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Howling Bells Interview

I interviewed Joel Stein of Howling Bells, and we talked about listening to trash that’s not rock ‘n’ roll, amongst other things. Like their new album, touring with your sister and, well, other topics not involving facetious puns.

On Saturday I was lucky enough to head along to their show at The Standard, which to sum up rather quickly involved soaring vocals, a brilliant, dark set combining both old and new songs, Juanita’s pale arms raised in lazy windmills, catching the light which at her request had been lowered to “bloody and moody” by the lighting tech. Joel then went on to ask more “more cowbell” in the mix with a completely straight face. Wonderful.

My interview went up over on Bobbysix.com a few days ago, and I’ve added the full text below:

“I think I was just feeling lucky,” Joel Stein laughs as he explains why he’s contributed more songs than ever before to Howling Bells’ new record, The Loudest Engine. “You don’t really plan, whoever writes or whatever is the most appropriate or whatever we think is the best will end up on the album.” It’s a mature sibling relationship of the kind parents can only hope for, instead of the masking-tape-down-the-middle-of-the-back-seat approach favoured by most on long car trips. Instead, Joel and sister Juanita form a close-knit band with bassist Brendan Picchio and drummer Glenn Moule, and have created an album out of their experiences on their travels.

Parked in a campervan by the side of the road in Paris, the band are in the middle of a European tour with Elbow when I speak to Joel about the process of writing and recording their latest album, which they’ve consistently described as their “grown up record.” Produced by Mark Stoermer from The Killers and recorded in Las Vegas, it marks a departure from the more electronic sounds of second albumRadio Wars in favour of psychedelic-tinged folk rock, and is considered a follow-up to their debut self-titled release. Having toured and played quite extensively with The Killers, Joel says the decision to work with Mark was one born of familiarity and good timing. “It was very, very underground, actually. There were no record labels and no red tape involved. It was all very easy.”

Choosing to step away from the drum machines and electronic feel of Radio Wars, Joel knew, “we just wanted to go in and get the engineer to press record on the tape machine, we just wanted to play as a band.” For an album written on and about the road, it makes a great deal of sense to record it the same way it would be played live. “Lyrically it’s very relevant to us being on tour, which is why we called it The Loudest Engine. It’s more mature in sound and we had the most clarity in recording this album, more than the other two. It’s two years between albums and you do a lot of growing, especially on the road.” 

Despite producing a record very clearly inspired by a touring lifestyle, Joel says, “If I had the chance I wouldn’t leave the house without a piano and a guitar because sometimes I feel like writing 15 times a day but I don’t have anything to hand.” Having relocated to Europe several years ago, Joel currently lives in Berlin and finds the vibrant community to be, “an extremely creative place, it’s buzzing at the moment. It’s very interesting and there’s a lot going on. I think Berlin’s still in the 70’s which I really like.” Asked whether it’s in any way affected his sound, Joel pauses for thought, and eventually chances at “It’s subliminal I guess. Your brain does what it wants and you figure it out a few years down the track.” The latest album definitely has a slight 1970’s vibe, the familiar sounds of their first release coloured with flashes of psychedelia.

I bring up a favourite Howling Bells lyric which never fails to fill my dining room with shouty jumpy people at occasionally raucous house parties – “you listen to trash but it’s not rock ‘n’ roll” – and press Joel for his preferred type of trash. He stalls, “I don’t know if it’s bad, see, you’re going to judge me now…” then seems to take a breath, letting the word “house” tumble out in an embarrassed mumble before rallying. “There’s a particular kind of house music that I like: this guy from Sweden called The Field, and everyone I play it to looks at me like I’m nuts.” Perhaps we’ve found the sticking point for tour bus disagreements, though it’s clear that the four piece are not only democratic in the writing process, but treat one another as family. The strong sibling bond between Joel and Juanita hasn’t proved a problem for the other members, as the guitarist explains. “All four of us know each other inside out so there’s no difference, really. It’s the same with Elbow, they’ve been together so long that you get to a point where it really doesn’t matter. You have a fight and you laugh about it five minutes later.” While some bands find the tour bus a breeding ground for bickering, Howling Bells seem to quite enjoy the experience, making friends and albums along the way. Joel points out, “If you love doing something you want to do it all the time,” despite not being able to take a piano with them in the campervan.

