An interview by Jozef Kostecki
Back in 2017, after 15 years as a band The Maccabees would play their final shows. With four albums, including the 2012 Mercury Prize nominated ‘Given to the Wild’, the band rounded off their time with one final farewell tour.
In the years since those final shows, founding member Hugo White has remained busy, constantly working in music with his career as a producer going from strength-to-strength. Heavily involved in the production for Jamie T’s ‘The Theory of Whatever’, T’s first-ever UK #1 album, White has also worked alongside Paloma Faith, Jessie Ware amongst a host of others.
Whilst producing has become a huge part of White’s career, both from his time in The Maccabees and beyond, Hugo alongside brothers Felix and Will, as well as Stereophonics’ Jamie Morrison are now setting off with their new band 86TVs. With one show down, and a host of songs ready to go, he spoke with OSM about producing, life after The Maccabees, what we can expect from 86TVs and more.
OSM: In the years since The Maccabees split you’ve obviously kept really busy, particularly as a producer. You’ve had a hand in songs for Jessie Ware, Ten Tonnes, and most recently a huge role on Jamie T’s latest album. What changes when you’re no longer producing work for yourself and your band, but instead for others?
Hugo: I think at the time in The Maccabees one of the things that was always apparent in comparison to where I’m at now at least, is that we took so long to make records, we basically invested our whole lives into it, so when we started the band at what 16/17 [years old], it was basically all encompassing like our whole lives of every moment of the band was The Maccabees. So, the pressure on the records, or every time we started writing again or were in the studio was so kinda intense, so the detail I feel when looking back, especially with production on The Maccabees stuff, I was so intense with the hours I worked, [and] on the detail I put in, which was an amazing thing as it took that at the time.
But now I think one of the things that I am trying to do, which doesn’t always work but is probably helped a bit when it’s not your band, is to move quicker basically, but I am saying that when I’ve also just spent two years working on a Jamie T album, so I haven’t gone that quickly.
OSM: Like you said, you had a major role on Jamie T’s newest album, how did that come about? I know you’re quite close friends, but was it a matter of him playing you a couple songs that he wasn’t sure about? Or simply him calling you up and saying, ‘Hugo, I know you’re the man for this, come help out’?
Hugo: Well, a bit of both really. We toured together when we were younger, we’ve been friends – at times kind of distant friends, but we’ve always respected each other and been friends. It was actually when The Maccabees were splitting up, and we did a run of shows at Alexandra Palace, and Jamie was coming on and doing songs with us, and that was the first time he mentioned it. He was probably there thinking, ‘oh now they’re splitting up, he’s going to be free’, he’s probably quite clever so he’s probably thinking ‘now I’m going to get him on my team.’ I remember we were sound-checking, and he wandered over to me and was like, ‘we need to have a little chat about production’ or something like that, and I was like, ‘yeah man let’s talk about it.’ Then not that long after that we did a day together in the studio, which was kinda off the cuff, he just came down to my studio and we just spent maybe two days together, and actually the first thing we did together was ‘Between the Rocks’ which is the single off the [latest] record.
After we did that song, I think he was still in the process of working with some different people and seeing what he wanted to do, and I basically just had that song. I didn’t even really know if he was going to use it or not, but I would just listen to that song myself thinking, ‘I’ve got the next Jamie T single and no one even knows it exists.’ It was like he’d just given me this song to listen to as a Jamie T fan, it was quite a weird thing. Then it picked up again at some point in the pandemic, we kept in contact with it, and then at some point in the pandemic he sent me some of his demos and I was just buzzing about them, and he was like, ‘yeah let’s do the record.’
OSM: Like you mentioned Jamie came out for your last shows, and I quite liked how that mirrored his latest shows where he brought you out to play alongside him. Was that planned ahead of time? Or was it more a matter of you being backstage, and then you both deciding it would be a cool thing to do?
Hugo: I knew we were doing it, but I didn’t get to do a rehearsal or anything like that. Jamie doesn’t really like to rehearse much as well, so it kind of leaves everyone a little bit guessing over what’s going to happen. I think to be honest; we’d spent so much time together making the record, the idea that when he started doing shows I was so ingrained in everything that he was doing musically, that it almost wasn’t even a question just, ‘yeah I’m playing with you.’ It was really nice.
I think in a lot of ways [there was] the synchronicity of The Maccabees having Jamie come and play with us, and then me playing with him. But for me and for Jamie. For us both, we’d spent so long on it, we started the record in lockdown, and there weren't any shows or whatever. So, to actually go through making it, and then to actually experience it in real life, or like back in those scenarios was a nice way to round it off, especially Glastonbury.
