Taking their name from a Chinese supermarket in their native Manchester, W.H. Lung started out as the studio-based project comprised of vocalist Joe Evans, multi-instrumentalist Tom Sharkett, and bassist Tom Derbyshire, who have played in various bands together since they met at school. Following the success of their 2019 debut Incidental Music, which fused their infectious brand of synthpop with elements of krautrock and post-punk in sprawling fashion, Derbyshire left W.H. Lung to focus on filmmaking, and the group expanded into a five-piece with Alex Mercer Main on drums, Chris Mulligan on bass and synths, and Hannah Peace on vocals and synths. Last week, the five-piece returned with their sophomore album, Vanities, which was written in isolation but reflects a period in which Evans and Sharkett immersed themselves in Manchester’s nightlife. As their appreciation for the euphoria of dance music seeped into the creative process, Evans also found inspiration in the works of Anton Chekov, Shusaku Endo, and Iris Murdoch, as well as practicing meditation and connecting with nature. The result is a fantastic and consistently satisfying album that retains the potency and dynamism of their debut but manages to channel those influences in a way that’s direct, exuberant, and just pure fun.
We caught up with W.H. Lung’s Tom Sharkett for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the influences behind Vanities, his relationship with Evans, and more.
As an album that was deeply inspired by the dance floor but was made in isolation, how do you envision people enjoying Vanities, and what do you hope they take away from it?
Obviously it will be different for everyone, but for us, I think we just wanted to get all of the influences of what we’d listened to that we were all really excited about into the new album. In 2019, we basically ended up going out a lot, really listening to new stuff, embarking on all this good stuff that was in Manchester and in Todmorden, which is a place that we lived as well for a little bit. Stuff that DJs like Andrew Weatherall and Avalon Emerson would play that me and Joe perhaps hadn’t heard before, but then you would hear that mixed in with songs that we did know. I remember Avalon playing like a song by The Cure in the club at about half-past four in the morning, which I thought was great but not quite what I expected, and the next song would be something I hadn’t heard.
We were just really excited by the new music that we were hearing at that point. For me, that happens quite routinely, I sort of have a period of music where I’m not that – I bet everyone has it, but you’re listening to stuff you’ve listened to loads of times, you sort of find yourself in a bit of a down period where for whatever reason you’re not either finding that much new stuff, or you might like it but you’re not really excited by it. It’s not in the same way that you might have first heard about LCD Soundsystem or the Velvet Underground when you were a kid or whatever. And you think at that time, don’t you, like, “I’m so obsessed with this band, I’ll never be as more excited by another artist again.” And even into your 20s, you find a DJ like Andrew Weatherwall and you obsessively read interviews with him, listen to as many mixes, listen to as many remixes. And that’s what happened, I think, in that period. I don’t think we’ll be able to do another record until that happens again, to be honest. I don’t mean that to sound pretentious, I just think you need that level of enthusiasm to make a record. It’ll be different for different people, but for me and Joe, I think to properly get our heads into it, you need to just be really excited and really into it.
I hope people… I don’t know what I’d want other people to get from it. I obviously want people to love it, and I always think, when you read interviews with people and they say that they weren’t thinking about the listeners when they were making it, I always think, “I bet you were, really.” I genuinely don’t think we were, and it’s not like – I obviously want everyone who buys to like it, and I’m so appreciative of that, I like hearing what people make of it. But I think for me and Joe, we just wanted to put as much of that excitement and all those influences into the album. And I’m sure some people will pick up on certain elements of it in different ways.
The way you’re talking about that enthusiasm that got you into music in the first place, it made me wonder if it’s almost nostalgic for you to that get back into that headspace, because it takes you to the very beginning.
Yeah, definitely. I think more so considering that I was living with my mom and dad for a tiny bit of it because of the lockdown. [laughs] But I think it was that same excitement – you remember why you want to do it again. I think anyone doing something creative alongside maybe work and other life commitments, there’s times where it’s hard to balance everything. But then when you get that same excitement that made you want to do it in the first place, you just love it again, you’re suddenly hooked in. I think music does that a lot, and making music especially does that a lot. It took us a while to get into the flow of writing the album – we’d written loads of rubbish stuff, we couldn’t get really into it, we made some difficult changes in the band. It was hard work, but then having that excitement reminds you why that hard work is all worth it.
Do you find that it’s hard to articulate what that reason is?
For me, with the sort of the pattern you get into when you’re really on a run and you’re sending stuff to and from with someone else – me and Joe have done for years with each other, we just have a really good understanding. But when you get into the flow and you’re excited by the possibilities of what you can do once you’ve demoed it – thinking about what it will sound like on record, who’s going to record it, what you’re gonna use – you just get so… You don’t think about other stuff. Well, I don’t anyway. [laughs] It’s a massively cliched thing, but it is an escapism thing, really. Everyone has it, there’s just certain things that are really fun to get swept up in, but when you do, it’s great. And that definitely happened. There were definitely some difficult patches before, but writing the album was really quite straightforward. It was still difficult at times, but it was really fun.
Can you take me back to how that back and forth started with this album? What kind of conversations did you have with Joe, and did you find that you were in a similar headspace?
We were in a similar headspace of feeling excited about everything that we’d been listening to together, because a lot of those experiences we’d had together. So it was almost like, when we were forced to stay at home and you couldn’t do those things, you could reflect on the past 12 months, all those different influences. So we were in a very similar headspace in terms of that, and we were in a very similar headspace in terms of wanting to keep it really light, not overthinking it, not putting too much pressure on it. And we didn’t do that on the first album, we probably took put too much pressure on stuff in certain ways.
