In the world of Oli Heffernan, where the does one actually start?
There are only a handful of artists in the world today producing as much new music as Heffernan. Firstly, there’s his jazz punk odyssey, Ivan The Tolerable, which – since 2020 – the Middlesbrough-based Heffernan has released more albums than most of us have had hot dinners.
Between his experimental improv’ freak-outs as Ivan The Tolerable and his twisted folk dub psych adventures with King Champion Sounds (not to mention Year Of Birds, University Challenged, Shrug and Detective Instinct) today’s concern lies with Houseplants: the project between Heffernan and Leighton Crook of Edinburgh punk outfit, Country Teasers. Together they join forces for the second Houseplants album, II.
II is like a like post-punk blur. Abstract musings through the foggy sing-speak prism (“Pick a day to die / Eat dirt and die / Everything ends in despair” – The Barrows; and “Everything good must die/ Except for a balance of probability” – I Want to Drive You Home), II is a dirge-y bastion for the underground and DIY culture, underlining the bleak realities currently enveloping this world.
Even with the current atrocities unfolding across Europe, there’s an eerie prescience captured by Crook and Heffernan here.
Last week, prior to the release of II, we managed to pin down Heffernan for a chat.
Initially, there was talk of Zoom, however Heffernan professed to not favour such modes of communication, confessing that he doesn’t like talking on the telephone. With that in mind, the following email exchange took place.
Sun 13: Can you tell us the history behind Houseplants?
Oli Heffernan: “Houseplants is a recording project I do with Leighton from Country Teasers/ Arndales (In The Red Records) – we made a tape for the much-missed label Monofonus Press back in 2016, and we decided to make a follow up during 2020 which is finally coming out this week thanks to the wonderful folks at Win Big Records – super excited for people to hear this one – it’s a really great record!
“I recorded most of the music and then Leighton did vocals and Neil Turpin (Bilge Pump /Yann Tiersen) did the drums – with some guest synth from Robbie Major (Benefits) who both play on a lot of my other stuff. The first Houseplants album is on Bandcamp somewhere if anyone wants to hear it – I think the tapes are all long sold out, but I’m sure folks can find a copy on discogs or summat. It’s pretty raw compared to the new one but I still think it’s a pretty good record…”
S13: Scouring the internet, and there’s not much about the band. I like the mystery, is this something you think about?
OH: “Nah, not really… it’s not deliberate, that’s for sure. It’s more that I just don’t spam my own shit all over the internet. It’s a part of being a musician I’ve never been very good at, or had any desire to do, really. Promoting your own stuff is super tedious, isn’t it?! And I’ve never been good at schmoozing with folks either – it’s never sat well with me – all that “Love your band, why not check out mine” stuff…. not for me.
“I just keep my head down and get on with ploughing my own furrow. Don’t get me wrong though, I love lots of peoples music – it’s just the folks who pretend to like stuff just to network /get ahead – that annoys me. Plus Houseplants is just a recording project – we don’t play live and we don’t record often, so it tends to slip through the cracks in the internet, I guess! I kind of like that though… it sits better than going down the “sponsored posts” road – there be monsters!”
S13: Houseplants is totally different to your other projects, Ivan the Tolerable and King Champion Sound. Is playing in completely different projects your way of trying to cover as much ground and share your musical influences as much as possible?
OH: “I guess so, yeah. I’ve always found one band/ project was never enough for me! (laughs). I work very fast and then instantly want to move onto the next thing, which is tricky when you are in one band but easy if you have seven bands! (laughs). I tend to work on two or three records at a time which can get messy if I take too long, so that’s why I tend to just go with my gut and crack on – I rarely think about what I’m doing to any great lengths. I don’t get precious about things – it’s all just about getting my ideas out of my head and moving on – I don’t get too attached to things. Whatever will be will be.”
S13: On the album and The Barrows sounds like a short story transformed to tape. Can you tell us the inspiration behind this song?
OH: “That’s a question only Leighton could answer. His lyrics are always excellent, we’ve been doing stuff together on and off for about 15 years (first on the Detective Instinct singles and albums and then on Houseplants) and his words always stand out from other people to me – I’ve always been a fan of words that mix the mundane and the surreal, and I think the new record is up there with his best lyrics – with a good dose of the WTF-fest that was the last two years for good measure.”
