The 1970s felt like a very “ill” decade. Those of us who were children at the time were well aware of the impact of commonplace maladies, and we all share fond memories of gazing woozily at BBC Schools programmes while attempting to shake off the unpleasant effects of mumps, measles or chickenpox. Or, indeed, incorporating unspecified abdabs into our childhood games… it was an era when simple playground pursuits like “Tag” were rebranded as “Bugs”, or even “Fleas”, the sole object being to contaminate as many of our closest friends as possible with the lethal, imaginary infection of our choosing.
Then, of course, we could wallow in the welter of TV and film favourites that took a myriad of plagues and maladies as their starting point. There was Survivors, of course, but even Hollywood blockbusters had their moments: 1978’s Coma, directed by Michael Crichton, depicts a spate of unexplained brain-deaths in a Boston Hospital; and the lesser-known Patrick – from the same year – sees a troubled Susan Penhaligon despatched to care for a comatose young man who nevertheless seems to exhibit worrying telekinetic powers.
Good grief, there was even Only When I Laugh, an illness-based sitcom, with James Bolam, Peter Bowles and Christopher Strauli seemingly stranded indefinitely in a grim hospital ward with three non-specific, long-term lurgies.
All of these memories sprang to mind when I first listened to Hattie Cooke‘s excellent new album, The Sleepers. Released by the cassette-friendly Spun Out Of Control, it forms the soundtrack to an strikingly original narrative, an approach that has become the label’s intriguing trademark. The story is that of a worldwide sleeping sickness that baffles the scientific community, and the young woman – Maude – whose son becomes affected. When he is kidnapped by a violent sect who are determined to sacrifice the snoozing victims to achieve misguided absolution, she decides, in desperation, to infiltrate the cult’s membership. But unexpectedly finds herself falling for a fellow member…
It’s an album of beautiful, cinematic electronica, and I asked Hattie about its inspirations and evolution.
Bob: Your previous work has been as a more traditional singer-songwriter, although you’ve incorporated a few synths here and there. Had it always been in your mind to make a full-length instrumental album?
Hattie: I’ve always loved soundtracks, and classical music especially. When I was about 12 or 13 I started asking for soundtracks as Christmas and birthday presents. I was really into Amelie, and the Yann Tiersen soundtrack in particular, and I pretty much played it on repeat. I think it was around that time that I starting thinking “One day I want to compose music for films…” So I guess you could say I’ve always had the inclination to do it. But realistically I had no idea what that meant in principle or how it would sound, just that I wanted to be like all of the composers I admired. That feeling has never gone away, especially as I’ve gotten more into film as I’ve grown older.
The ideas behind The Sleepers are quite specific, and it has a set narrative… did you always intend it to be a musical work, or did it ever cross your mind to write it as a novel, a short story, or even a film?
The Sleepers actually started out as something else entirely. Technically it started out as a dance record about four years ago, but I scrapped it. And then last year I came back to the files and realised that there was some good stuff that I could develop into something new. At the same time, my friend Nick [as Nicholas Langley and Dark Half] was about to release a concept album called Rebel Convoy, on Spun Out Of Control, and he inspired me to try something cinematic myself. The music kept reminding me of a post-apocalypse, dystopian movie, and so I started to imagine a film in my mind, and began to re-write the music as a soundtrack.
Initially I was thinking along the ‘nuclear apocalypse’ line but, somewhere along the way, the music began to take on a life of its own. When the album was half-written, it had a much more dream-like quality. So I spent a few days coming up with a new plot. I came up with some pretty terrible ones but eventually I landed on the idea of the The Sleepers, which was partly inspired by the Oliver Sacks book, Awakenings. It was on my bedside table at the time.
I had wanted to release a short story along with the music, but ran out of time. In my wildest dreams somebody would turn it into a film and let me write the screenplay.
The idea of a worldwide sleeping sickness is so delightfully reminiscent of those blockbuster 1970s “disaster” books and films, and I guess the obvious comparison is something like Coma. Did you have that kind of thing in mind when you started thinking about The Sleepers? Is there a secret Michael Crichton fan in us all?
Gosh, I could talk for hours about 1970s films; Marathon Man, Network, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Annie Hall, Two-Lane Blacktop, All the Presidents Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Deliverance, Papillon… the list goes on and on. But when I was making the album I kept thinking about 1970s science fiction, and dystopian films like Logan’s Run, Westworld (Hello, Michael Crichton) and THX 1138.
The scene in THX 1138 where Robert Duvall is climbing up that ladder trying to escape to the outside world, as those terrifying robot men call after him, kept playing around and around in my head. That’s why I titled one of the tracks ‘Ladders’, as a private nod to that film.
How did you approach the album – did you have the whole story planned out, and then compose music for each plot point accordingly?
Sort of, but not quite. I definitely didn’t approach it as logically, or as constrained as that. It was a bit all over the place to begin with, but once the album was half done and I knew what the plot was going to be, I began to refine the whole thing. It became clear that I had a specific sound that I was trying to capture. I was going for a dream-like calmness that also had a sense of tension about it, like something ominous or dangerous was about to happen. I have no idea if I pulled it off!
Certainly, at points I’d think, “I have too many dreamy tracks, I need to write one that’s more upbeat, with more tension and energy” and so I would sit down and write until something good came out. But mostly I just tried to put myself into the various emotional states of the characters. I’d picture something happening to them in the film, and then write the musical version of their thoughts and feelings. It’s an abstract process that’s hard for me to get my own head around.
