British singer/songwriter Darren Hayman was the driving force behind the beloved but under-recognized Hefner; since that group's de facto dissolution in the early 2000s, he has remained active with numerous bands and solo projects. A prolific songwriter with a folksy, unpolished singing voice, a penchant for lo-fi recording, and a knack for touching character sketches, witty relationship dissections, and topical references to things like pop musicians and quaint British cultural institutions, his music (with Hefner specifically) has been fittingly referred to as "urban folk," though it often incorporates elements of styles as disparate as indie rock, synth pop, and bluegrass.
Born and raised in the Essex town of Brentwood, Hayman founded Hefner in the early '90s after meeting future drummer Ant Harding at art college, but it remained essentially a solo project until 1996, when the band was signed to Too Pure with a solidified trio lineup. Following the fourth Hefner album, 2001's Dead Media, the beginning of an indefinite but seemingly permanent hiatus, Hayman and bassist John Morrison continued that record's fascination with vintage synthesizers and drum machines (and revisited several songs initially intended for Hefner) in the short-lived outfit the French. The self-titled EP release of another electronically minded duo project, the mostly instrumental Stereo Morphonium with Mutronium's Joel Neumatic, arrived in 2005. Starting around this time, Hayman initiated a series of 7" EPs recorded at various vacation spots around the U.K., released in limited editions on the Static Caravan label.
After spending much of 2004 in a drawn-out contractual dispute with Too Pure that effectively prevented Hayman from releasing new music, but eventually resulted in his acquiring the rights to the entire Hefner discography, the latter half of the 2000s saw a veritable flood of releases on his newly established Belka imprint, including deluxe Hefner album reissues, a disc of BBC sessions recorded with superfan John Peel, and the collected Great British Holiday EPs. Meanwhile, he began releasing albums under his own name: 2006's Table for One, 2007's Darren Hayman & the Secondary Modern (introducing a backing group whose lineup has remained deliberately in flux, including members of the Wave Pictures, Fanfarlo, and Smile Down Upon Us, among others), and the 2009 "folk opera" Pram Town, a narrative song cycle set in a postwar planned community. Hayman, who at any given time purports to be several completed albums ahead of what he's actually released, also plays in the loose London bluegrass group Hayman, Watkins, Trout & Lee, who issued a self-titled album in 2008. While continuing to follow his muse via prolific releases on the Belka label, Hayman also issued a trio of LPs on the Fortuna POP! label, including Essex Arms (2010) and The Violence (2012), which completed the Essex Trilogy he began with Pram Town.
The tireless songsmith also found time to record and release one new song a day in January 2011; compose an instrumental album about open-air swimming pools (2012's Lido); put together a new backing band called the Long Parliament (2013's Bugbears); adapt a set of William Morris' political poetry (2015's Chants for Socialists); form a new band with singer Emma Winston called Brute Love; and complete numerous other projects, collaborations, singles, and EPs. In 2015, a new project documenting the U.K.'s "Thankful Villages" began to take shape. The term "Thankful Village" was coined by writer and journalist Arthur Mee after the First World War in reference to villages where all soldiers returned home safely. Hayman's ambitious project to document each of the 54 villages in song and video yielded the 2016 album Thankful Villages, Vol. 1. This was followed just a few months later by Train Songs: Class 108 Diesel Multiple Unit, a 7" single with an additional eight-track CD released to coincide with Britain's rail-themed indie pop festival Indie Tracks. The second volume of Hayman's Thankful Villages project arrived in 2017. ~ K. Ross Hoffman & Timothy Monger, Rovi