The Spiritual Friendship of Gareth Jones and Nick Hook
Together, the two musicians have accomplished a novel work emblematic of their respective careers
Gareth Jones and Nick Hook’s respective music careers share a distinguishable characteristic that can be loosely described as a creative spirit to experiment.
With their praises relatively unsung, they’ve produced and engineered for an array of formative (some might even say divisive) artists, from Depeche Mode to Young Thug. Collectively, their discography spans a myriad of genres that initially defied categorization, like the discordant electropop of John Foxx’s Metamatic, and challenged the established archetypes of structure.
However, Jones and Hook’s output is not the result of experimentation as an end. They do not simply push boundaries to establish new ones. There is an experiential faculty at work in both Jones and Hook that speaks to the existentialist in all of us; the ones who believe music exists to fulfill and inspire an indescribable purpose, individually and mutually.
As Spiritual Friendship, Jones and Hook manifest creativity exempt from judgment. Which is why their eponymous debut album is as much a deafening collision between two unfastened psyches as it is the soothing crackling of a new soul being born from the embers. Guiding listeners through “urban space” (their term) in just under 45 minutes, the duo challenges those with short attention spans to eschew distractions and become fully engrossed in the present.
With Gareth Jones in East London and Nick Hook in Brooklyn, the easiest way to sit down with the gents is via a 3-way on Skype. Coincidentally, it’s tea time. After preparing our cups, we get down to business.
“This is the first album I’ve done as a musician…” Jones muses. “Well, obviously I’ve co-done it with Nick. And so, for me, one of the things that made me grow and blossom as a musician was falling in love with the modern version of modular synthesizers, because it just speaks to my soul, I suppose. And that’s enabled me to express things through it that I’ve loved, and, luckily, Nick loves, and we can build on. I had modular in the ‘80s, but it was much more expensive,” he adds.
Hook affirms that they both have a penchant for gear, but Ableton was their “common language.” Which makes sense, considering the DAW’s various hybrid synthesizers can be manipulated to mimic the modular synths of old. “It’s open for both me and Nick,” Jones says of Ableton. “It’s cool because then we can both go back and forth…one guy doesn’t sit there the whole time,” Hook expands. “I don’t think we would have done this album had it been any other way, right?” he poses. “We only worked when we were in the room together,” Jones emphasizes in his reply.
While Jones and Hook have a trove of gear between their respective studios, the air of pretentiousness that occasionally wafts from hardware snobs is non-existent. On the contrary, they reveal their iPads proved to be formidable weapons in condensing the vault of samples and field recordings used on the record into an intuitive sequencing interface. Referring to their first live performance as Spiritual Friendship, which took place on April 1 in Berlin, Jones recognizes simplicity is key: “Actually, I’m dumping my sample player. In the future, I’m just going to use the sampler on the iPad.”
That’s not to say Jones and Hook didn’t employ an arsenal of hardware while recording their debut album. Rather, they don’t feel the need to overcomplicate the process of performing their intrinsically dynamic material live. Ultimately, the most important to component to the recording process was a shared mindset Jones established with Hook early on.
“Our main rule with the album was ‘no judgment.’ That’s what Gareth instilled, and it was something that really changed my life,” Hook explains. “I think in previous projects, you would say you had an idea or something and someone would say, ‘Oh, it might sound like this, or that.’ Once we instilled that rule is when things could really move fast, because whether it’s touching the iPad, or Gareth going to the modular, or playing a little toy piano in the corner of the studio, we just decided that if anyone got into it, the other guy would go by the computer and let it happen.
“It was beautiful, because for the first time—after you would see out an idea—we would both look at each other and know if it was good or worth trying again,” Hook elaborates. “That was liberating for me, because instead of coloring someone’s thoughts, you’re just doing it. I think that’s why the album came together so quick.”
