Thanks so much to Tom Hilverkus for the great interview! The Happy Couple is still a band I listen often, very very often, and I really like every single song they recorded, and I have very good memories hanging out with Tom and Jane. So this is a very special interview for me. Hope you enjoy!
++ Hi Tom! How are things? I know you travel lots because of work, so where’s the next stop?
I am very well, thank you. I am just about to set off to Rome. Earlier this month I went to New York for a couple of days, and in between I went on holiday to Bath!
++ And you were here not so long ago, we even had some Peruvian food! What did you like the most of South Florida, or what surprised you the most?
The Peruvian food was fab, but I also liked what we had in the Cuban restaurant! That’s what I loved about this place. I’ve never been to the Caribbean or South America but in Miami you get a very good taste of what it is like. The best thing I brought home was this Cuban coffee you recommended. To be honest, I found the City of Miami itself a bit depressing, all those white skyscrapers reminded me of being in a holiday resort. Downtown Miami isn’t very attractive. It’s rather small actually. I liked the fact you have a mono rail which gave it a bit more charm. But then you showed me round Miami Beach, a City in its own right, I really liked it, especially the art deco architecture.
++ So, of course The Happy Couple was a German band, based in Hamburg, but these days you live in Brighton. Why did you move?
Because my then girlfriend and future wife is from England. We first lived in Edinburgh but after getting married in New York we decided to go to the South of England, which was mainly because of the job I accepted, but since we first met we always had the dream of moving to Brighton anyway.
++ Would you be up for a possible reunion of The Happy Couple? What would that require? A record deal? 😀
Jane and I live in two different countries and we completely lead separate lives. Besides, I think Jane still doesn’t have a computer, so I’d say the chances are close to zero!
++ So ok, I know the answer to this question, but surely it’s the question most people would ask. Unless you want to keep it a mystery forever, were you ever a couple?
No, we weren’t and that was clear from the start. She’s always been like a sister to me so that was out of the question. We were simply “music mates” as someone in the US once put it in review of one of our records. We hung out quite a lot so we must have looked like a couple, so Jane once made a list of all the married couples who make music together, you know, like Stereolab, Sonic Youth, Damon and Naomi, Broadcast… It’s more related to this than anything else. We thought it sounded cool but I wouldn’t choose hat name again, just google ‘the happy couple’ and you know why.
++ Let’s go back in time, where and how did Jane and you met? Did you have the same taste in music?
It must have been 1998, a mutual friend introduced us at University as she knew both me and Jane were into the same stuff. We met up for a formal “Musikabend”, a “music evening” as we called it. I remember the first one, she played a lot of Slumberland stuff which I didn’t know back then. Then we started to go to gigs and clubs on a regular basis.
++ You started as a DJ duo, not as a band. How did it all developed from DJ to band?
I think it was 1999 when I was asked to dj for a party at Brunswick School of Art. I panicked a bit and asked her to help and to bring a few records. That worked out well and we decided we should do this on a regular basis as we disliked the music scene in our town, so we made a mix tape and sent it to the local club we used to hang out. It was called Brain Klub and they actually said yes straight away. We did the same in the next biggest city, Hanover. There was a club called Glocksee. So we said, ok, we are DJs now, what’s the next step? We should make music together. At the beginning, we just joked about it but one day Jane came round my place and said she had written a song which was “Boyfriend of the Week”.
++ And why didn’t you ever get more people in the band? You know, drummer and keyboardist, that’s stuff?
Well, it was really just a personal thing and we knew that we could do almost anything with a guitar and a MIDI keyboard. We never thought of playing a live gig, it was more a sort
of project. We loved records and we wanted to release one. But along with that we also founded our own label, Félicité.
++ And then you start a label too. Which I think we should do another interview to cover all the great releases you put out. But in a nutshell, what was the main reason to start it?
Initially, we wanted to do our own club. We even found a location in downtown Brunswick but it failed because of planning permissions so we had a bit of money to spend and we thought the next project should be a 7″ record, but really, there are so many anecdotes and you’re right, we should do a separate interview for this.
++ What indiepop thing did you miss to do then? Maybe book gigs or make a fanzine? Or perhaps you did that too?!
