Howling Bells
Live @ London Astoria
September 30, 2008
Interview & Photography: Steve Bateman

2009 is a year that is set to see the heavens speckled with stars, for that’s the time when Howling Bells are due to unleash their brand new, eagerly-awaited sophomore album into the world!

With a famed, ‘start as you mean to go on’ reputation already established for delivering stylish, sophisticated, distinctive, interesting and meticulous multi-layered music, which people care deeply about and can lose themselves in. You must know by now, that the Antipodean quartet weave and sculpt songs to savour, which are built upon a strong foundation of dark ambience, vivid imagery, moody pathos and romance, meshed with sonic intricacies and subtleties – with the one-two punch coming in the form of Juanita’s celestial, hypnotic and comforting vocals. One writer perceptively proclaimed, “Her extraordinary voice curls around the haunting guitar lines like cigarette smoke.”

But as with all great songs and records, it’s not so much the destination that counts – it’s the entire journey, or the escapades that the music can take a listener on. An idea which can also be applied to the making of an LP, as earlier this year, Juanita posted the following elated blogs on Howling Bells’ Official MySpace page…

January 2008: “After a hectic 6 months of writing, demoing, planning and eventually contract signing, we've finally made our way over to the smoggy depths of LA. Started recording a few days ago at the infamous Sound Factory with Dan Grech, a lovely fella who works with Nigel Godrich on all matter of exciting music (Radiohead, Beck, Air). It’s been so cool to just play music everyday, with the sole purpose of capturing the most wonderful, inspiring and emotional sounds we can. Of course, we’re only at the very, very beginning of the record, but so far it feels like everyone is completely immersed in what’s going on!”

April 2008: “Back in rough and ready London. We're all stoked to be here, missed it, like, lots and lots. Seen some cool bands, been to lots of cool bars, but of course spending most of our waking hours mixing, writing, thinking, breathing and contemplating the new album! It's super exciting for us to be finishing these new tracks.”

Howling Bells have long had a strong spiritual and sensory connection to the songs they write, an inner fire / emotional impetus which elevates their grand sonic visions above and beyond the call of duty. With every exquisitely assembled track wearing its heart on its sleeve, and every introspective and moving lyric cutting deep to the core, leaving an affecting and indelible mark on anyone who ever hears the dichotomy between light and shade in their words, or in more poetic terms, the sun and the moon of the lyrics. The band’s cinematic, ethereal, plaintive and seductive symphonies (with nocturnal undertones) meanwhile, simply speak for themselves.

A review of the group’s eponymous debut album in 2006 wisely noted, “It’s a collection of tales best told in the centre of some expansive land. Isolation and solitude: these are factors / forces at work throughout Howling Bells. They’re facets within a band that could only be born of an upbringing in a land so mysterious, one still so undiscovered by the majority of its own occupants.” And at a time when musicians are quick to jump on music scene bandwagons, Howling Bells remain a perpetual breath of fresh air. Not only because they are for real, but also because the four individuals who make up the collective – Juanita, Joel, Brendan and Glenn – are composite characters, who together, create the perfect package and forge their own unparalleled path.

Although as previously mentioned, much of this year has been taken up with writing, recording and mixing, Howling Bells have found time to escape the studio and play selected gigs / festivals, and tonight sees them warming-up the crowd for The Duke Spirit – with a prestigious Mercury Rev autumn European Tour support slot also newly announced. Having had the privilege of interviewing the belle of Howling Bells, Juanita, a couple of years ago, I’m really pleased to say that since that time, I’ve become good friends with the whole band – who are all very warm and friendly – and have stayed in constant contact.

So, when I asked Juanita if she would be willing to do an update interview at the legendary Astoria, about the group’s imminent new album and latest batch of songs, as well as other related topics, without any hesitation she said, “Of course!” You can imagine how pleased I was : ) Plus I also managed to catch up with the guys – who were all in high spirits – and later witnessed an astonishing set where the band’s transcendental music and Juanita’s gorgeous / commanding voice, filled the theatre to an audience of transfixed, receptive and stunned spectators!

