It’s fair to say that Devonte Hynes’ latest musical project came as a surprise to fans of his first. From bad-ass teen dance-punk in Test Icicles to cat-hugging folkie in Lightspeed Champion, you couldn’t get further removed. Now, as Lightspeed Champion, he is making a follow-up, Life Is Sweet! Nice to Mee You – has he found his calling? Especially given that he said of Test Icicles ‘We were never that keen on the music. I understand that people liked it, but we personally, er, didn’t,’ it seems plausible.
Or so I thought. ‘The only reason I said that was to shut up the person I was talking to’ he laughs. ‘People haven’t noticed that I meant the complete opposite. Everyone over-analysed us. Even when we said we weren’t gonna do it any more, people kept trying to analyse why.’ It became quickly apparent to me tha talking to this man about his ‘calling’ was entirely misplaced. Nor was it correct to place any emphasis on the decision to continue with the name Lightspeed Champion: ‘People sholdn’t pay attention to the names they’re released under – it’s distracting. A lot of people who liked the last one, won’t like this one… I don’t progress’. If lead single ‘Marlene’ is anything to go by, then you can’t say it follows on from his debut, Falling Off Lavender Bridge. A stomping riff, angular strings, anthemic chorus, Killers-style organ breakdown then an electrifying solo, with no defining genre in the song; there’s little hope of genre consistency across albums.
That’s no bad thing, but might fans get alienated? Hynes frankly isn’t too concerned about this. ‘I’m selfish’ he laughs. ‘The only reason I make music is for myself to listen to… I wanted something which was kinda ridiculous, I wanted it to be over the top’. Talking to him is certainly refreshing, and he isn’t afraid of the ridicule that may accompany being ridiculous. ‘I remember when I was really young I was reading a Beach Boys book, and Brian Wilson said that he thought laughter in music was the best thing – such a pure form of emotion’. As a former member of a band named Test Icicles, that he doesn’t take himself all that seriously shouldn’t come as a major surprise.
But along with a sense of humour, Test Icicles always had edge. As a fan, I was fascinated to hear about the events surrounding the cult band’s brief career – their live shows (‘people hated us so much… we used to end the show freestyle rapping for twenty minutes. And the feedback!’), the parties (‘it was so fucking awful – I got in a fight and got thrown down a staircase’) and the demos (it seemed I was the only person he met who had heard early demo ‘Semen On The Stepladder’, or at least, had even the slightest bit of time for it.)
But as Hynes observes, ‘I never really changed’, and his lyrics especially still have bite. See ‘pop’ song ‘Galaxy Of The Lost’, and lines like ‘When we kiss and I’m sick in your mouth’. Okay so there isn’t the threat of violence and resultant loss of limbs like ‘Dancing on Pegs’ (youtube it for a genuinely terrifying experience, and then look up the lyrics and never sleep again).
However, it seemed reasonable to ask whether this retained edge was a conscious decision, to make the transition from scary-as-hell dude to folk popster (or otherwise) more palatable. He gave two answers, and, predictably, both were unexpected. On the one hand it didn’t matter, because ‘we thought Test Icicles was like the poppiest thing in the world… It just turns out I’m wrong, all the time.’ Not that I was going to tell him he was ‘wrong’, just a band whose name is a pun on testicles is unlikely to be a chart-topper. On the other, the lyrics weren’t consciously anything in particular: ‘I spend ten minutes on lyrics. If I spent any time on it, it would come out worse.’ His compact method of songwriting has resulted in a number of EPs and official bootlegs, such as I Wrote And Recorded This In Less Than Five Hours. ‘I don’t overthink. I’m never stuck musically. It’s a curse in a way, because I produce quantity rather than quality. If I spent time on stuff it might turn out better…’ Whatever he’s doing has certainly worked to this point .
This individual style has led to conflict when people try to interfere. Animal Collective producer Ben Allen worked on the new record, and for the first time Hynes experienced this tension first hand: ‘it was pretty intense. He’s someone that’s very in to being a producer: ‘Maybe lets try it with this sound, I kinda like this part,’ and I was always ‘well, we COULD do that, or we could do what I wrote.’ It was like that every day.’
The strange thing was, Hynes didn’t come across as a the control-freak he seemed to present himself as. In fact, he came across as incredibly chilled. He summed it up himself, saying ‘I very strategically write songs, it’s all mapped out… but at the same time, I’m very easy going.’ I’ll say. And at the end of the day, he is tolerant, even of his meddlesome producer: ‘I see it as all such an experiment that I’m willing to go for a ride – even if it ends up kinda wrong.’ For not only is Hynes a music maker, he’s a music fan. And any route which might produce something totally original, he’s happy to explore.