DOES JIMMY PAGE HAVE AN INSTAGRAM?
”Why’s that interesting?” Acton Bell demands, leaning away from his long black, looking just past me. George Sand, the second member of Hopium, is smiling across the narrow wooden table at Bell, a hand planted under his cheek and a grin splashed broadly between both ears. Hopium are an electronic two-piece wreathed in mystery, unwilling to give up their identities and unrolling their wounded, undulating pop just one song at a time. The second song, ‘Dreamers’ (featuring Phoebe Lou), has just dropped. It already looks poised for explosion, with 20,000 plays on its first day and climbing the Hype Machine charts with meteoric speed.
The question Acton Bell has swung towards me at head height is in response to their public invisibility…and my enthusiasm towards it.
So why do I find an intentionally low profile so interesting? Is it because of the dramatic tension the preservation of the secret bestows upon its keepers? Because I can mould the shadowy forms in an image of my choosing? Is it because a riddle is like an extended hand, further inviting me to engage more deeply with something I don’t fully understand?
I don’t think/say any of these things. Instead I mutter something along the lines of identity subsuming musical quality, of personalities being more prominent than the music they’re supposedly recognised for.
Oh you mean the managing of celebrity?
That’s always been rock and roll…
Uh yeah… but maybe in increasing volume these days…
Would Jimmy Page have an Instagram? People over-share so bad these days. Like everything. I guess I’ve read some books on Led Zeppelin…I probably did want to know.
The anonymity of Hopium is less about the cult of personality culture in the music industry and more because the music is their only real interest, their only true focus.
"We almost couldn’t be bothered thinking of a name. Everything seems trivial apart from the music" Bell remarks flatly. But where sought-after music is concerned, the planless has a way of becoming the plan itself.
"We haven’t really thought about the long term at all" Sand admits. "The ‘anonymous’ thing was [because] we don’t have a plan and then someone was like: ‘that’s a really good idea, you should make a thing out of that’…"
HAVE YOU EVER CHEATED?
Have you ever cheated?
[Long break, like a pause riding atop a small silence]
On someone? Yes.
[Internal Monologue, WV]
Okay, this was a very long time ago. I’m a scumbag for completely different reasons now. I’m trying to be way better. I’m polite to baristas, I let people pull in front of me in traffic, I give up my seat on the tram. I have perfect feedback on ebay. Gimme a break.
We’ve got you on record.
[More double-stacked pause, mingled with uneasy smiles from WV]
We’re talking about the band’s first single ‘Cut’, a frigid, desolate and utterly benighted electronic gem, dripping in an almost masochistic loyalty. Lines like: “I’ll cut off my legs so I can never leave you/I’ll cut out my tongue so I’ll never deceive you” betray an oceanic sense of guilt, a dark tone garnished perfectly with a video completely comprised of steam and human form in monochrome silhouette. George Sand admits that the ‘conundrum of commitment’ in the song is “a combination of both of our experiences”.
Hopium’s newest single, ‘Dreamers’ is quite different, thematically and sonically. It’s brightened with pop flourishes, high, euphoric synths and vocal lines/loops that tattoo themselves instantly onto the listening brain. There’s also a lot more hands in the mix, with M-Phazes thickening the track with additional beats and the glassy voice of Phoebe Lou (from beloved Melbourne band Snakadaktal who suffered an early extinction this year) shimmering over the top. The duelling vocals ghost each other, chime in almost to the point of interruption, and it works. Perfectly. I”m going to use the words ‘pop gem’, the phrase ‘catchier than bird flu’.
Both members of Hopium have spent years in bands, playing music utterly unlike what they are making together under their shadowy new moniker. But Hopium wasn’t simply a reaction against the band scene they’d spent so much time in, it was more of an expedition, something to refresh their sense of discovery.
“We just thought it was interesting I think” George Sand yawns. “Because we hadn’t really done it before so we have been learning the whole time…I think [‘Cut’] was one of the first beats we put together…”
And it’s clear, even after only two songs, that Hopium are evolving. ‘Cut’, despite being a brooding, sparse electronic jam, had exactly zero synths on it, (besides a Moog Minotaur which acted as a bass).
“All the chords were made up of samples and vocals” nods George Sand. But even ‘Dreamers’, despite being notably more synth-friendly, still is peppered with strange treatments and interesting arrangements. Again, the chords that fill the bulk of the songs verses are vocals, cut and filtered. And despite the sonic breadth and emotional magnitude of ‘Dreamers’, we’re still spared huge synth builds. There are none of what Acton Bell refers to as “overdone filtering whoosh whoosh synths”, the song’s epic quality distilled in just four or five colourful, reverb-drenched stabs (of what sounds like a Korg Monopoly).
But despite the colour that is steadily leaking into their sound, all of the music Hopium has made so far, has been made without the same historical conventions surrounding electronic music. And whether it was because, as they admit, they “didn’t know what [they] were doing”, or because they deliberately wanted to defy genre conventions, they avoided some of the platitudes that stagnate so much modern electronic music.
“Every genre has its rules” Acton Bell enthuses, “but also every instrument has the Trap…but then I started to realize that computer music meant that you could do absolutely everything…”
SO YOU HAVEN’T HEARD ANYTHING? THERE HAVEN’T BEEN ANY LEAKS? HAS ANYONE HEARD ANYTHING?
I’ve played in a few bands. I moved from Adelaide to Melbourne with a band, with my high school buddies…Adelaide is a bit of a backwater place so it’s kind of the suburban thing, you just listen to pop punk and emo and shit, then that’s the world…I feel like I’m still trying to figure out how to make good music. Because I made a lot of bad music.
I actually met George when he was in a band and I was supposed to record them, remember? But then it just never happened
As people who have both spent much of their previous musical careers on stage, it’s mildly surprising that when asked about if they’d thought about playing live, George Sand’s response is a lethargic: “Not really…” But conceptually they’re full of ideas, and all ideas very in-step with the Hopium way. Their ideas favour “heaps of visuals, projections and lights”, keeping their music disembodied, faceless.
“We want to develop a way of making music live in the same way that you make it in a studio, which is more of an experience. We don’t just want to play a CD” Acton Bell states coolly.
But these ideas are, of course, all conjecture. Who truly knows how Hopium will continue to evolve. This is part of the joy, part of the magnetism of Hopium as a project. The mystery isn’t purely manufactured. These guys actually seem to be making it up as they go along.
“There is a lot of unanswered questions” Bell admits. “Every time we have gone to answer these questions we realise we don’t have the music yet, so we just go back to the music.” And their focus is gratifying. That fact that Bell emphatically feels like Hopium “can’t be too easy…can’t just be one sound that anyone else could have done” means that progress is slow. But it’s also deliberate. Bell’s own band motto of “the strangest way you can get to a sound, the better” is part of the reason that ‘Dreamers’ has wrapped the blogosphere in a sudden fever. Bell’s half-mocking plea of “So you haven’t heard anything? There haven’t been any leaks? Has anyone heard anything?” It’s more than a little fitting that Hopium’s own name means, basically, a vested interested capitalising on illusion or rhetoric. But Hopium the band, thankfully, aren’t sophistry without substance. Their mystery and slow careful output are very real, even to Bell and Sand. And more important than their anonymity, than their planlessness and sideways-approach to electronic music, is their material. Whatever may happen in the smoky fringes of Hopium, the songs, few as they are, speak for themselves.