Just for the record, the new tracks that were showcased this evening, all sounded incredible, with particular standouts for me being Treasure Hunt, Radio Wars, Into The Chaos and the pièce de résistance, Nightingale. I guess you could say that they’re a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, a little bit pop, a little bit country and a little bit electronic, but a whole lot of Howling Bells – imbued with a glossier / futuristic beauty and an enduring human honesty / gravitas. If you’re a fan of the group, then when their second record is finally released – already feted by industry insiders as a work of art – you’re going to be in for a real treat, as like the first long player, it’s certain to be another musical banquet with breadth and scope that will be more than worth the wait!

And as the connoisseur’s choice, I’m sure you’ll join me when I say, here’s hoping that 2009 will be ‘The Year Of Howling Bells’…

Lucy: Your band have been quite quiet for the last few months. Are you looking forward to playing gigs again?
Katie Jane Garside: I think I give very obtuse ans

1.I first had the pleasure of interviewing you in 2006, and to begin with, I just wondered what some of your favourite memories have been since that time, and if you may have learnt anything about yourself?
“I guess my greatest memory since then, has been becoming familiar with the English landscape and touring so much. Because over that time, we’ve acquired lots of favourite venues, great friendships and favourite bands that we’ve played with. Have I learnt anything about myself (thinking)? Yeah, probably to take things less seriously, and as you do over the years, you have lots of personal experiences and different friends come and go etc. etc. So you learn the hierarchy in life and the value of things! Certain things that were crucial to me a few years ago, aren’t so now, it’s more about enjoying my life and being healthy and having my friends around (smiling).”

2.I know that making and playing music is a labour of love for you all, so how does it feel to be back on the road performing live again and to have a new record on the horizon?
“Fucking fabulous (laughing)! I mean we haven’t really started as such – on the road – it’s only been a few festivals here and there, but the few times that we have played the new songs, it’s just been so refreshing! Yeah, really good (smiling)!”

3.Has the title, tracklisting and artwork for your sophomore long player been finalised yet, and has a release date also been set?
“At this point, the record will most probably be called Radio Wars. The tracklisting and artwork we’re in the process of that war right now (laughing). It’s due out in the first week of February, but we’re probably going to have 2 singles out before then – there’s one coming out just on 7” and Download called Into The Chaos, and that’ll be soon.”

4.Second albums are renowned for being ‘difficult’ – but do you have any favourite follow-up LPs?
“Um (thinking), yeah, Radiohead - The Bends, I think that was a pretty stunning second record. Portishead’s second record and Nirvana - Nevermind… I mean hello, it can be done (laughing)!”

5.Can you tell us about writing and recording your new songs – did you know in your minds what you wanted to achieve, and was this process different to the way you approached the making of your debut record?
“Yeah, very different! The first record was more me in my bedroom kind of wallowing over lost love and falling in love – it was a very, very romantic and brooding process. But with this one, it’s pretty much been a unanimous process, like every member of the band has added their flavour and I’d say that 2 or 3 of the standout tracks, were written by Joel alone – everything, including the lyrics! And I’ve had the pleasure of singing them! There’s one song in particular called How Long? which is just heart-wrenching. It’s kind of like a ‘50s ballad, but it’s so beautiful.”

6.You worked with the producer Dan Grech-Marguerat this time around – what do you feel he brought to Howling Bells’ signature sound and did your original demos / ideas change a lot, or are the finished studio tracks faithful to those early versions?

“I think from afar, Dan’s more into the electronic side of things and he’s a lot more pop. So, he brought out those elements and I think if we had made it with anybody else, it wouldn’t have the same appeal to it. In terms of the new songs, they have a very, very different energy – hugely different – and some of the demos changed a lot, some of them not at all. But Dan’s really, really intuitive and because of his involvement, the music’s a little shinier (smiling)!”

7.What’s the ratio between older / newer songs which made the final cut?
“There are probably about 5 demos that didn’t make it and of the ones that did, some of them (pausing), I mean, there was one in particular which we had huge expectations with and as it turned out, the demo just captured something really magical. So we ended up not putting it on the record. But that happens – sometimes you capture something that isn’t tangible and you can’t replace that.”

8.Are there any songs in particular, that have surpassed the band’s expectations?
“There’s one called Spider and the one I was telling you about that Joel wrote, called How Long? Both of them just exceeded everyone’s expectations, yeah!”

