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Interview: Folly Group

22 January 2024

Photo by Matt Ritson

One of the most anticipated releases in the new year comes from the UK post-punk band Folly Group. Formed in 2019 by roommates Louis Milburn (guitarist/vocalist), Sean Harper (drummer/vocalist) and Tom Doherty (bass), drummer/percussionist Kai Akinde-Hummel provided the missing piece, bringing elements of trip-pop and Afro-Cuban rhythms to the band’s sound. With a series of singles and EPs paving the way, Down There! is Folly Group’s formal statement to the world and the world is listening. The band is preparing for a European tour in March and April, with a slight break to perform at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and then returning to the U.S. in May for a short run of shows in some of the bigger markets such as New York, Chicago and L.A.

While the music on Down There! sounds anxious, paranoid and dark, the members who joined me on a Zoom call (Harper, Doherty, Akinda-Hummel) were anything but thus proving the old saying that you can’t judge a band by their music.

You’ve mentioned that artists like Gorillaz and Massive Attack are the common bands that you all grew up listening to and helped inform the Folly Group sound. Considering your age, those are “classic rock” bands that formed before you were born. Do you remember how you discovered them?

SEAN: I found Gorillaz when I was 5. You know how in the early aughts, there was a family computer that everyone shared? I was on the computer. I was only 5 or 6 but I already knew I loved music. I went on iTunes, I thought it was this fun, cool game with all these flashing lights and sounds. At the top of iTunes, there was a promo for “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz and it’s got all these cartoon characters in the ad. When you’re 5, that’s cool. I must have seen the video on TV around that time as well. It was like, “Yes! This is what 6-year-olds need. This is great.”

KAI: For me, I think it was my mate, Ben, who had an older sibling. You know, back in the day, you’d burn CDs for people. These days, it’s like “What’s a CD?” He came in with this burned CD and gave it to me and the Gorillaz were on there. I was like, “What the hell is this?” And then they released that game. In school, we had IT classes, like information technology, where we learned about computers. For a month, I learned nothing about computers, I was just playing the game.

SEAN: It wasn’t even a game in the grand sense. It was a little Flash game you could play online, and you could play in your browser. It was part of the promo for their first album. When their second record, Demon Days, came out, I was young enough to be lucid and know what was going on, so that was the first album I really got into. And then, after the fact, I got into their first album and found the game. I remember the game used to be on It was just lumped in with these other things like Heli Attack 3 and Motherload and stuff like that.

”Feel Good Inc.” is such a great song and really appealed to people of all ages. My kids were in pre-school when that song came out and they loved it as much as my wife and I did.

SEAN: I think it’s one of the best pop songs of my lifetime.

KAI: It has everything. If you wanted to summarize popular music and what it is nowadays, “Feel Good Inc.” does that.

SEAN: It scratches every itch. It’s a bit of a masterpiece, I think.

TOM: People who say they don’t like it are just lying.

Had you guys played in other bands before Folly Group?

TOM: There’s been a few different things we’ve been involved in to varying degrees of success. The majority of those degrees being fuck-all success. But some of us have had a bit more success than others. I like to think this is the most fun one.

KAI: I’ve been around the block a little bit. It’s the nature of like being a drummer, there’s never enough of us and you’re pulled in a million different directions. But we’ve all got a fair bit of experience. That’s how we all met each other. We’ve all had musical interactions. Tom’s known Louis and been in bands with him for ages. And then Louis was friends with people in my old band. And we were in a band together. Then Sean was in a band with Louis. All of those things fizzled out and we landed on this and, surely in the next 10 years, we’ll be in another band, and we’ll be talking about how this is the band that fizzled out as well.

Having been in other bands, what gave you the confidence that Folly Group was something that you could do bigger and better things with? So many bands lack that confidence and will forever be stuck playing local gigs.