But the reason me and Joe work very well writing together is because Joe will obviously write his lyrics and the melodies and the vocals, and he might ask my opinion the odd time, but we leave each other to it. We’ll support each other and give feedback as we go, but Joe will have that side and I will have the sort of music side. Obviously once we record with the others those things will change, but to begin with we kind of have our own camps and trust each other to go forward with that. I don’t think there’s ever a time where we’ll send something back initially and one of us will say no to it. We’ll always like each other’s ideas, even if by the next time we’ve demoed it, we think it isn’t working. I think that’s because we’ve known each other for, well, as friends probably since we were about 17, which is going back to like 2011. I’ve not worked with many other people, but I’ve certainly not got that same relationship that I have with Joe with anyone else.
How do you feel that relationship has changed over the years?
I think we encourage each other to go for it more with certain things. Like, Joe’s vocals on the new album are a lot more upfront in the mix, they’re a lot more audible, and to a certain extent they’re the leading thing on all of the songs. That wasn’t the case so much on the first one. They’re also a lot more melodic, which sounds like a stupid thing to say, but I think he’s just really gone for it. He wanted to do that, and I’ve encouraged him in the same way we’ve encouraged each other to get more into the things that we want to do.
How did he encourage you on this album?
I started doing more remixes and just a different style of writing music and production than I was used to, but he was always really encouraging doing that. And I think that that then meant when it came to writing stuff for W.H. Lung, there were ideas which I previously thought were not quite suitable, but then I thought, “It doesn’t matter, anything can be for W.H. Lung.” And I think that is true now, there’ll be certain things you might have thought initially that that’s not one for the band, but once Joe starts singing on it or whatever, it becomes W.H. Lung. It probably forms itself, really. So I think him encouraging me to try any new ideas and new styles, it’s then made it a lot more of an open book for W.H. Lung.
You said you never say no to each other’s ideas initially. Were you surprised by anything that came up during the process, in terms of feeling that sense of excitement that maybe becomes harder to reach once you’re familiar with each other’s creative tendencies?
Yeah, definitely. I think the biggest example of that, getting really excited by it, would be ‘Somebody Like’. I’d had the instrumental of it, and it was quite different to what it is now, it was more just sort of plodding along. We’d actually finished the initial demos for the record, and then he was like, “I’ve got one more idea, actually,” and then he sent something back, just on his phone or laptop microphone. And I thought, “That sounds brilliant.” It was just a minute and a half, there weren’t even really lyrics, it was just the melody of it, but I kept listening to it over and over. [laughs] And then we managed to finally record it. And then with ‘Kaya’ as well – ‘Kaya’ we actually struggled with a bit at first, but I remember – I don’t know what it is, there’s just certain things in certain songs where they’re just quite satisfying and you’re like, “This is too good to not carry on with.” So we went back and did something again, and it was just a really satisfying melody. I mean, his lyrics are really good, but his ear for melodies and hooks is just getting better and better. Hopefully that’ll be even more the case next time.
I was surprised in a way, not in the way that I didn’t think he could do it, I just hadn’t heard him do it. You then even realize what other things the band can be, really. I think with both the vocals and the production and the sound of the songs themselves, some fans that loved the first one might not like this one, but I think at the same time it’ll work the other way around as well. And that’s fine, but one of the things I’m most proud of is that it doesn’t sound like the first one, because it would have been really easy to do that, or just do a slightly modified version of the first one. And the fact that it doesn’t sound like that, even if people don’t like it, I’m quite proud of that fact. [laughs] Otherwise it would just be boring, wouldn’t it?
Can you tell me what you like about what each of the other members brings to group, as well as the album’s producer, Matt Peel?
Alex and Chris have been in the band for a few years now. I mean, Alex especially from the start. We met him because Matt, the producer, had suggested him as a drummer for the session for one of the songs off our first album, and he obviously he did a great job with that. And then through that we met Chris, who Alex had brought in. Hannah we’d met through Alex – Hannah and Alex are brother and sister. They’re all based in Leeds and live in Leeds, and that’s a huge part of the band that wouldn’t be there without them. And I’m sure Joe would say the same, just on a personal value, those are people that I’ve only met in my 20s that you wouldn’t know where they’d been all your life because you just do everything together now.
But I think musically, Alex is just a very good drummer. He just knows what’s best for the song. He can sort of flex his muscle and do the more intricate technical stuff, and we’ll have little flourishes of that here and there, but he knows that he doesn’t need to do that, and that’s what makes him such a good drummer. Chris can turn his hand at anything and play it very well, he’s just naturally very gifted at doing that stuff, and he produces as well. Hannah we wanted in the band for ages – she’d done stuff with us on the first record, and then it just seemed like a really obvious choice. She’s got an amazing voice and she’s really good with synthesizers as well. We just really get on with Hannah, as we do with all of us – we had a trip to Germany when the band would play and before Hannah was in the band, but she came with us in Berlin and we just ended up having a great time. We’re just really good friends, basically, and we all do stuff outside of W.H. Lung together as well.
And Matt, Matt’s sort of been a bit of a mentor to us since we first met. Before we started W.H. Lung we were in a band in Leeds after we finished university, before we moved back to Manchester, and Matt was one of the first people that we met doing that. And he sort of stuck with us – I feel like he wouldn’t have had to do that. The more successful his studios got, he could have been more selective about the smaller bands he worked with. But he kept working with us, which has been great, and I feel like he’s developed with what he’s doing as well. When we first met, he had like a few odd synthesizers, and now he basically works out of one of the studio rooms in his studio in Leeds, which is full to the brim of different synths and his modular system. And I’ve definitely felt like because he develops, we need to push ourselves as well. We wouldn’t have been able to make the record without Matt. Without any of them, but we wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done as a band without Matt, I’ve no doubt about that. We’ve got a good team around us that we’ve been with since the beginning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.