From the depths of the psychedelic underworld come the extraordinary tales and sounds of veteran rock group Hey Colossus.
It’s courtesy of long-serving bass player Joe Thompson, who has penned an intriguing new book about the band’s exploits. He’s heading to Walthamstow to talk about his 16 years in group and tell some tall tales on May 29th. It’s followed by the unveiling of their new album, Four Bibles, with a live set at Rough Trade East on June 18th. Fans of the hard-touring band should not hesitate to snap up both.
The title is Sleevenotes. It’s published by Pomona. And it’s part of a series on musicians’ favourite self-made tracks which sees them offering ‘telling insights’ into the history of the band.
Joe picked 17 songs, arranged them in chronological order and divided them up evenly through the band’s disaster-strewn, if glorious, 16-plus years. Killer tunes such as ‘I Am the Chiswick Strangler’ and ‘Hey, Dead Eyes, Up!’ make the cut.
Alongside the musical interludes come the many wild and wayward tales of life on the road. Want to be in a band? You’d better first listen to Joe spin a few yarns at the Walthamstow Rock n roll Book Club meeting. Joe will be speaking to John Doran, co-founder of music and arts website, The Quietus.
Or if you want to save your bus fare, flick to the chapter called ‘The Hey Colossus Guide to Touring’. It’s got amusing nuggets of wisdom – such as how to ensure you can get on the earlier ferry and the wisdom of stockpiling rations before you hit the road. Here’s another one: “Your sat-nav says: ‘Three hours to Paris’. You tell the band it’s five hours to Paris. This way you get to the venue only one hour late.”
Formed in Walthamstow, Hey Colossus has been making noise and generally doing things the hard way since 2003.
Somehow, the band has stayed intact despite all the hit or miss gigs and trips to the studio. A revolving door of characters now into double digits has helped give the band its ever-shifting identity throughout those years. Twelve albums have been recorded. Countless other tracks for splits and compilations, too. And throughout it all, Joe has anchored the band.
“The book, on the outside, is about some songs,” Joe writes. “Really though it’s more the story of a band…not a big and successful band in the traditional sense. Maybe this book will help my mum understand.”
Joe spares no blushes. From the empty venues to the van troubles, it’s all here. Their ‘pirate ship’ of broken amps and triple-guitar drang has seen pillage a doctor’s waiting room in Salford, an industrial unit in Liege and a vast field in Portugal. DIY by instinct, sonic and ethical influences from all who’ve pressed their own records, from Sun Ra to Wiley via Minor Threat are detailed.
With self-deprecating charm he nails a sometimes thankless, but always rewarding life making music in a community of friends; ageing gratefully and very, very noisily. Joe also employs friends and bandmates to help tell their unrivalled story.
“To this day I genuinely think these moments are worth the fight. There’s so many people involved in music at the level we all work at, all doing it for pretty much nowt,” Joe tells me. “There HAS to be a reason. The moral being, you have to build your own world, chose the materials and create it to your satisfaction. This band is part of our life.”
Why did he write the book, Joe says: “I was asked. There was no way I wasn’t going to do it. I’ll never get asked again.”
So, over the course of a year Joe knocked out its 261 pages as the band embarked on more gigs and miles, along with sessions to record their fierce new album, Four Bibles, at Space Wolf Studios in Somerset.
The new album is their first effort to be released on the ALTER Label, run by electronic producer Luke Younger (aka Helm). “We’ve known Luke for about 20 years,” Joe recalls. “He was in a band called The!Lights!Alive! and one of their songs was on a compilation we put out called TwoMinutemen.”
[A bit of context: Much to everyone’s surprise, the TwoMinutemen compilation was a brief hit – thanks to John Peel. He picked five bands from the 16 featured on the double 7” and gave them 10 minutes each to play at Maida Vale in front of Peel and a small crowd. “On my death bed, if asked, these nights will be on my list of ‘shit, that was decent’ in my life,” Joe admits.]
Back to Luke Younger… Joe continues: “Luke lived near us in Walthamstow, was at our first gig in 2003 and played with us at our 10th anniversary show. His label has so many excellent releases: Total Control, Liberez, Bass Clef, and the new comp he’s put out is really splendid.”
It’s the first HC recording to feature on ALTER and yet another label in the disparate discography of Hey Colossus, which reads like a veritable who’s-who list of independent record labels from Britain and further afield. “We deal with people we like,” Joe explains. “And I think the labels we work with only deal with people they like. We get to know each other first – then we go for it.
“The first aim is to break even, and we always do what we can to make that happen – by playing as many shows as we can. The second aim is to promote both band and label to new people. We like to work together. Riot Season, Rocket Recordings and ALTER are all excellent labels releasing great music run by people who are doing all they can with the tools available.”
The new album
Intriguingly, Four Bibles features some of Paul Sykes’ most clear and decipherable singing. It also shows off the band in a very rich vein of playing and songwriting.
But first, the singing. If you’ve seen Hey Colossus live over the past few years, you’ll have heard the transition. Paul has waved goodbye to the distorted guttural roars of the tremendous RRR-era circa 2011 – and said hello to the enigmatic churn of his storytelling in 2019.
“Yes, it’s been a conscious decision to push them forward in the live mix and on record,” Joe says. “The last two albums were written very much with his singing in mind. Space has been given. We like vocal melodies. There’s no shame in it.”
The result may disappoint a few Colossus fans who preferred Paul’s attempts to swallow his microphone on stage. Instead, it reveals the previously cloaked narrative to their songs. But don’t expect any clues. Despite being intelligible, it’s also playfully obtuse and poetic. It works.
The band play along as they unveil their most patient and clean collection of crushing riffs and melodic laybys ever recorded. And despite trimming the distortion there is no loss of power. Oh, and see if you can spot the rare cameo from Daniel O’Sullivan (This is Not This Heat/Grumbling Fur).
“Most of the new songs are more direct,” Joe explains, “a direct energy with direct attack. They’re not harsh punk songs or brutal death metal but they are direct. Paul is on fire. It’s so nice to have melody over what the instruments are doing, it’s very under rated is melody.”
As the guitars and drums chug along in subway car precision, Paul nonchalantly sings the first lines to ‘It’s a Low’ which goes something like this: “Is your life / Is your life forceful? / Have you all the lights off waiting at home for disasters to fall / It’s in your blood.” And on it goes in truly sublime majesty, not without its comparisons to a more sedated Pavement or a less angular Wire.
Don’t take my word for it. Go listen to Joe tell stories about his time in the band. Or double down and hear the band play their new tunes at Rough Trade East. You won’t be disappointed.