9.What were you all listening to during this time – are there any artists / groups who informed the sound of your new record?
“Um, I’m trying to think. We were in LA at the time, and I find that whatever city I’m in, it does have an impact on what I listen to and what I feel like listening to! But it was probably a lot more electronic music. I mean the whole band have always been huge fans of everything from Boards Of Canada to like Uffie – which is way, way more pop stuff. So yeah, I feel like we took bits and pieces from everything! There is one song called To LA, which is the strangest thing, because we demoed it in Australia and when we demoed it, it was in a huge lounge room of someone’s house and it was in the middle of the country, so it was pitch black. And as I was singing into this microphone, I looked out through the draped curtains and it turned out that there was an eclipse (smiling)! And then a year later or so, when we recorded it in LA, before I went to record the vocals, Joel ran in and said, “You won’t fucking believe it, but there’s an eclipse right now!” That was like the second eclipse for this song (laughing), it was really weird! I just thought I’d mention that (giggling).”

10.As a band, have you ever heard a song and thought, “We could’ve written that… they got there just before us?”
“Oh God yeah – all the time! There are so many though, that I’ll have to think about a specific one and get back to you (laughing).”

11.Can you reveal any of the lyrical themes in your new songs, and of all your lyrics to date, which line or song are you most proud of writing?

“In general, the lyrics are a lot more immediate, whereas the last record was a lot more nostalgic. This album is a lot more modern in a way and instant. You know, it’s talking less about innate feelings and more about the impact between myself or ourselves, and the world around us. The song I'm probably most proud of lyrically to date, is Treasure Hunt, which Joel and I worked on together. It taps into a much greater consciousness, which I believe is crucial considering the world we've created around us. It's taking a responsibility without being dogmatic or condescending in any way, which I feel a lot of politically aware lyrics tend to do.”

12.Is it correct that Howling Bells now have new management and are signed to Independiente Records?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah! We were only with the first label (Bella Union) for one record, so that ran its course, and we’re a band who are very, very fond of changes and taking chances – we don’t like going with the same thing all the time. So, we kind of thought, new producer, new record, new studio, new management, new label – new everything (laughing)! Why not?”

13.If you were granted one wish, what would you use it for?

“Can I do the whole, “Can I have a hundred more wishes?” thing (laughing). No (thinking), I’d say eternal happiness!”

14.And if you could be anybody for a day, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
“Ooh la la (long pause + thinking). I probably wouldn’t mind checking out the perspective of the Dalai Lama – like some great world, political figure, just to see what the impact could be. Yeah (laughing)!”

15.NME has just released a 3CD compilation entitled ‘NME Classics’ – which features a timeline of legendary songs from The ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But if you had to pick 1 defining song for each Decade, what would they be?
“Right, The ‘70s, although I’m really not the biggest Stones fan, I’d say Gimme Shelter – it just gives me goose-bumps everytime (smiling)! I feel like everytime I hear it, it just defines The ‘70s for me – I can see a flash of the Decade go before me. The ‘80s, what’s a great ‘80s track (thinking)? You see, The ‘80s was so great and it was so shit (laughing), so I think Cars by Gary Numan probably sums both sides up (laughing)! And The ‘90s (thinking), Scentless Apprentice by Nirvana. Yeah!”

16.On a similar note, a couple of years ago, Radio 1’s Zane Lowe ran a massive album give-away competition, whereby listeners had to donate one of their most cherished LPs (thus automatically entering themselves into the contest), with one person eventually winning everything! But, which record would you have contributed?

“Um (long pause + thinking), maybe Debut by Björk, because that impacted me the most profoundly. I feel that says a lot about who I am.”

17.Are there any artists or bands, who you would like to see cover / reinterpret one of your songs for Jo Whiley’s Live Lounge?
“Ha ha, I would like to see the New York Dolls do A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts of our first record (laughing), I think that would be really interesting (giggling)!”

18.If you could have been at any gig in the history of music, which one would you have most liked to have attended?

“Probably when Dylan went electric for the first time (The Newport Folk Festival, USA, July 1965) – yeah!”

19.Would Howling Bells ever consider performing a special one-off show with a Symphony Orchestra, similar to Metallica’s S&M concert?
“Fuck yeah (excitedly)! We had a little string section for this record, so I think that’s definitely something that we would LOVE to do! So, watch this space (laughing).”

