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At Leisure: Darren Hayman

At Leisure is a series of films produced by Luke Turner, writer and co-founder of The Quietus music website and filmmaker Ethan Reid, in which they explore the hobbies and interests of cult artists, and examine the connections between those activities and their work. In this fourth film - which you can watch on the Lush player tomorrow (Friday) - we talk to Darren Hayman about volunteering on the Epping to Ongar heritage railway

 

IN A NUTSHELL

Born in 1970, for over 20 years now Darren Hayman has been at the heart of the often unsung left-field of British Indie. In the late 90s, he was lead singer of Hefner, a band whose songs of loss and relationship disaster were an antidote to the sour hangover left by brusque and jingoistic Britpop.

In recent years Hayman’s work has increasingly taken inspiration from place and history. He wrote a trilogy of albums devoted to the county of Essex, from the post war new town of Harlow to the vicious witch trials of the 17th century. His latest work, a trio of albums under the name Thankful Villages, has seen Hayman recording songs about, making films and playing gigs in each of the few rural settlements which had no fatalities in the First World War.

 

OUR TAKE

Indie music today means something very different to what it meant back in the 80s and mid-90s. Now, you might associate it with boys in skinny jeans whacking away at guitars, trying to find a portal back to the 1990s via lumpy songs with too much woo yeah whooping in the vocals. Darren Hayman, by contrast, is one of the final stalwarts of what Indie was - a DIY ethic and smart music that seeks to delve into the parts of culture that the mainstream or fashion ignores.

This is most especially seen in the way Hayman has operated over the past decade. Based in London, his is a hard-working, committed life of deep research into the subject matter for his ever-fascinating albums devoted to long-forgotten historical subjects and niche interests.

In a time where record sales have collapsed, Hayman is an artist who does whatever he can to keep the musical show on the road - the usual array of releases with independent labels including Rivertones or the Track & Field Organisations, and playing live, is matched by more innovative means of applying his creative skills to keep going, such as taking commissions to paint portraits of dogs.

Perhaps part of this intense work ethic is reflected in Hayman’s fascination with subjects that he turns into brilliant albums and projects. Each of Hayman’s projects devoted to, say, the new towns that sprung up across the UK to house the population after World War Two; the open air pools or Lidos of London; or the cruel witch trials that swept through East Anglia in the 17th century might have research at their core, but never at the expense of songwriting.

These are not dry, fusty, or twee historical documents. Instead, Hayman’s canny ear for a pop song and a love of rhythmic texture - he’s an avowed reggae fan - brings these often forgotten subjects to life. There’s something very curious about a sweet melody describing the demise of a witch. As he described his methods of turning history to melody in an interview with The Quietus, “It’s very hard to impart the amount of information you need to without the exposition crumbling the songs.”

All this is most brilliantly realised in the series of three albums that Hayman has released under the name Thankful Villages. In 2018 - the Centenary of the end of the First World War -  these songs are a way of remembering that that terrible conflict claimed millions of ordinary lives, forever changing the social landscape of Britain. The fact that these villages where all the men returned from war number just 53 is doubly poignant.

To make the Thankful Villages trilogy of records, Hayman travelled the length and breadth of the country, speaking to local people about their memories, making filmed footage, sometimes playing small concerts in churches, village halls, and pubs. The resulting songs are not about war, per se, but moving vignettes of places that are rarely celebrated in the fast-moving, digital world; and tributes to quiet lives and ways of being that are often miscategorised as old-fashioned.

A similar quiet enthusiasm can be seen in this Quietus At Leisure film, in which we follow Darren to the Epping & Ongar Railway in Essex. This was once part of the Central Line that crosses London, and after it was closed the route was rescued by a team of devoted volunteers. Hayman would, as we see here, help with work on old wooden railway carriages or his favourite type of train - the Diesel Multiple Europe. In fact, Hayman so loves these vehicles that they’ve frequently been the subject of his paintings and he’s even written a song about them.

