A couple of years ago emerging singer-songwriter Thom Byles appeared on our radar with a uniquely intricate and warm alternative-folk style that brought us highly re-listenable tracks such as “The Great Outdoors” and “In Your Blood”. In more recent months, the English-Mexican musician has stepped out with a new project - Hanging Valleys.
First question, are you looking forward to the showcase?
Oh definitely! Our last gig was the the start of August, so it’s quite a big gap for us. It’s really nice to have the showcase to look forward to and to put all of our efforts into it. The venue looks great as well! Intimate spaces are really what we look to perform in, because we’re not the loudest of bands, but we have a lot of intricacies so when it’s a small, intimate show the audience can pick up on all of those.
I’ll look forward to hearing that myself! So, while Hanging Valleys is technically a new project, you’ve been on HumanHuman’s radar for two years as an artist under your own name - so, why the name change?
Originally, I released a couple of songs under my own name, and they were a it too complicated for me to play by myself [laughs], so I recruited the help of a couple of friends who liked the songs and who were up for playing them. The more time we hung out together, they started having little contributions and ideas and suddenly we were co-writing some of the stuff together. It just felt like the next step to incorporate them and change the name to reflect that.
That would be with Mike Phillips and Alexis Meridol?
Yeah, that’s right. Mike’s been one of my best friends for a long while and we always go on these little adventures with each other. With Alexis as well, we climbed Ben Nevis together. We’re all really into our music as well, but I didn’t realise that they were into what I was doing, even though they’ve always supported me by coming to my shows. We just came together and all of a sudden the chemistry was really great. It’s nice to be able to play with friends as well.
I can imagine that would be a really supportive environment. Do you find it’s easier to songwrite on your own or alongside your friends?
I still find it easier to write by myself. I generally work on the base ideas by myself, where before I would see the idea through the end. Now, I get it to a point and then bring it to the guys to get their input.
And have you noticed a change in your sound since becoming a band?
I wouldn’t say there’s a change in the sound… we’ve just added a few things to it. I guess it is changing in a sense, the same feeling and vibe is definitely still there, but we’re bringing in a few extra elements. Mike’s a really great electric guitar player, so we thought it would be interesting to incorporate that and have those kinds of tones come in as well. It’s more about adding to the sound than changing it I suppose.
Yeah, that’s true, especially if you look at a track like “Endless Waves”, which has your original sound but with more elements of indie-rock. Was there an aim to do something different in that song or was it a natural outcome?
I think it was more of a natural outcome. That was the first one that I co-wrote with Mike. I had this whole idea beforehand, plus the second acoustic guitar parts, and then we started playing around with him on the electric guitar and it was sounding great, so we brought it into the song. It was never really a conscious effort to change things, it just went that way.
Understandably your music draws comparison to the likes of Bon Iver, José González, and even James Vincent McMorrow. Have any of these artists had an influence on your sound?
Wow, that’s flattering! [laughs] It’s funny, you know, because I’ve been playing for quite a while, so I’ve been writing songs before I had heard of most of those. Well, José González I had heard “Heartbeats” ages ago when I was at school and thought that was a really great track. I’m sure they must have influenced me in someway, but not consciously, like all music I think. My mum used to have Enya playing around the house, she’s the queen of vocal harmonies, so I think that must have had some contribution. Another one is Beach Boys, I just really enjoy their falsetto high harmonies. I love the music of those three you mentioned as well. I really got into there music after discovering them a little later on, but I wouldn’t say I’m completely influenced by them. I can understand the comparison though.
Is there a main influence in your music? Maybe there’s one musician you particularly love?
I couldn’t tell you… different things have come from different artists. For the epic scale and etherealness you can’t get better than Sigur Ros; I’ve definitely been influenced by the emotion that they can bring with their music. As for the acoustic guitar, I’ve listened to a lot of Michael Hedges and Andy McKee - I really like their style of playing, so I’ve probably nicked a few ideas off those guys!
