Happy Hate Me Nots by Steve Gardner
Noise For Heroes #21 in the fall of 1991
I'm probably going to be a one man crusader for the Happy Hate Me Nots as long as Noise For Heroes keeps going. For my money they're one of the best bands in the world, and certainly among the top in Australia (I'd rate only the Celibate Rifles and Exploding White Mice as equals).
The pairing of Tim McKay and Paul Berwick on guitar has resulted in some of the most powerful melodic rock and roll anywhere over the past several years. To call their music power pop would be a fair generalization, but it would be missing a lot of the point, too.
The Happy Hate Me Nots play a special brand of power pop that goes much deeper than the sort of fun-time music that comes to mind when the term is used. Their music has an emotional edge to it that's transmitted in every aspect of the music; in the words, in the guitars, in the drums. It's a lasting kind of music.
For me the keys are probably Berwick's voice and his guitar playing. The main reason for reaching this conclusion is that the lp on Aberrant by his previous band, Positive Hatred, evokes much of the same feeling. Positive Hatred existed in 1982 and 1983, and Berwick was the only member who moved on to the Happy Hate Me Nots.
Their sound was less sophisticated than the Happy Hate Me Nots, and the production is rougher and liver, but the music evokes the same feeling. "Think About Tomorrow", which for my tastes was the best track on the Happy Hate Me Nots "Out" lp, was originally a Positive Hatred song that appeared on the Aberrant compilation "Flowers From The Dustbin". It's slower there, but the feel is similar.
While in Sydney I got a chance to talk to Paul in a little cafe near the Waterfront Records shop, and I told him how much I liked that track.
"Oh, yeah?", he replied, "That's a pretty old song for us, that's a Positive Hatred song. At the time I wrote that I was right into the Clash and Generation X, and that sort of staccato drumming like "Tommy Gun" or something like that. That sort of melodic guitar playing, I've always been into that."It certainly shows through all the Positive Hatred material, and the feel continued with the formation of the Happy Hate Me Nots in 1984.
At the beginning it was Paul and Tim with Peter Lennon on bass and former Positive Hatred drummer Neil Toddie. Toddie soon moved over to the Sydney band Itchy Rat and was replaced by Mark Nicholson, who now drums for Toys Went Berserk.
In early 1985 the Happy Hate Me Nots connected with Waterfront Records for their first single, which featured three songs: "It Won't Do Any Good", "Silent Boys" and "Aren't You Glad You Know". All three have the feel of later Hate Me Nots material, but they suffer from a fairly flat production.
In late 1985 the second single came out, "You're An Angel" and "What Did They Say". It represented a quantum leap in the band's sound.
"Angel" is a dynamic song with slow quiet bits that burst into loud, powerful rocking passages. It was also the first song of the bands to appear on an overseas record...on the Stiff compilation "Countdownunder - Party At Hanging Rock". The flip is even better than the A side...the same use of dynamics but it has the kind of speed under control that their best material has. This one also made a compilation; the "Sounds Of Sydney Volume 3" record released in Australia.
After this single the band went through a few changes. Peter Lennon left and was replaced by Christian Houllemare, a fellow who had moved to Australia from France a few years earlier. Christian had played in the French band Bad Brains (not the US hardcore thrashers) who had put out a mini-lp on Closer at one time. Then Mark left to join Toys Went Berserk, who were a better match for the sort of style he was looking to play.
Now it was time for a more ambitious recording project, the mini-lp "Scrap". This time they went to Trafalgar studios and produced themselves with Alan Thorne as engineer.
Also recorded in these sessions is one of my favorite songs they've ever done, which sadly is only available on a compilation that was given away to people attending a Waterfront showcase night in Sydney on a night that I just happened to be on vacation there.
In early 1988 the band released their masterpiece, the lp "Out". This is the record that Waterfront's Chris Dunn reckons is one of the two or three best the label has ever released.
