To mark the release of Human Contact, the debut album by York band The Howl & The Hum, DAVID NICHOLSON takes a listen and remembers where, for him, it all began
WEDNESDAY NIGHT FOR ME IS THE QUIZ with Tom Adams in the chair at The Swan in Bishy Road, York, followed by a swift bike ride to catch the last hour of the open mic night at The Habit in Goodramgate.
This particular Wednesday five or six years ago – I forget which; that’s what a lifetime of late-night gig-going does for the memory! – was no different. A student from the University of York had dropped by and the host, David Ward Maclean, gave him his chance to play by. “Hi, I’m Sam Griffiths,” he said, before being almost drowned out by the noise from the bar. Then he played Videotapes, a song from his days with a band in his home town of Colchester.
Now, at this point in a film script it usually says, “Then the crowd fell silent, realising they were experiencing something special”. But The Habit’s raucous drinkers didn’t. The noise from the bar continued; only those regulars nearest to the window seat that passes for The Habit’s stage area started to show an interest in the music from the fresh-faced English Literature student whose clear voice cut through the clamour. Polite applause followed.
Then, a dramatic pause, a glowering glare for the audience from Ward Maclean, and a break that was just long enough to command an uneasy calm. Sam introduced his second song, a cover version of Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, which he reinterpreted in the style of the blues and gospel singer, Reverend Gary Davis.
Who was this kid who had the effrontery to turn that tune, a beautiful, post-punk, pop classic, into an undulating yet wistful ragtime lament? This was the moment when the crowd really did fall silent, knew it was experiencing something special. I still get goosebumps from the memory. My friend Sam Rowntree – a shrewd judge of good music – and I turned to each other, not quite believing what we were witnessing.
In the weeks that followed, Sam Griffiths became something of a regular at The Habit and the city’s other open mic nights, notably Boss Caine’s rumbustious Sunday night ‘Busk at Dusk’ and Chris Helme’s excellent Ruby Tuesdays at Sotano’s, the dive bar beneath Kennedy’s in Little Stonegate.
We got to know Sam and his passion for Bob Dylan; indeed, at York Uni he was working on a dissertation on the lyrics of Dylan’s classic break-up album, Blood On The Tracks. Suddenly, every musician in York seemed to want to play alongside him.
He was eager to learn, too. Ward Maclean shared ideas and we introduced Sam to the music of John Prine and Eef Barzelay’s Clem Snide, and one of my heroes, Loudon Wainwright III. Within a week of discovering Loudon’s first album he was playing the American’s classic School Days better than Loudon himself. I never knew anyone so eager to soak up everything so voraciously.
He teamed up with Kai West, Ben Crosthwaite and Rupert Engledow in the Hyde Family Jam, taking city busking to new heights. When university ended, he stayed on, officially a Yorkie now.
It wasn’t long before he teamed up with versatile bass-player Bradley Blackwell to form a band with guitarist Conor Hirons (formerly with York favourites, The Littlemores). Jonny Hooker, now the main producer at the city’s burgeoning label, Young Thugs, drummed with the band for a while before Jack Williams joined to complete the line-up.
As with all the best original bands, their music was hard to categorise. They jokingly refer to their genre as ‘miserable disco’ but that fails to do justice to intelligent lyrics that stick in the memory, riding on a wave of melodic rock with a dramatic edge to it.
They have been favourably compared to Alt-J, Portishead and Massive Attack. But those comparisons hint only at a fraction of the potential of this band. The lyrical brilliance sets this band in a class of their own, where they might be better compared to Radiohead or Elbow. They quickly caught the ear of a couple of music industry insiders and, though a record deal soon followed, they resisted rushing to make their first album. They have wisely taken their time with extensive touring and one-off gigs, honing their craft, writing and growing a loyal fanbase.
Along the way, they have been championed by influential broadcasters, including Huw Stephens, Tom Robinson and Annie Mac. And by me, a humbler kind of fan. You’ll have gathered that I’m not exactly in a position to give an unbiased opinion of the album here, but you’ll have to take me at my word when I say that Human Contact is a great debut offering.
The jury is out as to whether the title is a stroke of prescient brilliance during these socially isolated times but give them a listen on YouTube and Spotify. The 13 tracks showcasing The Howl & The Hum’s versatility and lyrical deftnes live up to all the promise of the singles and videos they have released in the last three years.