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Some months ago, I had found my way into one of those hyperlinked rabbit holes that the Internet seems engineered to lead you down, clicking through a flickering procession of music sites and waiting for something to surprise me.
The surprise came in the form of Weird Little Birthday, the debut record from a laconic group of Brits with an intentionally misspelled moniker: Happyness. I was immediately taken by the album’s gorgeous melodies and coy turns of phrase. Full to the brim with wry witticisms, Birthday, along with the band’s other work, hits upon the distinctive hallmarks of late-'90s Pavement-style slacker rock: earworm melodies, raw production, ooh-ahh choruses, and carefree, sardonic lyrics that belied a wistful melancholy at the heart of the songs.

Happyness, it turns out, is a rising star in indie music circles. The strength of their debut, along with memorable performances at CMJ and SXSW, earned them some well-deserved praise. Weird Little Birthday was soon followed by an EP, Tunnel Vision On Your Part. In turn, several tracks from that EP appear on their latest, 2017’s Write In. Write In is out on Moshi Moshi and the band’s Weird Smiling label, named for an off-the-wall line from “Weird Little Birthday Girl.” (“And every day is like your birthday / With all the getups and the weird smiling”). Weirdness and birthdays tend to crop up a lot for Happyness — fitting, since their music combines oddball pronouncements with the warmth and geniality of youthful celebration.

I was there for Happyness’s second gig at Bottom of the Hill earlier this June, where I met the four-piece on the patio before the show. Jonny Allan (vox and guitar), Benji Compston (vox, keys, and guitar), and Ash Cooper (drums) make up the core band. For this tour, Paul Abderrahim, who hails from Paris, has joined them on bass. They’re as convivial a group as their music would suggest: We smoked and laughed together, beers in hand, as they told me about their tour and delved into some band history.

The weirdness that pervades their lives also infiltrates their music. The first time they came to San Francisco, a bag of microphones was lifted from their van — only to be returned with all contents accounted for on their next visit, two years later. No one can seem to explain how that happened.

I asked Compston about the NME Best Lyric award they won in 2015 for one of their cheekier lines: “I’m wearing Win Butler’s hair / There’s a scalpless singer of a Montreal rock band somewhere.” That needling one-off lyric might have earned them the ire of the actual Arcade Fire singer, who is intimidatingly large. As the band milled around at a London gig before their set time, they spotted Butler stalking into the venue. “He’s a big dude. And he wears, like, sparkly gold trainers and whatnot,” said Cooper. The band stood uncomfortably, trying not to look, while Butler eyed them with menace from across the room. As Compston was telling me this, his laughter was cut with a kind of bewilderment at the utter strangeness of the memory. Finally, Butler left, pointedly, barely minutes before they went on. No word as to whether this encounter was a coincidence, an attempted psych-out, or if the singer of the Montreal rock band had come there for a revenge scalping and thought better of it.

Having survived their run-in with the darker side of fame, Happyness returned to San Francisco this summer for a stop on their Write In tour. On that subdued June evening, they gleefully took the stage and were soon jamming through standout tracks like “Great Minds Think Alike, All Brains Taste The Same,” “Naked Patients,” “It’s On You,” “Falling Down,” and “Uptrend/Style Raids,” spanning their short discography. Their stage presence is restrained but buoyant. As each member has considerable technical skill, the music seemed to carry them along effortlessly, and the crowd was transported in kind.

Over my months of assiduous listening, their songs’ oblique lyrics had, as lyrics do, come to represent to me a particular personal significance; I was genuinely moved to hear those cherished lines and melodies in living color. Happyness is a band for warm summer nights, and seeing them in that nostalgia-rich setting — a few cheap beers from the bar, friends surrounding, lights low, the crowd full of the young and passionate — is the kind of remembrance that you hold fast to.

A few days later, I caught up with Cooper on the phone as the band was on the road to Athens, GA. Our conversation touched on the secrets of Weird Little Birthday, the inspiration and process behind their Write In, the seminal Travolta and Cage vehicle Face/Off, and the timeless influence of Randy Newman.

