Hilltop Hoods MC Pressure On ‘The Great Expanse’ & The Hood’s Commitment To Spotlighting Aussie Talent

Those Australian hip-hop legends Hilltop Hoods are counting down the days to the release of their eighth album, The Great Expanse – the follow-up to 2014’s Walking Under Stars. So far the Adelaide trio – rappers Pressure (Daniel Smith) and Suffa (Matt Lambert) and DJ Debris (Barry Francis) – have dropped two popular singles, July’s ‘Clark Griswold’ (featuring local rising star Adrian Eagle) and November’s playful, retro-tinged ‘Leave Me Lonely’. Indeed, ‘Clark Griswold’ scored the Hoods their ninth (!) ARIA and both tracks landed in the triple j Hottest 100. In January, Hilltop Hoods teased the album’s epic finale, ‘H Is For…’

Today, Pressure is conducting phone interviews while Suffa is exploring the great expanse of Byron Bay (Pressure jokes about his cohort doing a winery tour). Hilltop Hoods – launched in the mid-’90s – have remained active between albums. In 2016 they presented a second orchestral project, Drinking From The Sun, Walking Under Stars Restrung, containing the new hit ‘1955’, blessed by Montaigne and beatboxer Tom Thum. Then, last year, the group performed at Splendour In The Grass, toured Europe (taking in the UK’s Reading and Leeds Festivals) and, finally, rocked Falls. In the interim, they quietly surrendered their boutique label, Golden Era Records – the admin too much stress on top of band and family commitments (notably, Pressure wrote about his son Liam’s leukaemia on Walking Under Stars‘ ‘Through The Dark’). Still, Pressure is proud that Golden Era mentored Briggs, extolling their “good friend” as “so driven”.

In fact, with The Great Expanse, Hilltop Hoods are spotlighting other Aussie talent – lining up as guests Timberwolf, Illy and Ruel. But the biggest revelation is the presence of Melbourne rocker Ecca Vandal, who’s also lately collaborated with Birdz. The album’s production comes from the likes of Cam Bluff, Plutonic Lab and Trials.

Hilltop Hoods have enjoyed consecutive #1 albums on the ARIA Charts – and anticipation is high for their comeback. The Great Expanse should net them yet more ARIAs. “Debris will have some more doorstops,” Pressure quips. And, yes, the Hoods will be touring solidly through 2019 – beginning with this month’s coveted support dates for Detroit ‘Rap God’ Eminem (Slim Shady fans may recall that the South Australians previously joined his 2011 Recovery Tour alongside Lil Wayne).

Music Feeds: I was curious to know how you see The Great Expanse in relation to your extensive back catalog. Do you regard it as a continuation or do you tend to approach each album as its own beast?

Pressure: I guess I always feel like I never wanna make the same record. Having said that, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to make a different record, ’cause Walking Under Stars is, what, four- or five-years-old now – which is a bit scary, our last record – and music has changed so much in that time, we’ve changed as people, and our taste has probably changed in that time. So, naturally, I feel like we just make the record that we wanna make every time we go about it. It turns out a bit different, a bit more modern, and just more to the point but current ‘us’. I feel like this record’s an excellent reflection of that.

MF: Suffa has been stressing how your own lives impacted on this record – the rite of passage of becoming parents and so on. But, even though you’ve joked about dad-rap with the ‘Clark Griswold’ video, you probably don’t want to actually be categorised as that. So how conscious are you of connecting with an audience who maybe aren’t parents while keeping it personal?

P: Yeah, it is a balance. When we put out ‘Clark Griswold’, we kinda went, “We really love this song – it’s so us right now.” Then, after we put it out, we were like, “Man, this is such dad-rap!” All the headlines and everything that we did were like, “Dad music.” We were like, “Fuck, I think we may have just disconnected from our younger audience a little bit (laughs).” Not in a bad way, but we don’t wanna be dad rappers. That song was just a lot of fun. We wanted to come back with something that was very light-hearted and a lot of fun. So we did the National Lampoon thing and dressed up as ridiculous versions of ourselves in the film clip and just had a laugh with it. But, at the same time, what you’re saying is so true – like, after 20 years of making music, we still want to be able to connect with people.

MF: Apparently relationships in the group are much smoother now. What kinds of things used to prompt arguments? How have you made it easier for yourselves? Do you have a resolution process?