OSM: I really like the album, and it’s great that I do or anyone else does, but I got the feeling when listening to it that it was more about making an album for Jamie and his mates, by Jamie and his mates. Was that a feeling you got when recording it?
Hugo: I think this record even from the beginning of him writing the demos and working on it, it always felt like it harkened back to early Jamie, where he just didn’t give a shit, where he was just writing tunes in his shed with his Casio keyboard. Essentially this one was back to that, like he was writing in his bedroom.
That’s also where, I think for me, my involvement in it… I really knew what my job was or what I wanted to do, which was to maintain the character of the essence of what Jamie’s crazy working in his bedroom for 48 hours straight with all these crazy things going on, and I think for me it was about maintaining that, then kind of giving it a whole new dimension and level. There definitely is [that feeling] … the songs are only on there because Jamie loves them, we didn’t try to push it a certain way.
OSM: You can really feel that with the album, it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to just hit a mould of what a Jamie T song is because someone is telling him to go that way. There are songs that he’s released before as B-sides where I’ve thought that has to be on the album.
Hugo: They’re all so good. My favourite song of his is St Christopher, I was always obsessed with that.
OSM: Even though you are such close mates, do you still have that sort of awe factor with him?
Hugo: [Laughs] Not as a person, we talk all the time, even last night we were on a FaceTime call for the whole evening, I speak to him all the time. But, I do with his music, because when he plays me stuff that he’s writing, and he still sends me songs literally every other day, just constantly writing songs – I get excited hearing his music. Because for me, I feel like I grew up listening to his first two records especially, and found massive amounts of inspiration in those records at that time, and felt like it kind of sound-tracked being whatever I was, like 19 or whatever, like those years, they were records that I would have put at the top of the list. So, I always feel that whenever he sends me stuff that’s good it’s always a buzz.
OSM: Your work with Jamie T aside, you recently had your first show with your new band 86TVs, alongside Jamie Morrison, as well as your brothers Will and Felix. Will had a part to play in The Maccabees, whilst Felix like yourself was a founding member of the band. With that 86TVs show coming five years after the final The Maccabees show, what changes in that time with everyone?
Hugo: I think lots of things really. One, everyone’s lives changed quite dramatically, and it took quite a while from ending the band. For me, I had a kid and then went into the pandemic, I actually even got married in that time. So, I had loads of stuff, and everyone’s lives just kinda reshaped. After doing something for however many years it was, like 15 years – maybe more. So it was like when you disband that, loads of things change in your life, they just naturally did. Actually, me and Felix were making music together from the end of those shows, we pretty much within a few months were back in the studio writing together, with the idea of doing a project. But we didn’t want to get into a scenario where it felt like because the band [The Maccabees] got to that point where everyone felt a bit trapped in it, in whatever direction it was – everyone in different ways. There was a kind of thing where it felt like no one had their own freedom, as we were all tied to the band, and I think with this band we really wanted to always respect everyone.
So, whenever anyone needed to do something, or had to take some time off, or go do something, we’re like ‘do it, that’s what life’s for.’ We kind of saw it as that’s what it’s about, we’re going to make music together, it’s going to come together at the time it comes together, and it’s going to all happen and we just have to trust that. Whatever people need to do, Fe[lix]’s been busy with his stuff, my younger brother Will who’s in the band he’s been busy, he’s just had a kid. Jamie Morrison is in the Stereophonics, so he’s on tour. I know I’m producing. So we’ve really allowed everyone to have their space, doing their own things, then, we spent a long time making the record, and now we’ve got 20-songs for an album, or whatever it’ll be, whether it’s EP’s, it’s ready to go. We’ve literally made two albums worth of material that’s ready to go, and now that work is kind of done, so we’re ready. If it’s a tour if it’s a week and we’re like ‘cool let’s go’, so yeah, we’ll see. We’re hopefully going to start putting some stuff out in the not too long.
OSM: Do you think that acceptance of people having the rest of their lives going on is the difference between starting a band when you’re in your 30s, as opposed to when you’re still a teenager?
Hugo: Yeah, you can accept it, but it just comes with age. It’s a lot easier doing it when you’re 19, as there’s nothing else to think about, for us anyway. But there’s also something about it being nice to be here now at this age, after all we’ve kind of been through [as] the band, and still the thing we’re all drawn to do, is to get together and make music, and that’s a thing because that’s what we do, that’s what we’ve done our whole lives. It’s like as much as you try to not do that, you go, ‘actually I don’t know if I want to be in a band again’, then you kind of turn around and you’re like ‘oh shit I’ve started a band.’ To me, it’s a nice thing to think that you obviously want to do it.
