Howling Bells | Interview


We might, at times, play very atmospheric or dreamy music, but essentially we like to get to the point.

Since their last album ‘The Loudest Engine’ and a brief hiatus, London-based Howling Bells have gone through a series of profound transformations. Riding in on the wave of a creative impulse, their fourth album, ‘Heartstrings’ is set to grace the shelves of record stores worldwide in early June. As the band prepare to embark on an extensive tour of the UK, Harriet caught up with frontwoman Juanita Stein to discuss the new album.

Do you think the new album is a particularly different entity to ‘The Loudest Engine’?

I think so. It’s been a few years, we have a new band member and we have all had pretty profound changes in our personal lives, so I guess that affects who you are as a musician. As a band we’re a different entity but we’re essentially playing with the same emphasis and mind and soul we’ve always had. That hasn’t changed.

I understand in the past you’ve recorded in many different locations including certain spots in America.

Yeah, the first two records we recorded in America.

‘Heartstrings’ was recorded in London – do you think it reflects London in particular? Do you think it would be the same album if it’d been recorded elsewhere?

No, I don’t. I think environment plays an epic role in music and I think where you write it, where you record it, and where you experience it, all plays a part. A lot of our last record was written on the tour bus, in bits, in different places and at different times, and I think that definitely reflected on the record. The energy was reflected through that. This record was a lot more concise and it was a lot more efficient in a sense. It was written in a block of a few weeks and it was recorded in a bit over a week, so it was a more direct experience than the last couple of records. Getting back to your question, I think London tends to have that effect on myself, I know. It kind of puts the wheels in motion for me, London; it’s a very impatient city and I’m a very impatient person, so a nice marriage really!

The album is quite short in length, just topping the thirty minute mark – do you think your audience will be at all surprised by the immediacy of the record?

I don’t think our audience—our long-term fans—would be surprised by that because there’s a lot of immediacy in our music, especially on the first record. We’ve visited different atmospheres for sure, but I think the essence of who we are as a band is actually quite direct. We might, at times, play very atmospheric or dreamy music, but essentially we like to get to the point. I specifically wanted the album to be short, as opposed to long, but we didn’t time it or know it was going to be about thirty minutes, that was just the end result. It’s a result of the nature of the songs and the space in between the songs. I often didn’t want there to be long silences between songs; I kind of felt like we had a lot to say and we wanted to pack a punch into it as immediately as we could. I mean, we loved every second, and it’s not like we were trying to get it over and done with. It’s just how we’re feeling right now.

With everything that’s been going on for you guys, it must be nice just to release something back out into the world – would you agree?

Yeah, especially in a musical climate where everything is so insanely instantaneous; it’s a very different climate to what it was when we first started as a band. I’ve noticed those changes and I’ve noticed that music fans have become a lot more impatient and they need produce, like NOW. So it’s good to be able to tap into that consciousness. I think it’d be stupid to ignore that.

Your sound, generally speaking, is quite expansive and cinematic. In recent videos, such as the one for ‘Your Love’ or the album trailer, there seems to be a very visual element at play – how integral would you say that is to you as a band?

I think to this particular record it is; we wanted the album to have a very cinematic quality and I think it was important to us that the artwork and the press shots followed in that vein. We’ve been working with a guy called Giorgio who’s absolutely brilliant and he really captured that in that film clip, in the trailer, and it just enhanced that cinematic quality. The music is essentially very widescreen, and I imagine every song that we record and every song that we write, I can imagine—I’m already soundtracking it to a different film that I love.

Just taking a look at the ‘Heartstrings’ album cover, even the layout of that bares a resemblance to a film poster…

Yeah, totally! That was a majorly conscious decision that we did with Tom, who’s the artist. We referenced a lot of—I found a lot of seventies movie posters, like Badlands and stuff like that and sent that over and we really tried to capture that spirit.

The press have often been quick to pigeonhole your sound, as this or that; but with ‘Heartstrings’, do you still find that these attitudes remerge, or do you feel you’re much more difficult to pin down than when you first started recording?

Well, I mean, there hasn’t been that much press yet. I suppose in the coming weeks a lot of reviews will emerge, so I haven’t really been able to tap in to that yet. I mean, from whatever I have read or have heard, people seem to tap in to what you’ve just said; that it’s very cinematic, and I actually prefer that a lot more to the whole ‘gothic rock’ thing, which I never really felt especially akin to. I feel a lot closer to the whole ‘film noir’ tag. I like that a lot more.

You contacted a number of producers to work with on the new record, including Alan Moulder, who referred you to his understudy Catherine J. Marks. What was it like working with these two producers?