P: Me and Suffa are the two big personalities, I’m gonna say, in the group and we clash creatively. It’s always a creative clash. We’ve always been best mates. We don’t have any personal differences – and never have, really. But, when it comes to the creating, we’re both so passionate about it and we both want it our way. But we’ve learnt over the years to compromise. We’re a bit more mature about it now and a bit more respectful of each other as well. You have to learn to be that when you spend so much time in each other’s pocket – in a tour bus; in a studio, you know… We’ve learnt to coexist. It’s become a symbiosis.

MF: What was the last argument you had creatively – and who won it?

P: There were two arguments, this record. One of them was whether we did or didn’t have a guitar at the start of ‘Leave Me Lonely’. I won that one, with the guitar at the start (laughs). Then the second one was in ‘Exit Sign’ when [Suffa’s] verse trails over and he does like a rant through the bridge of ‘Exit Sign’ – and he won that one. He actually went to me, “I gave way to you in ‘Leave Me Lonely’, so you’re gonna give way to me [over] how the bridge works in this song.” I went, “That’s all right – I guess that’s actually pretty fair.” So there you go…

MF: I really enjoyed the curation of The Great Expanse. I liked the fact that it’s homegrown artists, because the scene here is so exciting at the moment. Ecca Vandal was the one that really surprised me. Ruel is such a coup because he’s hot property and Tyler, The Creator loves him. How did you go about finding the right person for the right track? Was there anyone you particularly wanted to work with on this record? Or was it more serendipitous?

P: Well, most of the collaborations come about really organically. There’s more collaborations on this record than we’ve ever done before. Going back to Ecca Vandal, she’s probably the only person that we didn’t know prior to making the record that we hit up sort of cold canvass. My wife was listening to an Ecca Vandal song one day. I walked in and went, “Damn, what is this? This is banging!” She pointed me in Ecca’s direction. But all of them have come from a place where we love what the artist is doing and we’re loving their music, so we’ve worked with them. Timberwolf actually played my wedding a few years ago and I got to know him through that.

Ruel is managed by a good friend of ours [DJ Nate Flagrant]. We were asking him about Ruel: “What’s going on?” And he’s like, “He loves you guys – you actually met him when he was 10-years-old and he’s still got a photo of you guys when you were backstage hanging. He said you were really lovely dudes and wanted to come hang again.” So he came down to Adelaide, hung out, and we wrote a song together. All the rest of the artists are people that we just know through making music and have become good friends with and have had a good vibe with over the years.

MF: Is there a song on this album you’re especially attached to?

P: All of them! But probably ‘Counterweight’ a little bit more ’cause it’s my solo track. I think there’s always a slightly different sort of approach and energy when it’s a solo song. But, I mean, I’m actually really proud of all of them. I don’t have favourites – it’s like picking favourites between your children. When they’re yours, it’s kinda like, I don’t know, I want other people to decide what their favourite song is. I don’t really have a favourite song. It’s all me.

MF: It is quite a stashed record, but are there any tracks you had to leave off? Do you have a 2Pac-like hoard or vault?

P: Yeah, there’s a very, very deep hoard of half-finished songs. So, with the 12 songs on the record – 13 if you count the intro – we probably half-finished another 20 songs. We probably had a few more hundred beats and ideas for the record that never got demo-ed or started on. So there’s a very, very deep vault of things that hopefully no one ever hears!

MF: You’ve also got a hoard of ARIAs. You won another for ‘Clark Griswold’ with Adrian Eagle. What are you doing with all these gongs? Are you blasé about it by now?

P: Yes and no… I’m so honoured that we won an ARIA – let me just start with that. But I think all three of us were happier that Adrian Eagle got the ARIA than we were. It’s not that we didn’t appreciate the love that people gave and the votes and the love that the track got and the people that voted for us – it’s always appreciated. It’s a beautiful thing to get that nod from your peers – and then that respect. But we were so happy for Adrian. If you’ve ever met Adrian, he’s the most incredibly happy and positive person you’ve ever met. He pretty much cried when we won that. We’re just like, “Man, this means so much to this dude.” He was such a big part of that song: this is his ARIA. So, yeah, I genuinely enjoyed winning that, just for that energy.

MF: It was fun when he had the shout-out to you on ’17 Again’. Was that what led to this collab? Or did you know each other?

