Ornate compositions crafted and delivered with tender precision…
We were lucky enough to chat with Mike and Thom from Hanging Valleys, and they were more than generous with their responses. Gain an insight into the creative workflow of two independent artists who are forging a unique identity in an increasingly saturated musical landscape. From capturing inspiration to working with world-renowned filmmakers, no stone is left unturned.
Dawsons: Can you each give us a brief introduction into what inspired you to pick up a musical instrument?
Thom: My first memory of enjoying music was when my Mum would sit me and my sister in the living room whilst she would do an aerobics video, always the same one hahaha. The workout was enhanced by incredible bass lines and 80’s style saxophone which soon had me running around the room projecting my limbs in all different manors and speeds.
Some years later when I was living in Mexico, I would ride the bus to school which would take about an hour. My parents had a great collection of tapes and I would audition them on my Walkman on the ride in. Things like The Doors, The Kinks, Cream, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Jazz on a Summers Day to name some. That’s when I really started to listen to music a lot. I would have those two hours a day to myself and I could stick a tape in and get lost in the sounds. I knew I wanted to be involved in music and so started out borrowing the school saxophone and having after school lessons. That didn’t turn out so well, so I moved on to the piano and then finally on to the guitar where I felt at home.
Mike: I remember first listening to specific music as a child and it having a profound emotional resonance with me. It was a feeling of empathy and connection, which I’d never experienced at that point. From that moment, almost instantly, I knew that I wanted a deeper connection and understanding with the music, so I thought “I gotta grab an axe, baby”.
Dawsons: How did you guys meet and how did Hanging Valleys come to be?
Hanging Valleys: We met working together at a post-production house in Soho. 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 UK in search of adventure. After a while, we traded the mountains for music, and it’s been keeping us pretty busy ever since.
Dawsons: What drives your creative process and where do you draw your influences from?
Hanging Valleys: At the heart of it we just love making music, but our creative process has changed a bit over the years. The latest album came together much quicker than the last. My writing relationship with Mike really felt like it came on leaps and bounds. In the previous two EPs, certain songs took months of graft, we’d chop and change the parts and work really hard. It was more of a wrestling match whereas the new EP felt like a fluid process. A result of a stronger relationship between us and a deeper understanding of our craft.
Behind the Backs of Houses had a different writing process than the rest of the tracks. With the others, we bounced idea’s back and forth, this has really worked for us in the past as it gives you time to live with the track and have a good old think about how it can be developed. With “Houses…” we made a conscious decision to write it in the rehearsal space. This meant the decisions we made were all fairly quick and instinctive. We’d play the main riffs over and over again and let the sounds sink in and lead the way.
With every record, we like to shake it up a little bit. It keeps it exciting for us and feels like the music is developing and growing. For this record we added a few more sounds into the mix: a Wurlitzer, bowed electric guitar and some old Casio keyboards. New instruments always spark fresh ideas but finding a sound that fits in with our vision isn’t always the easiest. Living in the information age is a blessing, resources like artist interviews in mags, podcasts (like song exploder, all songs considered, talk house etc..) and live concert footage have helped us massively in tracking down the instruments that make the sounds we love. We’ve spent countless hours watching YouTube live footage in super slow-mo to try and catch a glimpse of a guitar pedal, synth, acoustic guitar pickup…you name it!
The other idea we introduced before starting this latest EP was to form a song club between myself and Mike. Each week we’d pick three tracks we loved, we’d get together and then deconstruct them in great detail. This really helped with creating inspiration for new ideas and also helped us get a further insight into each other’s vision for future Hanging Valleys’ tracks. We post our song club tracks in a playlist on Spotify which you can find on our artist page.
Dawsons: Hanging Valleys’ compositions are densely layered yet flow with seemingly effortless grace, which can only mean that immense effort is put into each track. How do you find time to fit in creating music around your everyday lives?
Hanging Valleys: Thank you very much for the compliment! They certainly are labours of love. The reality is that it takes us quite a long time to take a track from its conception through to completion. We both have day jobs and so it’s all about making the time. That means sleeping less, sacrificing hobbies and social bits and bobs, turning down paid work. You find the time if you’re motivated. Getting the balance can be tricky but so important. Being a musical hermit isn’t much fun so we settle for a slower output of tracks in order that we can live a little 🙂
Dawsons: Do you have any advice for those who find it difficult to squeeze in time to be creative?
Hanging Valleys: I would say you have to be firm with yourself. If you don’t have the time in your daily life, then you’ll have to sacrifice something to gain that time. Not exactly mind-blowing advice hahaha. But I guess looking at your values and priorities and figuring out what you’re comfortable with dropping so that you can enjoy some creativity. I guess as well having some sort of setup that is quick and easy for you to create with is nice to. You find yourself an hour, great! You don’t want to spend half of it plugging bits in and waiting for your windows XP computer to boot up (I’m guilty of both of those) Why did they stop supporting my beloved XP! WHHHHHY!
Dawsons: What instruments do you each turn to when it comes to carving out song ideas?
Hanging Valleys: Mike is mainly a guitar and drum machine man and I’m much the same with some keys thrown in there occasionally. We both love playing with effects pedals and software plugs to spark some new ideas
Dawsons: What method(s) do you use to capture said ideas – i.e. voice notes, hand-written notation, etc?