We keep coming back to guitar and obviously that’s one element that leads your music, so when did you first pick up that instrument? And why not opt for something else?
Ah well, when I used to walk to school I had a little walkman with some jazz and blues tapes that my dad owned, so from that I wanted to pick up the saxophone, but I was a bit useless at it [laughs]. I borrowed the school saxophone, but the school in Mexico only had an orchestra, they didn’t have a blues band or jazz band, so I was just sitting there not really fitting in. I ditched the saxophone and moved on to the piano. I enjoyed that, but I still didn’t feel quite at home on it. Then my dad, at quite a late stage in life, decided he wanted to learn to play guitar, so I used to listen in on his lessons. Finally I asked if I could switch over, [laughing] because I was getting jealous! That’s when I felt that this was the instrument that I’d been looking for.
Do you remember what song you first learnt to play on the guitar?
Something really embarrassing! I think I was listening to the Offspring at the time [laughs] I also had some Limp Bizkit floating around and Blink-182, but I actually think it was a Nirvana song... I played it at the school talent show when I was twelve, I think it was “Come As You Are”. Yeah, let’s go with that one!
Okay! What have you been listening to recently in terms of newer music?
I just bought a couple of CDs the other day and I’m into a bit of surf rock at the moment, so I got Portamento by The Drums, which I hadn’t hear very much of before, and Surfer Blood’s second album Pythons. I’ve also been listening to RY X recently. I went to see him play at Union Chapel and bought his new album there. I thought he was amazing.
I’m incredibly jealous, I absolutely love his music!
Yeah! And Union Chapel is such a great venue for it. If you ever get a chance to see him live, I highly recommend that.
To get back to your music, a favourite song of yours is “In Your Blood”. There’s a hymnal quality, an organic progression throughout and it’s as though you’re taking the listener to the “sweet forest” of your lyrics. Would you say aspects of nature a source of inspiration for you?
Oh definitely. I don’t know what it is about going into nature and being amongst amazing scenery that’s being there evolving for thousands and thousands of years, but I really draw something from it. I think it’s the same with Alexis, we always head out into nature. The UK is a really amazing place for it as well, because you have so much variety in such a short space. It’s always nice to hang out with the guys to go camping or hiking, it’s just about being in that environment. I think the most memorable time was in Scotland where you’re able to wild camp legally. We just disappeared and you don’t see anyone else for days. It’s this beautiful, kind of untouched nature and it’s really special to be around it.
I guess that connection with nature is also brought out in your new band name, Hanging Valleys. Was there a particularly reason that you settled on that?
We were looking for a while for something that reflected the music, the mood and the feel. I think it was Mike who stumbled across that and we thought well it sounds nice, it’s a cool concept and there’s great imagery to go with it.
What can we expect to hear next from Hanging Valleys? Before the interview you said you were recording something today…
Yeah, we have one song that’s pretty close to being finished, which is more of a summery song, I suppose a bit more upbeat. We’re also in the process of recording three other songs that have more of a spectrum, some are more similar to “In Your Blood” and a few slower ones. We’re just really enjoying playing music together at the moment, so it’s coming out quite organically still. I don’t think any of the songs sound too similar, we’re just taking off from our inspirations and seeing what comes out. We should have two songs coming out in quite short succession before the end of the year.
That’s exciting! Does it feel like you’re heading towards an EP or an album?
Yeah, the plan is to release and collate those together into an EP with maybe a few unheard tracks as well. It’s all about finding the time! [laughs] Alexis works full time and so we just do it whenever we can.
Is there anything on the cards this year that you’re particularly excited about for the band?
For the first time we have a nice string of dates abroad in September. We’ve done little trips in the past, but this feels closer to a tour. It’s really exciting that it’s progressing in that direction and more people seem to be responding to the music. It’s exciting to have new shows on the horizon and to be able to play for a crowd that likes that kind of music.
And of course, it will all be starting at the HumanHuman showcase!
Exactly! That’s the number one date, the one we’ll be rehearsing for. Can’t wait!