TOM: I think we just keep getting emails and we go, “Who’s that? They want us to play?” and you just keep pushing it as far as you can take it. So far, it’s gone well.

SEAN: It’s a really good question. I reckon it comes from having always been in bands. You get the confidence thing out of the way early if you’re lucky. Some people don’t. We were all lucky enough to have found the confidence in ourselves as performers way before we started this band through the old projects that Kai and Tom were just mentioning. When we clubbed together on this, we were all kind of in our early 20s and it wasn’t our first rodeo anymore. We knew how to gig in London.

Some of us had toured in other bands, some of us hadn’t. I think that can create an artificial sense of entitlement, like, “This is what I do. I’ve done it before.” That can be valuable because it means you’re just quite tenacious. When we first started out, we sent 20 emails a day and hit up everybody that we knew, which was a fair few people because we had been playing in bands in London for a few years already by this point. And we were able to get the ball rolling on the live front around London pretty quickly.

I think it stops being about confidence. London is such a difficult city to prosper in. I don’t need to tell you how expensive it is. You spend every hour God sends making sure that your rent can be paid. And then in what little spare time you have, you do live music as a vocation. By the time opportunities do come around, you don’t give a second thought to whether you feel ready or not. You just think, “Oh, thank fuck it was worth it.”

KAI: We had all played with Louis and we knew the level he was at as a musician. I’ve got confidence in my ability, Sean’s got confidence in his, Tom’s got confidence in his. Knowing that we’ve been put together and we know each other, I also have confidence in all of their abilities. There’s been times when we’ve walked out, we’ve seen a venue at soundcheck and we’ve been like, “This is mental, there’s going to be no one here.” Then, when we walk out to play, there’s 3,000 people in there. We were all probably absolutely shitting ourselves in seeing the crowd but no one in those situations puts down a wrong foot. And, even if you do, just brush it off and enjoy it. How many more opportunities are you going to get like this?

SEAN: That’s a really good point. It takes playing a lot of gigs and it also takes going to a lot of gigs to remember quite how little you give a shit when you watch some musician fluff it. It takes lots of practice at playing gigs to not let that psych yourself out when there’s lights on you and there’s people watching and you’re aware that they’ve paid their hard-earned cash to come and watch you. However, never in my life have I been a punter at a show and someone’s played the wrong fret or a drummer’s fumbled and had to pick back up the following bar and gone like, “Well, that was a waste of money.”

You get better at forgiving yourself and things like that stop bothering you as much, never totally, and then that in turn means that you’re more confident about playing music on the whole.

TOM: You just have to work on not listening to the screaming voices inside your head. They get really loud and then they get bored and fuck off and then you’re all right.

You’ve released singles and EPs. Was the idea always that you wanted to put out a full length or was that just the natural next step?

SEAN: I don’t think we ever thought twice about doing an album next. I don’t think there was ever even a conversation about doing a third EP. I think that you become privy to the patterns that the independent music industry takes the longer you spend in it. There are exceptions to this rule, like some great friends of ours, a band called Do Nothing, did three EPs, but it’s quite rare that you’d see someone do three before an album. Why that is, I have no idea and I don’t think that that is a hard and fast rule. It’s just that with any luck, you’re in a position that an album is kind of viable after you’ve done two EPs. The Black Midis and Last Dinner Parties of this world don’t even need to concern themselves with an EP unless they actually choose to. But for 99% of bands, I think that it’s a tried and tested way of finding an audience before committing to something that is financially high stakes, but also as sacred as your first album.

KAI: But it’s also the flip side for a label, right? An EP is almost to test the waters for them. Then they say, “All right, we’re going to put up the money for you lot to go in the studio and mess about for however long it takes to make an album.” It just seems like it’s the formula of the way things are done, and we didn’t question it.

You did an interview at SXSW last year and you said that the album was almost done, that there was just one more song to go but you hadn’t written it yet. Is that song on the album?