Well, most of our nighters always involved gigs. We organised one for our local band and first band on Félicité, Les Aspiratuers, and then there was the Félicité label launch nicht in Glasgow where Roy Moller and The Catalysts performed live. I think the best DJ night we had was with Stereo Total. We also djed after a Fuzztones gig and they all came to see us and check out our records.
++ The Happy Couple released 3 singles and some compilation tracks. Was there ever plans for an album?
Actually, there was a plan for a proper career in music, and of course a proper album. The one thing I regret is that there is no 12″ vinyl – we only released 7” vinyl and CDs. Jane actually has a drawer full of songs she’s written but we never got round to record them.
++ There is of course the Quince compilation with all the tracks you recorded. But are there any unreleased tracks? I heard this rumour of a cover version of Heavenly’s “Shallow”…
That’s right, before we played our first gig in Athens we did a sort of warm up gig for a selected group of people in Jane’s flat the week before. We did “Shallow” as encore and one of the guys in the audience filmed it. It pretty much sounds more like a studio than a live recording because there were only ten well behaved people in the audience. We also did a cover version of a song by a 60s band called Twinn Connexion. I won’t tell you the name of the song which, mastered from the video tape, as it is due for release on a Félicité label compilation on Edition 59 this summer. Speaking of cover versions, the only other one we ever did live was “Nothing Can Compare To You”, a Northern Soul song by The Velvet Satins. Unfortunately, we didn’t record it.
++ What about the “Northern Altona Demos”?
That was simply the name of the demos for our 2nd EP which ended up on Matinée Records in the US. It includes demo versions of all the songs on the “Fools In Love EP. “Another Sunny Day” made it has hidden track on the Japanese compilation you mentioned. I don’t even have mp3s of the songs and must have lost the tape. Anyway, those songs are actually not good enough for a release but I always thought the demo of “Another Sunny Day” sounded alright because of all the reverb, that’s why we put it on the compilation.
++ On the first release you are Tom Sparkletone, what was that all about? And why was Jane, Janehoney?
As I said, at the beginning we didn’t take the whole thing serious. I can’t even remember why I choose that name, I guess because I was into the Sparkletones at that time, a band on an 80s indie glamour label called Compact Organisation. I dropped that name very quickly and actually hate it coming up, I saw it is even listed on Discogs. Jane also changed her names a couple of times, from Jane Zapp to Janehoney and then Jeanneaulait at one point.
++ How did the creative process worked for you two?
For most of the songs, Jane would come up with the lyrics and a basic melody, I would then record her without anything and work out a chord structure on my own. She would then come back for me to record a demo. The best composition was the final one, “Song for the Troubadour”. She had written the lyrics, I played a chord progression I liked and she just sang to it. It was composed in just 5 minutes, just a day before we had the “Fools in Love” recording session in Glasgow. So, there was no demo for this song.
++ Let’s talk about the releases? First one, was the Four Seasons EP. What was the idea behind the title of the EP? Each song represents a season maybe?
Spot on, a love song for each season. “Boyfriend of the Week” was spring, then we had “French Cinema Summer Love”, “Treason”, a song for autumn and finally “All the Time”, a song set in the bleak midwinter.
++ What’s your favourite season then? And why the orchids on the cover? Not a nod to The Orchids I assume 😉
I prefer spring as everything is fresh and in. As regards the sleeve design, Jane found that picture in a book and just thought it looked beautiful. It’s a sort of homage to other records with flowers on, “The Girl Who Runs The Beat Hotel” or The Wake’s “Crush The Flowers” single. Of course we also thought of The Orchids but I personally see it as homage to my late father who used to be a breeder of rare orchids.
++ And actually, Treason, is the only song were you sing, right? Why didn’t you do this more often?!
Back then I didn’t have the confidence to sing. I had never sung before and it was a big deal singing in front of Jane and Göran, our producer. And then I had to sing this bloody song at every single gig… Jane wrote it as duet, kind of Nancy and Lee style, so I had to go along with it.
++ What about the artwork for the Matinée EP, who made that drawing ? How did you end up releasing with the Santa Barbara label?
