“It was love at first sight,” says Jim Hickey of his relationship with music. He attributes his first musical inclination to some old Pink Floyd tapes he found at home, which he listened to over and over. “Music felt far more vivid and exciting than anything else I was aware of,” he says.
This early start led to a deeper interest in music, one that involved listening to whatever he could get his hands on, discovering new sounds and ultimately, picking up the guitar – well, a ukulele at first, but the guitar came into the picture quite soon after that.
Hickey joined his first band in his early teens, playing “a lot of psychedelic stuff and gigging wherever they would have us”, until he joined Ira Losco’s band at 17. This, he says, gave him the chance to play bigger gigs, and introduced him for the first time to Berlin, where he has been based for the past eight years. We caught up with the young musician to find out more about his ‘escape’ to Berlin and how this vibrant city has affected, inspired and shaped the artist in him and the music on his brand new self-produced debut Railings EP, which was released recently on Sqeed Records.
What was it that made you leave Malta and move to Berlin?
I was 18 at the time and frustrated with the limited scope of the local music scene. It felt like bands and audiences (here) were happy to be stuck in a specific time in music history, whereas I wanted to create things I hadn’t heard before. I knew I had to leave Malta if I was to have any chance of a real career in music. Having discovered Berlin while touring as a session guitarist, I fell in love with the city; it’s definitely a ‘beauty on the inside’ kind of place, and it felt like the perfect place to start looking inwards and find out who and what I wanted to be. The backdrop of a city razed to the ground, divided for decades, walled in and suddenly unified and told to play nice is probably the most fitting scenery for any teenager following his creative tugs.
Was it at all difficult finding your place in the Berlin music scene?
The people I know who make music here don’t really worry about fitting into a scene, and that’s one of the great advantages of an experimentally-minded scene. Fitting in is kind of frowned upon here anyway. Since people don’t limit themselves to a certain sound, instrument or even genre, audiences tend to listen without expectations and judge by what moves them or not (often literally). Personally, I feel I work best in an insular environment. I work alone as I like to be in the studio for hours on end.
The music you’ve just released has quite an ingrained electronic element...
That came about gradually, as it took me a while to tear myself away from a more guitar-centric sound, but electronic music pushes you into a different frame of mind and that’s what got me. You have to think in terms of spaces and emotional triggers, and focus on creating an experience.
A lot of the things I want to express work best with this foundation, so it has become a bit like finding a shell for a song; spacious, fragile, angular or claustrophobic, whatever fits. What’s ultimately important is to have a song that people can connect with in the first place, and I often start off writing with just a guitar or a keyboard. To me, a good song has to work that way from the start. The production phase tends to take the longest time as I like to try all sorts of different layers to see how things work together to push the whole thing forward.
A few words about the songs on the EP and how they connect…
When I started writing the EP, I was frustrated with what I had been working on before. It just didn’t sound like what I felt, but I wasn’t sure how I felt or what I wanted to sound like.
I just knew I wanted to do something completely different, so I started trying out new sounds with each other and different textures and wrote new songs that I thought would fit. It felt right, so I kept stretching it out and finding out how far I could take it.
Everything was written in this way; it’s about being stuck in something you no longer feel a part of and have no choice but to take a leap of faith into the unknown. The EP as a whole is about facing railings and realising they don’t protect you… they block you, they’re things you can see through and get around, that try to reign you in and channel you back to the mainstream. Our heads are full of them, guidelines and rules about how we should live, conform and consume, and I wanted to write about getting away from that. That’s what I had in mind when I wrote Robin, and I wanted it to sound like a tight space, like the compromises people accept to avoid facing themselves. Not You is more personal, about the barriers people put up between each other in relationships and how some are so afraid to trust. I was having a particularly hard time trying to get through to someone, and this track is about that push and pull, and fearing that we might just be two strangers, after all.
The EP is practically all your own work. How important is the DIY approach to the music you are creating?
Yes, bar a few live percussion elements I recorded at a studio with a drummer, all the rest was done at my home studio. I think the DIY approach has become standard practice for most artists and I prefer to work alone anyway. I can’t imagine working any other way. I actually have no idea what other way would work but a lot of people I know feel the same. I feel at least as much a producer as a songwriter so that’s where that attitude comes from. I’ve worked as a sound engineer for years as well, so the technical side doesn’t get in the way. The EP was mixed by Guy Sternberg at LowSwing Studios, by the way.
Where did the idea for the EP’s original packaging come from?
The idea came from the video set for Everything (both were designed by photographer and Sqeed Records founder Meike Peters). For the video set we created a space made of geometrical patterns of strings connected all around the room. The patterns are based on the EP cover art, created by Australian artist Giles Ryder, and the CD package is an extension of this, with the patterns from the video hand-stitched into the cardboard base.
So far, this has been more of a studio-based project. Are you considering taking it into a live setting?
This all started out as a kind of studio experiment but it’s definitely suited to being performed live as well. Next year will see quite a bit of that, probably around the time of my next EP release in March. The set will be a mix of instruments, guitars, synths, live and sampled drums and sequences. After being locked up in my studio all this time I can’t wait to get out there and perform it live.
And your plans now that Railings is out…
I had no idea what to expect when I released the EP, mainly because it’s not exactly mainstream but the response has been great. It got played extensively on radios in the UK, Germany and Australia, and got some great reviews as well, so I know what to expect now.
My plan is to keep pushing this sound to see where it takes me and to get it out on the road as soon as possible, maybe even collaborate with some other artists. So much happens by just actively getting music out that it’s hard to plan. I would also love to perform it in Malta; no doubt that will happen soon.
This article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (22 December, 2013)