S13: I Want to Drive You Home and Half A Monkey Loser II sound like abstract punk. Like Baxter Dury collaborating with Wire. Were those two artists in your line of thinking?
OH: “I’ve always been a huge Wire fan but not Baxter Dury so much. I can’t really hear Wire in the record though! Can you?
S13: Later Wire vibes, yeah.
OH: “Each to their own, I guess! I can’t really tell who it sounds like! I’m probably too close to it to make comparisons. I don’t think about other musicians when I’m making records, really, that’s how you end up accidentally lifting entire sections of their songs! We’ve all done it…”
S13: Does your creative process and approach differ from each project?
OH: “Not really! Same shit, different colour! King Champion Sounds and University Challenged are different ‘cos I don’t record or mix and of that stuff – they are Ajay‘s projects mainly and I just contribute ideas and parts and artwork but he takes care of the rest, so they are much easier for me.
“My stuff is always the same process really – it’s just the timescale that changes – if I have lots of people playing on a record, it takes me a while and a lot of hassling texts and emails to get people to send me their parts (I don’t use studios, I do everything at home remotely – which is both good and bad), but if I make a record totally on my own I can have the whole thing done and dusted in a few days of solid work, so it just depends really. The records I’ve made in the last couple of years have probably been done in about a week each in total, but that week of work can sometimes be spread out over two or three months… there is no hard and fast rule, but generally speaking, if something takes longer than that then I lose interest! (laughs). Zero patience!”
S13: Would you say that the lockdown has enabled you to fully focus on music?
OH: “I’ve always been one of those annoying people that just gets shit done all the time, even working full time as well I’ve never really struggled with making records and touring and such – but I’ve never had the amount of time to make music as I did in 2020! I got furloughed from my job for eight months, so I pretty much recorded every day for those months – I lived on my own for half of it before I moved in with my girlfriend and I’m pretty much a hermit most of the time, so it was great for me! I got tones done! I don’t think I could keep it up for much longer than that, though – I was running out of steam a bit by the end (and I’ve been struggling a bit lately, for the first time ever really, to finish anything – I keep getting scared that I might have run out of ideas finally! But I’m sure something will happen soon! (laughs)).
“But yeah, it was nice to have more time to work on stuff without my day job getting in the way – I recorded seven albums in those eight months, and played on a few other peoples records too – it was a productive, but very strange year!”
S13: Your output with Ivan the Tolerable especially is prolific. Are you creating new things every day?
OH: “Not every day! That would be madness, plus I love watching TV too much… I have to go to work and I do a lot of sleeve designs for other bands, so I have to find time for everything. I do it in bursts, I’ll make three albums back-to-back and then not do anything at all for a couple of months – I only really play live with KCS and University Challenged these days so when I’m not with them I tend to just be at home working on stuff as and when time allows. I’ve done hardly anything this year so far, I think mainly ‘cos I did so much over the last two years, I may be a little brain-fried – but I’m slowly getting back into it and I’ve started work on a couple of new bunches of songs.”
S13: Obviously Bandcamp has been a big winner during lockdown. How important do you think it is for artists like yourself who are always creating new music?
OH: “Bandcamp was a big game changer for me. I think I have 11 different Bandcamps! (laughs). It’s deffo where I make most of my money as a musician, that’s for sure. It’s a great site and it’s nice to have that level of control over your own catalogue, which is the polar opposite of Spotify which I very much dislike – as both a way to listen to music and a business model – it’s shitty on both counts… the Bandcamp Fridays were a godsend when I was on reduced wages during 2020 – that really did help!
“I just heard today that it’s been bought by some computer game company with some shifty business practices so I am a bit (VERY) worried about how and when it’s all going to turn to shit. Which will be a massive shame, there is nothing in the wings that can take its place currently.”
S13: What’s next in the world of Oli Heffernan?
OH: “Houseplants II is out this week, then I have the next Ivan The Tolerable LP coming out in April (which isn’t announced yet so I can’t say anymore, but it’s exciting) – then I’m doing an Ivan The Tolerable gig at Astral Festival in Bristol on April 30, which I really should start preparing for as I’ve never done any of that stuff live but I have a great band so I’m sure it’ll be just fine! Then there is talk of some University Challenged dates in Italy in the summer, which will be nice. In between that, I’ll bash out another couple of albums. That’s the plan – keeps me out of trouble!”
II is out now via Win Big Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.