Can you talk us through any characters that you had in mind for The Sleepers? Tell us about Maude! And the cult member she falls for…
Maude! She’s so determined to get vengeance for the death of her son. She’s heartbroken. But the pain drives her. She becomes obsessed by the need to “do something”. She thinks that if she can join the cult, and rise up the ranks, that she might be able to take it down from the inside, so to speak. And then she meets this guy at one of the cult meetings, I never gave him a name, but we can call him Bob after you…
And so Bob is part of the cult too, but unlike the other members, there’s something familiar about him, something in him that she recognises but that she can’t put her finger on. And there’s this tension between them, sexual or emotional maybe, it’s hard to say. But Maude is beating herself up, because she’s really only wanting to focus on her plan. And more to the point, she doesn’t understand why she’s falling for this sociopath who seemingly thinks it’s acceptable to steal children from their beds and sacrifice them.
Eventually they discover that they’re both fake members. and Bob has his own vendetta against the cult. So they connect over their mutual hate and desire for revenge. It’s all very odd and backwards, romantically speaking, but then again I was going through a break-up when I wrote the album, so that might have something to do with it!
As a maker of electronic music, who are your inspirations and influences? I think I picked out hints of John Carpenter and even Mark Snow’s music for The X-Files, but I’m happy to be told that I’m wrong!
It’s funny, so many people – after they hear the music – say to me that I must like John Carpenter. Truth be told, I had no idea who he was at the time. Turns out I’ve seen a ton of his films, but I definitely wouldn’t be able to sing you one of his themes. I’ve always been into classical musical, especially minimalism and chamber music. I spent most of 2017 and 2018 listening to Arvo Part, Henryk Górecki, Erik Satie, Philip Glass, John Tavener… that sort of thing. I think that feeds into what I do.
Obviously I don’t have an entire orchestra to hand, and actually I can’t even read music. I just have an old iPad with GarageBand on it, so I take my influences and impose the dodgy built-in synth sounds on them, and it comes out sounding like John Carpenter or New Order or whatever. It’s a total accident. The music I make is really just a product of my own various limitations. I’d probably be writing for a 72 piece orchestra, or a string quartet, if I could.
How did you link up with Spun Out Of Control? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?
I wrote the album specifically with them in mind. After Nick showed me a preview of Rebel Convoy, I was really keen to release a concept album too. The artwork, the sound, the concept… it was all so exciting to me. And Spun Out of Control are a very cool label. So I spent a few months working on a demo version of the album and then I contacted Gavin [Stoker, label boss] via Twitter… pretty much just asking him to take a listen and let me know if he might be interested in releasing something with me.
I suppose it’s quite a lot of work to put in without any guarantees, but I think it helped knowing that Spun Out Of Control were supportive of my first album… plus Nick at Third Kind Records said he’d release it if nobody else wanted to, ha! But Gavin has been great, very helpful and very encouraging. This was my first attempt at a concept album/soundtrack so it was a great feeling to have him on board with it. He’s a man who knows his stuff! It’s also very exciting to be the first female artist on the label.
They’re on a sensational run of form with their covers… what was your first reaction when you saw the sleeve for The Sleepers?
The artwork, by Eric Adrian Lee, is always mind-blowing. It’s genuinely half the reason that I wanted to work with Spun Out Of Control, because he does the majority of the covers for them. It’s funny though, because I gave him very different suggestions for the artwork when we initially spoke, and then he got behind on another project… so it took a few months. The anticipation was ramping up. And then when I saw what he’d come up with, it was a bit of a shock. Not a bad shock, just not at all what I was expecting. He said he found the album very relaxing and wanted to convey that.
I thought that was very funny. I guess it’s impossible to know what other people are going to think of when they hear your music. The artwork looks fantastic though, very striking and iconic, the sort of thing that belongs on a full-size film poster. I’m a little concerned that the artwork is better than the music!
The revival of the cassette is an interesting phenomenon, too. Do they hold a lot of sentimental value for you?
The fact that I’ve released two albums on cassette is sort of an accident, to be honest… it turns out that the labels who like my music are the sort of people who also like to release stuff on cassettes. I’m OK with that, although I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t desperate to release something on vinyl. I don’t even own a cassette player… I did when I was a little kid, but I only used it because it had an FM/AM radio, and I liked tuning into AM and listening to strange French music.
It took me two and a half years to listen to my first album on its physical format. I was drunk on whiskey and wine, and when we tried to play the B-side the tape went all weird and warped. We wound it back using a pencil but it happened again so we stopped trying. I still haven’t listened to The Sleepers cassette yet. I have one by my beside and I’ve very proud of it, but I’ve always found it surreal and a little uncomfortable listening back to my own music.
Has it whetted your appetite for more scores, and instrumental albums? What will the next album be?
I’ve had another solo album in the pipeline for two years, but I haven’t had the guts to record it properly. It’s wrapped up in a lot of emotions and I guess I’ve been putting off “going there”. But certainly I’d like to write more scores, and I’d love to score for a real-life film, not just one that I’ve made up in my head!
Partly I was hoping somebody would hear The Sleepers and ask me to score a film for them. But since it came out I’ve been asked by Alex White from Electric Soft Parade and Brakes to collaborate with him on a new album. He’s a wonderful songwriter, so hopefully that will happen at some point in the not too distant future. It would be nice to work with somebody else. I’m kind of a hermit when it comes to my work, but I think maybe it’s time to come out of my shell a little bit.
Thanks for Hattie for a fascinating chat, and The Sleepers is available here…