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