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June 19, 2009 | Author – Greg Phillips

howling-bells-nme-radio-2There was a time in the early eighties where it seemed every Australian alternative band worth their salt needed their fix of London life. Bands such as The Birthday Party, The Go Betweens, The Triffids, and The Moodists all set up shop in the land of the eternal grey sky and many of them acquired much critical acclaim from the traditionally harsh UK music press. While the kudos was appealing, it was fleeting and never really transferred to financial gain. The pilgrimage to the old dart is not such a prevalent practice for Aussie bands now, particularly in a world where international fans can be gleaned from the comfort of your home via the internet. Howling Bells however bucked the trend in 2005, when they based themselves in Britain to play shows and record their first album. The gamble seemed to have paid off for the expatriate Sydney-siders.  In the style of their pioneering peers, the debut album was showered with superlatives by the UK press including a perfect review from influential music rag NME. It was easy to see why they fell for the Bell’s unique brand of pop rock. The dark, brooding, and panoramic dreamscapes delivered siren-like by the delightful Juanita Stein seeped effortlessly into your psyche.  Three years on, Howling Bells have just released the follow up. The new album ‘Radio Wars’  is the sound of a band seeking to grow, experimenting with extracurricular sounds, new directions and concepts. A few weeks prior to the album’s release Juanita Stein, her guitar playing brother Joel, Drummer Glenn Moule and bassist Brendan Picchio sat down with AM’s Greg Phillips to discuss the story so far.

AM mag: Moving to London in 2005 was quite a decisive move for the band. Why London rather than LA, New York, Berlin or anywhere else?

Juanita: It was just musical heritage. All of our families are in music and we all grew up on a very healthy diet of British music. So it felt inevitable for us.
And it seems it has worked out well for you …

Joel: It gives a lot back

By going to London, what were the obstacles you were escaping?

Juanita: We weren’t escaping, we were advancing our experience. We wanted new experiences and felt like there was only so much you could do here without hitting a wall.

Brendan: We wanted an adventure as well.

Glenn: When you mentioned there’s only so much you can do, I think that happens no matter what country you’re in. You see bands in Canada and other places where they deliberately don’t get out of their country and they usually stop a lot earlier than they should.

Brendan: There’s a latin saying that translates as ‘ You can’t be a prophet in your own backyard.’ No one will listen to you, you have to venture beyond.

You spent some time in rural Victoria working on the new album. How does coming from London to country Victoria effect the music?

Brendan: It’s very quiet relaxed and nobody can disturb you. You have all day everyday to work on music.

Joel: For me working in the city, it’s like there is always this constant tapping on your shoulder. And then there’s a fire engine siren or kids getting arrested outside, which is fine but when we move out, all you can hear is the wind and the trees. It’s really inspiring. If you need a break, you go for a walk and your head just clears.
I think your first album was much darker compared to this new one, how do you perceive it?

Juanita: It was definitely more brooding and literally a lot of the songs were about feeling desperate of one thing or another. There was a song on the last one called ‘Wishing Stone’ which was being desperate for something to happen. It was very time related. The new one is the four of us getting together and being completely united in spirit and I think you can sense that when you hear it.

Your bio says (so it must be true!) that the title track ‘Radio Wars’  came about because you were having difficulty tuning into the country radio stations. You found inspiration in that whereas someone else wouldn’t. How often are your creative antennas up? Do you find it difficult to switch off creatively?

Joel: I do. It keeps me up at night. It’s sounds, it’s anything. The fridge will start humming in a certain manner and I’ll think … ooh, that sounds really, really cool.

Brendan: I don’t think anyone ever really switches off. It’s not like a nine to five job. You’ve got to be ready at any time. You really are on standby all the time.

Joel: If you are passionate about something, you’ll see it in everything. You see music in paintings. If you are in love, you will see that woman in every woman you meet. You’ll hear the same laugh. It’s the same with music.

Brendan: There was a very distinct moment in my life when I was kissing a girl and then she put music on, and then I couldn’t concentrate on the girl any more. I’m serious that actually happened. I was trying to focus on kissing her but ..

Juanita: You asshole!

Joel: When you go to bed with a woman, you can’t have good music on.

Brendan: Yeah, you have to play like the worst music or music that doesn’t effect your … (laughter all round)

Brendan: I’m being totally serous!

Juanita: No I totally hear you. That’s why I can’t sleep to music, because I will obsess over everything about it.

Why did they create lullabies then?

Juanita: I don’t know, they weren’t musicians! Remember that movie ‘Ten’ and that gorgeous woman Bo Derek? There’s that scene where they go to bed together and she’s obsessed with this piece of music and the record player keeps skipping. He’s so desperate to make love to this woman of his dreams. She’s like ‘I can’t, this song has to play’. They never end up doing it.

Brendan: I’m not quite like that.

You had a new producer with the new album. A lot of bands say they have to get on well personally with their producer as well as musically to make it happen. What was the Dan Grech-Marguerat experience like?

Joel: Well you’re inviting someone into your family so you’re right, one hundred percent. You definitely have to get on well.