The artwork was based on a still of a 1950s German movie which name I forgot. Of course Jane came up with the idea and she made the drawing. She used to be the Creative Director of Félicité. I was just in charge of operations and kind of a graphic designer who puts everything together with Photoshop, the internet, contacts etc. But art direction, that was clearly Jane, the Peter Saville of Félicité, as it were. After the success of the “Four Seasons EP” it was clear that we wanted to record another EP professionally. I think there were only Matinée and Shelflife on our short list. Slumberland must have been still in hiatus so we sent Northern Altona Demos to Jimmy Tassos and he simply brought it out. We insisted on the spine. Did you ever notice the older Matinée cardboard sleeves don’t have a spine? A shame though that it never came out as 7”. Many people have asked me for that.
++ The songs on this EP were recorded by Ulric Kennedy (ex-Golden Dawn) & Dannie Vallely (ex-The Fauves). How was that experience?
They were great to start with: brilliant musicians, kind Glaswegians and they contributed a lot to the recordings but in the end we ended up arguing about the final mixes and even potential royalties. I mean, it was clear that we weren’t the next Beatles but they thought they were George Martin. Quite frankly, we fell out over this which was another reasons we called it a day with the band.
++ Then there is the “Song for a Troubadour” 7″ that had Stevie Jackson playing harmonica. How did he guest appeared on this release?
We knew him through Roy Moller who is one of his best mates. We released his debut single, Stevie produced it so we got to know him. On one occasion, I think when Belle and Sebastian played Hamburg, we just asked him.
++ And is this really a song for Jens Lekman?
Who told you that? Yes, that’s right. The whole song is based on real events, even the flower and stuff. We played a gig with him in Sweden, I think it was Rundgång Festival and after that we spent some time together with him and the band, that was in Karlskrona in May 2004.
++ The last release was actually a song on a split 7″ on Slumberland. I hear that’s your favourite version of “Song for the Troubador”. Why is that? And how did this release happen?
Mike Schulman wanted to do this “Searching for the Now” 7” single club and asked a couple of people via MySpace I think. It’s as simple as that. Roy Moller also replied, so there you have two Félicité artists on the first two releases of that series. Actually, it was the only release where we hadn’t been consulted on the artwork, but then it was a Slumberland split single. What more do you want to finish off your band when it started with a Slumberland Musikabend? Yes, as just mentioned, I didn’t like the final mix of “Song For the Troubdadour”. Jane’s voice sounds flat, it lacks volume and reverb, the intro is a bit too cheesy. I prefer the raw version.
++ Hey, there’s a very close relationship with Glasgow here. Why is that?
In 2002 I befriended Andreas Hering which I think you know as well, he used to live in Glasgow in the 90s and introduced us to Roy and Ulric. Besides, I spent quite a long time in Scotland because of my wife who I also know through Herr Hering.
++ Who were Cookie Bay publishing by the way?
We thought we needed a publishing company. In the end, that’s how you can make a bit of money, just look at Cherry Red and their company Complete Publishing on Incomplete in the US. But anyway, it was impossible to administer it and the rights should really be with the artists, so we switched to standard Copyright Control even for our own releases. As regards the name, Cookie Bay was the name of the club that never was. It’s a song by The High Llamas.
++ What about gigs, you didn’t play many did you? Any anecdotes you could share?
As mentioned, the first one was in Athens which was quite a big deal. Just think of these small bands coming out of the German hinterland, having to play a hundred gigs in their youth club before they play the next biggest city. I think we played more gigs outside Germany than actually within! In Germany, we only played Bremen supporting The Ladybug Transistor and the Marsh Marigold festival in Hamburg at Echochamber on Reeperbahn. The gig in Sweden was a bit of a nightmare as we had to play along a CD with pre-recorded drums and keyboard and Jane forgot the lyrics halfway through the songs. The best gig ever was the final one at Pop Revo 2004 in Ǻrhus, Denmark, with Pipas, The Clientele and Gary Olsen on the same night. In terms of performance it was the best gig and the other bands were great of course.
++ How was the Hamburg scene then? I really love it there, Altona and Sankt Pauli. Where there any other cool bands? What about your favourite places to hang out?
