Over the last four years, former The Futureheads frontman Barry Hyde has had a mental breakdown, spent a week at a Fourth Way yoga retreat in Arizona, been through a divorce, moved into a six-bedroom vicarage with a group of bohemians, been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, been admitted to Cherry Knowle psychiatric hospital on three separate occasions, split up his band, worked as a chef, trained as a music teacher, and released his debut solo album.
It’s called Malody, and it’s an intensely energetic insight into a curious musical mind. Oh, and it’s absolutely brilliant. We caught up with Barry to chat about the making of the album, gigging in vegetarian cafes, and the state of the modern music business:
You’ve previously spoken about how all you ever wanted was normality, but now you’ve made a record that’s completely unlike anything you’ve done before. Why?
‘I think that it’s fundamentally down to different instruments being used to create a different musical world. There are no drums on the new album (which also means, for the live shows, there’s no drum sound checks/tuning of drums/drummers…), no electric instruments, and no vocal harmonies. It’s more of a case of missing out all of the characteristics of everything I’ve done before. By doing this, I immediately created a different world with this album. It was all to do with being tired of playing electric guitar, really. I’d just completely lost interest in writing on the guitar; I’d fallen into bad habits, settled into automatic behaviours, and I was getting too comfortable and settling into the same creative habits. It was nice to change things up a bit.
‘Also, one thing that I was really enjoying when I wrote this album was singing quietly.
‘I’d gotten used to belting it out and using the top of my register, so it was nice to just be able to sit down and sing something that’s a little bit softer. It was just a totally different experience. I really liked having the freedom to do what I wanted, too; it doesn’t matter if what I’m doing is going to sell or not, because I’m in a position where I’m able to do it anyway and have it not matter too much. I don’t think that musicians even think about whether or not what they’re doing is commercially viable anymore, really. What’s going on with the music business is crazy nowadays. Everyone goes crazy in the end. Being self-employed is hard work, but being a self-employed artist in some bizarre Olympic Games organised by the hidden hand? They suddenly have to care about other people’s album sales, and it’s a slippery slope from there.
‘It’s a heart-crushing experience, being an artist. Unless, of course, you’re happening to be ‘the chosen one’.
‘I don’t care about that game anymore. I class myself as more of a teacher of music than as a performer, nowadays. I’m still performing all day, every day in the classroom. I’m going in and teaching at degree level now, so I consider myself to be more of a professional musician than I was before. I break up for nearly four months in a week or so, and I’ll still be doing plenty of music in that time, but there’s a lot more rigor to it now. I actually see what I’m doing now with playing piano music as almost a life-long conundrum. I’ve been a musician for twenty years now, and I do think that I’m only just beginning to pick open this thing with music. I feel like there’s a lot of very special knowledge in music and music theory, and that there are a lot of things about creativity and creation that I’m only just starting to think about. Who knows? In another forty years, I might actually be quite good at it.
Do you think that the ‘business’ side of the music industry can ever stifle an artist’s creativity?
‘Oh, yeah. I recently passed my driving test, and I got my first car, and because of that I’ve been listening to the radio a lot. Different radio stations are, of course, playing different types of music. If, for example, you listen to BBC Radio 3, you’ll hear absolutely crazy classical music during the day. It’s music that’s using all twelve notes, and it’s compositionally wild. Anything can happen on daytime BBC classical channels. If you listen to Radio 1, though, you will repeatedly hear music that uses the pentatonic scale. I think that the songwriters of pop music are deliberately using this very accessible scale, and that’s because of the politics of the music business.
‘I’d love to be in a daytime radio playlisting meeting. It’s obviously all to do with ‘okay, we’re going to push this artist, and they’re going to sell records, and that’s what’s going to keep all of this going’.
‘Someone has to be making a load of money from it. This think tank are basically deciding what the general public are going to be exposed to, so why is it that they’re only exposing people to all of these really simplistic sounds? Do they think that the people who are listening to music are simple? I don’t think that’s true. They’re as simple as the art they experience, and they’re as complex as the art they experience. Daytime commercial radio is only exposing people to this simple music, so they’re only getting to experience these simplistic sounds. It’s a conundrum. There are, obviously, alternatives – if you listen to 6Music, for example, you’ll hear a lot of this one particular mode called the Mixolydian scale, and that obviously offers up a lot of different sounds to the listener. 6Music is not as far out as BBC Radio 3, but it’s more interesting than commercial radio, because you hear more notes. It’s a nice change.
It does make you wonder how DJs who are really passionate about new music – like John Peel and Zane Lowe – would (or, indeed, do) struggle to get the music they like played on commercial daytime radio, doesn’t it?
‘Absolutely. Night-time radio nowadays is a lot more interesting than daytime radio. They play some really crazy, avant-garde stuff. I’m not saying anything negative about the people who are writing these big pop songs, though: I think that some of the production is absolutely phenomenal. I just have a problem with the simplicity of it. You could say that we, as a civilisation, are in decline. Everything’s becoming less and less. The equivalent of Morecambe and Wise in our reality is Ant and Dec, and the equivalent of The Beatles is One Direction. They serve the same purpose in this era. They are the ones that make people hysterical, and the ones who make teenage girls faint in stadiums like The Beatles did.
‘I don’t have a problem with this, but The Beatles… Well, it’s fair to say that The Beatles were a slightly different calibre of musicians than One Direction, isn’t it?
‘One Direction can sing, but their shows consist of them randomly dancing around and singing songs that they didn’t write, and it’s almost like everyone there is in a trance. I don’t know. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter. A musician’s journey is a private thing, and if they keep on exploring music than they will become masterful. It doesn’t even matter if anyone hears the music. It’s the process of making music that’s the real benefit, and that’s why I think more people should make music. I wonder how many expensive electric guitars are living underneath people’s beds. People have bought instruments and then never played them, and that’s a bit sad. I think everyone should play music.
If you do decide to make another solo album, will it be piano-based?
‘I’ve had bits of piano music kicking about for years, so I’ve got some premium stuff lying around. When I say ‘premium’ – when you write a lot, some stuff is going to be better than the others, so you call it your ‘premium’ stuff’. For the bare bones of an album, you only really need three strong ‘premium’ starting points. With these three songs, you can then build on that, and you can write from there and make an album.
‘I’ve got a little bit of ‘premium’ stuff left over that I’d like to use, but I want the next album to be different to Malody.
‘I’m going to use a bit of the piano, but I’m also interested in the organ, and the harmonium, and I’m also going to play a little bit of acoustic guitar. I do want a drummer, but not a normal drummer – I’d like an orchestral percussionist. I basically want some sort of bizarre ensemble of different sort of musicians playing together. I’d like something that’ll work well in any sort of venue, too; Malody works well in very small rooms with seats – I did a great gig in a vegetarian café, actually – but I’d like to be able to take the music to festivals. Maybe even getting to do a little bit of sweating on stage, eh? I miss that!