The Howl and the Hum: Minster Gig, a Defence of Guitars, and New Music

Rory Sanger speaks to The Howl and the Hum frontman Sam Griffiths ahead of their live show in the York Minster.

(Image: Stewart Baxter)

As a self-proclaimed “miserable disco” band, The Howl and the Hum’s music is a magnificent concoction of alternative rock and new wave, laced with darkly poetic lyrics. Their musical spectrum spans from electronic minimalism at one end, to explosive indie rock at the other.

The Howl and the Hum’s frontman and principal songwriter, Sam Griffiths, spoke to me about York’s strange music scene, the band’s philosophy, and what’s around the corner for them.

The next major event in the band’s calendar is their recently announced livestream performance at York Minster, slated for 25th May. For Griffiths, it’s almost like the last hurdle in conquering York’s venue circuit, and cementing their place as the city’s flagship music group:

“We have been known as a York band for a very long time, and I think we’ve played every other venue in town, so I guess it’s the only venue left that would seem a perfect, iconic representation of the city”.

A grand 13th century minster may seem like an unusual venue of choice for a rock band, but an enthusiastic Griffiths is convinced that some of the songs will sound “absolutely bonkers” when bolstered by booming cathedral reverb.

In more practical terms, Griffiths admits that the spacious minster is also an ideal location for social distancing, and that the gig is a brilliant opportunity for the band to assist those who have struggled financially during the pandemic:

“On the night itself we’re going to have over 30 people working on the gig, which is a really important factor for us. We can have more people organising the show, sound technicians, people helping with guitars and merchandise. So we’ve managed to employ quite a lot of people who haven’t been able to work in over a year”.

This altruistic gesture was heart-warming to hear, and seems to coincide with the cautious optimism of a nation steadily resurfacing from a third lockdown.

With live music existing only as a distant memory, I asked Griffiths about his time as an English student, immersed in York’s quaint independent music scene. He paints a picture of a diverse nocturnal milieu where performers from all walks of life are tempted with free pints in exchange for an open mic set. Griffiths laughs when I remind him of what he has previously dubbed as Yorkshire’s own version of Greenwich Village.

“I was listening to and reading about Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Dave Van Ronk, and all those people who were around the Greenwich Village music scene, so I might have over-romanticised the vision of ending up in one of Greenwich Village’s candlelit bars”.

At times, York’s nightlife was not without its bizarre occurrences. Griffiths recalls encountering Dick Valentine, the frontman of the rock band Electric Sixx, best known for their comedy hit, ‘Gay Bar’, playing a solo set of Neutral Milk Hotel songs in the basement of The Old Bank pub, then known as The Graduate.

“I guess that’s the vibe that I always thought was great about York. You didn’t really know what was going to happen. Because it’s such a strange little city, you’ll get odd moments like that”.

Turning to The Howl and the Hum’s music, I ask Griffiths about his favourite moments from the band’s innovative debut album, Human Contact, released last May. His answer is somewhat surprising:

“Personally, I really like the minimal moments on it, songs like the last track, ‘Pigs’”, a slow waltz featuring only a carnival-style organ and a single vocal.

Despite the song’s unsettling nature, the title is not a nod to the Nine Inch Nails’ songs, ‘Piggy’ and ‘March of the Pigs’. Although Griffiths loves Nails’ auteur Trent Reznor’s work as a musician and composer, he quips that Reznor’s music is far too angry to have influenced the song.

Another minimal highlight on the album is the subdued ‘Murmur’, embellished with Mongolian-style percussion and unsettling Billie Eilish-style close-mic vocal techniques. Elsewhere on the record, the production and soundscapes are informed by David Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’, particularly his 1977 album Low, ambient producer Brian Eno, Talking Heads’ David Byrne, and New Order.

This thread of influences mingle to create a finished song in a timeframe which can either span several years, or happen in the moment:

“Some songs on the album took eight years to get right, and then other songs, so ’27’ for example, were written in the studio”, explains Griffiths.

’27’, the album’s penultimate track, rises from soft synths, builds into an infectious slice of dark disco-pop, then dies away in a haze of ghostly vocals.

The infectious hook, “You should have killed me when you had the chance”, is one of the sharpest and most memorable lines from the album. Its unabashed candidness sticks out like a sore thumb and, for Griffiths, a powerful lyric is what turns a song from good to great:

“I think you know that you’ve written a good line when you sit there and start smiling or it makes you laugh. I remember writing that line particularly, and sort of seeing that”.

Although guitars are minimal, perhaps even absent, on ’27’ the band pride themselves on finding a place for the instrument in modern pop music, where it is often excluded:

“Even though guitars aren’t infiltrating the pop mainstream anymore, acoustic instruments are always going to affect people in interesting ways”, Griffiths says.

“One of the aims of our band was to start using guitars, but to not make them sound like guitars”. This has been demonstrated through their use of effects pedals and modern music production to explore the sonic capabilities of the instrument, beyond simply conventional guitar tones.

In contrast to the electronic ’27’ is a standout track and natural centrepiece to the album, ‘Sweet Fading Silver’. This bittersweet ode is made even more impressive by the fact it was recorded live in the studio in a single take:

“It was a real opportunity for us to show what we sound like as a band with no added frills. There were no overdubs. I think that was one of the most honest points on the album, and it’s got a real poignancy”.

Upon researching the band, one can quickly discover the influence of Allen Ginsberg’s notorious 1956 poem, ‘Howl’, as their namesake, alongside a wider homage to Beat Generation writers and 1960s counterculture. But what about ‘Hum’?

“We never really settled on an entire explanation for it”, admits Griffiths, “but the way I’m seeing it now is that the “Hum” is the rest of the band. You get the “Howl” – the scream, the cry of anguish, or passion, or hurt, or pleasure – but at the same time you get this underlying buzz under all of it. In some ways it can describe the dynamics of the band, and in some ways it’s just the exciting moments of life against the low banality of it”.

It seems The Howl and the Hum then is not just a band name, but a meaningful maxim which neatly distils their expressive songwriting and meticulous musical philosophy into a single phrase.

The real burning question is when can we expect new music from the band? Griffiths says that a new album would mean a completely different concept, so it looks like EPs are the format of choice for their forthcoming releases.

Fortunately, The Howl and the Hum are currently recording and looking to release “an EP or two, hopefully within the next couple of months”. Griffiths elaborates that the songs are “sounding very exciting, and narratively very interesting as well”.

One thing is certain about this upcoming music – if The Howl and the Hum’s outstanding debut album is anything to go off, then we are certainly in for a treat.

Human Contact track list: Spotify