At the Indietracks music festival, which takes place on a restored railway in Derbyshire, he even requests a ride in a DMU as part of his rider. Rock & roll behaviour of a decidedly civilised kind.

Darren Hayman

Five Easy Pieces - Where To Start With Darren Hayman

Hefner - The Sweetness Lies Within

This is Hefner’s very first music video, taken from the debut album Breaking God’s Heart. Although Hayman has at times said that he wasn’t a fan of the record, to mark the 20th anniversary of its release in 1998 he’s been playing songs from it at gigs, recently telling the NARC website that “My residing memory of it is that it’s an odd sounding record, I think it’s awkward and slightly embarrassing, but I do think it’s quite extraordinary, especially if you put it against the trends of the records of the time, in the sense that it’s very indebted to American indie rock.”

Darren Hayman - The Ship’s Piano

After suffering a serious head injury, Hayman needed quiet music to listen to as part of the recuperation process. As ever with his creative practice, this ended up becoming an entirely new project; songs played on an old 1930s piano that had once entertained passengers aboard a ship. Said Hayman of how the record came to be, “Mine was built in France in 1933 and folds away to resemble a sideboard. I wrote a song where I imagine its history.”

Darren Hayman & Elizabeth Morris - I Know I Fucked Up

A song that shows off many of Hayman’s idiosyncrasies in one go. Firstly, this is just one in many wonderful collaborations throughout his discography. Secondly, it’s from another smart project - the album January Songs - made up of tracks recorded each day in January 2011. Thirdly, while his ‘historical’ records have taken the lead in recent years, it shows he does a bitter, funny love song as well as anyone.

Darren Hayman - Impossible Times

One of the most striking aspects to Hayman’s The Violence album was how its songs about the paranoia of the 16th Century East Anglian witch trials had so many contemporary resonances. That’s perhaps most easy to pick up in this rather lovely, breezy track and accompanying animated video. As Hayman said at the time,“It’s about how violence frightens us and how fear just leads to greater violence.”

Darren Hayman - East Norton, Leicestershire

The three album Thankful Villages trilogy is arguably Hayman’s most ambitious project to date, sending him to each of the English settlements which lost no young men in the First World War. Every track he wrote features specific elements unique to each village; be that sound recordings, paintings made, or videos shot.

 

In Quotes:
“All sorts of artists pick subjects, I started to consider that albums should be like short novels with different chapters. I just try and think what would be unlikely in a song. That puzzle intrigues me, and of course it has to be something that is interesting to me. Obviously I’m inspired by other records sonically and musically but subject matter often comes from conversations, friends…one idea often leads to another.” 

 

“I would hope that I’m always writing about people but I am definitely quite focussed on location, and now time, as framing devices. I’m still singing about the same stuff though. Even the Witch Trials album will have songs about feeling out of place, which is what nearly all of my songs are about really. The way none of us feel as though we quite fit.”

 

“I don't write songs because of an all consuming passion and I don't write songs to reach people or to communicate or emote. I write songs because when I do so it's the only time I feel truly calm. Songs, to me, are puzzles. A little while ago I believe I cracked the puzzle of how to write a slightly witty though touching contemporary folk song. I wanted to create some harder puzzles, like doing the hard sudoku in the Guardian on Thursdays. This is one reason I find myself currently writing whole albums about New Towns, illegal dog fights and astronauts. How do you write a song about the building of a tower block and break somebody's heart at the same time?”

 

“If you are a songwriter and something bad happens to you, people say, ‘You can write a song about it at least.’ They mean well, but the big events in life have to seep out gradually with me and not in urgent, confessional bursts. The songs on this record are pleas for calm. As I get older I find I prefer small, quiet things.” 

Hayman’s canny ear for a pop song and a love of rhythmic texture - he’s an avowed reggae fan - brings these often forgotten subjects to life

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