Howling Bells are celebrating a birthday. They released their self-titled debut album on Bella Union 10 years ago! Since then, the Australian four-piece have released three full length LPs, toured with the likes of Coldplay and The Killers and emigrated from their homeland to settle down in London.
June 2014 sees their return with the release of their fourth, full-length album. DiS chatted to lead vocalist and guitarist Juanita Stein about the process behind the new record, finding time for yourself and the band’s love for British culture.
But first... their new single ‘Slowburn’ is here, exclusively on DiS:
DiS: Happy 10th anniversary! Did you do anything fun to celebrate?
Juanita Stein: Nobody's actually brought that up yet! I think you're right. Well, we recorded an album I guess! (laughs)
Is there anything that really stands out for you from the past 10 years as a band?
Well, I think moving from Sydney to London was pretty epic. There's stuff that's funny now but at the time, it was pretty harrowing. The challenges and adversities you face when moving to a foreign city and trying to make it work - they stand out as really strong memories. And then of course, the first couple of tours we did and just coming to terms with the landscapes and the audiences.
Any crazy tour stories?
I think the craziest story really that's come out of the band is the fact that Glenn [Moule] met his wife-to-be at a show when we were supporting Coldplay. It was in Alberta in Canada and he had spotted her on the balcony of the show and he motioned to her to scribble her number down on a piece of paper - so, she did and she scrunched the paper and threw it down and he thanked her and called her. They went out the next day and kept in touch and they're now getting married this year.
So, how did this latest album come about?
For this particular album, it was much more of a haphazard process. We didn't really plan to record an album - we were kind of jogging along our merry ways and really got stuck into life as individual people, which is pretty intense when you're such a tight unite and you're together for nearly a decade. You have to go out and form your very singular identity but then out of nowhere, the process just started up again! I started having this insane burst of inspiration, just sitting down in the basement of our house and writing songs every single day and sending them back and forth and getting ideas. Everything just went really quickly from there.
We just made some really basic demos, sent them off and then the studio and the producers just happened to be available and it all just fell into place. It flowed really well. I think for me anyway when creativity or any artistic process is stagnant for too long, you either lose interested altogether or you kick yourself up the ass, which is kind of what I did.
Being that it’s your fourth album, was there anything that you learnt along the way that you attributed to the new record?
Yeah, for sure! I think just the age-old inscription of just deeply trusting yourself as an artist. Which even though we're all so aware that that's the age-old rule, you find yourself ignoring it so many times. In the past there were many incidents where I should have gone with my gut reaction and I didn't for whatever reason and I think, after this long - having been in a band together and record and writing - I think we kind of came to a place, especially after such a long break where we were very comfortable with each other and being able to trust that instinct and just say no if something didn't feel right.
You recorded the album in 11 days, with one song completed every day. How was that? Did it stop you over-thinking things?
It does stop you over-thinking things. I think that that instinct is a lot easier when you have very limited time. I think maybe that was the problem with one - maybe two previous albums - where you just had too much time to think and to contemplate outcomes when at the end of the day, whether a note inflects or deflects at a certain place, most of the time it doesn't really matter. The time, the pressure I think helped the mood and the ambience of the album.
Do you wish you had a little more time, maybe two days per song?
To record an album in a studio is an expensive ordeal, especially when you're doing it somewhat independently - you have to be really cautious. We were just really grateful and happy to get into the studio when we could.
It was the first time you’d actually recorded an album in London – how did you find it?
It was brilliant! The studio was in North London, which is where I'm based. The reason we moved to London in the first place was to inhabit the spirit of British culture and music and it's crazy when you think about the fact that we'd never really recorded an album here or in London specifically. So, I think it definitely did help us tap into that feeling and I think it's definitely evident on the record we've made.
So you’re really inspired by British culture?
Immensely. I love and am very proud of where I come from and I go back as often as I can and it's magnificent but there is something profoundly enriching and complex about British culture. It pushes boundaries and that's very inspiring.
Was there anything that drew you to it in particular?
It's really as cliché as The Beatles! (laughs) It's so cliché and it's a big old tourist trap now but growing up we had a musician Dad - he was just constantly revolving the vinyl player and it was between The Kinks and The Stones and The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac. That becomes deeply embedded.
You worked with Foals / The Killers producers Catherine J. Marks and Alan Moulder. Did you seek them out specifically? Were you inspired by their previous works?
Definitely. Their diversity of experience was really expansive and I'm a massive fan of them and their work. Alan was the first one to suggest working with Catherine and we met and instantly, like absolutely instantly - I loved her. The connection between her and the band was incredible and whilst working with her, you really could tap into that world of knowledge she had and it helped a lot. It was a total collaborative effort between all of us – it really wasn't one of those situations where the producer had a whip and a crack. It was fabulous. I would do it again in heartbeat.
