Hope of the States: The band played on

With their passionate lyrics and grand sound, Hope of the States were hailed as the next big thing - until the suicide of their guitarist in the studio brought a different kind of attention. The band talk to Alexia Loundras
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The Independent Culture

"Oh, that's so sad, isn't it?" laughs Sam Herlihy, covering his beetroot-hued cheeks. Peeling off some layers as he sits down in an Islington gastropub, the Hope of the States frontman has revealed an old Libertines' backstage pass still plastered to the inside of his jacket. "Damn," he says, "exposed as a Libertines fan boy!" Herlihy's affection for his contemporaries is well-documented, but his coy confession is still endearing.

Across the table, Hope of the States' drummer, Simon Jones, grins like The Joker at his bandmate's embarrassment. But while Herlihy's crimson flush gradually subsides, their giggling is rarely far from the surface.

Such giddiness is not something usually associated with a band best known for the crashing waves of elegant, albeit rather glass half-empty, post-rock showcased on their storming 2004 debut, The Lost Riots. "I think sometimes people expect me to cry or something," says Herlihy. "They think we're a bunch of miserable, pretentious, arrogant, avant-garde, art-rock musos. It's just not right."

On today's evidence, it isn't. Fresh from a well-received club tour in support of their new album, Left, Herlihy seems positively euphoric. The tour threw the band in at the deep end - airing their new tunes after 13 months spent in the studio. But rising to the challenge has left the band invigorated. And with Left finally gracing record stores, they can't wait to shake off the darker aspects of their past.

Hope of the States's arrival on the music scene in 2003 was heralded with plenty of industry hype. With their tumultuous sound, intense outlook and smart military jackets, the nascent band were the subject of a media frenzy. A clutch of hit singles, a triumphant performance on Top of the Pops and rave reviews of their early headline shows ensured that the Chichester sextet began 2004 as one of the year's most hotly-tipped bands. But just as they were applying the finishing touches to their much-anticipated debut, guitarist Jimmi Lawrence committed suicide by hanging himself in the studio. From then on, the band, their promise and ultimately the album were overshadowed by their personal tragedy.

When the album surfaced less than five months later, Hope of the States were, naturally, still dealing with their horrible, untimely loss. And, in the midst of this, they were forced to field questions about Lawrence's death from journalists they'd never met. "We'd become a band who were in the press for the wrong reasons," says Jones. Herlihy nods: "Jimmi was all everyone wanted to ask about - even when they didn't. And the fact was, it was such a separate thing. It had nothing to do with the band, or the record or shows."

It's no surprise that under the constant scrutiny, the frontman eventually cracked. Herlihy became prone to moments of extreme petulance when things didn't go to plan on stage. He's not proud of the way he acted - "You get so backed into a corner you come out fighting," he shrugs - and acknowledges that his behaviour hardly helped to refocus attention on the music. But it's easy to empathise with him. "Everything we did," he continues, "was made to look as though it was happening under this black cloud, but it really wasn't. There were some dark moments, but it wasn't a dark time."

Today, with his wide smile and laid-back demeanour, Herlihy is genuinely convincing. With rousing festival sets and sold-out tours across America and Europe last year, the band enjoyed life on the road. "There were amazing times throughout the whole thing," he continues. "We had fun touring the last record."

It's apt that the band's new album begins with the heartbeat of the bass player Paul Wilson's baby boy. By the time Herlihy and his gang reconvened in the studio, Hope of the States were ready to start anew. Lyrically, Herlihy is as passionate as ever, with rousing calls to arms and songs denouncing the injustices of war. "I'm not saying every lyric should be dark or intense," says Herlihy, "but I don't have any interest in lyrics about going to kebab shops and getting into a fight at the taxi queue - that's not my life, it doesn't mean anything to me."

But with bold pop hooks and strident choruses replacing the layered sonic grandeur of their past, the band sound reinvigorated. "We got bored with the whole post-rock thing," says Herlihy. "We wanted to make things more concise, not hide behind noise as we did for the first. I think at times we were just covering up a multitude of sins," he says, smiling. "This time we wanted to play together rather than play against one another."

In Hope of the States terms, the band have stripped themselves bare. Herlihy's voice is much improved; the rough-hewn rasp of The Lost Riots is smoothed over with a new-found warmth. "I learnt to enjoy singing," he says bashfully. "I used to hate it, but as we toured I got more into it. Now people are complimenting me on my voice - which they didn't do before. And it feels nice."

Ironically, the track that shows their greatest progression as a band is "January", a bittersweet song documenting Herlihy's grief in the days after Lawrence's suicide. "Our producer Ken Thomas was nervous about us doing [it]," says Herlihy. "He kept asking us, 'Are you sure you want this on the record?' But we were adamant - it's a sad but very hopeful song. And apart from the vocals, it was so much fun to record."

The recording of "January" has proved cathartic for the band. Now, Hope of the States are looking forward. "I don't think we've closed a door on anything," says Herlihy, anxious not to forget his past (or his friend), "but we have moved on."

After experiencing the media whirlwind that greeted their debut, Herlihy seems genuinely relieved that the band seems to be operating under the radar this time around. The bandmates goals, they say, are more long-term and, you sense, somewhat more personal. "I went to see Radiohead when they toured," says Herlihy, "and every time I see them, they raise the bar. They want to do something that moves them and they never take the easy route. That's what music should be about and that's what we aspire to."

Suddenly aware of his earnestness, the front man cracks a self-deprecating smile. "We hope to get there one day, but for now we're just going to take things one step at a time. We've been shut away by ourselves for so long now that it's just nice to come back blinking into the light." His grin grows even wider. "Y'know, it's really nice to be back."

'Left' is out now. Hope of the States play the Carling Weekend, Leeds, on 25 August and Reading on 27 August (0870 060 3775)

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