London duo Hanging Valleys is out with a new EP that is near breathtaking in its tenderness. Thom Byles and Michael Phillips describe their music as “ambient-indie,” which is both accurate and woefully insufficient as an expression of what they do.
Byles and I connected by email last week.
How did you meet, and what led to the decision to work together?
We met working together at a post-production house in Soho about eight years ago. We were runners there which basically means we run all the errands, make the teas and coffees and other menial tasks. There was definitely a feeling of camaraderie between the runners and I just really clicked with Mike in particular. We would head out at the weekends to the national parks and beautiful spots around the U.K. in search of adventure. After a while we traded the mountains for music and it’s been keeping us pretty busy ever since.
I was previously releasing tracks under my own name. Mike originally came on-board to help me play these tracks live. After some time playing together we started to develop a nice writing relationship and Hanging Valleys was born.
That reference to soft rock in your bandcamp bio, are you poking fun or are you both fans?
No not poking fun. We’re both into all sorts of music. I guess in the bio we were using it more as a general term for guitar-based music that isn’t your heavier stuff. We both played in a variety of punk, rock, metal bands as young’uns, but when we both met we bonded over “softer” bands like Tokyo Police Club, Beach House and Junip.
I’m really struck by your ability to connect lo-fi indie with ambient sounds. Have you consciously set out to draw those two styles together, or has it happened organically?
It was more a result of what we enjoy listening to than anything I think. We both love hearing records that feel real, not over-polished or over-produced. Hearing the sound of the performer moving whilst playing or the background noise of the room; it’s just something that builds a stronger connection I feel. That coupled with a love of recording (without having a highly spec’d studio at the fingertips) has contributed to the lo-fi element of the sound. The marriage with ambient sounds comes from the power these textures have to evoke emotion and reverie.
Is there some significance to the title of this new EP? The first four songs all relate to light or nighttime, then the title track has a different kind of name.
The overarching theme of the EP is one of slow moments and calm. It’s about that rest which regenerates and rejuvenates. Often this is experienced in the stillness that comes with the night and the coming and going of the light. With the title track, Behind the Backs of Houses, it is about finding that place where calm and stillness can be found regardless of the hour. For me this is a small overgrown garden at the back of a terraced house here in the U.K.
Who should my readers/listeners be checking out, if they’re as blown away by your work as I am?
Thank you so much. Firstly, I would point people in the direction of Beach House. Mike introduced me to them some time back and boy do I owe him! As far as we’re concerned, they can do no wrong. It was hard to pick a particular album but as a first time listener I would go with Depression Cherry as the opener. “Levitation” is a true ass kicker. The pioneering guitar tones, coupled with the beautiful synth work and dreamy vocals is perfection. They manage to have a cinematic sound and at the same time some serious groove and memorable moments, no easy feat.
Secondly, as a more ambient release I would recommend Dragging a Dead Dear Up a Hill by Grouper. I was quite late to the Grouper party but when I first heard this record I was stopped in my tracks. This was not a good thing as I was at work and it is frowned upon to stare into space and listen to albums on loop.
Hanging Valleys, at the time, had two EPs out and we were writing the next batch of tracks. I remember some of the feedback we’d had from some publications; the vocals were too washed out, the songs weren’t catchy enough and the song structures were unconventional. Hearing this Grouper record was like a hurricane of fresh air. Here was a collection of tracks unlike anything I’d ever heard. Liz Harris, to me, became this artistic heroine who was completely following her own vision. This was exactly what I needed to give me the confidence to create freely, forget those comments and follow my own unconventional path.