After telling me about a “Berlin dude” who has legit Roland TR-808 replicas for sale at very reasonable prices, with the tone to match, I start to realize something about Jim Hickey. When he is talking about music and the creation of it, he isn’t talking about making a three minute record with a catchy hook and chorus. He is talking about experimenting with everything within his reach, synthesising sounds, then sending them through some effect boxes his friend invented, passing them through old tape for “random detuning” and then doubling the signal, tucking it, and recording the frequencies again as they come out of a guitar amp at the other end of the room to reach the “special tones and harmonics” he wants.
It is this search for unique acoustics using bespoke hardware, and their application into creating diverse soundscapes, that makes him so contemporary – even when his sounds could be mistaken for having come out a decade ago; or even a couple before that. This retro-centric flavour combined with modern mixing techniques – alongside production standards to match – are more than just a nostalgia trip; they show Hickey being exposed, risking himself as he creates new tones, writes lyrics and develops songs that sound so personal one feels like they are looking through a periscope with a direct view into his head – and his heart. If there is nostalgia to it, it is only because one can feel Hickey’s inner child coming out through his music.
“My grandfather was an artist at the Hanna-Barbera studios in Los Angeles when I was young so visiting him at his office was like going to a zoo of insanely talented people. I’ll never forget how much I wanted to be like these people, children who looked like adults. On the other hand, having half of my family half the world away was confusing. I was always the ‘English’ boy in Malta and the ‘Maltese’ boy in America to other people, so I always felt like a novelty in a way. Apart from making me feel even more like an outsider than I did to begin with, it gave me a kind of freedom to be whoever I wanted to be without thinking too much about what anyone thought of it.”
Hickey, a Maltese/American born and bred in Malta, found being in Malta too limiting after seeing the ferocious creativity of others in America; he has been in Berlin for the last nine years, playing shows both there and in Malta. “Living on an island as small as Malta made me really curious; always being aware of those big places over the sea. I don’t remember ever feeling like I would spend my life in Malta, it felt more like a training ground to prepare me for an inevitable future elsewhere (it didn’t),” he laughs.
Curiosity is a big part of Jim Hickey’s music. A lot of his sounds come from an electronic background, but used in a more regular singer/songwriter compositional way, allowing Hickey to sometimes touch upon multiple genres within one track, from rock to alt-pop to electronica, all without following any of those genre’s formulae. Having grown up listening to “free form music, psychedelic, droney kind of stuff, to jazz, early electronic music that took ages to build and grow, to Nick Drake, until I fell hopelessly in love with late 70s/early 80s funk/soul/disco – those grooves just floored me,” it’s clear that having these manifold influences have paid dividends in his current output.
“I listen to so many different kinds of music that when something really excites me I just try it out myself. If I hear a vocal or instrumental line that really moves me, it can stick with me for days and I’ll sing it over and over again. Eventually it sounds nothing like the original. I never took any music lessons and this is the way I learnt from the start, just listening and repeating and trying to figure out why some things feel so good. I spent a few years trying to work out a sound for myself, I got heavily into synthesis and soundscapes and just experimented for a while. Eventually the Railings EP came out of that.”
His singles are an interesting look into this complexity. One track, Everything, could have come out anywhere between the 80s and today, and features strong rock-inspired vocals and guitar work from Hickey. But then another single, the melancholic Burning Forest, could almost be from another artist. Featuring some of the most soulful vocals I’ve ever heard a Maltese musician produce, encapsulated in a warm, all embracing, progressive soundscape of Hickey’s design, one begins to get an idea of not only the variety of Hickey’s musical interests, but of his own personal vocal cords and nuances when singing his own lyrics.
“I write a lot; I’ve got notepads and sheets scattered all over the place full of bits and pieces. It’s nothing I ever show anyone, just an outlet for whatever can’t come out through music. Some of it’s very logical, trying to work through ideas, sometimes it’s just vague ramblings. Some become lyrics but that’s rarely the case. There’s something about letting go, knowing that no one will see these writings, or experience them, or judge them…it’s a completely different kind of creativity to me. As much as I try to stay unselfconscious about making music, there’s something different about working on something that I know I will never share with anyone. In a way, it’s the state I try to reach when writing music, my reference.”
When an artist puts their heart on their sleeve in music it can open them up to the public more than they might expect. Truly singing with your own emotions in music is already hard enough when done correctly, allowing people into your personal life. But anyone who has seen Jim Hickey’s videos can literally get to see into his personal life; even more so, his personal life as a child.
“The lyrics I was writing at the time felt completely unguarded and vulnerable and I thought about my childhood a lot during the process. When Burning Forest was nearly finished, I realized that I wanted to make an anti-video in a way; I was totally uninterested in videos trying to impress on some level or another and videos used as a medium for alpha egos and so on. I wanted to do something that showed me defenseless, like I felt writing the lyrics, and to leave the viewer the choice of attacking it or dropping their own defenses. I made the videos myself which was difficult at times because so many of the people in the old tapes are gone now, physically or emotionally. It healed more than it hurt though.”
Coming to terms with his own emotional distress through his work seems to be very effective for Hickey. Even the simple act of growing held distress: growing up as an outsider anywhere is complicated enough, growing up in the country where you were born as the “English” boy when you are not even English cannot be becoming to one’s personal growth. His move abroad, especially in light of most of Malta’s most creative people moving abroad, is to be expected.
“Malta’s art scene, like anywhere else, is a reflection of its society. Very few seem to have the will to go very far with their art, and very few audiences are willing to put up with anything that steps outside the lines, which leads to things being very safe and carefully considered. It’s quite depressing. The way the arts are treated on a governmental level is laughable at best. That said, there are some ridiculously under appreciated, talented and extremely active exceptions, mainly people in electronic music, photography and design. Many are practically unknown in Malta, of course, and have to go overseas to do any damage,” he sighs.
“The greatest effect growing up in Malta has had on me was totally under-preparing me for what I found in Berlin and elsewhere. Just the fact that people treat the arts as an important part of society is enough to create a different attitude towards your own work. That said, Berlin has been my home for nine years now, yet the only roots I really feel are in Malta.”
Despite these roots, Hickey is working with the music industry in Berlin, “as a recording engineer, mixer, remixer and building custom audio equipment for local studios to stay fed,” as he puts it himself. “Far fewer people are actually making enough money in the music industry and you have to be a bit successful in your own right before any one wants to work with you (which isn’t a bad thing).” Having these connections, especially in a place like Berlin, allows Hickey to be among the first to know when new audio gear or techniques are coming out – not that he needs them however, since his loyalty remains to “an old Doepfer unit which I use for leads, basses and particularly synth percussion. It is instantly good, every time.”
Placing an outsider into a transient environment may not typically result in anything worthwhile, but in Hickey’s case it has. From Hanna-Barbera studios to Malta to Berlin, he has been able to not only stay true to himself but channel this nomadic quality into quality music. “The most important thing is to stay independent of all that for as long as you can to develop yourself fully before committing yourself to anything,” he calmly states as we close up. If Jim Hickey is anything to go by, fully developing yourself can take myriad forms, but can lead to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Written by Johnathan Cilia
Photography by Meike Peters
This article appears in The Quality Issue of Patron Magazine
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