“We stumbled upon this festival that was going on in this temple and there was hundreds of people and all these elephants all round it, and a band playing percussion and these massive long horns, playing these two, durational notes, like a drone sound.”
So begins a chat – once the tears of jealousy are wiped dry – with Glasgow duo Suzi Rodden and Lewis Cook, aka Happy Meals, as they detail a trip to India (their second) last year. One that, for them, helped amplify their musical and spiritual horizons, and one sketched out zealously on new record Full Ashram Devotional Ceremony Volumes IV-VI on Optimo Music offshoot So Low.
While there they visited the ‘ashram’ of the title, a spiritual hermitage or monastery which speaks of a deeper meaning of ‘toil’ and ‘a stepping point in one’s journey’ depending on different interpretation, and one reflective of the current pilgrimage Suzi and Lewis are on to fully express themselves on a musical level. “Even being there as ‘western voyeurs’ we were still able to take something from it,” confirms Lewis. “There was something that struck us about this reclusive, almost utopian idea to the place, with the idea of a ‘full ashram’ being that everyone could access it and take part in it.”
A ‘full ashram’ (a name they came up with prior to ‘Happy Meals’) which also refers to their own home in the west end of Glasgow, one which doubles up as their own studio, where it seems any available space is used to create music, as Suzi reveals. “I’d like to think there’s an intimacy that comes across in a way that the record works, with the fact that it was recorded in our own home. There was a period last year when he had the mattress in the living room so we were spending like 24 hours a day sleeping and recording there. It was nice, took us to a different head-space.”
An intimacy that, being a band who are also a couple, allows Suzi and Lewis to avoid any unnecessary stalemates when producing music. “We’ve been together for ten years and it’s because we know each other so well that we don’t hold back. If u don’t think that something sounds good or you think you should go in a different direction, there’s no “oh actually”…you can just go “that’s, shite,” confirms Suzi, laughing.
For a band who have built up a loyal following thanks to their own blend of minimalistic synth-pop, as witnessed on 2014’s SAY nominated mini-album Apéro, ‘Full Ashram’ speaks of a more inventive, long play discovery as opposed to an album defined by bona fide songs and textures. “We’d been working on some of the ideas for a while, it was the continuation of stuff from the previous (2016’s tape only Full Ashram Devotional Ceremony Volume 1) release. It’s a wee bit more focused on a particular sound. So there’s a wee bit more of a meditative aspect, and a bit more experimental i guess,” reveals Lewis.
“There’s an experiment ongoing on this record where at the beginning there is 7 minutes of drone and at the end there’s 5 mins of drone as well and the idea is that it’s meant to take you into meditative states, so it gives you the chance to zone in and out to the music.”
One that, should it work, also bear witness visually as well as audibly, with Lewis and Suzi also hoping that the continuous drone sound creates a wave pattern on the actual vinyl in the process. “If it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t”, says Lewis, flippantly.
Doing so speaks of a band who have always held creativity and exploration as central tenets of the band’s ethos and musical output, for the benefit of both themselves and listening public. “We’ve always tried to do that even with the more poppy Happy Meals stuff, the thing that I love has been challenging audiences experience and expectations, says Suzi. “I think that by using the type of instruments we use – analog synths – there’s a licence there to play with that and that’s allowed us to explore a bit more.”
One rooted in a self expression and a wide range of musical influences, from the romanticism of 1960’s krautrock to the complex landscapes created by such jazz greats as Miles Davis and Alice Coltrane. “I think for us sonically it felt natural to take elements of 1960’s German krautrock sounds and rediscover them in a new way, to make music for now. ‘In A Silent Way’ by Miles Davis has been a massive influence for the both of us too and even Alice Coltrane’s ‘Turiya Sings’ – she was living in an ashram after John Coltrane died,” confirms Lewis.
It’s a diversity of interests that, especially in respect to krautrock, speaks of a similar idea of utopianism felt by the pair when visiting the temple in India, as Lewis details.“Even with the likes of Kraftwerk it’s not all joy and ‘hey’ but there’s something quite romantic about it and the romanticising of technology and the future it was creating for us back then. I’ve always been into that takes that idea of utopianism and futurism; there’s something about that that sounds really positive.”
As for the band’s celebrated live shows, the new record makes for an altogether different prospect for the paying public than perhaps they’ve been used to with previous releases, as Suzi notes. “We’ve played it live twice, and the last time we played it people came and sat down and closed their eyes when they were listening to it. It’s more about sound vibrations than coming to watch a performance and it’s really beautiful watching people take part in that even though you’re being challenged and having your expectations thrown out the window, It was nice that people were engaging with it and experimenting with us if that makes sense.”
This was in stark contrast to their maiden sojourn to Austin, Texas earlier in the year for SXSW, one which saw them in full party mode – an experience Suzi won’t forget in a hurry. “It was brilliant, I crowd-surfed for the first time. We played this burrito restaurant in beautiful weather to people chilling out drinking margaritas. But it was great and people just let loose and danced loads. And the last show we played there was hands down the best show we’ve ever played, Otoboke Beaver played before us so the crowd got really into it.”
Outwith upcoming visits to places like Iona, Berlin, Glasgow – as part of Optimo’s 20th birthday celebrations – and Andrew Weatherall’s Convenanza festival in southern France, the duo are planning a 12 hour concert with other artists (also in Glasgow) to really tap into the spiritual feel of the new record.“With the 12 hour concert the point of that is – the same with the record – is that there is a functionality to it. The focus is the audience and your experience as an audience member. There’s gonna be different phases though 12 hours and music is there to accommodate that. It is a risk, but if it works, it works and it’ll be amazing but if it’s half works it will be amazing as well and if it doesn’t work at all i’m glad we did,” says Lewis.
As for the city they’ve called home in recent years, Glasgow has served a fruitful ground for the pair to continue to experiment, especially to take advantage of the early momentum gained off previous releases, as Lewis notes. “I’ve been making music here for 10 years i feel like every 6 months there’s a new experiment or thing going on. It just comes naturally to try something new and maybe that encouragement from people allows us and has done to do things, especially here in Glasgow with places like Monorail, they’ve always been really supportive.”
And perhaps most importantly, we couldn’t finish without asking the burning question of the possibility of another Happy Meals cookbook to follow on from last year’s ‘Tomorrow’s Cookbook’, one that, like their music, speaks of the nourishment of a future psyche. “The cookbook was a bit tongue in cheek and playful. The recipes weren’t just recipes. The idea was a recipe book written now for people, not in a dystopian but a utopian future, so we can reflect about some things that are happening now. Who knows about another one,” confirm the pair.