P: It was! Well spotted. We’d known each other before then. We’d met just around the traps. He grew up in Adelaide. He’s in Melbourne now, but he’s an Adelaide boy. So we kind of met him, on and off, and got to know him a little bit, but not well. He did a track with K21, which is one of the artists on Golden Era Records. We were already cool with him, but then he dropped that reference, or shout-out, to us on that track. We were toying with a few singers to do a few bits and pieces on the record. We hit him up and we were like, “Man, would you like to come down and do a track?” And he came back to Adelaide – ’cause his mum still lives here, so he comes and stays with her. So he’s super-happy to come. He started recording another track. I don’t even remember what it was – it didn’t make the album. Then we played him a demo of the ‘Clark Griswold’ one and he was like, “Bro, this is my joint! Can I please sing on this one instead?” We were like, “Yeah, of course, man. We’d way prefer you to be on a track that you’re really connecting with…” So we scrapped the old song and he nailed that one.

MF: Adrian accompanied you at Splendour In The Grass and, in the UK, Reading and Leeds. But the other common denominator to all these events was Kendrick Lamar headlining. I wondered if any of you contrived to meet K-Dot?

P: Never met him – big fan. But I’ve kind of learnt to not try to push to meet artists that big. I don’t wanna be the guy that’s holding someone up. I’ve seen some of the Kendrick Lamar meet-and-greets and I think he’s got the same expression on his face for all 10, 000 photos (laughs). I was like, “Nah, I’ll leave it.” He’s looking tired and he’s done enough meets-and-greets.

But, yeah, we took Adrian Eagle on our European tour – and he was amazing to have on tour. I’ve never seen an artist get up on stage at all of our shows, in front of an international audience who genuinely knew none of his music, and fucking crush it at every single show and, by the end of it, had people doing peace signs, cheering, going wild for him… He’s just such an amazing energy when he’s live. He just won over every single person we played in front of in Europe. It was awesome.

MF: Is there anyone you’re a fan of who you haven’t worked with yet?

P: Locally or internationally? There’s so many people I’m a big fan of!

MF: Locally!

P: Locally? Yeah, you know what, I’ve actually been checking out the Australian grime scene at the moment. There’s an artist that Golden Era just signed called Shadow, who is absolutely killing it at the moment. So I’ve got my eyes on him. Go check out Shadow – a Perth rapper.

MF: Do you miss having Golden Era?

P: It was a bit of a love/hate relationship. We started Golden Era as a love project. I mean, in the year that we started it, which was seven or eight years ago, people were like, “Oh, you’re starting an independent record label in this climate?” It was a very hard climate to run a record label in. And we were like, “Yeah, but we’re not trying to make money; we’re trying to break even. We’re trying to give a platform to people who (A) we love as people but (B), more importantly, whose music we think needs to be heard…”

But Golden Era turned into a massive beast. I’m really proud of what we did with it, but it was such a slog. It came to a crossroad where, as we got busier with Hilltop Hoods and had families – which, of course, is incredibly all-consuming – it got to a point where we either decided we wanted to continue to be musicians or run a record label. And, of course, we chose music. So we gave away Golden Era to [label manager] Ben Martin.

I do miss it. I don’t miss the work and bullshit that comes with running a record label – it’s not all peaches and cream and smiles and happiness. Golden Era is a fantastic label, with a great family – I’m not talking about Golden Era specifically. But, on any record label, it’s just a lot of hard work that comes with it – and I don’t miss that. And do you know what? I don’t miss the family either, ’cause they’re still my fam – all the people on that, three quarters of all these people, I’m still heavily in contact with. They’re still my people.

MF: What are your tour plans behind this album?

P: We are doing the Eminem support, which is definitely wild – like he’d sold out most of the shows in his first 24 hours, which is pretty incredible as an artist that’s been around as long as him to just step up and sell out a stadium tour. And then we’re doing Groovin The Moo, which is also all sold-out except for a few tickets here [in Adelaide] and I think Bunbury. Then we’re gonna hit the road around sort of the middle to third quarter of this year. We haven’t got it locked in yet, but we’re donna do our own shows then.

MF: I remembered you did an Eminem tour before. That’s another person it’s impossible to meet, I’ve heard. M-Phazes told me about that.

P: Yeah. Phazes produced a song for him and he didn’t even meet him – which made me feel better about doing his support and not meeting him. [Eminem] rocked up in a black van with a bunch of very large security guards in black suits with the full headset, like voice-con on, [who] formed basically a ring around him and walked him to the stage. So no one could even try and stop to talk to him. [He] got off stage and they walked him back to the van… So yeah (laughs). No one was trying to stop that fucking ring of death volume!

Hilltop Hoods’ eighth album, ‘The Great Expanse,’ is out February 22. The band will perform around the country this month as a part of Eminem’s ‘Rapture’ tour. They were also announced as part of the 2019 Groovin The Moo lineup.  

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