But between "Out" and today there's been very little from the band; a couple singles of tracks taken from the lp ("Don't Move Too Far" with a non lp cover of Bob Marley's "Lively Up Yourself" as the flip and "Soul Rejection" with another cover called "Resistance") but then nothing until this winter, when suddenly there was another great single, "Something". So most of my conversation with Paul had to do with what happened to "Out" and where the band had been since then.
Asked about how he felt "Out" was received, Paul replied:
"Well, it was pretty good. It was the highest selling independent album for 1988 in Australia, so I guess you can't ask for much more than that, can you? It really sort of solidified us as a name. It got us on the map in a big way."NFH: I had the impression that they did a really shitty job of promoting it.
Paul: Well, that's pretty disappointing. Why bother putting the thing out if you're not going to put it out properly. Well, another thing that happened was that the guy that worked at Rough Trade that had a lot to do with that deal coming about...they had a big purge at that company and he was one of the people that went, so now it's sort of bad luck because our one and only contact is gone.NFH: You're not really a Rough Trade type of band anyway.
Paul: No? I don't know much about Rough Trade America...is it similar to the stuff that's put out on Rough Trade in England? Because I know the Smiths were on Rough Trade, weren't they?NFH: Yeah; I think Stiff Little Fingers were their first band, and they had the Raincoats and the Swell Maps. I thought feedtime were a more logical choice for them.
Paul: Well, we just thought it would be a good thing you know. If they were interested enough to pay money and release it there, and we weren't getting offers from anybody else.NFH: Well, definitely if it's your only offer it's better than not having a deal at all. It's been a long time since that came out and you haven't put out very much since then. What's been going on?
Paul: I'll try and keep this short and not too much bullshit. Basically after "Out" came we thought...because it did so well here; we were getting noticed and some of the tracks were getting played on mainstream radio and we thought great, and the next thing would be that we'd get the chance to get off Waterfront and get into a major label.NFH: Yeah, I'd say. With Positive Hatred isn't that back to like 1984 or something?
Paul: Earlier than that; it's 82 or 83. That's a long time to be hanging around and not get much out of it. I mean I really started to think that maybe I should be doing something else. I mean, I know that's where my talent lies, but geeze, you know.NFH: It's the same story for one good band after another.
Paul: Well, I know nothing's going to come easy for us. I mean, how can I say it? I don't want to sound big headed or anything like that, but bands like the Kinks, you know, they were a great band and stuff, but I always got the feeling that they were never a really hugely successful band in some way. Or Big Star maybe? I'm not trying to say we're as good as Big Star or whatever, I'm just trying to draw a comparison. But Big Star is a band that put out three great albums, and where are they? One guy's dead or whatever, and the other guy, I don't know what Alex Chilton's doing, you know.NFH: Yeah, there's something to be said for in 5 or 10 years that even if you don't make it and make a lot of money, to just be able to sit back and say I did these three albums, and these are three great albums, and nobody can take that away from you.
Paul: Yeah; I mean I'd like to get something out of it, too, you know. And I have got things out of it; I shouldn't say I haven't gotten anything out of it. There's been a lot of enjoyment.NFH: Chris was saying that you might do a tour of the US and Europe when you get the album out?
Paul: I don't know about the United States at all, but I'm pretty sure we're going to go to Europe in September, probably. That's been such a long time coming. And that's another thing we want to do. Some of the bands that we started out with, and even some of the bands that started out after us, they're doing things like that now. I'm not saying it's like the be all and end all to go overseas and play, but it's something you aspire to to get overseas and play. It's a great thing.NFH: It's kind of a big step when you do that, because that's the point where you've gotta say "OK, finally the music is going to be the main thing in my life, and my job is going to have to go away".
Paul: Well that's how I approach it at the moment. The job's just secondary. I mean, I'm a van driver in the city, and that's nothing to hang onto. I could quite easily walk away from that and it wouldn't hurt me at all. It would hurt my wallet, but that's about all. The next single, I'm really proud of it, the one that's going to be the A side of the next single. I find it a bit strange that it's a single, because when I think in terms of a single..."Something" was a great A side, but this one's a bit unsettling. It's a bit strange, it's sort of like ideas from musical sounds came into it. I like the Beach Boys a lot, and I think that Brian Wilson just must have heard things in his head all the time. Just an idea like that is sort of apparent on this record.NFH: I know what you mean about the distinction between a song that's a great song but not necessarily a single.