Juanita: You have to have some sort of passionate connection. You could hate them to death, but if what you produce is inspiring, then it’s OK.  Just as long as it’s not mediocre. That’s the worst crime in art.

Brendan: But to answer the question, we did get along very well, but also we had to struggle in our heads … which was great because you could see he was into the music enough to care and fight you on things.

You have a very distinctive sound. How much of that is just the sum of the parts and how much is planning and buying gear to get specific sounds?

Glenn: We did buy a little bit more gear for this album, but I think it is just natural.

Juanita: There is consideration in what sounds you guys make. You’ll buy one instrument as opposed to another for whatever reason.

Brendan: Certainly there is thought about it, but not to the point of  ‘we want to sound like this or that’. You won’t find one day off where one of us isn’t down Denmark Street looking at new instruments and trying things out. If we’re on tour, and I don’t care where we are, whether it’s Copenhagen or wherever … I will get on a bus and go to a music store and I’ll try this one keyboard because I want to know what it sounds like. Then you get there and it’s shit! (laughs). It’s not what I wanted but at least I tried!

Juanita, on the first album you said that you needed to record in darkness to capture the feel you wanted. Same approach on this one?

Juanita: I went into it with the same approach but the logistics didn’t allow for me to do that much this time, the way it was set up. Most of the songs were recorded in LA, some in London. For most of the time it was daylight and no matter how many lights you turned off, it would be bright. It was actually a challenge for me because I am so used to singing in pitch black, but I think it was of benefit.

Are you a perfectionist and obsess over takes or are you more about capturing a moment?

Joel: She’s an intuitivist!

Juanita: I will definitely not settle for  track that I know intuitively that I could do better. It could be technically great and I have hit all the notes, but if I feel emotionally I could give it more then I’ll do it ten times.

Preferred mic?

Juanita: All of the mics I used were all vintage mics. Neumann. I don’t know what they were. They were just old. I like old things.

Your guitar doesn’t seem too old, it’s a shiney red thing.

Juanita: It’s a Music Master, which I use on pretty much everything. I borrowed some of these guys’ guitars on a couple of tracks to change it up

Joel: It’s actually an original  60s L series

What do you see your role as with the guitar within the band’s sound?

Juanita: These guys provide the intricacies and what I provide is very basic

Brendan: It’s interesting when Juanita plays because she was a bass player first before a guitarist … so all of the lines you generally pick are like the second horn in Ornette Coleman’s band … or providing the harmonies or trying another melody. You know like on ‘Cities Burning Down’, you’re not just playing chords. A lot of the time you pick interesting counter rhythms.

Glenn, tell me about your drum kit and your influences.

Glenn: It’s a Drum Workshop kit. An average 5 piece kit which I had made for me in January last year. Influences? Vinnie Colaiuta is my god, and also an Australian guy named Andrew Gander who kills me every time I hear him play.

The drum and bass sounds on the album are really big, particularly on the ‘Cities Burning Down’ track. Were you happy with the outcome?

Glenn: It’s interesting that you say that

Why, were you not happy?

Glenn: Yes, it’s just that it was recorded differently to the rest of the album. It was actually recorded here in Melbourne. Personally I’m not as happy with that as the sound on some of the other songs but it is interesting you say that. I’m going to have another listen to that now..

Joel, You’re a Fender man?

Joel: Fender, Gibson, Ricky, everything. They all sound so different and I like that.
Your style is not so much about flashy lead breaks but textures and colours. What sort of players do you admire?

Joel: The obvious. Hendrix. Bit of Jeff Beck, Peter Green … I love Neil Young. Buddy Guy, old John Lee Hooker so many. I love the guy from XTC as well.

What do you play through?

Joel: I’ve got a Fender Vibrolux and a Vox. The Vox is a weird one… from the 80s. It sounds really different to a lot of the other stuff Vox do.

Are you a pedal freak too?

Juanita: You have no idea!

Joel: Yeah, If you’re going to create a painting you need as many colours as possible to make it right.

Brendan: For every pedal, there is like a metre in board!

There seems to be a lot sounds happening on this record. Are you able to replicate most of that on stage with your gear?

Joel: Yeah. We haven’t toured the album as yet, but I used all of my own stuff in the recording. It won’t be that hard, and usually when you start rehearsing the stuff, you start changing things anyway.

Did Dan have any recording  tricks that you hadn’t tried before?
Joel: Yeah he did try some different things. In comparison, Ken (Nelson) was extremely mic heavy. He’d have five mics in the back including two behind them, five in the front sort of thing. Dan wasn’t as intricate with the mics but was more concerned with parts and changes

Brendan, what about your gear?

Brendan: I tried a few things. I actually played my old 60s Jazz bass for most things. We had one of those B15s with the filter and then I have an Ampeg B4B, a big old thing I had re done with 12 inch speakers. I thought it was genius. I used a lot of short delays and room verbs. There are very few sounds on the record that don’t have a delay or reverb in the mix, so it’s got this short room kind of sound. On the track ‘Treasure Hunt’ I use that really short room sound, it’s been doubled, and there were gated sounds as well. Everything was dampened. Dan wanted them more dry than wet.

