In an era where pop music has been processed and packaged to oblivion and rock has regressed to the point that it's pretty much lost its way, Hope Of the States are signposting a way forward. Their debut album doesn't follow rock's conventions. There are 'rock' songs that eschew verse-chorus in favour of almost classical structures; blasts of pure noise that somehow coexist with beautiful, sublimely bittersweet melodies and walls of guitar nestle happily alongside trumpets and strings. It is unashamedly, triumphantly epic and could well have people struggling to find comparisons in everything from obscure noise bands to film soundtrack composers. Perhaps most impressively, their album The Lost Riots confirms that - in a year of sallow easy-listening and lyrically-bankrupt songwriting teams - Hope Of the States are a band with something to say.
Hope Of the States formed in Chichester in December 2000 - the quiet town's first ever notable musical export. Sam, Ant and Jimmi were mates who had known each other for years. Paul Wilson had played bass in an old band of Sam's and Simon Jones was a buddy from what he wryly describes as the 'Chichester drinking scene'. Violinist Mike Siddell - recruited via a small ad - was the only "outsider", but soon slotted into what felt as much as a gang as a pop group in the close-knit, us-against-the-world tradition of bands like the Clash and the Who. As Sam puts it, the feeling of being in the band is one of "knowing that you'd lay down in traffic for your friends," a feeling that was to pull the boys together all-the-more strongly in coping with guitarist Jimmi's tragic death in January of 2004.
Hope Of The StatesTaking their name from an Albert Deutsch psychiatric paper lambasting the state of the U.S mental asylum system and making suggestions for reform, Hope Of the States adopted military uniforms to signify band unity as and comment, ever ambiguously, on man's inhumanity to man. Their music was about more than the usual rock 'n' roll subjects of sex, drugs, rebellion, making pots of money and hanging out beside swimming pools. "I hate to use the word, but disillusion is a big part of it," Sam considers. "We're not political as such." It's an ambiguous, timelessly disturbed feeling: "not something you can illustrate with pie charts." This collective restless spirit has been accompanied by a breathtaking attention to detail, which further sets them apart in the times of homogenised, identikit pop.
When their Black Dollar Bills appeared on the nascent Seeker label - in a hand sewn sleeve and at an epic seven minutes long (a tradition shared with New Order's Blue Monday and the Orb's The Blue Room) - the music world was jolted to attention. "One of the most extraordinary debut singles in years," was a typical response in the Sunday Times, and the record immediately sold out its limited pressing of 2000.
Around this time people also began to note that this strangely angry but beautiful music was being made by one of the finest live bands in the country. Their awesome live shows, which Sam describes as "psychopathic rock 'n' roll," were peppered with images of genocide, riots and warfare courtesy of projectionists Ed Emmerson and Matt Simmonds (aka Type 2 Error) - honorary Hope Of the States members and the boys responsible for the band's award-winning videos and sleeve designs. "We wanted it to be more than just a few guys playing the same tunes every night," expounds Sam. "We wanted a show. We wanted to make people come away thinking, "What the hell was that"."
Hope Of the States signed to Sony in June 2003, and carried on honing their live shows through the summer to recruit thousands of new fans in appearances at Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals and in their own first proper headline tours that included sold-out and stupendous London shows at the ICA (in July) and ULU (October). The subsequent release of Enemies/Friends in October showed just how far the band had come in amassing a huge and loyal fanbase when, despite minimal radio presence, it reached Number 25 in the UK charts.
From here, the band knuckled down for the recording of what was to become The Lost Riots. Never entirely satisfied with the sound on their two singles, the band chose producer Ken Thomas - the man behind Icelandic experimentalists Sigur Ros - to twiddle the knobs, and, says Sam, "we instantly sounded like ourselves. Ken creates an environment where anything goes. He wasn't making a record with us - we were making it with him. He pulls you back when you need it and pushes you when you need to be pushed. I can't imagine making a record with anyone else."
The band and producer Ken decamped to the remote locale of Grouse Lodge studios in Ireland, having searched high and low for the perfect environment in which to record their opus. In an eight week period during which Ant left the studio complex only once, the group found that the "positive claustrophobia" they had there worked perfectly to lock them into the intensity of their music. "It was all we thought about, 24-7," admits Sam. "If we'd have recorded in London we'd have been distracted by everything."
When their time in Ireland ran out, the band relocated to Peter Gabriel's Real World. "The intensity had worked so well for the first stage and by then it was nice to have a bit more light," explains Sam. "As outside situations came in, it opened up the record a lot and a lot of ideas came out of that period. It was a "joyous time" where the band layered on the detail - huge, swooping strings, hooting trumpets and other pivotal touches that take Hope Of the States far, far beyond guitar rock. Which makes it unfortunate that, for some, their time at Real World will always be synonymous with what happened to Jimmi, who took his own life there on January 15th 2004.
Hope Of the States are anxious that Jimmi Lawrence should not be posthumously canonised as another of rock's "prophets of doom." Yes, he could have his moments of darkness but no more than the rest of the band and no more than any regular bloke. Jimmi, in fact, was particularly fond of hilarious impressions of characters from Withnail & I.
Equally, Sam Herlihy doesn't want people reading anything into lyrics that were written before Jimmi died. "I will kick against that forever. Singing these songs has always been a really positive thing to do. People will read things into stuff and they're wrong, 'cos it was all completed. I'd be devastated if every time i was singing these songs I was thinking about Jimmi."
Thus, while the album's spectrally beautiful centrepiece Don't Go To Pieces is perhaps now laden with added poignancy ("Are you angry when you look at the world? There are a million good hearts, like you and me"), it was actually inspired by a phrase in a conversation Sam had with his father. The tense, insistent The Red, The White, The Black, The Blue could be about a world moving on from nationalism. Other tracks - the violin-led, deceptively merry George Washington, or the snowbound, self-doubting, perhaps slightly disturbing Me Ves Y Sufres could be about anything people want them to be - except Jimmi.
The album contains 12 songs that are by turns tense, intense, angry, beautiful, rollercoasting and serene but somehow emerges from the darkness with a smile. It shows that rock music can still provoke, inform and thrill enormously, which is why it deserves to be hailed and remembered as one of the great British rock debuts.
The Lost Riots sees daylight in the US in October 2004.
Hope Of the States are Sam Herlihy (vocals, guitar, piano), Anthony Theaker (guitar, piano, organ), Mike Siddell (violin), Paul Wilson (bass), Simon Jones (drums)