Paul: I don't know, I wouldn't pride myself on being able to pick singles. I've got no idea. Like the Yardbirds put out some weird singles, I think. I mean, they're great records, but things like "Shapes Of Things", that's quite strange, if you just take it out of its nostalgia thing. You listen to old records now and you think it's great because of that sound from so long ago, but if you just take it and listen to it you'd think "gee, this is crazy, how would people ever think of that as a great single?". I find that a bit weird sometimes.NFH: I think of songs that are great singles as being songs where you just have to hear it once and you go "yeah, I like that", whereas there are a lot of songs where you hear them and it takes a while. Like Died Pretty's "Mirror Blues", when I first heard that I hated it, and then after I played it more I got to love it.
Paul: Actually, that's one of the only songs that I really, really like of that band. I think "Stoneage Cinderella" is my favorite record of theirs, I guess. And "Everybody Moves" is a great song.NFH: Something I really like about the Happy Hate Me Nots is the hard edge that's also super melodic. People think about bands like All as being a melodic punk band, but they're not really close to that.
Paul: I saw All here, but unfortunately the gig was in a hole and it was just horrible sound. But I went up front and those guys were so energetic that I felt tired watching them. They've got a great drummer, just amazing. But that's the thing, though, they get a bit too caught up in these fiddly changes. It's like Frank Zappa stuff, so much going on that you just get lost. And then the next song they might play is like "Clean Sheets". What a great track. I thought they were pretty melodic, but I just couldn't hear it. There was too much going on to let some natural sort of melody come out of it. I really like them 'cos they were energetic though; a great live band. I haven't got any of their albums, though. But I've got a couple of Descendants albums. Like "Pep Talk", that's a great one.NFH: So you've finished all the stuff for the mini album?
Paul: Yeah, that's done. We did it with Rob and Alan Thorne at Trafalgar Studios. On this thing, and you might be able to tell from "Something", the sound's a little bit clearer, I guess. We really talked a bit about the drums 'cos I was really keen on getting a more live drum sound, 'cos Mick's a pretty good drummer; he's pretty quick and he's accurate as well and he tries things all the time so that no take is exactly the same. I think with that sort of drummer you can't get this sort of separated, huge sort of sound like "Something" is trying to go for. That's one thing we tried to get at on these tracks. I think we sort of got it, you know. I'm pretty pleased with it.NFH: What do Rob and Alan really add in the studio when you're working with them as opposed to somebody else?
Paul: Well, with Rob and Alan at Trafalgar, you'll come out with something pretty good. I'm not saying it doesn't matter who you are; you've got to be able to play pretty well. I think Rob sort of lets the band, if they've got their stuff together, just lets them go in playing and just keeps an eye on what's going on. Alan knows that studio so well, he'll pull a great sound for you. People ask me this all the time and I never know quite how to answer it, mainly because I think about it quite a lot myself and I don't actually do it. With Rob, as long as the stuff's got a character, he sort of draws it out of each person's performance. He was really hard on me on the singing on that record. I was really tired when I got to do the lyrics. It was at the end of a 12 hour session, and then the last three hours I had to start singing. We were cut for time. But working with Rob and Alan is pretty good for us because we know them and they know what the band's about, so it's a pretty good atmosphere to work in. I really enjoy working with them.At this point the batteries on my recorder went belly up so the conversation ends. But the heart of the matter is that after a long period in which there was no apparent news from the Happy Hate Me Nots camp for us overseas listeners, the silence is broken and now with a deal with Festival under their belts the band will be starting to get records out fairly regularly in the near future. Whether these records will get licensed for US or European releases remains to be seen, but at least it will be possible to get them as imports, and music as vital as the Happy Hate Me Nots is worth doing a little legwork for.