Bass players you admire?

Brendan: Mingus! He’s the king of all kings.

Joel: (as his memory kicks in) Mike Bloomfield. I love Mike Bloomfield. He was the guy I was trying to think of before!

Brendan: I dig McCartney. He’s the pop king. Generally the older guys. Ray Neapolitan, he did The Doors’ ‘Morrison’s Hotel’. He’s a freak.

You mentioned you liked playing around with keys, you did the keys on this album?

Brendan: Everybody got into the keys on this one. We had a Prophet, an old Oberheim, an OB8. Joel has this … well, we call it Louie, but we don’t want to divulge too much information. You have to patch things. It’s all subtractive synthesis. We had to learn a lot of subtractive synthesis before we went in.

Glenn: I think that’s too much information!

Brendan: We used a  lot of soft synths as well,  like the Mellotron and Logic and the Yamaha CS80. Not that we couldn’t get a CS80 but we just used the soft synth version. That’s on the track ‘How Long’, the sound whisping under the vocals.
You had many more songs available than appeared on album.

How did you arrive at 10 tracks, some people have much more these days …

Juanita: From the get go I always wanted to make a record that had ten songs on it. These guys were a little more relaxed about it, but by the end we all agreed. A lot of my favourite pop records have only ten songs. It’s like … in, out and over before you know it. There’s no excess.

What does it mean to the band to have a bunch of new songs to play live?

Glenn: To play them for the first time outside the studio is so exciting
Brendan: It’s exciting to see just how we are going to do it. Some of the tracks are fully electronic, we have to really work those out. We really have to dig deep. Like in ‘Nightingale’ I sing, I play bass and keyboards, hitting a pedal at the same time.

Joel: We’re going to have to hire midgets

Brendan: We should get pedal midgets

Juanita: Pedal munchkins

Brendan: But seriously, Joel has an E-bow in there and hitting pedals, doing keyboards, everybody is busy.

Juanita: It’s hard work!

Brendan: You look at Glenn’s set up. You can’t just sit down on the stool, you have all of this electronic stuff you have to set up first.

Joel: Glenn has so much stuff he can never find his way out of his drum kit.

Glen: I always get stuck behind my kit on stage.

Brendan: When we’re ready to go on stage, Glen is always like, no I’m not ready and I say dude, it will only take like a minute.

Glenn: That’s it, I’m going to pick a  bone with you now! Every time we set up on stage, there is a nice spot for me to walk up to my kit and this fucker puts a guitar right there, every single time!

Joel: And we love it!

Glenn: Gives me something to kick as I walk past.

Everyone always talks about your cinematic sound and your love of film, so when you have sold six million albums …

Joel: Six billion (placing a Dr Evil little finger to his mouth)

OK,  when you’ve sold six billion albums, what will the stage show look like?

Brendan: Like Cheech and Chong let loose.

Glenn: We’ll have albatrosses flying about.

Juanita: It’s all we talk about now that we have done the record … the production … lights!

Joel: The biggest thing is to have people leave thinking they were taken somewhere else. That would be the biggest compliment.

Juanita: You know the way you feel when you see an amazing film for two hours, an incredible stage production or Cirque Du Soleil which I saw recently … completely lost in it for two hours. I don’t know why some bands are so limited with just guitar amps and maybe a projection screen. Particularly some of the bigger bands with so much at their disposal. They used to do it a lot more, like Bowie.

Brendan: Yeah, but Bowie bankrupted himself.

Joel: But that was when records, or vinyl were bought

Glenn: And insurance wasn’t an issue.

Brendan: Two words have ruined live shows and life in general … Public Liability … ruined everything

What’s the grand plan?

Brendan: Take over the world.

Joel: Happiness.

Brendan: We want a subterranean lair.

Glenn: I just want a farm.

Joel: In less vague terms, for us to do well enough out of this album to sit in a studio and record an even better album. I just want to get to stage three. I’d be extremely grateful.

You guys are on tour a lot and often in close confines and sometimes in cold and uncomfortable places. In those darker moments what’s the one thing that keeps you going?

Juanita: Hendrix does it for me. We all have this common link with Hendrix. It reminds me of growing up near the ocean. Whenever I am in some god forsaken place, I just play Hendrix and I am immediately transported back to the ocean. He is like our music guardian angel. I think about our musical heroes and the grand lives they have lived and the careers they have had. What more could you hope to achieve? When we made the record we had a whiteboard and we all wrote key words on the whiteboard. So if we ever lost track or lost vision of what we were doing, we would go back to the whiteboard. There would be these key words like ‘adventure’ or ‘colourful’ or ‘progressive’. In the same way that those words guided us, for me it’s just keeping my eye on the ball, and thinking about the musicians I grew up listening to and why I wanted to get into music in the first place.

Howling Bells album “Radio Wars’ is out now through Liberation.

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