Hooton Tennis Club sing about the small details of life. Theirs is a world in which curious observational lyrics abound; poetic riddles and wry nuggets that contort the banality of everyday existence while never succumbing to cynicism. Quite the opposite in fact: Hooton’s songs are bathed in sunlight, and find romance where others see squalor.
Their debut album Highest Point In Cliff Town is the sound of the summer of adolescence slipping into the autumn of adulthood. Here the wit of Kurt Vonnegut and twisted storytelling of Wes Anderson collide to tell tales of banal jobs, relationships, memorable parties and passing characters. The song titles alone read like the opening lines of classic novels not yet written: ‘Something Much Quicker Than Anyone But Jennifer Could Imagine’, for example, or the F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque ‘And Then Camilla Drew Fourteen Dots On Her Knees’ and ‘Kathleen Sat On The Arm Of Her Favourite Chair’.
These knowing titles belie a keen ear for a song. Make no mistake: this is classic underdog indie music — melodic, fragile, wonky, witty, poetic, pop. Definitely, defiantly pop. Skewed melodies and oddball narratives combine in perfect symbiotic musical harmony, each song a small burst of sunshine to warm the coldest of hearts. Think Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Pavement, Randy Newman, Big Star, Silver Jews – but birthed in northern English towns in the 21st century.
From Chester and Ellesmere Port, Hooton Tennis Club grew up together. They shared record collections, went on school trips, bonded over a shared love of I Should Coco by Supergrass and played in a number of bands with improbable names. While studying at various colleges they speedily recorded some songs to upload with no intention of ever being an actual ‘band’. Their name was inspired by a sign for the tennis club in Little Sutton, Cheshire. No secret explanation. No hidden messages. No grand plans.
These rudimentary recordings caught the ear of Edge Hill University lecturer and bassist in The Farm Carl Hunter, then in the process of launching a uni-based record imprint, The Label Recordings. Hooton Tennis Club released the aforementioned ‘Kathleen Sat On The Arm Of Her Favourite Chair’ as a limited debut single via the label in early 2014.
The song was written by singer Ryan Murphy – who was born in Berlin on the hour that the Berlin wall came down – after he had hitchhiked home through France. He had been touring with Robbie Williams while working for a company who recorded live shows to sell on CD straight afterwards. (“I went hiking with Robbie, got pally with Olly Murs,” he told NME. “Taught him the difference between ice cream and sorbet.”). Prolonging his continental wanderings he landed at James’s house in Cambridge and out popped the song.
Hooton Tennis Club soon caught the ears of Heavenly Recordings. Sharing mutual friends in Stealing Steep, label founder Jeff Barrett signed the quartet in September 2014 and their debut proper ‘Jasper’ was described by 6Music’s Lauren Laverne as her song of the year (so far). After a UK tour with label-mate H. Hawkline, the band entered Parr Street studios in Liverpool with Bill Ryder-Jones, former guitarist in The Coral, to record their debut album Highest Point In Cliff Town.
Inspired by the plug-in-and-play quasi-improvisational approach of Deerhunter and Ariel Pink, this free-flowing set of songs give a brilliant insight in Hooton’s self-contained world. Opener ‘Up In The Air’ unravels at its own slack pace. It’s both laconically droll and slightly surreal: “Nothing ever happens so I do the crossword / I’ve got a hat for the top of my head / Six across, five letters around my neck”.
‘And Then Camilla Drew Fourteen Dots On Her Knees’ is like a European art-house film distilled into three minutes, a Polaroid picture of a Copenhagen romance. “Outside the Meat District, where people eat burgers and swipe the ants off their ankles, Camilla — cross-legged in ennui — blobbed fourteen dots onto her left knee” explains James. “Meanwhile, dodging traffic in a green smoke cloud, Ryan-on-a-rent-a-bike bolted back from Christiania – late for their date.”
Born out of boredom in a Travelodge, ‘Something Much Quicker Than Anyone But Jennifer Could Imagine’ charts that missing, listless, drifting day in the week that the band call ‘Noneday’, while the rudimentary Mo Tucker-esque drum beats and Prince-influenced guitar licks of ‘New Shoes’ document a successful shopping experience in a retail centre on a warm summer’s day. A new version of ‘Kathleen…’ was recorded at Ryder-Jones’ mum’s house “surrounded by her chinchillas, geckos and dogs.”
And then there is ‘Barlow Terrace’, which celebrates communal student living in Manchester — a place of parties that laughed in the face of persistent poverty. “Some evenings, after long hours in the studio — everyone smelling of oil and turpentine — the house would pull itself together to make a meal,” explains James. “Usually paprikás krumpli, with bread to share, and candles lighting up your tinny. A lot of the time however, you’d be lucky to find anything to eat. Elated to find a crumpet tucked away amidst the unwanted condiments, unused paper plates and cans of Raid ant-killer, you’d then discover that the toaster had been thrown out of the window the previous night.”
Collectively these songs form a debut infused with pop’s most vital lifeblood: youth. It’s a brace of musical missives sent from the hearts of four young men in possession of poetic sensibilities, musical inventiveness and a overwhelmingly joie de vivre.
Here lies life in all its many flavours.
Ben Myers / May 2015