Foundational Hijinks: How Still House Plants Show Us A Way Out For Rock

F*ck hedged bets, Still House Plants are the UK’s best rock band...

So what’s so special about them? 

Their appeal is quite simple really: three dynamic parts in dialogue. You have Jess Hickie-Kallenbach’s low end acrobatics, a voice that will plummet and soar with cavernous soul; Finlay Clark’s largely clean guitar work, notes that cluster then phase out, or crack like ceramics; David Kennedy’s shapeshifting drums, untethered from any standard notion of timekeeping.

In this month’s Wire cover feature, Hickie-Kallenbach explained how: “We’re not trying to run too far from what the core of the project is, which is just generally three players, three instruments – it can fluctuate, and has fluctuated, which is this beautiful thing.”

Together they form into patterns, fall apart, reform into patterns you didn’t know could cohere. But the fact that they do so together – the syncopation and the dislocation – is key. It feels wrong to hone in on any one element, a kind of splintered unity always at play. On their latest record, ‘If I don’t make It, I love you’, they’ve even sidechained the guitar to the drums, blurring the distinction between who plays what. With experimentation like this, you get less a sense of combat, more something akin to a trust exercise of falling into each other’s arms. 

Having met at The Glasgow School of Art and released three albums since their 2016 self-titled EP, they’ve developed to a point of such insular telepathy that to drag up something like outside influences can’t help but feel a bit trite. If it’s math rock they seem entirely unfazed by the laws of math; if it’s slowcore they appear to have missed the memo on tempo; if it’s post rock they veer far out from those imitable tropes of loud and quiet and infinite crescendos. And unlike more free floating deconstructionists like Storm & Stress, Still House Plants eek closer and closer to tunefulness, as they do so hijacking the dynamism of song – it’s not verse-chorus, but you can often forget that it isn’t. 

This past Saturday I saw them play to a packed and rapturous audience at the ICA. Prior to the show I was already sold on the group – in fact I’d chew the ear off anyone that would listen – but this was the last piece of confirmation I needed. Without doubt they’re everything I’ve wanted but felt missing from new rock music. No caveats or qualifiers. 

Onstage they’re all beaming smiles and nods of eager encouragement. The joy of seeing a group who actually seem interested in their instruments and each other, not just the idea of being in a band and filling a predetermined role, getting by on muscle memory. 

While heading back to South London I couldn’t help wonder… why don’t more groups loosen and tighten up?

‘If I don’t make it, I love u’ is richer than ever before, perhaps in part thanks to the aligned benefits of once again all living in the same City, having an actual rehearsal space, and finally owning a drum kit. 

There’s such consideration on this record. They might patiently knead a melody, wringing out its potential from all angles, or perhaps level the ground from under us, remould the rhythmic core of rock. All of this is presented with a show-your-working starkness and a sense of flux that’s sustained and strident, never shapeless. But most miraculous of all is that despite the naked otherness of their sound, you can’t help but feel as if you’re being serenaded – or perhaps successfully wooed with a bouquet of shrapnel.

Ideas are clipped and looped in real time on instruments as if they’re being sampled. It’s great to hear rock made by people who seem to have absorbed electronic music and beat tapes into their subconscious – no tentative toe dipping or token synth. It makes far more sense to view their contemporaries as the likes of Lolina, Klein, Tara Clerkin Trio, Mica Levi and Tirzah, than it does much of modern rock – Moin are an exception, though it’s telling that in a former life they put out electronic music as Raime.

And outside of metal or the ecstatic noise of a group like Guttersnipe, what a sorry state this island has lapsed into for what passes as interesting guitar music. There’s what Fergal Kinney dubbed as landfill sprechgesang – citing the likes of Yard Act, Shame and Idles – many of whom are yet to figure out how to sing or talk. And in light of Still House Plants, I now have less patience than ever for the facsimile post punk that props it up. I’m sure many of these groups would turn their noses up at the mention of landfill indie, but to be brutally honest, they share many of the same reference points and are little more adventurous with them. 

