Holding court in the enormous corner booth at the hip Silver Lake restaurant The Black Cat, Hannah Hooper is a casual presence in a sheer floral dress and a thick cardigan. Casual, except for her eyelids, which are doused in thick, over-the-top glitter that hints at the playful performer who is under wraps — for now, at least. Hooper could be any other cool Silver Lake mom taking a break with friends for a weekday happy hour at this buzzing Sunset Junction bar, except for a sense of gravitas hovering just under her smile.
As one of the core members of Grouplove, an electronic pop/alt-rock act that blew up in 2011 around the still inescapable earworm “Tongue Tied” and has steadily trekked on while the music industry imploded, turned inside out, and reemerged in the social media era, her sense of quiet resilience is earned. Jetlagged from a whirlwind promo trip to London, Hooper is powering through an afternoon of press to discuss the band’s fourth album, Healer, which is out today — even if the massive party scheduled to celebrate the release was canceled in the midst of swelling stateside coronavirus pandemic.
But Hooper’s resilience extends far beyond a lack of sleep, press junkets or jet lag.
Last June, she opened her solo art exhibit, Oblivion, at Shepard Fairey’s Echo Park gallery, Subliminal Projects, and three days later, quietly decamped to Phoenix for brain surgery. “It’s interesting because, before the brain surgery, I’d been feeling like I constantly needed to heal from something,” she explained while drinking a pint of soda water with a baby pour of tequila at the bottom of it. “This element of suffering is part of being an artist, but I’ve always wanted to feel better. When I found out I had to get brain surgery, I was in the middle of painting my first solo art show, and writing this new album with our band. But instead of me freaking out, everyone around me started freaking out. I think because I had something so serious going on, people could open up.”
Hooper was initially diagnosed with a cavernous malformation back in 2014. At the time it wasn’t a threat and she was charged with monitoring it and getting an MRI every three years. One night last year, however, Hooper and “her partner in life” and Grouplove bandmate, Christian Zucconi, were sitting on their porch watching their daughter Willa run around and she realized something wasn’t right. “My arm like, gave out — I didn’t have feeling in it,” she remembered. “I was like ‘I need to get an MRI now.’ I felt kind of a tingling, the way people describe a stroke but so much more subtle.”
The results came the morning of the photoshoot for her art show: the cavernous malformation in her brain that had grown nearly three times the size it was when doctors first discovered it in 2014. She needed brain surgery immediately.
“I’m such a visual person I left the room every time the doctors talked about it, and my mom and Christian would stay in there,” Hooper said. “My mom saved the day, she found this amazing surgeon, Dr. Michael Lawton, in Phoenix. And Christian is the one that had to be in it, he was the one that held my hand as they put me under and rolled me away. He was my rock through all of it, and such a hero.”
The outcomes of a surgery like the one Hooper underwent included an unsuccessful outcome which can, in the most disastrous scenario, result in death, complications during surgery like a stroke, or, the ultimate hope, complete healing. Thankfully, that is what she is experiencing. “I just got my follow up MRI and they said it looks like I’ve never had surgery,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief and a bit dumbfounded at the good luck.
Though a large majority of the album was written before Hooper’s diagnosis and surgery, the whole experience necessarily shifted the tone and timing of the band’s new record.
“After I survived the surgery I posted about it,” Hooper said. “And the amount of people that are going through chemo, or have kids that are dying… people need to hear that it’s ok to be scared and be hurting, and that someone that makes them happy is also going through it, and that I’m still hopeful. Writing the album with my best friends, that was what healed me. We wrote really uplifting songs at kind of the scariest time.”
Kicking off with the frenzied pop sweetness of “Deleter,” many tracks on Healer embody a sense of rebellion against a world that makes no sense, channeling disappointment with the status quo into glittering electropop with purpose. One of Zucconi’s songs, “Places,” is especially significant to Hooper as a summary of his experience in the process. A dreamy, almost ballad-like song full of strings and half-sung harmonies, the lyrics confront fear and loss in an indirect way: “There’s a place we’re all running from / we don’t know how to get there.” Discussing the song, Hannah can barely come up with our commentary on it, insisting those lyrics tell the story perfectly. “That was a lot. I honestly couldn’t listen to it for a while,” she remembered.
Embracing a slightly different iteration of Grouplove on this album by the addition of drummer Benjamin Homola, the band also worked with outside producers for the first time, collaborating with Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio) and Malay (Frank Ocean, Lorde), to hone in on the songwriting that best suited their bold new outlook. (Former drummer Ryan Rabin, who also served as the band’s primary producer, left the group in 2017.) The band disappeared for a while to work with Sitek at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas.
Working within sight of the Mexican border necessarily made its way into the DNA of the songs on Healer. Grouplove was writing and recording during the height of the American government’s cruel decision to separate immigrant parents and children, close enough to the detention studios that when they would stop recording, the sound of megaphones and protestors would ring through the studio. “We have a four-year-old and to imagine her being ripped apart from us was too much,” Hannah said. “So we wrote ‘Promises’ about that, it’s probably the most literal song we’ve ever written about anything going on politically. That song is our form of protest.”
Even being able to put a political message like that one into song form was proof of the band’s growth and expansion. After their time spent in grueling sessions from 9 pm to noon the next day with Sitek at the ranch, they emerged with a new understanding and renewed confidence in their own ability to create music. “Despite how people react to Healer, the experience was just so important for us as artists,” Hooper reflected. “Now we know our power. Dave showed us that. Being able to express myself with everyone so supportively, to experiment and try all these new directions, and just celebrate life and freak out about it… I feel like this is the beginning of a whole new chapter of writing for us.”
And as the band as a whole began to move past the fear and heaviness of Hooper’s diagnosis and operation, the realization that people everywhere are constantly in need of healing began to crystalize. All the feedback from fans and loved ones who felt empowered to share their own struggles because of Hooper’s openness about her experience began to speak louder than anything else.
“We kind of collectively as a band started realizing that everyone is in this constant state of trying to heal, and feel better,” Hooper said. “I felt like I was finally in a place where I had something wrong with me that was like obvious, and because of that, I actually was putting all my time into the music. It felt like the first time I was actually really present, and really healing other subsconscious stuff that had been bothering me.”
“The whole album is written sort of as a form of escapism for me,” she continued. “So, just escaping from what I was going through, the fear of basically dying, or the surgery not working, or me having a stroke, whatever the reality was at the time. I wrote two songs, ‘Youth,’ and ‘Expectations,’ and they’re both really sort of like dance tracks. I was like ‘What? Why am I writing like this?’ Let’s get out, let’s get wasted and let’s go dance — let’s live in the moment. I was talking to myself. It’s really more about there’s light at the end of this tunnel.”
And just like Zucconi’s song, “Places,” functions as his most emotionally-connected track on Healer, the importance of the album’s final track, “This Is Everything,” to Hooper’s experience can’t be understated. In really early sessions for the album, the band traveled up to northern California and sequestered themselves away to experiment, jam, and write. That song came about in the most haphazard, fated way, with a little help from magic mushrooms.
“I was laying on the floor and the guys were cooking in the kitchen, Andrew was jamming on this riff, and I immediately started singing that,” Hannah remembered. “And the boys all came in and picked up their instruments and we just recorded that literally the way the song is. I think actually we ate some mushrooms that day, and it was a really beautiful moment. ‘This Is Everything,’ the moral of that song is really to live in the moment. Because this is everything.”
Healer is out now via Canvasback/Atlantic Records.