The reaction to Write In has been broadly positive, but some online commenters have complained (as they are wont to do) about its appreciable, if not staggering, stylistic shift. Write In pulls focus from close-up intimacy and pans out to capture a broader sound, allowing for the occasional stretch of shoegazing. (A workable comparison might be Earlimart around their Mentor Tormentor era — nimbly straddling the line between low-key and heavy). “We kinda got bored of people referring to us as a copy of Pavement or Sparklehorse," says Cooper. "Obviously, they were big influences, but we didn’t consider ourselves to be copies of them. So when it came to the second record, we sat down and were like, ‘Where do we want to go next?’ Which ended up being a Randy Newman concert, actually, in London. And I think it influenced the final version of the record.” After the band had “tried out a few different styles and seen what [they] could do,” Write In ended up taking a tone markedly darker than any feel-good Pixar soundtrack, although a trace of influence is detectable.

But Happyness’ 30-odd songs take a genre as a starting point, rather than replicate its signifiers. They’re certainly not a band that’s averse to left-field surprises and stylistic experimentation. In each song, they seem to draw from a different well: garage rock or art rock or dream pop or lo-fi. References and allusions abound —knowing nods from the band that their songcraft is in conversation with a tradition, indebted to the past even as they carve out their own place. A line from “Lofts” goes: “There’s something in you / Bloodier than blood.” I thought that this was no coincidence — it had to be a reference to Wilco’s “A Shot In The Arm.” According to Compston, it was, and some of Weird Little Birthday’s artful noise effects and gentle piano transitions that had so reminded me of Wilco were in fact traceable to the alt-country titans. But even though after a cursory listen these songs might be slotted into a genre, spending more time with them reveals that Happyness resists comparison.

Cooper also told me that “Naked Patients” draws its rhythmic character from “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” a driving track off Wilco’s seminal A Ghost Is Born, a love of which he and I have in common. He also mentioned that “Victor Lazarro’s Heart,” is — and I’m shocked that not everyone knows offhand — named after the police chief character in Face/Off. As Cooper explains, Lazarro shows up, “When Nicholas Cage gets his face replaced with John Travolta’s — wait, no. No, wait. When John — OK, I don’t know which way around it is. Does he remain John Travolta when they...? I can’t...If you watch the film it makes sense, but I can never, like, express who is who.” Me neither. Face/Off is the great philosophical quandary of our time.

All artists build upon the late greats. But even though I can hear in Happyness songs the traces of Wilco, Pavement, Grandaddy, Beulah, and other genre mainstays, I’d never dismiss them as derivative. Their inspirations are channeled into something greater than the sum of its parts, something more than mere pastiche. They may write within a certain milieu, but all else is original — there’s no shameless pilfering of melodies or chord progressions, and the lyrical allusions are only made in earnest tribute.

Happyness’s work inhabits a singular space that fits under the umbrella of ‘indie rock’ but is thoroughly their own. Weird Little Birthday is an achingly pretty album, even when it launches into distorted wailing madness, and especially when it drops to a whisper and the quiet creak of fingers on guitar trickles into the mix. The Tunnel Vision on Your Part EP and Write In up the ante with a bigger sound, driven by swirling chord progressions on chorus- and reverb-heavy electrics. Yet those two releases preserve the nuance and peculiar charm of Allan’s susurrating vocals, all while delivering melodies that can flatten with their beauty, live or on record. That show at Bottom of the Hill will stay with me for a long time.

After Cooper told me that a new record is already in the works across the Atlantic, I met with a sense of instant anticipation. This band’s is the kind of music that’s seared into your heart and all swirled together with daubs of your memories — the lights and the longings and the loves that filled that bygone chapter of your life; the remembrances that can leap, lucid and startling, to the forefront of your conscious on any average summer night when you hear those old songs play.

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