London country-psych-folk-rock band The Hanging Stars are in a good place – and I’m not just talking about the traditional East End pub that we’ve agreed to meet in.
The five-piece – singer and guitarist Richard Olson, bassist Sam Ferman, drummer Paulie Cobra, Patrick Ralla on guitars, keys and vocals and pedal steel guitarist Joe Harvey-Whyte – have just released their third album, A New Kind Of Sky, and it’s their best, most cohesive and sonically adventurous record to date.
From the hypnotic opening track, the shimmering, magical and other-wordly ‘Choir of Criers’, which features a Marxophone – a type of fretless zither played by a system of hammers – you know that this is going to be a truly special and richly rewarding album.
There are several cinematic songs: ‘Three Rolling Hills’ has Mariachi horns and a Spaghetti Western vibe; the trippy ‘Lonely Rivers’ has an electric piano-led groove and echoes of Pink Floyd, while the spiritual and hymn-like ‘I Was A Stone’ opens with a church organ and has a brass arrangement reminiscent of a New Orleans funeral.
‘I Will Please You’ is a catchy, glam-rock-tinged sing-along; the stripped-down, acoustic ballad ‘Song For Fred Neil’ is a paean to the ‘60s and early ‘70s singer-songwriter; ‘Heavy Blue’ is classic-sounding country rock and first single, ‘(I’ve Seen) The Summer In Her Eyes’ is pastoral, Byrdsian jangle-pop.
The bulk of A New Kind Of Sky was recorded live at Echozoo studio in the Sussex seaside town of Eastbourne. The sessions were produced by Dave Lynch and took place shortly after The Hanging Stars had returned from a tour of Germany – Lynch has really captured the energy of the band.
On the night I interview Richard and Sam – a few weeks before their new album is due out – Richard is almost ‘expectant father’ excited, as his own vinyl copy of his own album should be waiting for him at home when he gets back from the pub.
“I’m still trying to come to terms with it all,” he says. “It usually comes together when I get the vinyl…”
SH: You’re very prolific, aren’t you? This is your third album since 2016.
Richard Olson: We don’t stop recording – it’s the only way we can do it, as we can’t afford to take two weeks off to go and make a record in the country. It’s an ongoing situation – that’s one of the reasons it’s so much fun to play with this group.
So how did you approach this record?
Sam Ferman: When we started The Hanging Stars, we had a definite idea of what we wanted our first record to be like – cosmic, psychedelic, spacey country music.
With our second album, other influences came in and it was a bit of a transitional period, as our original keyboardist and pedal steel player had both left. I love the last record for its variety.
The new one could’ve been a completely different album – we talked about what type of band we were and what the core of the record should be. There was the potential for it to be more of an acoustic country rock album.
When we did the recording sessions in Echozoo, we’d just come back from a tour of Germany – we were playing the new songs in our set and by the last date of the tour something magical happened, because we were so synced-in with playing with each other.
We wanted to capture that energy from the tour, so we recorded most of the songs live at Echozoo in three days, playing as a full band.
It’s a big studio, so we had plenty of space to play live – the live thing is who we are. Dave Lynch’s production and engineering were brilliant – he coached us through the whole process.
RO: We had a lot of songs for the new album, but we decided to make a 10-track record – it is a very coherent album. I think we’ve got something really special – I can’t wait to play the new songs live. It’s amazing to be in a band that’s made up of five arrangers – everyone has great ideas.
SF: One of the great things about being in The Hanging Stars is that Rich brings us beautiful melodies and choruses and then we jam and work out the arrangements.
How was it recording in Eastbourne?
SF: It was nice being by the sea and feeling a little more detached from the vagaries of modern life. Eastbourne is a beautiful town.
Let’s talk about some of the new songs. ‘Choir of Criers’, the opening track, is majestic, and it has a groove to it…
RO: It caresses your ears, but, lyrically, it’s also a bit of a protest song. I’m really pleased with it – it was fun to do. That was one of the songs that we hadn’t played live.
SF: I can remember Rich coming over to mine and showing me the idea for ‘Choir of Criers’. It sounded like something off David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name – that kind of vibe. We jammed it and worked it up over three or four days.
Both ‘Three Rolling Hills’ and ‘I Was A Stone’ have brass arrangements by Sean Read, who has worked with Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Edwyn Collins and The Rockingbirds. How was it working with Sean?