20.When reflecting on his music, Nick Cave once said, “A good song has the ability to continue to reveal itself to you, long after you’ve actually written it.” Does this often happen to you?
“Yeah, because you’re not always necessarily aware of your own lyrical content, and sometimes, you find that your subconscious works beyond your means, so you’re a lot cleverer than you actually think you are. Sometimes, I write a song and they feel like the right words, and then perhaps a few years later, they’ll reveal themselves, because I can put it into perspective you know? Like the time that I wrote it in, it makes perfect sense. But, you can’t always see it at the time.”

21.Some songwriters also believe that “songs are already there and it’s their job to find them.” Would you agree with this?
“Um, possibly. I had a creepy boyfriend once and he used to tell me that my voice didn’t belong to me, that it was channelled by spirits, so I shouldn’t be too proud of it because it’s not mine. So that kind of association, I’m not so fond of (nervous laugh). But otherwise, yeah, I can see how some people would believe that.”

22.Is there anybody that you would like to write a song for?
“Oh yeah (excitedly)! I would love to write pop songs for like, young tarty girls – yeah (giggling)! I would love to (smiling), but I would give it an edge, so it would be like dark bubblegum pop!”

23.A new book entitled, ‘The Empty Page: Fiction inspired by Sonic Youth’, was recently published and features “short stories by authors whose initial sparks came from Sonic Youth song titles.” Would you ever like to see a selection of your song titles treated in the same manner, and if so, are there any specific writers who you would like to see take up the challenge?
“Yeah, that would be AMAZING (excitedly)! I guess off the new record, I’d love to see someone really, really adventurous (pausing), Joel’s pretty into Neil Gaiman, so it would be great to have someone like that twist it and write something. Maybe give him (pausing), which title (thinking)? Maybe Radio Wars and see what he’d do with that!”

24.Do you have any prized-possessions or favourite gifts from fans?
“A portrait, which somebody drew of me once – it was really flattering (smiling). And a piece of jewellery that a girl made for me.”

25.What's the nicest thing that someone has ever done for Howling Bells?
“Um (thinking), sustained vision and encouragement from the people who have worked for us. I mean it’s not easy to keep supporting a band financially and emotionally. But, we’re always being surrounded by people who seem to have a perpetual faith in the band, which at your low-points, can really encourage you!”

26.In terms of mainstream acceptance and success, it’s long been acknowledged that alternative / underground artists create the most interesting art, with a lot of musicians talking about which is more important with regard to success, ‘The Chase or The Catch’. What are your feelings on this, and do you ever see a time where they’ll be a seismic shift in people’s listening habits, when more leftfield acts could break through to the mainstream?
“Well, I think that’s now! Yeah, I do! I think the general consciousness has shifted immensely and I think only in a Decade or so, will we look back and realise it. But, between bands like Justice, Simian Mobile Disco and Midnight Juggernauts even (pausing), I mean there are crazy punk bands that are selling out the biggest venues in London, and incredibly left-of-centre electro artists selling out venues all over Europe. I think it’s huge and I think that as lame as she is – I can’t even believe I’m mentioning her name in an interview (laughing) – but the whole Katy Perry thing. It’s minor, but you know, maybe 10 years ago, those songs and song titles wouldn’t have been accepted by the mainstream. So I think it’s happening, yeah!”

27.Which song should every young guitarist learn to play, and of groups past and present, who do you think will continually inspire bands to form?

“Um (thinking), I think every young guitarist should learn to play All Along The Watchtower. And who do I think will continually inspire bands to form? I think I’m biased, but always Nirvana… and The Beatles.”

28.Lastly, would the Howling Bells from the band’s early days, be pleased with where Howling Bells are at in 2008?

“Yeah (without any hesitation)! I’d fucking love my record now – I’d try and rip it off the Internet (laughing)! Yeah, I would, definitely (smiling)! I’m also proud of everything else that we’ve achieved so far, because we’ve taken chances and we continue to take chances and as clichéd as it is, I don’t believe in regrets at all. And we’re all happy within ourselves right now, so you can’t ask for much more (smiling)!”
*After our interview has finished, I thank Juanita for her time*
“Nice doing business (laughing)!”

A very special thanks to Juanita, Joel, Brendan and Glenn for all of their time and help.

“We’ll rise and fall just like the setting sun”



wers to questions...It's never about looking forward to it. Actually maybe I should change the
script, maybe we are looeir musicm the 3rd album?