SEAN: Oh my God, I had so little sleep when we did that interview. I talked so quickly. That song is on the record. When I said that we signed our deal out there at SXSW, it wasn’t some mad, slap-dash kind of, “Whoa, who are these guys?” We had this thing set up. We knew we were going to be signing it out there because our label, So Young, were doing a showcase out there.

I’m looking all pleased with myself in that interview because it was two days before we signed our album deal. So, I know that that’s coming but I can’t blow the gaff on it all just yet because as much as that interview was coming out a couple of weeks after South by Southwest, we weren’t releasing any new music till August and we weren’t announcing the album till September. But we knew all that then. And that single I was talking about that hadn’t been written is called “Pressure Pad.” I think it’s the first example, between our two EPs and the album, where we had that classic thing of like, “Fuck, the label needs another single.” It’s a bit of a Frankenstein song. It’s various sections mixed, sort of mishmashed together, that were from different things. We decided to lean into the chaos of it. I’m not terribly sure it is a very coherent song, but it works. It got us over the line.

I have to say, you guys seem very friendly, very happy, but your music is on the darker side. Is that a reflection on your environment and your daily life or are you putting on a mask or a reflection of your influences?

TOM: Remember earlier when I was talking about screaming voices inside your head?

(all laugh)

SEAN: I can confirm that we are like this with one another in person, which is great. But, who’s like this all the time? That’s one beautiful thing about this, it’s a healthy outlet for these sorts of things. I wouldn’t say that anything that we feel that comes out in the music is remotely unique to us. If this album connects with anyone in any way, it’s going to be because of a common thread felt by people across the whole spectrum of late 20s/early 30s burgeoning adult life all the way up to the 50s. These are pretty common problems that we’re yeah up against.

I write lots of the lyrics because I share that sort of lead singing with Louie and I don’t really ever sit down and decide to go, “Here’s a topic I’m going to tackle.” I wish I could do that, it would be really straightforward, but I tend to scream things. I’m forever writing down little phrases a hundred times a day. The songs that I write tend to be kind of collages of those. I realized from when they were all written that, “Ah, this is what I was stressed about” but in a slightly abstract way. And, normally I’m stressed about money, but, you know, that’s life.

TOM: I think the album is a reflection of our environment and that has influenced it but not necessarily in a massively intentional way. One of the things we like most about the album is it feels like there’s some form of coherent or continuous mood to it and while we did want to do that, I don’t remember in between recording different tracks going “Does this sound like the rest of it? Should it flow into this?” But, at the end of it, it does and while we weren’t looking to intentionally out our environment for that, I think it’s naturally seeped into it.

KAI: I also think that with the lyrics and what the songs are about, what Louis and Sean have been stressed about plays quite nicely against some of the musical elements where it’s in your face and like quite frantic and hyper. If you took away those lyrics and just listened to it on its own, you could be singing about going into a mosh pit and having a great time or whatever people do to have a good time, like going to the pub with your mates.

SEAN: That’s quite an interesting point, Kai. Maybe if you disembodied certain lyrics on the record, they might read like they’re from a ballad or something. I think the reason that they come out in the way that they do goes back to what you said at the end of the question that you just asked that started this conversation which is whether or not it is merely just a projection of our influences. I think that that’s a massive part of it actually. We all like really different sorts of music but we all agree on stuff that we really don’t like and so we are sort of bound aesthetically to one another. Our collective way of presenting music that is about some of the oldest topics in the book is an angrier one and that doesn’t mean that we’re angry people. That’s a kind of way that we’ve refracted the influences that we have through the Folly Group prism.

I live in Ohio where, from about November 1 to April 1, I’ll be lucky to see the sun. I imagine if I wrote songs, they’d be depressing because we spend six months under grey clouds.