Hanging Valleys: If we’re at home we both use Pro Tools setups on desktops but we also both use memo’s, loop pedals and portable recorders. Whatever is on hand! At some point, I need to get my hands on some sort of portable multitrack recorder be it hardware or a laptop but so far, I’ve been getting by okay.
Dawsons: As touched upon above, your music is an infusion of a wide selection of instruments. There are percussive elements, sweetly sung vocal melodies elevated by reverb, underpinned by tenderly picked classical guitar lines and deftly executed electric guitar-led effects. What influences your instrumentation choices e.g. budget or stylistic reasons?
Hanging Valleys: We started with the core elements being our main instruments. After playing together we slowly fine-tuned our sound. Later on, with new additions it was certainly more of a stylistic approach. Trying new instruments out to see if they fit within our vision. When we started out it was just by trial and error but now, we are both bit more well-read musically and we have developed a larger dictionary of sounds. ‘Ohh you know what would work really well here, it’s THIS!’ Whereas before it was, ‘something is missing from this track, but I don’t know what.’ Unfortunately, budget does become a huge issue. We have a big wish list of instruments we wish we could lay our hands on!
Dawsons: What influences your decision between utilising hardware or software-based effects/synths?
Hanging Valleys: Mainly availability and price. If we’re able to get our hands on the real deal, then that’s option 1. Failing that, getting there with software is okay but can take a lot more experimenting in the mix to achieve the desired sound.
Dawsons: What DAW/plugins do you favour and why?
Hanging Valleys: We both use ProTools mainly. Also, Nuendo, Reaper and Garageband, occasionally. Don’t have a massive allegiance to a particular DAW but we’re both most familiar and quickest with PT.
Waves, Soundtoys, Altiverb and Valhalla are probably the plug-ins that see the most usage! Just amazing, amazing sounds can be created with these. Endless creativity.
Dawsons: Do you prefer to utilise new gear at every opportunity when writing and recording or do you favour familiarity with tried-and-tested favourites?
Hanging Valleys: We love to introduce new equipment or instruments for each new record. It certainly helps to keep the music fresh for us and hopefully the listener.
Dawsons: What gear do you use when playing live – does the gear you use in the studio differ much from what you use live?
Hanging Valleys: Instrument-wise we use the same things live as we do in the studio. Effects wise we try and recreate all the sounds as best we can using pedals. Where this isn’t possible, we use an SPDSX to trigger samples. As we favour a hazy washed-out sound, we have to be quite careful with the percussion. It can be hard to achieve this sound in smaller venues as the direct sound of the drumkit can reach the audience. Arien our percussion player has gone to great lengths to make this possible using a combination of techniques to mute the kit but keep its tone intact.
Getting the nylon string fingerpicking, as well as the guitar body percussion, heard when performing live has been another journey. I’m currently testing out the LR Baggs Anthem Classical microphone system and will keep you posted!
One final hurdle has been recreating the layers live. Mike and myself to a lesser degree, have had to become masters of looping and triggering in order to execute these tracks on the stage. One wrong move and a track can be covered in a cloud of reverb-y doom!
Dawsons: Both you guys write, record and mix your tracks independently – Pete Maher mastered your most recent EP “Behind the Backs of Houses”. How important is it to you both as artists to retain that level of control?
Hanging Valleys: That’s correct! I think we do it mainly because we enjoy it so much. It’s extremely fulfilling to be able to take your vision and shape it, to be able to understand each part of the sonic journey. By learning every part of the process, you have new tools to be creative with at every turn.
That being said, we’re certainly not averse to working with a producer or other creative, you learn so much working with other people!
Lastly, a big thanks to Pete for the Mastering. We love working with him. That is one process that requires a dedicated professional.
Dawsons: Do you have any advice to other musicians who might want to go the solo route rather than opting for input from a producer?
Hanging Valleys: My advice would be to do it! and to trust your own ears! If it is sounding how you want it to sound, then that’s brilliant. If not, then keep experimenting and learning until you get there. Perseverance and patience! There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your hard work bear fruit.
Dawsons: Accompanying your track “The Shining Mountain” is a visually stark video directed by Corentin Schieb. When it comes creating, producing, and mixing your music, you guys have total control over every musical element. When it comes to videos do you have any control there too or is it a case of putting faith in the director’s translation and vision?
Hanging Valleys: We only tend to team up with people whose work we love. There has to be a level of trust there. We don’t have a big budget and are extremely lucky that the directors take on the projects because they believe in the music. It will certainly be a dialogue to make sure everyone is on the same page but on the whole, we put great faith in the people we’ve been lucky enough to work with.
Dawsons: How did you happen to work with Corentin Schieb?
Hanging Valleys: Corentin approached us as he wondered if he could use a track of ours for a travel video he was making. Clicking through to his portfolio I instantly became mesmerized by his videos and photography. Out of this world! I asked if he might be interested in collaborating. We sent him some unreleased music and were over the moon when The Shining Mountain resonated with him.
Dawsons: What are your plans following the release of the EP?
Hanging Valleys: Much the same as always, keep on creating, improving and learning. Being independent has its benefits in that there aren’t great pressures, commitments and deadlines. Having the power to play by your own rules helps us stay in love with music.
Behind the Backs of Houses
Pre-order your copy of “Behind the Backs of Houses” now.
Jon has a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons Music Web Team before progressing into his current role as Content Manager. Favourite things: My LTD MH-400NT, a decent brew, and Ron Swanson.