We always used to go the Revolver Club which back then was at Schlachthof and Echochamber I think. They played sort of Britpop and indierock which was of course very dance orientated but once or twice a night one or two good indiepop singles we were waiting for. An alright club if you are drunk, there were 200-300 people a night, I’d say. The people in Hamburg are very stiff and almost hostile so you would just stand there, smoke 20 cigarettes and talk to the same people whereas in other German cities you won’t come across this snobbism. Then there was the Molotov for Northern Soul nighters called Spellbound. One of the DJs was Lars Buhlnheim who was going out with my flat mate. He is in a band called Superpunk which was one of the best on the Hamburg scene. They play a kind of Mod and Northern Soul inspired pop. Their singer is Carsten of Die Fünf Freunde which I bet you know and which nicely leads on to Marsh Marigold, another indiepop label coming out of Hamburg. I went round to Oliver’s house a couple of times, that was always fascinating. And then there was Marina Records which was a different league. Like Félicité they were very internationally orientated and even Glasgow focused. You wouldn’t think they are a German label. They released albums by Paul Quinn, James Kirk, Teenage Fanclub, Josef K. We sent them “Song For The Troubadour” and asked if they would release it as a single. They rejected it because they only release albums.
I think the most interesting German band for you to discover is Blumfeld who also hailed from Hamburg. Me and Jane liked them a lot and regularly saw them live or bumped into them. They started off very Sonic Youth like in the early 90s then turned cheesy and even mainstream but in a very cool way. Have you heard of the Hamburger Schule? In the late 80s Blumfeld was one of the band that basically started a movement in of alternative German indie pop and rock. Most of it is pretty dull. I think my favourite band from that era is Kollosale Jugend which means Colossal Youth. The second or third generation, depending on how you look at it, that was around at the time Jane and I were making music is around labels called Tapete and Grand Hotel van Cleef who we loathed. There was this band called Kettcar, we really hated this sort of music. I think they are rubbish and they can tour Germany and Austria until they are in their 50s. Really, if you compare it to the stuff coming out of the US and UK most of the German stuff is pretty crap. German is simply not a good language for pop music.
And thinking of more locations of course there is Mutter bar where we would go for a warm up. All the local musicians would hang out there, even the ones touring. And hey, the first time I spoke to my future wife Jennifer it was there. Then there’s Saal Two in Sternschanze a place where you can meet up for a coffee. I used to live in NorthernAltona and later Ottensen, which simply is beautiful and a world of its own, sort of Bohemia. Well, Jane still lives in Hamburg so you gotta ask Jane what the scene is like nowadays. There is a sort of bar called Kleinraumdisko, with a tiny, tiny dancefloor and she has a regular night there called the Shoop Shoop Club. Then there was a bar between Reeperbahn and Elbe river, not sure if it still exists, I used to dj there a couple of times, once with Erlend Øye. And lastly, there is Meanie Bar. Me and Herr Hering once djed there!
++ The Happy Couple never split, but it’s been a long standby. In this time, have you made any music?
I occasionally record music with my wife; we are just doing a cover version of Calvin Johnson’s “That Was Me” and I am currently working on a track with Christian Flamm, you may know him, he is an artist and also is also a German who lives in UK. He published this book on Felt last year, it’s called “Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango”. Whenever I meet Göran, who recorded the “Four Seasons EP” we also make some music together.
++ Your favourite Happy Couple song? Best thing about being in the band?
“Song for the Troubadour”, then “Don’t call it”. That was the direction we were going, the early stuff is almost a bit too twee for me. The songwriting got better as I just said, the lyrics were more grown up. Last year Jane sent me a couple of lyrics and they were way better than the usual “I fancy that boy but I stay in bed all day, la di da”… I personally think we could have been bigger than… emm, let me think… definitely bigger than this Danish duo that sounded like The Jesus and Mary Chain, a couple of years ago, what were they called again? The Raveonettes?
Best thing about being in a band? You get to see places, make music and of course make friends. I am still in touch with many of the people from back then.
++ One last question, I’ve asked you so many already! English food or German food? Astra or Jever?
Jever! I wish they would sell it here in the UK. It’s a shame you can’t get Jever all over the world – unlike Beck’s. There is something very special about Jever the Germans call it “herb”, the best beer in the world. Astra is good for gigs, its cheap, tastes cheap but then you get used to everything. As regards food, I have no preferences. Like with everything else, there are advantages and disadvantages when moving to another country.
++ Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, thanks for asking me to do this interview, Roque, its been a few years now since the days of Happy Couple so it’s always nice to see that many people still remember the band. And many thanks for showing me around Miami and the Keys. I admire you are doing your label in these times after even CDs seem to be dead, Congratulations on 20 vinyl releases. We only did eight with Félicité!
The Happy Couple – Song for the Troubadour