The mysterious Hydrogen Trees are a Scarborough based, analogue, audio-visual project. Utilising defunct recording machines, obsolete cassette porta studios, dictaphones, photography and mobile phone videos.
Their self-produced debut EP Back Down Woe Betide Ravine is set for release on 12th August on Irregular Patterns. A collection of five songs revelling the surreal grandeur; vignettes of Scarborough’s faded glory split by years of neglect and austerity. A vision of fibreglass seahorses and broken light bulbs cut through with northern wit, beautifully laconic storytelling charm and honestly.
It’s hard to put a pin in exactly when The Hydrogen Trees project started but if pressed, I’d say the initial seed was planted sometime around Christmas 2018. Most of the preceding decade had been a difficult period. I’d lost family to natural causes and suicide, I became ever more familiar with the local penchant for unprovoked street violence, the sign factory I’d worked since I left sixth form went insolvent in a fit of unpaid wages and redundancies. My mum was diagnosed with cancer (a battle she went on to win thank god). It was a lot to deal with and took its toll on my already threadbare mental health. I had a nervous breakdown and completely withdrew from society.
Self-esteem was nonexistent. Trusting people had always been hard after years of severe bullying when I was a kid, but it got to the point where all I could do to cope was shut myself off from the world. I lost all connection to the local music scene, which seemed in decline anyway due to withdrawal of funding for local music events.
At some point my old musical collaborator Luke got married and just before moving down south he showed up at my door with his dad’s old Yamaha MT-44 4-track tape deck. The very same machine we’d tried (and failed) to record on in the kitchen of Luke’s flat when we were teenagers. I thanked him, we said our good-byes and the 4-track went on top of my wardrobe. That’s where it stayed until the Christmas of 2018 when, more disaffected and uninspired by digital recording than ever, I got an outboard mixing desk and all the required cables and decided to teach myself to record the old-fashioned way.
That first year recording on the MT44 was hard. It was a steep learning curve for someone with such limited knowledge of production and mixing. I found myself frustrated by the limitations of just having 4- tracks to work with and bouncing down. The limitations meant totally recalibrating my approach to songwriting and arranging. It meant gradually figuring out how to do a lot more with very little. It meant making irreversible decisions on the fly and hoping things would turn out okay. It meant either learning to play parts all the way through without making a mistake or learning to live with those mistakes
The MT44 gave up the ghost after almost exactly a year of use but by that point I’d mixed down songs like For Coal Beach, The Band That Never Was and Collapsing Field of Everything, which I’d written on a knackered charity shop classical guitar I bought the day before my granddad’s funeral.
I was sad when the machine broke down, but I had an ace up my sleeve in the form of a shelved Tascam Portastudio 424mkII. I’d got it when I was younger but never figured out how to use it and put it away assuming it was pretty much useless. But with the experience gained from maintaining the MT44, and a significant bit of help from my dad, it was soon up and running. The Tascam 424mkII took a bit of time to get used to but it had its advantages; bouncing down became easier thanks to the self-contained mixing desk and it had an effects loop that meant integrating my guitar pedals much easier. I struggled trying to make things sound good, but I also realised something important: making songs was starting to feel fun again.
Songs began to flow more readily to the point that I took to capturing them quickly on an old Ferguson 3T07 portable mono cassette recorder with a built-in mic. Sometimes the songs sounded better that way, even despite the added motor noise and tape hiss. Other times I would take those super lo-fi Ferguson demos and record them onto one of the tracks on the Tascam using the other tracks to beef up the vocals and instruments.
An underdog spirit seemed to emanate from the outdated equipment like the machines were remembering their egalitarian roots. I was remembering my own at the same time; I was pulling myself back to a place where I was comfortable with the mistakes and accidents and imperfections so long as the songs were there. The deteriorated sound of the music started to seem like a mirror to the state of the UK as I worked on the tracks through the pandemic, but the reality of the songs was mostly smaller scale. Jumbled and fragmented memories of growing up in Scarborough began to emerge in the lyrics. The particles on the tape were rearranged in sounds that mapped out the geography of this strange crumbling seaside resort.
By chance my old friend Ivan had been capturing that same geography in his own unique way. While I’d been collecting sounds on an ever-growing pile of cassette tapes, he’d been building up an archive of intricate stop-motion experiments and honest studies of the local area. After signing with IP it became apparent that a visual element could add a great deal to the songs I’d been recording so who better to enlist? It seemed like Ivan had been capturing the same run-down, tory ravaged aspects of Scarborough that I often found myself singing about. The off-season seaside malaise and sympathetic eye for all things broken and neglected. The final piece of the puzzle was in place.
Pre-order the Back Down Woe Betide Ravine EP and get immediate access to For Coal Beach.