“I have no fucking idea,” Joel laughs when I ask what’s next for the band. “Absolutely none. It’s the most elusive business on the planet. We could be in China, we could be in the studio recording another album.” He asks me what I think they should do, and when I tell them to keep releasing albums I’m congratulated for picking the right answer. It seems a fairly obvious choice for a band who so clearly love the experience of making and sharing their music. Joel jokes, “Obviously if [our management] say we’ve gotta tour in Afghanistan we’ll think twice about that,” when I ask if they get much of a say in where they tour, before deciding, “Actually, that could be fun.” 

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Georgia Fair’s ‘All Through Winter’

Sydney duo Ben Riley and Jordan Wilson have released their debut album today, and Bobbysix.com has been kind enough to publish my review. My interview with Ben Riley will be up in the next week or so, as well.

In similarly self congratulatory news, Annabel Crabb tweeted at me today about myrtle leaves (as opposed to lemon myrtle leaves, because she’s not a snob). I made a few high pitched noises but somehow restrained myself from re-tweeting her and publicising our false intimacy to the entire world, because I’m totally cool, professional and unruffled like that.

*edit* Text of the review is now below:

Despite its name, All Through Winter seems destined to be something of a summer soundtrack. A warm breeze, gauzy curtains blowing through an open window and the folk-pop of Sydney’s Jordan Wilson and Ben Riley sit together almost as naturally as their vocal harmonies. Almost, because they’re pretty tight. It’s clear the duo have spent a great deal of time making music together and this ease is evident on their debut album, which is full of the unaffected and enjoyable songs we have come to expect from previous releases.

It’s music that feels familiar, partly due to the inclusion and reworking of songs such as opener Times Fly and Simple Man, which have featured on previous EPs, and partly due to the familiarly pleasant combination of two-part harmonies and acoustic guitar. The album requires a second listen in order to differentiate and appreciate individual songs. The addition of rolling drums on a number of tracks including Blind, which builds to a climactic chorus, and the jaunty Remember Me provide depth to a record which may perhaps be pigeonholed as roadtrip fodder but, to be entirely honest, music doesn’t always have to challenge you. It’s perfectly alright to sit back and thoroughly enjoy this gentle album of at times wistful, at times unabashedly joyful but always skillful songwriting. Put it on when you get home with salty eyelashes and the light sting of sunburn on your limbs and let the recurring themes of nostalgia and the passage of time tie together an album which feels like home.

Radio-friendly single Where You Been? is an upbeat, summery song which characterises their debut in more ways than one – the closing refrain is a reminder that, yes, the best is yet to come for Georgia Fair, if they continue to write to their strengths: sweet and clever songs based on beautiful male harmonies which go together like, well, summer and acoustic folk pop. Which is to say, perfectly.

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Review: Caitlin Park’s ‘Milk Annual’

My very first album review has gone up today on bobbysix.com.  You should maybe wander over and check it out,  along with the rest of the site – a polyglot of music news, reviews and interviews as well as fashion and culture.

*edit* Text of the review is now below:

I must confess that while sampling sounds of unusual provenance makes for an interesting press interview/snippet of information to be bandied about, I often find the technique clunky and frankly irritating. Not so with Caitlin Park. In Milk Annual, she’s crafted a beautiful album full of delicate, thoughtful songs that, despite very professional production, feels entirely handmade.

At this point I could go for a long winded metaphor involving a patchwork quilt of found sounds carefully stitched together with a thread of folksy guitar and gentle vocals, ironed and laid out through production by Liam Judson of Belles Will Ring. But I won’t, because that may seem trite, unnecessary and pretentious, all of which sits uncomfortably with the pared-back simplicity of tracks such as With No Strength To Defend, Be A Ghost or the hand claps, unashamedly catchy hooks and pop sensibilities to be found on single Baby Teeth.

The way she plays guitar makes you think you can see it. You’re intensely aware of her fingers, the process of it, particularly on opener How’s Your Wife? where audible fret noises ground her sampling and use of electronic sounds in an earthier folk tradition. The range of sounds she employs demonstrates not only a curiosity into the nature of language best seen on the Tic Tac Language Song, but also her ambition and ingenuity in the use of the sounds of a match striking in the similarly experimental Match. Wrist. Bird.

Ordinarily I would baulk at the term ‘experimental’ as too often it’s lazy shorthand for ‘people on drugs with a bunch of whistles, old gameboys and access to garage band’ but it’s clear that, after months of collecting such diverse samples, she has indeed experimented with them before carefully layering them with her gentle vocals and accomplished songwriting to piece together a very considered album. You can read her track by track explanation here, if you’d like to know more about her ideas and methodology.

Comprised of songs which are breathtakingly intricate yet remain accessible and, above all, enjoyable,Milk Annual is best listened to accompanied by the smell of grass with sun on the back of your neck.

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