It was astounding, and a really, really positive—very positive experience for us. We initially got in touch with Alan, thinking that’d just be ‘the bee’s knees’ since we’re all big fans of his, but he was mixing a record at the time, so it was actually his suggestion that we meet Catherine and talk about it, and that he would kind of oversee the project, I guess. But as soon as I met her, I instinctively knew that this was going to be a great working relationship, and it was. She was kind of at the helm of the ship, so to speak, and Al would come in every day and see how things were going, and listen to tracks. He was the perspective, and what better perspective could you ask for than him? So in all, it was a bit of a fluke as an experience because there wasn’t too much planning that went in to it, but it was incredibly productive and incredibly positive.

Do you feel that working with these two in particular brought something unique to the recording?

I think it definitely enhanced the atmosphere, so to speak. In a nutshell, I think Catherine is a bit of a rock dog – she really likes things to be loud [laughs] and expressive – whereas Alan is pretty brilliant with atmospherics – he helped to enhance that a lot. I think between the two of them it was really the most perfect marriage of creative producers for the record.

So they kind of brought out the best of both worlds?

Yeah, because essentially we’re split down the middle. We are kind of half of the earth and half of the sky. [laughs]

If for some reason you hadn’t been able to work with these two, did you have anyone else in mind?

I mean, yeah, you always—you can only dream and hope to work with certain people but, to be totally fair, they were literally the first people I reached out to. I was obviously aware that they have a studio in London, and it just didn’t seem like lightyears away; it seemed vaguely achievable, and I just knew it was a matter of sending him the demos and seeing what he thought, so it was all pretty lucky.

Do you have a favourite track from the album?

I genuinely love every song on the record, which is why it is so brief. There were a couple of songs that nearly made it, but I felt like if I was vaguely uninterested in any part of the song, it just wasn’t going to go on the album. So, I don’t really have favourites necessarily, but I have some that are perhaps more personal than others. The title track was quite personal and—it was actually an older song on the record—I just feel very close to that, and also ‘Paper Heart’, which is a very intimate ballad. I feel very close to that, and very emotional about that, so I guess right now maybe that’s my favourite song.

You’ll be playing a show in Bristol on the 8th June – will you be excited to be back here?

Of course! Yeah, we’ve played there… God, quite a few times now and you can’t deny the profound importance of Bristol as a musical hub, can you? It’s just been remarkably influential considering its size and location. It’s probably old hat to everybody who lives there, but to us it’s a little bit—actually, very exciting! It’s not just the fact that it was so influential; it’s the kind of music that emerged, that played a really central role in my musical evolution. Trip hop, and stuff like that.

So bands like Portishead? Massive Attack?

Massive! Yeah, massive! They were huge records to me. Bristol’s a very important musical town, for sure.

Do you have any particularly memorable personal experiences of Bristol?

Yeah, I do, and it didn’t even take me a second to think about that, because I remember somebody approaching me in the audience before we went on stage and asking me if I would dedicate—it might have been ‘Setting Sun’—to his fiancé so he could propose to her that night in the audience. I remember that happening in Bristol, so that was pretty fabulous!

Was it a happy ending for the couple?

It was a happy ending, but fuck! I considered a negative outcome and thought that would’ve marred his relationship with Howling Bells for an eternity, but luckily it was good. [laughs]

That’s not something most bands can claim, is it?

No, no, but it turns out that there’s been a couple of proposals related to Howling Bells. Before, I had a mutual friend who was in Brooklyn, of all places, who met this gorgeous couple. They told her that they had fallen in love and got married to a song by Howling Bells. Stories like that, just … man, they keep you holding on for sure!

I suppose you quite enjoy the social atmosphere at gigs then too…

Yeah, I do! I love playing gigs, I love meeting the audience, I love getting a response from real human beings and not clicks on a computer; it’s incredibly inspiring for us. Gigs also help put a different spin on our material, and a lot of the time it brings the audience a lot closer to the music.

How do you find the general reception to your live shows across the UK? Are you excited for what the response is going to be this time?

Yeah, I mean, we’ve only played two shows so far from this campaign but the reception was great, and the more music people hear, the more fun the shows are for us. There’s an acknowledgement and familiarity that always makes for a good live show. There’s an album sampler up online and people can hear a minute of all the songs—it’s a taste for people and, I think that’ll definitely enhance the live shows.

One final question: it’s probably a bit too soon to know for definite, but is there anything else we can expect to see from Howling Bells in the near future?

All we’ve got planned for certain in the near future is touring, but there’s the faint possibility that there may be a surprise release mid-campaign. We’re still to decide that though.

Check out ‘Your Love’ right here: