How do you create a hit album that stands with the synthpop greats, yet at the same time sounds thoroughly modern? In Hurts' case, with a great deal of time and effort...
The debut album from British synthpop duo Hurts, Happiness is an arresting blend of glacial echo, dense soundscapes and vocals dripping with melancholy and melodrama. As modern as the record sounds, there's something inescapably retro about it. In giving these unashamedly hooky pop songs such a grand, ambitious setting, Happiness seems to look back to another time, when pop — and synthpop in particular — was a serious artistic endeavour.
Meticulously constructed and a year and a half in the making, Happiness saw Hurts — singer Theo Hutchcraft and multi‑instrumentalist and producer Adam Anderson — team up with producer Jonas Quant. For most of that time, however, they were some 600 miles apart, the band in Manchester and Quant in his native Sweden, exchanging files, song ideas and mixes via the Internet. For this to work, establishing a strong rapport was crucial. "Me, Adam and Theo, we kind of connected musically — it felt like we thought about sounds in the same way,” Jonas Quant explains. "There were a few that were more of a struggle, but with most of the songs we found the right vibe quite quickly.”
For a young artist nurturing a debut album, the issue of trust was just as important. "I was confident that, when I sent my songs away, they weren't going to come back ruined!” says Anderson. "My past experience in music is that I've only ever really been able to trust myself and one other person, and to find someone else in a different country that I could trust and believe in was crucial. There were times when Theo and I would be going crazy, and then we'd send a song to Jonas. He'd send it back and it would have different feel to it, which would give us an idea and away we'd go.”
Talking to Quant and Anderson, it's abundantly clear that Happiness was very much a labour of love. The fact that this was also the first major project of its kind that either had undertaken no doubt played its part. "I worked on [Happiness] for 16 months,” says Quant, "and I basically did nothing else for all that time, because I couldn't really focus on any other stuff. I always had these songs in my head, trying to find ways to make them come through better. I think I worked on it more than is good for you — more than you should ever work on a project. I don't think I'll ever put that much time into producing an album again, but I think that's because it was my first big project, so I had to learn a lot. But the fact that we communicated really well and we wanted to go in the same direction all the time, that made it fun to do. It was a lot of hard work and lots of late nights, but it was so emotionally powerful sometimes.”
One of the reasons the album was so long in the making was that when it began, most of the songs were not yet written. Working from a studio space underneath Manchester's Sunshine Dance Studios (which Anderson describes as "less of a studio, more a very depressing black room that Theo and I decided to spend half our lives in”), Hurts had to grapple with the dreaded writer's block.
"We had a prolific period of writing just before we got signed, where the songs were appearing in threes,” Anderson explains. "The first three — 'Wonderful Life', 'Evelyn' and 'Unspoken' — were written when we had no money, no hope of a record deal and no real career ahead of us. Then once publishers and labels started getting interested, we wrote another three songs very quickly off the back of feeling very hopeful and very creative. When we finally got our record deal it was obviously an incredible moment, but we were faced with the huge label saying, 'OK then, show us what you're made of.' We couldn't write any songs for months. There were the two of us in this horrible studio just looking at each other every day, just waiting for the other one to do something good. It took until Christmas when we wrote a song called 'Stay' for the album, and that was when we got back on track.”
Though producer and band worked remotely for most of the time, Hurts did visit Quant in Gothenburg, an experience of which the two parties have rather different recollections. "It was minus 20 degrees in Gothenburg, for a start,” says Anderson, "and Jonas had rented this huge disused radio station that had maybe a hundred rooms in it — all soundproofed, all completely empty — with the idea that this was going to be a great creative space, and it ended up being like The Shining! Me and Theo were quivering in the corners of various rooms. We'd lost our minds completely.”
"It was really cold at that time,” Quant concedes. "I had only just rented the radio station that I'm still working in now, we'd just moved in some stuff and it was really empty everywhere — lots of empty 400m-square spaces. And the heating was kind of bad in the place too. But it couldn't have been that bad — we had fun! They like that dark perspective on things. I think it suited their vibe perfectly. All white walls and empty spaces, it was a nice contrast to their dark basement!”
The band's minimalist setup in their Manchester studio, based around an Apple MacBook Pro running Logic 9, lent itself to creating what were initially quite basic demos. "We had a pair of monitors, a laptop and the two of us,” Anderson explains. "With those early songs, because we had no record deal, and perhaps because I was inexperienced as a producer and our lives weren't very good at that time, all the demos were so simple and sombre — I remember 'Wonderful Life' was just an organ and vocals for such a long time. But then gradually the musical environments became grander and grander, until we ended up with a 20‑piece orchestra recording strings on 'Unspoken'. So it really did come full circle in terms of the sonic ambition of it.”
