In 2019, there are more ways than ever to get your name out there. Stars are born on Soundcloud, or via Instagram; musicians can cultivate a whole following without having ever played a note outside of their bedrooms. It's a new type of opportunity, but it's also one that lacks the romance and community of a youth spent cutting your teeth around like-minded souls. And, as The Howl & The Hum's chief singer and songwriter Sam Griffiths discovered over years embedded in York's artistic open mic scene, it's those experiences that really whip you into shape.
Originally growing up in Colchester before eventually moving to the north east as a teen (“I went from an old, small town to an old, small city,” he chuckles of his less-than-cosmopolitan upbringing), Sam was always used to having to work to make something. Colchester, with its one proper venue in the Arts Centre, was not a natural hub of creativity, and so the singer and his friends would “sort of force ourselves into whatever music was going on”. In a series of early bands, he'd find himself playing “in Irish pubs at 11pm, and churches and at folk nights with old people in vests singing ancient mariner songs”. In the absence of a ready-made youth scene, the only option was to become open to the wider possibilities and styles available.
Relocating to York for university, the frontman found the same thing. However, by that point he'd already cultivated an eclectic taste, influenced equally by hometown, formative punk favourites Dingus Khan as classic songwriters like Dylan. Open to all possibilities, it led him to the city's vibrant open mic culture. “York has so many pubs and each one has a poetry night or a blues evening, and everyone gets to know each other at them,” he recalls. “There was juggling, magic... it was like a really strange Yorkshire version of Greenwich Village in the 60s; this strange boho lifestyle where there's people doing things everywhere you go.”
It was through these nights that Sam would go on to meet bassist Bradley Blackwell, drummer Jack Williams and guitarist Conor Hirons. “Conor played me some guitar and I put him in a sack and stole him forever,” he jokes of his bandmate's enviable skills. And so, after years of attempting various projects and playing solo, finally the singer found a band that stuck. “I'd been in York since 2011 and there was a long time of me developing songs and being a busker, and a wedding singer, and all these kinds of strange professions. But at the start of 2017, we recorded 'Godmanchester Chinese Bridge' as The Howl & The Hum and I finally felt that it was ready,” he nods. “There was so much more of me in the lyrics than there previously had been; for the first time, I felt like these stories were coming from me.”
With the single soon playlisted on Spotify, it was an early sign that the band (partly named after an Allen Ginsberg poem) were onto something. Centred around Sam's literate, inquisitive approach to songwriting, even from their debut release, The Howl & The Hum had a clear notion of where they wanted to sit within the musical spectrum. “We're painfully aware that we're four white boys with guitars playing indie music, but that's never what we set out to do,” laughs Sam. “We've never been like, 'Ah we'll just play some gigs and have a pint'; we try to go out with an artistic perspective.”
He continues: “I think we've always wanted to play guitar music, but to explore a different version of it, to give guitar music a different life in a different form. Bands like IDLES and Shame and Fontaines DC are doing really well and deservedly so, but we're going the other way in a more romantic sense. There's a singer songwriter element at its heart, but with modern influences that come from everywhere.”
Citing everyone from hip hop queen Lizzo to modern folk artists such as Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, and classic wordsmiths like Leonard Cohen as inspirations, traces of the same sonic magpie mentality that first led Sam around the various styles and semi-scenes of his local towns can be found running throughout the band. But here, they all coalesce, translated through the lens of the singer's particular lyrical voice. “At the moment, the songs I'm writing seem to be about memory and how we cope with that as we get older. About losing parts of yourself you always thought would be permanent and how, as soon as you progress into what we call adulthood, you realise some horrid truths about ageing and depression and loneliness and religion, and all these things you don't know as a kid,” he explains. “A good song has to straight-forwardly appeal to the human experience, no matter which way you're doing it. Songwriting is so interesting because you're fishing out of someone's soul.”
On current single 'Hall Of Fame' – a deceptively bouncy, propulsive bop with a soaring, buoyant chorus – these ideas burrow in as the darker lyrical foil to the band's melodic highs. “There's an urgency, but it's really about someone giving up because of the idea that everything has been lost,” he explains. “There are songs about ageing and being this Peter Pan figure.” He pauses. “That's not me though... I think I'm the guy who wants to be a Peter Pan, but I'm more like Robin Williams in the film...”
Elsewhere, across the tracks the band have been working on in the small farm studio just outside of York that they call home, there are cuts that veer from intricate melodrama to slow, stark balladry; currently the quartet are whittling these down into what will soon become their debut LP.
With the support of influential tastemakers such as Radio 1's new music legend Huw Stephens, who recently handpicked the band to play on his stage at this year's SXSW as well as at Amsterdam's Paradiso, and having just inked a deal with AWAL/Kobalt, The Howl & The Hum are heading into summer 2019 with everything in place. Having sold out London's Omeara at the start of the year and toured in support of Welsh wonders Boy Azooga, now they're lining up the cogs for their own headline tour later in the year, with more music imminently on the horizon.
And, having tested all manner of musical waters over the years and truly found his own niche within them, Sam knows exactly what The Howl & The Hum are and why they're going to matter. “We don't want to be a part of that indie thing that came about in the early 2000s that got moulded into a strange shape that we were never a fan of; we don't want to be that kind of classic NME band that doesn't really exist anymore,” he asserts. “We want to show that we're not just one of those guitar bands that got caught up in the swamp. There are so many places that say guitar music is dead, but we want to keep it alive in a different way.”