KAI: That’s exactly it. That’s the nice trade-off we have with saying that it’s an influence where we’re from because London is a great city. It is exciting. It has literally everything that you can think of. If you’re bored in London, it means you’re a boring person. But it’s also a tough city to live in. We love being here but it’s kind of hard. I was born here. It’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else. But, also, I’m like, “Fuck, I really want to be somewhere else right now.”

SEAN: I think human beings do have a bit of a tendency to wallow in the sense that nobody is feeling down and wax on a really happy song to mechanically inject themselves with a good mood and cheer themselves up. You feed it and you glumly stare out the window at the bus as the rain streaks by and you lean into that feeling. No one is like, “I’ve been dumped. I better listen to Curtis Mayfield.” No one’s doing that, that’s insane. I think that maybe we just sort of write like listeners in that regard.

Lyrically, do you draw from influences other than your real life? Are you influenced by books, TV shows, conversations you overhear while in a coffee shop?

SEAN: That’s a great question. No one’s ever asked us that, so I don’t have an answer. This diverges slightly. On our first EP, there’s one obvious example to me. We got this song, “Awake and Hungry.” I was reading lots of Edgar Allen Poe and I just read The Fall of the House of Usher and there were allusions to windows being eyes and it got me thinking about the idea of a house being a living thing that eats you and, as it decays, that’s it almost like getting indigestion. Your house is falling down, but it’s moldy and it’s dark and it’s damp and that’s it trying to actively kick you out. I started thinking about the idea of houses as sentient things. And that all came from reading lots of Poe. And that was what that song “Awake and Hungry” was about.

The video for “I’ll Do What I Can” is a good visual representation for the music that you play. It’s black and white, there are some cut shots and flashing lights.

SEAN: It just goes to show the power of working with great people. This is an amazing crew from Bristol called Clump Collective. They’re a production company. They’re a similar age to us. They’re kind of in a similar spot with their version of all of this, which is making music videos, whereas we’re doing the music side of it. We have a real shorthand with them now. That was the second video that we did with them. We did a lot of back and forth over the concept for the first one. We did the video for “Strange Neighbor” with them as well. “I’ll Do What I Can” is not a particularly complicated song. It’s loud and it’s dark and it’s kind of gothic. They heard the song and the only brief was like, “Look, just make us look cool.” And that was it. And it turned out that is all we had been needing to say the whole time because it came out amazing.

Was last year the first time you played at SXSW?

SEAN: It was not my first time going. I wrote about it as soon as I graduated Uni for a magazine called Dummy in 2019. The press pass gets you way more privileges than the band one does. It’s nuts. You feel less deserving, but you’re way more smug about it.

You’re doing a short run of dates in some key U.S. markets but not a full tour. How frustrating is it to be a band just starting out and having financial barriers from the get-go?

SEAN: To be completely honest, it’s all we’ve ever known. This is how the industry has been since we got into music. It’s never been possible to avoid that conversation.

KAI: We’ve been around, and we’ve seen people who have got tour support from their label and they’re generally on major labels, whereas, for us, we are not on a major label. We know we will have a very frank conversation with ourselves and with the people that work with us and we know what we can do. For us, last year to go to South by Southwest, we had to fundraise to go and rely on other sources of income. You don’t want to do that for your whole career, asking people who are already supporting you here at home to stick their hands in their pockets. It’s trying to do as much as you possibly can, but also still remain within your means.

SEAN: Our label does help us out financially. We do have a pot of tour support and stuff. We signed the deal at South by Southwest so we got ourselves there. And I want to say that the label paid for our flight back. Well, obviously, that’s not true. But we’re in the independent music world, we’re not on a major label and couldn’t be even if we wanted to. Of that pot of money that has been allocated to us for the express purpose of touring the record, it’s all spent before we’ve got to America because we’re doing three weeks around the UK and a month in Europe in seven or eight different countries. And that’s obviously pretty pricey. There is a band pot, of course. Everything we make goes back into it, so I’m not sure we hemorrhage our own money or anything like that, but we’ve never made anything.

