The Essex way - Hefner's Darren Hayman interview
Y ou can take the boy out of Essex but you can't take the Essex out of the boy.
I'm not sure how keen Darren Hayman would be on that description but the former Hefner frontman can't deny his ongoing fascination with his home county.
That fascination continues this week with the release of album The Violence, the third part of his Essex trilogy.
The previous two albums, Pram Town and Essex Arms, dealt with more contemporary aspects of the county, but The Violence goes further back in time for its inspiration, looking at the 17th Essex witch trials during the English Civil War.
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In the press notes for the new album Darren acknowledges that he feels comfortable writing about modern life but this time he "wanted to write about something in Essex's past that spoke of its strangeness and also forced me to write in a language suitable for another period."
Just before the release of the album, Darren agreed to come back to Brentwood, where he grew up, for a chat about The Violence but also about Essex, his home town and how he feels about it now.
Appropriately enough, we meet outside the Essex Arms on Warley Hill, not far from Brentwood railway station.
Darren tells me he used to go drinking at the Essex Arms and remembers coming to his first gig here.
As we walk up to the High Street, he recalls memories of growing up in Brentwood. Of going to the cinema, of working at Our Price one Christmas and of going to gigs at the Army and Navy and the Y Club in Chelmsford.
Darren left Brentwood when he went to art school in Kent. His main interests were drawing and music, and after a while he figured that "music was a more urgent thing while you're young and you can still do art when you get older."
After art school, he had a brief stint back in Brentwood but settled in East London where he put together Hefner, an indie-pop band that gained a cult following in the late 1990s and were championed by John Peel.
After five years and four albums, Hefner called it a day.
"We didn't fall out, we didn't even split up really," says Darren.
"With the last album, we tried to get more into more electronic music and the punters voted with their wallets. That seemed a good point at which to call it a day."
Having John Peel as a fan must have been quite something.
"That was really exciting, it's still a highlight of my life," admits Darren.
"I was surprised recently when a book came out on the Peel Sessions and we were number five or six on the list of people who'd done the most Peel Sessions (they did 10 in all).
Darren's progression from Hefner to solo material wasn't a smooth one because of legal wrangling, but since that's been sorted out, he's been prolific and although his albums have taken in all sorts of subjects, Essex has loomed large in his thoughts.
"I started writing more about the suburbs and where I was from," Darren says.
"I started writing songs about school. It was a very, very loose thing. That made me think about Brentwood and then I started writing this album (Pram Town) about my reminisces about growing up here. Halfway through that record I changed it from Brentwood to Harlow, Harlow being a new town, and that made it bit less directly autobiographical.
"I think it enabled me to give it a slightly more political and historical theme rather than be abut just me wanting a girlfriend.
"I find Harlow very beautiful, it's only a partly successful idea (as a new town) but a really good idea at the time.
"Pram Town sounds like a derogatory term but it was an affectionate name for a town that was seen as a young , up-and-coming place."
From then on, Essex has been a constant part of Darren's creative imagination.
"It just didn't stop really. I started spending more time out here, me and my wife got really into walking and we do a lot of walking in Essex.
"And that was me seeing an Essex I didn't know, seeing loads of places particularly up to the north like Mersea Island, that I didn't really know about.
"It was on one of those walks that I started thinking about the second record in the trilogy. I was walking down a country lane and you could still see signs of more stereotypical Essex there.
"We found mark four and mark five Ford Cortinas, loads of them, all in this country park and I got very excited about that and took loads of photographs which are actually on the inside of the record.
"And it made me think of when I lived in Brentwood, how a car was all about freedom. It also made me think about Dagenham and the Ford factory and it closing down. And it made me think about joy riding and all the tropes about Essex drivers, and sex in cars and stuff like that.
"So really the theme for the album was the lawless countryside, the idea that the city isn't just about all about back alleys and the country isn't all about thatched roofs and that odd, unlawful things happen in small villages too."
Essex had provided Darren with inspiration once again.
"That record (Essex Arms) was written on the walks really. If you look at the album, all the photographs are from the walks. I'm always trying to find a bit of urban muckiness in the country... traffic cones by a Tudor church, things like that."
With two very modern portraits of Essex, Darren decided to dig deep into Essex's dark past for the final part of the trilogy.
"I had this idea that I wanted to do something historical but it took me a while to come up with something and what I came up with was the Essex Witch Trials.
Darren says it's taken a long time to put together and it sounds like a real labour of love.
"It's insane. It's taken four years," explains Darren. "I was doing two the albums side by side. But also it's been hard because the way I write lyrics is I use lots of modern nouns and verbs and slang, and write about things around us. To not be able to do that was difficult and also it was hard to deal with exposition in the songs.
"But at the same time I wanted it to be about a definite series of events. It wasn't about being true to the events, I've written a fiction based on events. I wanted to communicate something, I am trying to tell a story of sorts, and to tell that story you do have to say what happened.
Why that era?
"I thought there was a parallel with now. I don't explicitly say it, but I make some sort of connection between how in times of hardship or war we tend to distrust the outsider, how there is a fear and mistrust in a community.
"So a couple of songs I wrote have a slight resonance there and I find the English Civil War really fascinating. And it did conjure up language as well, just in a way that made the lyrics exciting and the words leap out."
How much research did Darren have to do?
"I didn't do as much research as I would have for a book. When you're writing songs you have a little bit of leeway, you're writing about people and the human condition, so I didn't have to research that.
"The characters are all based on real characters so there were about five books I read cover to cover to give me an overview. Then it started to be more about finding the relevant chapter or bit I needed."
Darren thought it was important to go on trips to Manningtree and Dedham, the heart of 'witch country' in the 17th century.
"I thought that was really important, not so much for research but I sort of believe in that psycho-geography thing and I felt it would have been really unwise to have made the record without having spend time there."
Darren said he felt he shouldn't be "too proud of his research" and shoehorn unnecessary details into the songs. He also felt he wanted the instrumentation to fit the songs.
"I briefly toyed with using instruments of the time but I quickly thought that's now what this is about. So I used woodwind, things like oboe and clarinet which are a little more 18th century, and that felt right."
The result is a striking album, 20 songs that conjure up the dark, fear-filled days of 17th century Essex, bringing to life the characters and attitudes of the time.
It's all a far cry from the modern Brentwood of TOWIE fame but Darren is philosophical about his relationship with his home county.
"I think I'm done with Essex now, I hope that I am. I can't keep writing about it.
"I guess a lot of people write about their formative years and I do write about Essex with a certain affection. It's where I'm from so there'll always be that connection."
The Violence by Darren Hayman and The Long Parliament is out on Fortuna Pop! now. Find out more at www.hefnet.com