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20th September 2023

Hard-Fi: “Manchester are discerning”

Hard-Fi’s Steve Kemp and Kai Stephens sit down with The Mancunion to talk reunions, their new UK tour, and their love of Manchester
Hard-Fi: “Manchester are discerning”
Credit: Matt Thompson

Almost a year ago, at the newly opened New Century Hall, Hard-Fi played a raucous Friday night show, their first gig back after their hiatus. The vivid lighting rig in the hall’s ceiling echoed the iconic camera on the cover of the seminal Stars of CCTV. This was an eerie mirror image of the band’s beginnings; despite being a Staines-on-Thames band, their first-ever gig was in Manchester in 2003. “It’s been our second home to us, after London,” drummer Steve Kemp declares. Bassist Kai Stephens agrees; “I think they’re a tougher nut to break usually, but once you break them, it’s as crazy as anywhere.”

Hard-Fi arrived in the indie boom of the mid-noughties but expressed something a little bit more reserved, and a little bit more paranoid than the racket-making, sprint-to-the-end music of early Arctic Monkeys and The Maccabees, or the lamenting anecdotalism of The Kooks and The Pigeon Detectives. Hits ‘Hard To Beat’ and ‘Living For the Weekend’ are taught, punchy, and articulate the concerns of modern life as well now as they did back in 2005.

In Spring 2022, posters adorned with Hard-Fi’s iconic yellow and black aesthetic popped up on the Tube. It caused a mini-viral moment on Twitter, with nostalgic fans getting excited that they were back after eight years. “We never actually really split up, everyone had kids,” Kemp says. “We decided it was the right time to bring it back up. It made sense for us kind of artistically and friendship wise to bring it back.”

The announcement’s style was intentional. “That’s always been the way that we’ve done it. We’ve always had that guerrilla style, when we didn’t have any money we had to do it ourselves. If you want to get in people’s faces, you have to actually get in people’s faces. With budgets, without budgets, that’s always been the Hard-Fi style. The guerilla methodology always comes naturally to us.” In true guerrilla style, when I try and press for any upcoming ideas, both Kemp and Stephens keep their cards close to their chest.

Hard-Fi are back on their first UK tour since the reunion. They won’t play in Manchester, but will play Academy shows in Sheffield, Liverpool, and Leeds. I speak to them on a picnic bench in the press area at Victorious Festival, basking in sunshine. Their show at Victorious Festival is an exclusive date. “We haven’t played a festival like this in many years, and it’s a different animal when it’s a festival crowd and not your own crowd,” says Stephens. “You’re not gonna have it all your own way, it’ll take a bit more work and consideration. There were definitely nerves today.”

“If you’re not nervous you don’t care,” Kemp agrees. “We’re always a little bit nervous even if it’s a crowd of 50 people or 5,000 people or 50,000 people, it really doesn’t matter.” The band have their rituals to keep themselves in check. “We’re so used to each other’s company. I know what Kai needs to get himself hyped, he knows what I need to get myself hyped, so we can actually stay out of each other’s way quite well.” For continuity, the band orchestrate the ‘Hard-Fi high five’ before they go on stage. “The rule is we all have to high five each other once,” Stephens explains. “Sometimes the streams get crossed, sometimes it’s really neat, sometimes we’re missing. It bears no relation to what’s actually going to happen.”

“It sounds cheesy and it sounds silly but before we go on stage it has to be that connection between us,” Kemp furthers. “We know we’re all on the same team. And that’s the way we do it.”

Credit: Tom Langford

Manchester isn’t just about beginnings and restartings for Hard-Fi; they’ve always experienced success in the city. “I feel like the themes we have in our lyrics and our music have gone down really well in Manchester, so we’ve had a lot of respect from people there,” Kemp says. “It’s not like it’s a part of the world that is uncultured where music is concerned. They’ve had everything, so I feel really happy with the fact we’ve been accepted by Manchester, I feel really happy they’ve taken us under their wing.”

Hard-Fi also appreciate the other elements of Manchester, perhaps outside of their immediate genre. Stephens explains to me that he saw Aphex Twin at Mayfield Depot in 2019. “Of all the dos I’ve been to in terms of music and headfuck, that was fucking crazy. And it had the Manchester factor, where it just went off. For late-night electronic music, that is a venue.” Kemp notes that Manchester has always been ahead of the game; “It’s like a music hotbed.”

“The seminal Sex Pistols gig was in Manchester, and that lit the fuse for a lot of stuff,” Stephens remembers. “It changed the world and that happened in Manchester,” Kemp agrees. “Even if it wasn’t for Manchester, it happened there. Manchester is discerning, and to be accepted by them and feel like they’re on our side is really fucking cool.”

Hard-Fi promise that they will return to the studio after the tour, believing that they still have things to say and that they still have a voice. It is certainly true that the lyrics are more relevant than ever. “One of the things we express in our lyrics is a very working-class ethic. We don’t necessarily mean to do this, it’s not a contrived thing,” Kemp says. 

On whether a band like Hard-Fi could start up today, neither Stephens nor Kemp have any doubt. “The lyrics still matter now, so why wouldn’t they matter whether they were happening for a new band?” Kemp asks. “Who knows whether we would’ve been the type of people to be really big on TikTok, because it’s a random thing, but in terms of the lyrics we write and our appeal to the working men and women, I still feel like we have a chance.” Only time will tell, but Hard-Fi are coming back swinging.

Hard-Fi are on tour and tickets are on sale now.

Alex Cooper

Alex Cooper

Head Music Editor and Writer for the Mancunion. Once walked past Nick Cave in Zagreb. Enquiries: [email protected]

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