You must know a dozen bands that will never leave your hometown the way you are because they can’t afford it. It’s like you’ve been given half a golden ticket. You’re able to get out of town and play shows but you can’t afford to do it.

KAI: That’s exactly right. It’s mad when you talk to your friends who aren’t even necessarily in bands, but they’re like, “That’s crazy. You’re playing in this place,” and you’re like, “Yeah, it is great. Don’t get me wrong. But the stuff that you have to do to get here and we are lucky we are in this position when there’s thousands of bands in London.”

TOM: I think it’s safe to say that if it was judged purely on ability, who got to travel to tour, we would not be top of the list.

(all laugh)

There are bands who started off with a strong, independent spirit, swearing they’d never sign a major label deal but when the offers start rolling in, it becomes tough. The Goo Goo Dolls started off being a scrappy bar band that sounded like The Replacements and now they sound like the kind of music soccer moms listen to. It’s a tradeoff. To sustain a lengthy career, you’ve got to make sacrifices.

KAI: I think there is a degree of that. It’s funny that you say it sounds like a band that soccer moms like. I think our equivalent of that, maybe it’s a bit edgier than that, is the Radio 6 dad, which is someone who loves Radio 6 and listens to great music, but also has the spending power to go and see bands and buy merch at a show because, honestly, merch keeps you ticking over especially when you’re on the road. If you’re really in a difficult spot, you can get some money from the merch that you sold that night. Those are the guys that are buying merch, it’s not the 15, 16, 17-year-old. There is a kind of a pressure to maybe appease the Radio 6 dad a little bit.

SEAN: But, on the other hand, there’s always a bit of your head that’s aware that it’s appeasing that relatively niche demographic that’s only major in our quite small corner of the music industry. It’s only going to reward you financially so much. lt’s not going to be a comfortable living for four people if you were to sort of rest on your laurels and do what IDLES do. I’m not even trying to be funny with that. Lots of people make that sort of music and there is an audience for it and that’s great, but when you’re still not getting rich off that you might as well just be making music you like. I wouldn’t want to create the impression that we ever thought about not making music that we like in order to make a weird living because that’s not true at all. It does come up, this Radio 6 dad thing, because we, by genuine coincidence, were in a bit of a right place/right time with the sort of music that we make.

I’m not going to ask you about the band name but what I am interested in is what other band names were under consideration before you settled on Folly Group?

SEAN: Oh, God, that’s a good question.

TOM: I genuinely think this is the worst thing about being in a band. Naming the band is the worst. Second worst is shooting music videos. I can’t count the amount of times where I think I have made up like the next The Beatles and then 12 hours sleep, wake up and you want to vomit at the thought of ever having considered that as a title.

KAI: I think that every band name is bad. I think that they’re all bad and you just got to embody it.

TOM: If your mate came to you and said, “I’ve started a band and it’s called the Beatles,” you would tell them you were ill when they played. You wouldn’t go and watch.

So what names did you not use?

SEAN: I’m going to turn on my old laptop just in case anything appears because I feel like there must have been loads. Folly Group came from a play in the West End called Follies and I kept seeing the poster for it on my way to and from work. The word rolled off the tongue and it sounded like a band. And then as the music got more tightly wound, the group thing made it sound some more businesslike so that got added.

I sent Kai a WhatsApp message a few days ago because I’ve started a list on my phone of great names for hardcore bands.

KAI: We’re starting a hardcore band, you heard it hear first.

SEAN: There’s only three names on the list so far but they’re all absolutely sick. We’ve got Ugly Truth. That’s the worst. And then Gossip Column, which I think is amazing. And then Got Previous. I don’t know if you’ve got that phrase in the U.S. but if you’ve got previous, it means you’ve broken the law before.

KAI: I came up with a less catchy one, but I was doing my shopping and I found a moldy cucumber and I thought Moldy by Monday is a really good name.

(all laugh)