Hope of the States: Hope springs eternal

Hope of the States' year began with tragedy. But, as their debut album confirms, things are looking up
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The Independent Culture

Sam Herlihy, the affable front man of Hope of the States, one of this country's most promising new bands, sits up in his seat and puffs out his chest. "We're cool - we're very cool," he says. But he's a little unconvincing. Undeniably talented, critically acclaimed and rightfully hyped as the heirs to Radiohead's blistering-rock mantle Hope of the States may be. But cool, in the desirably aloof, emotionally unfazed way extolled by the Fonz, perfected by Clint Eastwood and so valued by New York's garage bands, they are not. Overflowing with the giddiness of sixth-formers on a school trip, they're simply far too excited for that.

Sam Herlihy, the affable front man of Hope of the States, one of this country's most promising new bands, sits up in his seat and puffs out his chest. "We're cool - we're very cool," he says. But he's a little unconvincing. Undeniably talented, critically acclaimed and rightfully hyped as the heirs to Radiohead's blistering-rock mantle Hope of the States may be. But cool, in the desirably aloof, emotionally unfazed way extolled by the Fonz, perfected by Clint Eastwood and so valued by New York's garage bands, they are not. Overflowing with the giddiness of sixth-formers on a school trip, they're simply far too excited for that.

When the Chichester six-piece (eight-piece if, like them, you count their two projectionists/animators) bound into the dark bar of Nottingham's rock venue, the Rescue Rooms, they exude all the unbridled enthusiasm of Labrador puppies. After spending a few hours apart, the close-knit band have some catching-up to do before they sound-check for tonight's gig. Over pints of lager and glasses of Jack Daniel's and Coke, they swap tales of their afternoon while their front man shows off his toy-like squeeze-box, bought for £15 from a music shop across town. So pleased is Herlihy with his new purchase (if he had a tail, it would be wagging like a windscreen wiper), he can't wait to play to his bandmates the tune that he has already composed on it - and nice it is, too.

The band's glee is clearly genuine. Granted, they have many reasons to be cheerful. Since signing to Sony in a label frenzy that Herlihy modestly underplays, the band have been riding a wave of critical adulation. And it wasn't long before the public caught on, too, when chart success for their first single proper, "Enemies/Friends", released last September, earned the band a slot on Top of the Pops. "It was awful," Herlihy laughs. "There was us, drinking JD and Coke and smoking lots, wearing old army jackets, hair all over the place, stubble everywhere. And then there was S Club Juniors, doing dance routines in the corridor." He shakes his head. "We were fish out of water." But the band may have to brace themselves for another appearance on the show. Their new single, the defiant "The Red, the White, the Black, the Blue", has soared into the charts this week at No 15.

And yet all these smiles - this puppy-like enthusiasm - are a little unexpected. Hope of the States may be poised to release their long-awaited, gloriously ambitious debut, The Lost Riots, but their achievement is marred by tragedy. Earlier this year, on 15 January, as the band were putting the finishing touches to their record, Jimmi Lawrence, founding member and guitarist and Herlihy's best mate, hanged himself at the Real World studios in Bath while his bandmates watched a movie in another room. His friends, who found his body, don't know why he did it, and probably never will - no note was left and, the band insist, Lawrence was apparently happy. Yet, while the band still grieve for their friend, they are determined not to dwell on their sorrow and have poured all their energy into something more positive.

After the sound-check, as the rest of the band acclimatise to their shoebox of a dressing-room, Herlihy and the quiet violinist, Mike Siddell, step on to the balcony for a chat. "Sadness is beautiful, and that's why sometimes people want to wallow in it. It is a comforting feeling in a way," says Siddell. "But we knew we had one positive thing left, and that was our album. We couldn't just let that go - it would have been the worst thing. So for Jimmi, for us, we rallied together to make sure that we got it out, so people could hear it."

Quitting was never an option. "We know that Jimmi would have wanted us to keep going," says Herlihy, sparking up a Marlboro Light, the first of many. "But, most importantly, we needed this. We needed the record, we needed the band, we needed one another. We needed to be together, and we needed to do this positive thing. Since Jimmi's death, it's our record - the music we make together - that holds us together as people."

Though it may sound like it, the band's positive outlook is not just a reaction to their loss. They have always been determined to defy today's strong musical current of self-pity, and yank themselves out from under the enveloping duvet of everyday despair. The Lost Riots is strewn with sentiments such as: "Are you angry when you look at the world, so desperate it's making you ill?/ Don't be alone and frightened by all that you see,/ There's a million good hearts like you and like me" ("Don't Go to Pieces"), and those words do feel all the more poignant since Lawrence's death, but it is important to remember that every note, every word of it, was written and recorded with Lawrence, not for him.