Anderson likes to describe the process of turning these vocal and keyboard demos into finished tracks as "creating the world” around a song, building layer upon painstaking layer. A self‑confessed obsessive when it comes to detail, he found a kindred spirit in Jonas Quant. "As I said, with most of the songs we found the right vibe quite quickly,” Quant explains, "and then it was more a question of tweaking. How I worked on the songs was in a lot of the details, a lot of small counter‑melodies and harmonies, synths playing something off in the distance somewhere — the kind of thing you notice in headphones or you might notice the tenth time you listen to the song. It's a big compliment when people say that they can hear that you put a lot of extra work into the details, when they notice all those small things. Because in pop music, everything is usually quite up‑front and in your face, and then it's over — you've heard it all. I think it's important to try and put that extra effort into small things.
"I always tried to give the songs a big sound‑stage, working with layers to give them a lot of depth. I think some of the songs are kind of minimalistic, at the same time as there are a lot of details. Even if there are a lot of elements, they each have their own little spot in there. It's important that you hear everything. Even if it's a tiny detail, it should not just be there for the sake of it, it should have a purpose — it should add to the emotion or the vibe. Of course, at times you could be a bit worried about making it too dense, too cluttered, but it's about balance and being aware of that. Also, we had Spike Stent coming in to mix it at the end and make everything end up in the right spot, which is amazing — a real luxury!”
Hurts don't seem to have a problem with the 'synthpop' tag, though they'd perhaps prefer 'electronic', and Anderson is happy to admit looking towards the past. "The inspiration for a lot of the sounds probably came from bands like Depeche Mode and Tears For Fears,” he says. "Depeche Mode sonically, and then Tears For Fears more melodically. Those two bands were crucial. I think that was a good start point for us, but then the challenge is to make synths sound 'modern', which is a really difficult process. We wanted to make a modern pop album. It does nod to the past a little bit, but I don't think there's anything wrong with that.”
"I think that was the important thing for me,” adds Quant, "to not just make it a retro‑sounding album. Even if all over the place you could read people talking about this being another '80s band, I never understood that, because I don't think the sounds are '80s. Maybe the thoughts — the care for the songs, and the bravery of being romantic like they could in the '80s without being embarrassed — but not the sounds.”
While Happiness is dominated by synth lead and bass lines, pads and textures in the finest synthpop tradition, these core elements are thoughtfully augmented by strings, woodwind, percussion and, in one instance, the ladies of the Gothenburg Gospel Choir. "We wanted to make an electronic album that had a human feel to it,” Anderson explains, "so by supplementing these electronic sounds with, for example, a clarinet on 'Wonderful Life' and a real drum kit on 'Unspoken', these human elements hopefully make the album kind of throb and feel alive. We didn't want it to be dead emotionally.”
Supplying this human feel to an electronic soundscape involved much more than just recording conventional instruments, however. "Both me and the band have these Zoom portable recorders,” Quant explains, "and we just walked around recording things: slamming doors, weird things all over the place. We tried to use real‑life sounds as much as possible.”
Adam Anderson explains the process in a little more detail: "I'd find natural spaces and record a bunch of sounds. Then I'd bring them into a project, twist them and get into sound design with them — the new Flex Tool in Logic 9 is great for that — and then build whole rhythm tracks out of just these found sounds. Later in the production, I'd slip those sounds under or over traditional percussion. In 'Wonderful Life', for example, some of those sounds were me in a corridor hitting walls with a shoe! That ended up being the foundation for the snare sound in the song, combined with another sample.”
This was not the only use they found for their portable recorders. "We recorded Theo in this stairwell just on my Zoom recorder for the chorus on 'Silver Lining',” says Quant. "All the reverb is just like a dub, with me recording on different levels in the stairwell with this portable recorder. The combination of the tight, proper lead vocal and that stairwell reverb sounds really nice — kind of hard and interesting.”
Anderson likes to work almost exclusively with software, and a few of his favourite synths and sample libraries feature heavily on Happiness. "I found a company called Imperfect Samples,” he explains, "and they make this incredible upright piano library [Braunschweig Upright Piano]. That was pretty much the piano sound for the whole album, though I found that the Steinway Grand within Logic can actually sound quite good with it. None of the sounds on the album are really pristine. I like to have a lot of character in each sound, so combining the Imperfect Samples upright piano with the Logic Steinway Grand gave me top‑end clarity but also that kind of dirt of something that wasn't quite perfect.”
Layering multiple instruments and sounds seems to be something of a compulsion. "As far as soft synths go,” Anderson says, "I used [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere a lot. It's a huge library of great synth sounds, and you can stack them, which is great. I like combining multiple elements — I also used Alchemy, made by Camel Audio, where I was loading my own samples into it and combining them with synths. So for a lot of the synth sounds on the album, you'll get a synth layered with a piano and then a 'found sound' that I've made, using Alchemy to bring all of that together. There's also a great gate feature in Alchemy, which I used a lot. Often, in the choruses, I'd use [Spectrasonics] Stylus RMX, which is a loops package, in combination with Alchemy, to make these gated percussive loops that I'd slip under drum beats.”
