers dot com!”
The first album was a whirlwind experience for the band, and then a massive learning curve. It’s now about trying to stay afloat, essentially.
“It’s a simple equation: if we wake up, still up for doing this, then the rest works itself out,” says Sparkes, with a shrug of the shoulders. “We’ve gone from being a big business model to a much smaller business model, and that’s an interesting thing. We do everything – or a lot of it, at least. We now spend £10,000 on an album, and if we sell 1,000 albums, we’re happy; whereas before, including promotion, we spent £500,000 and had to sell one million records to be happy. That’s almost impossible for anyone, now.”
It is, indeed. I ask the pair if there was a pivotal moment when they realised things had really started to change.
“Probably where it became about the writing, second guessing what the public wanted,” reflects Sparkes, sounding serious, all of a sudden. “You’re not gonna be on a major if you’re not on Radio One; you might have a short window, but if they’re not gonna play you, you’re on a windmill to nothing; it’s your lifeblood.”
We all seem to take a moment, and Sharland kindly breaks the silence:
“And if you’re not getting on Radio One or Capital [Radio], you won’t be signed; you’re buggered, basically. And that is minging. You can’t write a song and say, ‘oh let’s listen to Radio One and see which frequencies we’re hearing, where the bass and treble sits within each track’. It’s ridiculous to even think like that, but some people do, incredibly.”
Pre-The Secret Service, The Hoosiers were always thinking, ‘why write another record?’; and the departure of bassist, Martin Skarendahl, in July 2015, helped move things along, somewhat.
“We knew we had more to say, and the lease of life we found with the exit of Martin, who had been in the band for eight years, was a pretty big thing,” Sparkes explains, adding that it was a very amicable decision. “We always wanted to be prolific, but it’s like an ocean liner: it takes a lot of time to take course. We toured our first record for 18 months, for example.”
“So this time round, it was like, ‘let’s write songs, agree on them quickly, and get them out’,” says Sharland. “We wanted to do an album a bit more pure in that sense, and that is what this album is about. We’ll reflect on it – we already have, actually – saying we could have had another week on pre-production, or whatever, but overall, it’s been really refreshing.”
Sounds like a very good thing to us: musicians doing the thing they love, making music, and delivering it to the masses. Right?
“It’s total freedom compared to a major, that’s for sure,” Sparkes smiles.
“Oh, we’re definitely pleased with it, but we have to be open minded,” admits Sharland. “Next time we might do an old school studio album, and mull over it for two years. But yes, the main thing is, you wake up happy and want to write music.”
“And also, in pop music, people don’t tend to stick with a band over a journey as there isn’t one, but hopefully we are different: we want to take them with us for the long haul,” Sparkes enthuses. “There are through-lines from this album to the first, and lyrically and melodically we are progressing and developing our sound. There are even some sexy songs; we’ve -”
Suddenly, we are interrupted by a loud thud. It’s a power cut. A waitress heads over with several candles, and some red wine. Sparkes suggests to her that it must have been something he said, which we find amusing. “Huh?” The waitress says, blankly. Even funnier. Er, where were we?
“You know what, necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s what we’re finding out,” Sparkes announces, as we tuck into the round of drinks. “We have huge budgetary constraints, but also a new co-producer on this record, who Al knows. He’s worked with Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran, so was able to bring a certain set of ears and skills. The difference now compared to back then is, we are learning the craft to writing songs. It’s something we panicked on before, and got lucky with early in our career, but like any other craft, you will improve, and we have.”
Well said, Irwin. It’s nearly showtime for the boys, so we ask them to leave us with a comment on the state of today’s industry. It’s our final question, which is met with Sparkes’ best answer of the night: “Not even the record labels know which way this industry is going because it’s led by the public, which is interesting, scary, and weird... like a herd of zombies.”
An hour later, we’re in a packed-out Borderline club, witnessing a phenomenal set. It’s a venue we hold close to our hearts for many reasons, and now there’s another. Let’s hope another eight years down the line, The Hoosiers still have more to say.