Which is also what makes The Lost Riots so very precious to the band. Not only is it a rousing force that gives them strength; it is a proud reminder of their friend, too. "Our album is better than I ever thought it would be," Herlihy insists, brightening as talk returns to the music. "It's the most perfect version of the songs that we could have ever done. We always wanted to make a record that sounded like the six of us not just playing together but pouring all our ideas, all our hearts into it. And that, to us, is what it sounds like."

For that, they must thank the producer Ken Thomas - the man behind the glacial majesty of Hope of the States' musical kin, the Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros. It was Thomas who taught Herlihy and his band the art of catharsis. "He taught us to be really honest with the music we were making," Herlihy says. "He made us put everything we had into it, as opposed to holding back and being white, middle-class, repressed boys."

As a result, The Lost Riots is a tumultuous outpouring in which every grand Morricone-inspired sweep, every tempestuous guitar frenzy, every tender piano riff and every note of Herlihy's coarse yet fragile, aching voice is gorged to the point of bursting with Technicolor passion. Riots may be a heartbreaking album, tender and raw, built on frustrations, disappointment and sorrow. Yet between the cracks of its delicate melancholy blooms a fiery determination - a powerful glimmer of positivity. Like sunshine and rain, it is just this mighty clash of conflicting emotion that makes Riots so hugely inspirational. Vast and powerful, wild and beautiful, it's a Pacific Ocean of an album, and certainly the most impressively ambitious debut of the year. Marrying the tidal splendour of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's instrumental post-rock with a Mercury Rev-like accessibility, it is a startling record filled with pounding rhythms, crashing symphonies and soaring melodies, all bursting with defiance.

"Our music is like big cartoon hearts coming out of people's chests," says Herlihy. "Instrumentally, lyrically, we're trying to get across the feeling that, however bad things are, everything will be all right."

"I'm not saying that I'm Mr Positive 24 hours a day - not by any stretch of the imagination," he continues softly. "But I think it's a good thing to try to kick against negative emotions as much as one can. And I try my best. Whatever the subject of our songs, they're about being confused and trying to find an answer. And even if you can't find an answer, there's the idea that hopefully you will." He shrugs a little self-consciously. "Life would be far too bleak if you didn't have hope."

It may sound hackneyed, but such positivity is, genuinely, all-important to Herlihy and his band. "Hope's not a stupid intellectual concept," continues Herlihy, passionately. "Hope is that your friends are going to be OK, that your life's going to work out OK, and that one day you'll be having a drink with your friends and everybody will just be laughing their arses off about everything that has happened to them and everything they've been through. That's what our record's about, and it's a tangible thing." Hope infects not only their record, but their lives, too. And now, as always, it continues to give them purpose.

Having survived the death of their friend, Hope of the States have emerged a stronger, even closer band. When the six of them take to the stage later in the evening - Lawrence replaced by their guitarist friend Mike Hibbert - they are a powerful united force. Every one of them is lost in playing their instrument. To see them perform is a moving experience, certainly. Their songs are coloured with intense emotion, and the scratchy, war-inspired animations projected on the wall behind the band depict images of desolation. But while the music and the pictures evoke anger, sadness, happiness even, the tone is never morose. On the contrary, the overall effect is enormously stirring, the mood one of triumphant excitement. Even the comic little squeeze-box makes its debut live appearance - Herlihy again showing it off like a proud, bashful dad.

In a music world often overly concerned with image, Hope of the States are refreshingly real and put on no airs and graces. So, when they say that they value "doing things for the right reasons" above all other artistic endeavours, they are more believable than most. There's no doubt that the band's artistic heart beats loud and strong. And this is abundantly clear in their ambitions. "Success is such a final-sounding thing," says Siddell. "It implies that we've reached a goal, that we've made it and that's it."

"Yeah," Herlihy agrees. "If someone is under a cloud and they hear our album and it makes them feel just a bit better, then - Christ! You can't ask for more than that!" The would sound trite, except that he so obviously means it.

Of course, Hope of the States' world is far from perfect. Lawrence is still very much missed. Talking about him is clearly difficult for the band, and they shift uneasily in their seats, dreading the inevitable questions. Their grief is still painfully raw, and having to live it publicly only makes it harder. However, they're determined to embrace life wholeheartedly, both for themselves and for their absent friend. "We've been through so much - from getting signed as a band to going on tour - and we were able to go through that with our friends; all together. And that's really sweet," says Herlihy, looking on the bright side.

"We wish Jimmi was here, but he's not going to be here, so, hopefully, one day it will feel OK. Maybe it won't be, but I hope it will." He stops for a drag on his cigarette. "But things are fine," he continues, his enthusiasm rekindled. "The band is great - we love one another dearly - and what we're doing is amazing." A big excited smile spreads across his face. "The future's not always bright, and the good guys don't always win. But", Herlihy says, draining his glass, "you have to have faith that they will do." If he were Clint Eastwood, he'd be mounting his horse and riding into the sunset. Instead, Herlihy just laughs.

'The Lost Riots' is out now on Sony

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