Even with some of the more nominally ambitious groups – who have, for instance, a wider set of citations or use slightly more atypical instruments – I can’t quite shake the feeling that they haven’t taken the full leap. You see, embellishment will only get you so far if the form remains the same. A horn section or polite morsels of skronk alone cannot spruce up such a tired old thing as rock. I don’t just want a fresh paint job, I want some foundational hijinks, to feel overwhelmed by new music. And besides, who wants mere competency? Surely rock should misbehave, not coddle us with tried-and-tested formulas? 

In the world of electronic and dance music, what has scratched that itch for me of late is also noticeable for its reductive, from the ground up approach: the at times brutal new strains of Brazilian baile funk. Like with Still House Plants, what happens on a funk track is mostly a clear and audible handful of elements. These are bare-boned epiphanies. Go on the YouTube channel Funk 24por48, or listen to a song like ‘Essa É a DJ Menezes’ from the recent compilation ‘funk.BR – São Paulo (NTS)’, and what throws you off is not so much how the sounds were produced, but the dance of where and how they fall, with radical levels of austerity and lopsided precision.

Likewise with Still House Plants, not only is there a focus on the horizontal placement of where a sound falls in time, but the vertical depth of the mix. Why should drums obediently pitter along in the back? Who says? Post-punk in its original moment questioned the codified roles of particular instruments in rock, and yet with whatever wave of post-post-post punk we’re currently being subjected to, roles appear to be fossilised and unquestionable.

In the context of Still House Plants, age-old tools become revitalised. One of their recent assets is Clark’s use of the tremolo bar. Hardly cutting edge technology, but on ‘More Boy’, with the already disconcerting sound of Hickie-Kallenbach’s clipped refrains and Kennedy’s stunted trots, it’s a properly lurching addition. 

And all of this is achieved through the seeming paradox of exploration via elimination. But before you write all this unorthodox organisation off as cold, scientific mapping, what’s abundantly clear upon listening is how this exploration is led by emotion and feel. There are now feelings I can only turn to Still House Plants for. Thanks to the way their music is structured, they’re able to dig into those vaguer crevices of emotion in ways that others fall short. 

Hickie-Kallenbach is particularly adept at this. Her lyrics are at times hard to make out, though you latch onto incidental snatches, lines like ‘More More Faster’s’ “call me by whatever angel name you’ve got”, a beautiful ode to the make-do insufficiency of love language – or perhaps more aptly joyous love babble. Yet like Elizabeth Fraser or Pharaoh Sanders, more than the words themselves, it’s her putty-like approach to their sonics that really communicate, her voice free to stretch syllables to the whims of raw feeling, influenced by the snatched emotions found in the samples of UK dance music. I can’t help but find her methods refreshing next to the now de facto UK mode of saying stuff in a funny voice.

Now, for those who – for whatever reason – have a predisposition against Cafe Oto playing, Wire magazine cover stars, I’d implore you to give Still House Plants a chance. I doubt you’ll regret it. They show us that with enough ingenuity, heart, and courage, even the most trad of set ups can be rejuvenated. 

Whether or not they’ll have this effect on you I obviously cannot say. But I feel duty bound to be honest with the impact they’ve had on me. Obviously I’ve strayed far too close to sounding like an overly zealous, hyperbolic fool, but I’m fine to take that risk. For one thing, who knows how long this music journalism thing will be around, so why not champion what you love? But also, well, Still House Plants are just that good. 

Music journalists of yore love to regale us with stories like my bloody valentine’s ‘Loveless’ being returned to record shops by baffled consumers because they assumed something must be wrong with the vinyl itself. Perhaps my brain’s been broken by this point, but I truly believe that, with a little patience, this is a sound you can easily adapt to – in the same way that music lovers of the past learnt to be seduced by the screeching cathedrals of mbv’s ‘To Here Knows When’. This is not Merzbow, it’s not even ‘Trout Mask Replica’, these are songs with beautiful melodies and forceful rhythms. 

So, younger musicians, as good as The Fall or whichever revered 20th century group are, it might be useful to set aside your dutiful reverence for them, perhaps take up the spirit if not the sound of Still House Plants. I don’t see a dead end here, or a path that they alone can plough. No, I see an abundance of possibility. So why not push yourself to such ecstatically broken heights?

If I don’t make it, I love u by Still House Plants

 ‘if I don’t make it, I love u’ is out now.

Words: Eden Tizard // @eden_tizard

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