Jonny Allen & Benji Compston of Happyness (UK) on returning to SXSW and the release of Write In

Ahead of the release of new album Write In, we hang out with Jonny and Benji from South London group Happyness. Out at SXSW recently, the lads dealt with the heat, the chaos of running about the Texan city and developing their live show for a whole variety of new crowds.

Welcome to SXSW. The sun has finally come out and it is hot.

Jonny: It is hot.
Benji: It is hot. It’s arguably a bit too hot.

How have you been finding it the last few days?

Benji: It’s been great. We got in here on Sunday and it’s kind of a bit of a whirlwind, so far. So far so good. We’ve got our main showcase tonight. If you find us roaming the streets in about five or six hours time, ask us again.

‘Cause you maybe missed your showcase.

Benji: Exactly, and you can point us in the right direction is what I mean. You can say, “Guys, you’re meant to be at your showcase. It’s over there on 6th Street.”

Have you done SXSW before?

Jonny: Yeah, we did it two years ago.

Yeah I thought so. How does it feel like coming back for another time? Do you feel like you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into a bit more?

Jonny: Yes.
Benji: We know that you got to turn up early to get the free stuff.
Jonny: Including the backpacks.
Benji: But we haven’t lived by that mantra. I don’t know why.

Jonny: It’s been a perspective on things, I think, coming back. First time we came here, we probably felt even more like we were kind of tiny minnows swimming in a massive pond, and we’re still tiny minnows swimming in a massive pond, but maybe we know our way around a little bit more.

You can traverse that pond in a more organised, arguably organised manner.

Jonny: Yes. Water boat them. Apart from that, it feels pretty similar this time. Doesn’t it?
Benji: Yeah.

I imagine two years on, you are probably better at the 15 minute changeovers and getting your shit together on stage.

Benji: I hope so. We’ve done a lot more of those since.

Jonny: We’ve changed quite a lot. We used to do everything as a three piece. So that’s probably the biggest difference; we’ve got four of us now. A lot of the songs are pretty new to us. The set up’s still kind of relatively new to us. We’re not at that place were you’ve been touring for a year or whatever and it’s completely second nature. We’re still kind of getting back to it and figuring stuff out. It’s still pretty exciting and new to us.

You got some new material off your next record which comes out in about a month?

Jonny: Yeah. It comes out on the 7th.

Okay, so less than a month.

Benji: Shit. It is. We just got our first review. I think it’s Uncut. ‘Woozy’ was the word they used, which was a nice word I thought.
Jonny: Woozy is a lovely word

I think after seven days at SXSW, I’m feeling pretty woozy. I’ve had a lot of fun. I think that’s a positive.

Jonny: It is time in the afternoon when it’s, generally speaking, there’s been a little bit of day drinking before now and there’s definitely a little bit of evening drinking. So this is the interlude.

Calm before the storm. I haven’t heard the new record yet. It seems like someone from Uncut has. What can we expect from the next record? It’s the most average, boring question, I know.

Jonny: It’s the question that we most should’ve figured out an answer to. We just have given so many rambling completely incoherent answers to.
Benji: Still part of the whole warming up thing, isn’t it?
Johnny: Be quite nice to figure out how to say it in a way that makes sense. I think it’s good.
Benji: I think it’s good, too. It’s a bit more piano-y, which is nice. Which I think was intended.

Jonny: I think, on our first record, we were having so much fun, just being able to record ourselves for the first time that we … there [just] wasn’t very much. There was a lot of it but by comparison, there wasn’t as much. It wasn’t as concise, I think. We kind of really wanted to make this one about the songs. There’s not very much kind of interlude music or whatever. It’s quite kind of heavily song based. It’s just 10 tracks.

Straight to the point. Getting the job done.

Jonny: It starts with two minutes of just-
Benji: Instruments.
Jonny: … chords

But maybe that’s your definition of straight to the point. It’s all relevant.

Jonny: It felt straight to the point. It felt straight to our point. We put a point down and then went straight to it, basically.

Benji: To be or not to be, that is the point. Everything must have a point. We’ve seen the point, so … we went with the point.

Is there any relationship to The Room?

Jonny: It’s based on a fable that was written by Harry Nielsen. It got made into a feature length animation. It’s got a whole soundtrack by Harry Nielsen. He’s got a whole album called The Point by Ringo Starr.

Benji: It was originally arranged by Dustin Hoffman and then, I don’t know if it was for copyright reasons or something, but it basically got re-recorded for the UK version and then it was recorded by Ringo Starr. It’s just so beautifully, soothingly narrated.

Jonny: It’s so good.

Does it remind you of watching Thomas the Tank Engine as a kid? Does it have that level?

Jonny: We’re just waiting for him to say, “Sir Thomas.”

How many more shows do you have here and where do you head off to? I imagine you go back home to play some album launch shows.

Jonny: We do, yeah yeah. In April.

Benji: Yeah. We haven’t played any of our official showcases yet. So, we got both of them. One tonight, if we make it.

Jonny: If we’re not seduced by free food and wifi.

It seems like you’re not very good at getting these things. So it’s, everything should be all right.

Jonny: We’re excellent at wifi, trying the free stuff, getting the free stuff. Yeah, well, we got given a mug, today. That was nice. Thank you Austin City Limits for our mug.

That’ll be a nice mug.

Jonny: It’s a packing mug. It keeps stuff warm, I guess.

Be good for life on the road, you know?

Benji: Yeah. It’s got a lid. It’s got a lid, which is nice so it doesn’t spill.

Have you gotten better at life on the road over the years do you feel? Or has it gotten harder?

Benji: We’ve got worse. We’ve got better at eating when we want to instead of trying to save money.

Jonny: And eating vaguely, slightly more healthily. We cooked when we arrived in Austin a few days ago. We had a night off and cooked kind of vaguely vegetable-y meal. And all felt quite proud of ourselves for that.

Meat is a vegetable in Austin. So, that’s …

Jonny: That’s what I mean. We had a mixed grill for dinner.

It’s funny though. If you do ask for vegetables here, you get like beans, buttered beans covered in bacon. That’s the vegetable side.

Benji: Our you could be like, “Um, yeah, could I have the beans but without the bacon and the cheese and the mustard and the cream and whatever?” Yeah. After SXSW we have a festival in Fort Worth and a festival in Boise, and then go do a show in LA. Then we go home. Then we come back quite soon.

How are you finding the new songs to be translating live? I imagine that’s still in the early stages of figuring that out.

Jonny: Yeah. There are songs that we’ve had from the first record that took us two, three years to ever get to a point live where we felt like we were doing justice to them.

What do you think that came down to? The need for perfection?

Jonny: No. I think it comes down to distance actually, maybe. We’re so close; we do everything with just the three of us on record. A lot of it’s very layered. Particularly the new album. There are some songs where if you wanted to do them exactly like they are on record, you’d need five or six guitars, and five or six of us singing. We have four people.

It’s a lot of work.

Jonny: Yeah. So we gotta just kind of figure out how to do it basically. It’s a lot more fun coming back at songs when you don’t know every single intricate detail that you got down on record. You’re not trying to capture that. You’re just kind of trying to be in the moment about it.

Benji: It’s definitely also some stuff that you can only do when you actually start playing them to a crowd. I think if we spent three days in row every week doing it … Maybe that’s pushing it. Maybe three days in a row for a week, it would sound amazing. When you start kind of seeing the way people react to songs and playing them on a stage, when you can’t stop and go, “Oh, maybe we should try it like that.” Then they kind of take on a bit of a life of their own. I think, as well.

Happyness’ album Write In is released April 7th. Keep up to date with the band at happynessmusic.bandcamp.com.