The orchestral breakbeat legends - now a husband and wife duo - give us the inside story behind 'Light Of The Fearless'
Every Hybrid album has its own story, and its own sound. Their discography is a diary, each entry capturing a unique moment in the band's life so far. With different influences, inspirations and line-ups, each of their five albums provides a context and framework in which the band can flex, stretch and develop their trademark signature sounds - the hurricane breaks, tsunami symphonics and lightning dynamics that have given them their unique status in the bass and beats game since they emerged in 1996 with their seminal breakthrough single Symphony.
Their 1999 album debut Wide Angle set their orchestral breakbeat blueprint: three young jungle and hip-hop boys from Swansea given access to an SSL studio and a full orchestra, and carte blanche to stir both souls and dancefloors. It set the agenda for every success that's followed.
Next came 2003's Morning Sci-Fi, which captures the years of touring that followed their debut album. Now four members deep, complete with drummer and guitarist, their sophomore effort was heavier, with more tendencies towards big crowd anthemia.
2006's I Choose Noise saw Hybrid (then a duo consisting of two of the three founding members, Mike Truman and Chris Healing) return to much more widescreen, orchestral style, their lifelong cinematic sound now galvanised by tentative steps into the game/movie score world that's been their main stomping ground in the last 10 years.
Then came 2010's Disappear Here. With new member Charlotte Truman (Mike's wife) providing a vocal consistency and a classically trained compositional foundation Hybrid had never had before, the fourth Hybrid album was a far more pensive body of work with darker, macabre and slightly rockier notes.
Now comes their fifth album Light Of The Fearless. Landing just over eight years after Disappear Here, almost double the longest gap between any of the previous Hybrid LPs, once again it comes with its own unique context and framework. Once again the line-up has evolved, now simply comprising Mike and Charlotte. Once again it has its own sound… and that sound is arguably the most consistent and striking Hybrid have ever delivered.
"It's been so long we didn't know if people even wanted to hear us anymore," Mike laughs. "But I think half the reason it's taken us so long is because we've been thinking ‘What do we want to sound like?' This was a really big question to ask ourselves after writing for other people for so long."
Here's the thing: Hybrid as an electronic act may have appeared in snooze mode - especially as their name dropped from club line-ups in 2015 when main DJ member Chris Healings left - but as a production and composing outfit they've never been busier. Since 2010, Hybrid have provided scores and/or additional music and production for 16 movies (including 2012's Total Recall remake, several The Fast & The Furious chapters and the critically acclaimed Mozart story Interlude In Prague). They've also provided music for games such as Driveclub and are frequently called in to do additional production for movie jobs they're not at liberty to disclose.
In summary, Hybrid have never stopped. Or at least they didn't until last summer, when the seeds for Light Of Fearless were finally sown.
"When you haven't got a detailed brief or people making requests and setting parameters, then it's quite a scary concept," continues Mike. "What do we want to be writing about? It took ages to work it out."
"First we thought about doing something political," adds Charlotte. "But we're exposed to so much bad news it felt like it would feel like rubbing salt in the wound."
"There are enough people making that type of music and making it really well. We don't need to add to that," says Mike. "A pivotal moment for us last summer was when we found ourselves listening to a lot of music we grew up with. Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Minnie Ripperton... then hip hop and drum & bass and all these things we just enjoyed. We'd collated this amazing playlist on Spotify that really represented where we came from, so we wanted to do our interpretation on that. Which means lots of breakbeats, bass and a massive orchestra."
The end result is at once an instantly distinctive album that's unmistakeably Hybrid, laden with insane levels of lavish instrumentation, orchestration and detail. It's also a powerfully funky and soulful piece of work, featuring some of the gutsiest, rawest and perhaps most honest songs they've ever written to date. From the moment the synth shimmers and analogue arpeggio of opener We Are Fearless light the fuse, right through to the final orchestral and choral smoulders of closing Tom Petty cover I Won't Back Down, there's a seamless soul and energy throughout the arrangement that allows them to switch from the climactic savage breaks of tracks like Hold Your Breath to the walloping soul and vibrancy of the inimitably funky Super Power with consistency and flair.
"We're happy with the funk and optimism we settled with," considers Charlotte. "Even if some of the songs become very intense in sound or design, they're all shaped around overcoming adversity. Over the past eight years we've had our ups and downs. Not as a couple, but personally and musically. The power of it is that you can go through shitty times and come out of the other end empowered and learning from it. That's a very positive thing."
Sitting opposite Charlotte and Mike, you can feel that positivity. We're in a quiet bistro an hour from their rural Midlands/Welsh border HQ - home to their family, both of their own separate studios, and over 60 animals including dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, horses, alpacas, pigs, peacocks and a parrot. They seem relaxed and refreshed.
Quite rightly: after two scrapped attempts (the first in 2012, the second in 2015), the long-awaited fifth album has been mastered and there's no going back. For a couple who seem driven by detail, to the point they were still adding vocals, choruses and even a gospel choir within days of the final master, this is a big deal - the album that their loyal following on social media have been demanding for years is no longer in their hands.