RO: Sean is great – he’s part of the team. I don’t see ‘Three Rolling Hills’ as a Spaghetti Western song – it’s more Bolero. I think ‘I Was A Stone’ sounds like Spacemen 3.
‘Lonely Rivers’ reminds me of Pink Floyd…
SF: Yes, but I think it’s closer to Neil Young’s On The Beach.
‘Three Rolling Hills’ was inspired by a trip to Marin County, in California, to hang out with friends from the band Asteroid No. 4. Can you tell me what happened?
RO: I can’t tell you anything that’s printable! It was awesome, but we ended up getting into a weird situation.
What’s influenced a lot of our records is us hanging out with other bands that are good pals of ours – like The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
There are recurring lyrical themes on the album – the idea of escaping and getting away to a better place. On the title track, you sing: “had enough of today – of the grey skies and rain – think I’ll pack all my bags and start walking away…” There’s a lyric on ‘I Was A Stone’ which says: “When the world is cruel and mean, I’ll show you the way to your dreams…”
RO: I wrote ‘I Was A Stone’ about my children – it’s about how much light they shine into my soul.
‘A New Kind Of Sky’ is about Brexit – it was one of those songs that wrote itself.
‘I Will Please You’, which was the third single from the album, has some pounding piano on it and is a bit glam and very poppy – it has some ‘bah-bah-bah’ backing vocals. It’s a different kind of song for you…
SF: Patrick came up with the piano riff during one of the interludes in our rehearsal sessions – I started singing the backing vocals and Rich started humming a melody.
RO: I think it’s quite British and a bit Small Faces – I’m a massive fan of the Small Faces, but I hate the way that the mods have hijacked that band. As far as I’m concerned, the Small Faces should be spoken about in the same breath as Love. Look at Ronnie Lane – there was so much folk and country music in the Small Faces…
The lyric for ‘I Will Please You’, is written from the point of view of someone who’s joined a cult. What inspired it?
RO: I think I was watching Wild Wild Country at the time…
What can you tell me about ‘Heavy Blue’ – which has a drinking theme – and the very personal ballad ‘Song For Fred Neil?’
RO: ‘Heavy Blue’ is about finding yourself in a place where you wouldn’t normally be – and it’s not necessarily a good thing.
I’m really fond of ‘Song For Fred Neil’ – I like self-confessional songs. It’s a love song to music – how it can genuinely touch you – but it doesn’t sound anything like Fred Neil. His music means so much to me, but it took me a long time to get into him.
SF: Rich and Patrick recorded ‘Song For Fred Neil’ in a studio in Nashville. When I heard it, it was clear that nothing needed to be added to it – it’s so beautiful.
With a new album out and some live dates coming up over the next few months, how are you feeling about 2020?
Editor’s Note: This interview was made before COVID-19 and the lockdowns hit!
SF: We’re really looking forward to playing gigs around the UK – we’re doing quite a few dates. This record feels like a long time in gestation, but I’m super-proud of it. I’m really looking forward to people hearing it.
RO: When you release a record, you can feel like a lost ship on the ocean, but there are a lot of people who suddenly give a s*** about us, which is really nice. We’ve got a lovely fan base.
Would you like to get bigger and go to the next level?
SF: If McDonald’s suddenly wants psychedelic-country-space-rock…
Would you do it?
SF: Yes. We have worked so hard to put the stuff out that we have, so if someone comes along and says, ‘here’s a bit of money…’
Ninety or 95 per cent of people who get big record deals are those who’ve been to places like The BRIT School – you have to have come from quite a comfortable background, rather than a working class one. I find it depressing that they’re the only people who get a shot.
Rich and I aren’t from comfortable backgrounds. I wouldn’t classify myself as poor working class, but, when I was a kid, my parents sacrificed a lot to get me a guitar. You shouldn’t knock people who come from a poorer background who take the money when they’re offered it.
In the past, when you made a deal with a record label, even if the money was low, you got a good proportion of what you were owed – that’s now disappeared completely.
RO: Things have changed so much – it’s now a completely different game. I have friends who can sell out Shepherd’s Bush Empire but they still have to have day jobs.
Bring on the next level whenever you f***ing want, because I’ll deal with it.
A New Kind Of Sky by The Hanging Stars is out now on Crimson Crow.