Gareth Jones and Nick Hook first met in 2005, when Jones was hired to mix an album for a group Hook played keyboards in. Regarding themselves as “the only two non-musicians in the room,” their bond was strengthened by a shared love for synths. The obvious fact they donned the roles of producer and engineer seemingly amplified the connection. However, it wasn’t until 2014 that they’d finally schedule a studio session together, meeting at Jones’ East London lair, theartlab. Inspired by the results of their collaborative output, they held additional sessions in London, and in Hook’s Brooklyn studio, thespacespit. They estimate the album ultimately took only 20 days to complete.
“It’s a bit like action painting,” Jones says of the process. “If I threw a bucket of yellow paint at the wall or something, that doesn’t mean that Nick might not throw a bucket of blue paint over it at some stage…It was very, very fluid. There was a lot of flow in the process. Because we didn’t shut each other down—we empowered each other, hugely.” Hook jokingly interjects, “You left out all the beautiful women we crossed paths with. And all the drugs we need to do in clubs.”
As we pause to sip on the tea each of us has prepared, I’m battling the urge to inquire what role drugs played in the recording process. But first, it’s only appropriate the music itself be discussed.
“The first day of this, we were scared and we had no idea what to do,” Hook divulges. “But we weren’t planning to make an album, we were just planning to make a bit of noise together,” Jones chimes in. “The thing about Gareth and I is we’ve been friends for so long…every time we’re together, it’s an amazing experience,” Hook explains. “I think we knew that no matter what, we were just going to spend a day together. And I forget where it started, but we just started making all these wild things. They were long.
“In three days in London, we made about, what, 18 minutes of music or something, G?” Hook asks. Jones quickly affirms. “I mean, I’ve never done that before,” Hook continues. “I’ve made songs with people in a day, or things. But, [Gareth and I] just really had this big outpouring of stuff.” Presented with an opportunity to return to London to promote another project he was working on, Hook scheduled another 3-day session with Jones.
“And can I just say,” Jones interjects, “when we did that first session, you see, we weren’t really planning anything…I don’t have any kind of DJ background, but I know Nick does, and I also like concept albums, where everything is connected to everything else. So, somehow, the first writing sessions we did, we made this 18-minute piece, but it had about five different tempos…one piece flowed into the other. At the end of the three days, we just looked at each other; we thought, ‘Wow, we’ve written a side of vinyl, nearly.’ It was at that moment, for me personally, when I thought, ‘Oh look, there’s a possible album lurking in here somewhere.’ And the thing about this whole project, for us…every step of the way has been worthwhile.”
Tinged with viscerally psychedelic moments, Spiritual Friendship functions as a cohesive thought as well as a series of fleeting ideas. That’s not to suggest the individual songs are impermanent, but rather that they are individual motifs comprising an oeuvre. The 13 tracks should be treated as a puzzle pieces, best viewed assembled and all at once.
Album opener “White, Black, Red, or Yellow” feverishly spirals in with distorted, whining synths before a muted bass drum restores order. But, as soon as the track’s structure becomes established, it recedes, giving way to the sample inspiring the song’s title. “These are issues that I think all people should be concerned about—white, black red, or yellow,” a voice crackles as the kick drops out. The sample loops, crumbling with each repetition until the mantra becomes a crackling buzz of noise.
A conversation about police brutality amidst a cacophony of distortion—Spiritual Friendship is filled with unexpected, and occasionally sobering, moments like these. Jones and Hook intermittently pluck listeners from a surreal dreamscape, surrounding them with dystopia, but with the purpose of acknowledging the suffering of others. By stomaching the album’s darkness, though, one can truly appreciate its brighter tones, such as “Dance,” which feels a bit cheeky considering the track’s playful vibe only lasts about a minute and a half before drowning in a massive wave of reverb.
“Ode To Joy” ironically follows, evoking a dreary and depressed stroll through a park. Suddenly, there’s an overwhelming sense that everything’s gone wrong; the guides have lost their way through the forest and light is waning. However, “What’s Going On” serves as a proverbial campfire, offering respite from the arduous journey inward, although the titular sample isn’t as reassuring. “What’s going on, man? Life is so great,” the voice lazily offers, trailing into a new conversation that marks the start of “Mushrooms,” a track that speaks to Jones and Hook’s rock ‘n’ roll proclivities in more ways than one.