"Our label manager has been like, ‘Can I have a demo? Can I have a demo?' but we're like ‘No, sorry!" laughs Charlotte. "We don't let anything out until it's 99 per cent there. You don't want someone hearing something that's not at the level we want it to be heard."
"Left to our own devices, without label intervention, we'd probably still be working on the album for another year," grins Mike. "But it did eventually get to the point where they were like, 'Right you've got 10 days until the mastering'. Ten days?! I need at least a few months!"
If anything sums up Mike and Charlotte's shared spirit, and a spirit that's run through Hybrid's entire discography for that matter, it's this - if something's worth doing, it's worth doing as well as you possibly can. Why use a VST when you can hire 52 members of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra? Why make your albums in stereo when you can create them in surround - and why use a standard 5.1 system when you can custom build your own speakers from scratch? Why stick to a standard arrangement when you can twist a song into a bass-growling breakbeat beast halfway through? Why do a conventional cover of Tom Petty when you can turn it into a sweeping orchestral opus that thrusts with blockbuster breakbeat rocket fuel?
"That came about in a very strange way," Charlotte explains of the album's epic final track. "We love the original anyway and were asked to do a version of it for a trailer. In the end that wasn't used but we loved the way it was going so much so we expanded on it, then expanded on it some more, then put an orchestra at the beginning of it and turned into this kind of Fleetwood Mac/breakbeat mutant!"
"It's the largest orchestral piece we've ever done as Hybrid," adds Mike. "It just got bigger and bigger and bigger. The song has been covered in a country and rock styles but I don't think it's been covered in this way before."
Won't Back Down is a fitting finale piece for the album. A climactic crescendo, it befits the fan hype that's been bubbling away for years, leaves you wanting more and brings together both the album's sonic threads (soul, compositional dynamics and drama) and its theme of overcoming adversity. It is perhaps emotionally appropriate, too, as it captures a new creative process for the pair of them.
"It was hard working together to begin with," admits Mike, who first got in touch with Charlotte through her MySpace page in 2006 while looking for a vocalist. "We did butt heads loads. Charlotte came from more of a rock background, I came from electronic, and it wasn't an instant smoothly working click, like, ‘Yeah everything's perfect!' A one-off collaboration is fine. You do the track and then you don't have to see each other again, but with us it was always going to be a long-term thing and you learn a lot about yourself and how you work in these instances. The fractious, darker sounds on Disappear Here were a result of the fact it wasn't plain sailing."
"I was trying to find a way of sitting within Hybrid," explains Charlotte whose previous band, under her the name Charlotte James, included Massive Attack producer Stew Jackson and Kasabian drummer Ian Matthews. "It was already established so I wanted to complement what they had done, and I was very wary of taking it over. At the time I was also diagnosed with depression and anxiety. The pinnacle of that was me feeling incredibly numb and that's reflected in most of my lyrics on Disappear Here."
Mike explains how listening to Charlotte's lyrics on Disappear Here isn't an easy experience but, in hindsight, they answer many questions he had at the time. "Weirdly, for an album we spent so much time on, I hadn't worked out a lot of the meanings," he says, turning directly to Charlotte. "I think now you've been through treatment that's why your songs are so much more optimistic."
The pair laugh about the trade-off they have: every time Charlotte adds another animal to their small domestic zoo (which has provided her with balance and an escape from her own intense creative process) Mike adds another module to his synth. But behind the joke is a sincere, understanding shared musical shorthand that has been developed, refined and honed ever since Charlotte joined the band 10 years ago.
"I've levelled out, and that's down to treatment and support and love from those around me," considers Charlotte. "But musically, for me it's been nice to be able to do my stuff the way I do it and it fits automatically in what we do as Hybrid. I don't have to hold myself back. I feel free within the creative process, within my own mind, and within the musical flow or dialogue."
It's a dialogue that's been developed over 10 years of living, working and raising a young family together, and perhaps the most personal characteristic that's captured on Light Of The Fearless. It's also one that's developed through the sheer breadth of roles they play as musicians.
"We've done so much scoring and other work that requires our skills to be divided completely that it's influenced the way we work on everything," says Charlotte. "We both do an equal job in completely different ways and we trust each other implicitly. But to be honest I think the biggest challenge in terms of getting the album done was finding enough time to break away from the scoring and the bread and butter jobs and invest everything we could into the album, and still have enough time to pay the bills. We had to give ourselves some time to write and once we did, it really was like, ‘Okay, shit or bust.' And we've got loads more music left over."
"Yeah," grins Mike. "It's like the floodgates have opened again and there's this desire to get as much written as possible. I don't think you'll be waiting quite as long as eight years for the next one!"
Exciting news for Hybrid fans. But first let's appreciate Light Of The Fearless - another album that acutely captures a unique and intense moment in the Hybrid's life so far. But the context and framework in which they flex, stretch and develop their trademark signature sounds seems more grounded and consistent than before. Different influences, different inspirations and, once again, a different line-up. But with its tight musical flow, dialogue and years in creation, like all Hybrid albums it has its own sound - and this has been its story.
Words: Dave Jenkins
Light Of The Fearless will be out on Distinctive Records in July