To me, the production on all of your albums is really cinematic – full of atmosphere and plenty of reverb. Are you inspired by film scores at all?
I’m totally inspired by film. If we could record it with the London orchestra and shut ourselves off for an epic recording session and have a cinematic conductor and themes - that's just all the stuff that drives me crazy with emotion and love. It's just this great historical love of film that definitely seeps into our records. Joel [Stein] is really, a very atmospheric guitar player, it's really hard to avoid!
Are there any particular films that you adore?
Definitely ghostly, windswept films like Rumble Fish, The Last Picture Show and Badlands. Films like that, that produce those really widescreen feelings. They make you feel incredibly lonesome but really captivated. That's an ideal place for us.
Radio Wars is probably your most ‘ish’ album. Why did you decide to go in that direction on your second record?
We worked with a different producer and recorded it in L.A. and the nature of the songs is definitely very different to the first one. That's as far left as I think we could really go. The thing is, you have four people in one band and no matter which way you spin it, it's always going to have a certain energy about it because it is those four people. So, if I walk into the band tomorrow and say I want to record a reggae album, it's still going to sound like Howling Bells. It just might have a slower drum beat!
How would you like to think your sound has evolved over the past 10 years?
I would like to think it's far more assured of itself, more confident - that it's still very much that emotional, moody barrel of songs - just older and wiser.
Would you say you’ve learnt a lot?
Hell yeah, I should hope so! You go through a lot in 10 years as a band. It's what you do with the information and what you do with the outcome. You can keep making the same decisions but I've definitely taken a lot from our experiences in the last 10 years and hopefully applied them in a really positive manner.
So, what’s your secret for staying together?
Join a band with a sibling! They can't ever really fuck off and never get back to you. So, that connection has inevitably always been very strong. And I guess our secret weapon in a lot of ways is Glenn [Moule], our drummer who is incredible and his staying power is pretty amazing. So, my advice to anyone is to find a Glenn and I'll bet you stay together for a long time.
Would you say drummers the core of a band, then?
I think the drummer's the core in a lot of ways - literally and mentally - they tend to be the characters in the band that are the most rational and lord knows, you need that.
You’ve worked with a different label for each album…
Yeah, two of them they were just one album deals - they were all fabulous in their own ways and then we decided to part ways and try something different. With one of the labels, they kind of shut down and of course, that doesn’t help. That's the nature of the music industry - that it's so unstable and especially over the last 10 years. This record is coming out on Birthday records, which is a really, really small but unbelievably cool and together and independent label, which we feel really comfortable with.
Did each label have an impact on the records?
Some of them were a lot larger and some were smaller and they all have different ideologies. I remember having really important discussions about what songs should and shouldn't go on an album. I always used to find it really challenging that the head of the label or an A&R guy would be telling you to put stuff on the record, which you as a band were not comfortable with at all and it's difficult to say 'No'.
In retrospect, bands can turn around and say 'No' but when you're there and they're supporting you financially, it is difficult to turn around and tell them where to go. It's all a journey.
So, do you feel more in control now?
100%. We've always had a say over what's gone on the record but as a label they'll always try to maneuver the direction and I think it's quite inevitable that when you do have a female fronted band - that it feels easy for the industry to steer you in a certain direction.
Definitely… which, is a shame…
It is because it shouldn't matter but it does and it's very challenging but you have to find a way to keep incredibly grounded and be very adamant about what you want to say.
Do you guys have anywhere you go to get away from everything, especially after such an intense recording session?
I guess Australia is the escape because London is such a congested and in a lot of ways, claustrophobic city. It is nice to go back home every now and then and just take a big breath of fresh air and get perspective - I find that really important. There are always moments where I'm like 'Oh my God! This is the most beautiful place in the world to live!’ and then surely after a few weeks, I'm really craving the smog of the city. We'll also go over to Glenn's in the country where he lives – it’s super pretty.
Have you found UK audiences differ to Australian ones?
I really don't think there's a big difference between Australia and the UK. They're all similarly mannered. The biggest difference I’ve ever found is when we toured America and they're a lot more instant - they're a lot more open armed over there, I found.
There's something really rewarding about playing to the UK audiences and feeling a genuine respect and an enamor for the music. We haven't played the States enough to know but I do really appreciate that - I wouldn't want people to just throw themselves at the band for no other reason than they just felt like it. We tend to attract very serious music folk, so they're a very certain type of audience, which I love.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of the year?
I'm at the point in my life - and I think all of us - where we'd just be very content with a strong and positive reaction to the record and really just to connect with new and old audiences. What band doesn't want to be successful? Reach as many people as they can? And headline Brixton Academy! It's not ridiculous or over the top, I'm not asking for Wembley Stadium - just be happy and be cool.
Howling Bells new album will be released on Birthdays on 2nd June 2014.