“Chicago K-Hole” is one of the album’s most demanding-yet-rewarding segues; and as the longest track on the album, it feels the most crucial. Hammering the album’s psychedelic leitmotif resoundingly, it evokes the gut-wrenching feeling of a trip commencing. The “white, black, red, and yellow” sample reappears briefly amidst heart-pounding kicks and bubbling synths that skirmish until the track’s end, failing to offer a sense of direction. Yet, any notion the record would end on a dismal note is quickly erased by “Spiritual Friendship Pt. 2,” reminiscent of the uplifting, reggae-inspired drum and bass Sly & Robbie championed through their work with U.K. producer Howie B.
And what awaits those brave enough to embark on the journey? A blessing.
Gareth Jones and Nick Hook underscore Spiritual Friendship reflects “100 years of life experience.” Together, they’ve stumbled across something each seems to have been searching for: a medium to channel their creative spirit.
“I think for the first time in my life I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m just being myself.’ It feels so good,” Hook reflects. “That’s what I’m trying to do—that’s what we’re trying to do,” Jones stresses. “We’re trying to be ourselves. And we feel that when we’re ourselves, we become a portal for some kind of higher energy that comes through us.” It’s the type of self-relization one might experience under the influence of psychedelics.
On a follow-up Skype call with Jones and Hook, I satiate the aforementioned urge to discuss what role drugs played in the recording process. Ironically, I don’t need to steer our conversation, as it naturally drifts to LSD amidst a discussion about Spiritual Friendship’s foundation of honesty.
“[Before this interview], we said that lying’s too hard, so we only gotta tell the truth,” Hook admits; Jones chuckles in validation. “You gotta think about your lies, you gotta make them up. When you tell the truth, you just start vomiting whatever you think. And that’s kinda like our music, or this interview—it’s pretty matter of fact,” Hook posits.
“When I was a kid, I use to lie. I use to have different lies; a lie for my mum and dad, and a lie for my mates, and a lie for girlfriend, and so on,” Jones recounts. “And then I started taking acid, and I realized that [lying] was way too complicated.” Chuckling, Hook holds up a copy of Flashbacks, the autobiography of Timothy Leary, the late American psychologist who advocated for the use of psychedelics in therapy. “I got some acid in my drawer. I might take it when the weather gets warm,” Hook jests.
There’s no denying psychedelics influenced the record’s ethos, but it be disingenuous to regard Spiritual Friendship as the result of a few trippy days in the studio. Poignantly, Jones addresses the proverbial elephant on parade in the room. “I’m very cautious about recommending psychedelics actually now, because with my experience I’ve seen the enormous risks,” he somberly explains. “But with huge risk, there’s also huge opportunity. In my younger days, I would just recommend psychedelics to everyone, but having lost people and seen the dangers, I’m way more cautious. But to me, in a loving and supportive and creative, safe environment, psychedelic drugs can open a portal…to another level…to another dimension. And that allows us to achieve a higher knowledge. And we channel some of the spiritual energy of that other dimension into our work. And that’s what we hope we allowed ourselves to do with Spiritual Friendship.”
Both Jones and Hook emphasize the conversation to be had about drugs is extensive, and overlaps with the modern interpretation of what constitutes medicine. “Drugs is far too wide a term,” Jones explains. “It’s a generic label for a whole bunch of experiences, some of which are profoundly spiritual, meaningful, and beneficial for mankind, and some of which are self-destructive and destructive of relationships around you. And it’s ridiculous to blanket all of these experiences under one label.” Hook concurs, detailing his personal experiences with psychedelics versus alcohol. He now prefers sobriety when it comes to the latter. “But, the drug I’m most worried about is high fructose corn syrup,” he says, dead serious.
Whether their connection is the result of a universal alignment, random chance, or a higher power at work, Gareth Jones and Nick Hook’s ethereal union is now manifested in an album. Despite the intimate setting that fostered its creation, it stands to irrevocably impact more than the two musicians who engendered it.
“I just hope our album makes people feel something,” Hook says in closing. “I hope it makes them feel spiritual friendship,” Jones adds.