While working entirely 'inside the box' made it much easier for Anderson and Quant to send projects back and forth between Manchester and Gothenburg, some of these synth sounds did venture out into the real world. "We did lots of re‑amping,” says Quant. "We had a few different speakers and amps in a big recording room, and I kept sending stuff up there and recording it back to make the sounds a bit more interesting.”
Elsewhere, additional edge was added to the synth sounds via a variety of outboard and plug‑in effects, including Sound Toys' analogue saturation modeller, Decapitator. "Jonas has the proper hardware, but in terms of plug‑ins, Decapitator is the best overdrive and distortion unit I've ever heard,” enthuses Anderson. "You can use it on vocals for slight compression to overdrive, but there's also an option called 'Punish', and I used that on a lot of the bass sounds on the album. I'd automate the amount of drive very heavily, so the bass in each song really throbs and has its own character from section to section. There's a lot of automation on the album, which I really enjoy doing. I find that's where you can be at your most artistic and creative.”
We should not be surprised to learn that, rather than employing a control surface to add automation to synths and effects, Anderson does it all inside his laptop. "You know what? I've got this absolute obsession with doing it on screen,” he says. "I open the width of the project up to its max and I literally pencil‑draw everything. I've got so used to it that I know I've got more feel doing it that way. There's a song called 'Illuminated' where, after the second chorus, the pitch of the bass goes right down, and that was a common thing that Jonas and I would do. We'd have a Waves SoundShifter [pitch‑shifter] on a lot of the sounds, which wouldn't be active for most of the song, but at certain moments we'd turn it on and automate a pitch drop to really announce the next section. We found that a really dramatic technique and we used it across the album at a few different points.”
When it came to mixing Happiness, Anderson was reluctant to put the album entirely in someone else's hands, even if those hands belonged to one of the most famous mix engineers in the world. As Jonas Quant says, "Most people would think, 'This is Spike Stent…' You almost get nervous. I don't think Adam thinks like that.”
"I was there the whole time with him, much to his annoyance probably!” Anderson laughs. "I mean, Spike Stent is a legend, clearly, but they're my songs. I kind of sat in the room with him and really did tell him what I thought, and I think he appreciated that. What he brought to the record was amazing — the songs just ended up having so much more power — but there were times when I'd still be panicking about little sounds and turning this or that up, and eventually he'd just kind of leave the room and leave his assistant to do it with me!
"Take 'Silver Lining', for example. The mix of that song which ended up on the album was called 'Silver Lining 72' because there had been 72 mixes of it that had gone back and forth between us all. Even on the day of mastering, I was listening back to the mixes before they went over to America thinking, 'Have we got this right? Is this sound in the right spot?' There was an incredible moment after I let go of these mixes when I felt a huge relief.”
Though the level of detail and complexity in some of the tracks did not make it an easy record to mix, Quant and Anderson's tireless approach ultimately paid off. "It was a challenge,” Anderson admits. "Thankfully, we had Spike Stent mixing it, and in terms of making sure everything has its own space, that's a nice person to hand it all over to! But then we had really cared for each individual sound. There's a song called 'Evelyn' that has maybe 200 sounds in it and we spent ages on everything. We were meticulous with production, so hopefully the songs, and the vocals particularly, still have that room to breathe.”
With Happiness done and dusted and the band out on the road, what can we expect from Hurts next time around? "We're in touring mode now,” says Anderson, "but I've been taking my portable recorder around the world and recording things. I recorded a bunch of sounds last week on the bullet train in Japan. We were travelling from Osaka to Tokyo, Mount Fuji was out the window and I was just wandering down this train with my recorder and a load of Japanese people staring at me. The aim is that I'm going to build a sound library over the next six months, and then when the second album begins, I want to draw on these sounds even more heavily than the first. I like the idea that it can still be pop — the melodies can still be as commercial, I suppose, as they are now — but I want to push the production even further.”
"The drums on 'Wonderful Life' paved the way for the rest of the album,” Adam Anderson explains. "The Enverb reverb plug‑in in Logic was key — it's become almost the Hurts signature reverb. Used in one way or another across all the drums in this track, it created a strange, metallic room vibe that sounded epic and huge but also contained and heavy. I always loved the drum sound on Low by David Bowie, and it almost has that feel.
"When we started 'Wonderful Life', I'd built this loop out of found sounds and regular drum samples. A technique I developed was to pitch‑shift sounds down, then put the Enverb on those pitch‑shifted percussion elements. It gave such a broody, pounding feel to the drums. I like the Waves plug‑in SoundShifter, and the Pitch Shifter II plug‑in in Logic 9 also has its uses. In this song, every drum sound is pitch‑shifted to one degree or another. Sometimes I'd bus to one of these plug‑ins, so as to retain some of the attack of the original sample.
"In 'Wonderful Life', I quite quickly got a loop together containing the main elements. The pitch‑shifting gently nudged things a little out of time, which meant I could work to the grid but it sounded quite human in the end. I also used [Sound Toys] Decapitator quite a lot. If you don't push the drive too hard it just warms things up a little and gives a subtle volume boost. Finally, I'd bus to some Lexicon reverbs and delays for space and finish.”