OSM: Considering there are a lot of the same components here as there were in The Maccabees, do you think that there’s almost a line in the sand drawn to say that this isn’t The Maccabees, that it’s instead something different?
Hugo: I think the time has helped that. We were worried about it feeling like a scramble, which is in part why we were like let’s be patient with stuff. Is there a line in the sand? There probably is in terms of time, it’s probably been five years or more, there’s definitely a distance to it. Amazingly probably not many people know this, but we re-formed The Maccabees when I got married two years after we split-up, Orlando came, everyone came, and we got the band back together and played at my wedding.
OSM: You’ve said before how the plan was to have music out this year, now with all the songs you have ready, is that still the working plan to get songs out now?
Hugo: I think so… I think so, yeah. There’s two different plans, it’s either we do a tour this year and we put out a couple of singles pretty soon, or we wait and set it all up in February with an EP. One of those is going to happen.
OSM: So, at most we’ve got six months to wait then?
Hugo: I mean that sounds like a long time, so maybe we should do it now.
OSM: How do you balance all of that? Obviously, you’ve had a lot of time, but with all your producing as well, how do you find the time?
Hugo: At the moment I’m kind of full on, getting back into a proper routine in the studio working with a lot of different people. To be honest it’s tough, my wife’s amazing – because she’ll cover me when I need to be in the studio. I don’t know really, that’s one of the hardest things trying to find the time to do it all, but somehow it all works out.
OSM: But, now with 20 songs ready, and having produced a UK #1 album, at least you’re starting to reap the rewards a little bit.
Hugo: I guess most people have jobs and stuff, whereas listening to songs is my job, especially with production stuff, it’s a lot of listening. Song-writing, though it doesn’t always happen, it’s a quick thing. So, you can spend two hours in a studio and come out with something great, but it’s the actual process of finalising it that takes a long time. Which is what I’m trying to get better at now.
OSM: With all the work you’ve put into music now with; writing, performing, producing, playing. What is the thing you’ve made that installed the most pride in you?
Hugo: You know I feel it all the time. I was in the studio yesterday with a really new artist, this girl who’s just fuckin’ amazing, and we came out with this song in a day that I feel exactly that emotion, whether it lasts or not. I tend to think that all the time when you’ve first done something you think, ‘that’s the one, this is the best thing I’ve ever done,’ but genuinely right now I feel like I did that yesterday. You constantly have to be trying to do the best thing you’ve ever done. I think that Jamie record feels like a thing for me, because that was a record that as a producer when I started getting into production, from making demos for the band or whatever, I always had if anyone had ever gone to me with that question of, ‘if you could make a record for anyone’, I’d have said my dream record is to make a Jamie T record. So, to have done that I’m pretty happy with that. But there’s [also] lots of different moments throughout The Maccabees that I feel like that with, what it is exactly though I don’t know.
OSM: With all the songs you’ve had a hand in creating now, is there a song that you almost wish you had a part in the creation of?
Hugo: I don’t know if there’s one, because I feel a lot of the time, if there’s something you really like, something that you think is really amazing, then you’re kind of happy to just have it. You respect the people who made it, so I wouldn’t want to intervene in it.
If there’s one song that always comes up, and it’s a reference just across the board, and it kind of works everywhere, everyone always wants to write that song and it’s ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ by Bruce Springsteen. It’s literally a synth, a keyboard, a drumbeat, and a vocal, and it’s just everyone wants to write a song that simple, that plain, that’s that powerful, because it’s just so understated, it’s just one of the greatest songs. I think that’s something that everybody wants to do, but it very rarely is achievable to do something that simple and it be great, without feeling like you need to do more. So, I guess that’s what I think, things that are incredibly simple, but more powerful than anything complex. Like that’s the stuff you strive for.
OSM: Finally, who are some artists who you believe people should be listening to?
Hugo: There’s a bunch of people who I’ve been listening to who are all really new. I’m going to say this girl who I worked with yesterday called Unflirt, she’s this really kind of shoegazey, just really cool. I think she’s got one or two songs out, and it’s just really understated music that’s just really cool. She’s amazing. There’s a girl called Gretel Hänlyn who’s fucking amazing. A guy called Hollow Hand who’s from Brighton. He’s just about to release an album, and it’s amazingly harmonically complex. In a world where pop music especially is so dulled down, with everything remaining 4-chords most of the time, nothing really moves too much, things are just loops and catchy hooks, and then he’s making music that’s still complicated in its movements, like how The Beatles used to do it. He’s amazing. There’s a girl called Ruby Gill, who’s just released her first album, and is just an incredible singer-songwriter, just really honest and minimal, and amazing.