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Howling Bells - For Whom The Bells Toll

Author: Scott Henderson
Monday, February 23, 2009

Three years since Howling Bells’ startling self-titled debut album the band are back stronger and more imaginative than ever. 3D’s Scott Henderson talks to Juanita Stein and Brandan Picchio about hope, the future and their new album Radio Wars.

It is almost tangible, hanging in the atmosphere like hot air balloons on the horizon, yet only the brave dare acknowledge it: change has bred hope back into people’s lives. Barack Obama has given it a face, and in the new album from Howling Bells ‘hope’ might just have found its soundtrack.

“There is this feeling of optimism, there is a sense that we’re going to get through this,” enthuses the band’s bassist, Brendan Picchio. “There was a time where you weren’t sure if the world wasn’t just going to blow up but it feels like the world has really changed.” It is the week before Obama’s inauguration and ex-Sydney-siders Howling Bells are in town, taking a break from our worries and from the grey English winter of their adopted home.

Of the band’s quartet Brendan and Juanita Stein meet with 3D for coffee and to talk about Radio Wars, the band’s eagerly anticipated sophomore effort three years since they released their eponymous debut amidst a flurry of critical praise. The sun is blazing outside our air-conditioned café, Crowded House on the radio is barely audible above the din of passing traffic and the coffee is bland. Brendan and Juanita, dressed in strict London-issue black indie attire in spite of the weather, both exude a relaxed sense of enthusiasm, happily willing to dissect their work and share their excitement about the new album.

Juanita picks up the baton from Brendan, something they do seamlessly throughout our interview, finishing each other’s sentences or following through a pattern of thought. “It does feel like the perfect time for a piece of art to come out, whether it be music or visual, but everything in the arts as far as I’m aware is pointing towards ‘enough mourning of the times’,” she says. “There’s definitely a collective spirit happening.”

This kind of optimism is all a far cry from authors of an album Juanita once described as “desperate and emotional and heart-wrenching.” But that was a different piece of work and a different time. With Radio Wars, a meticulous, progressive and ambitious album that literally breathes optimism into any room, Howling Bells were determined to move forward from the melancholic procrastinations of the first record.

“We have so much music inside the four of us and the first time we were tiptoeing wondering if this was too much or that was too little, but I think we this record we felt a lot more confident,” explains Juanita, whose quiet demeanour cannot disguise a powerful spirit that rarely refrains from a smile. “You never know how a record is going to sound when you’re making it but you do know in which direction you want to head in. We had a whiteboard which was really instrumental to the process where we wrote key words that we just kept going back to: adventurous and united, bold and colourful. Every time we questioned if something we went was going to work we went back to that board.”

“It’s not like we were really studying,” interjects Brendan, “we just had an idea, a feeling which we followed and even from that things grew. Even that was what we finished with because it kept growing.”

The result is an album that embodies those whiteboard words, but that have smudged together from the opening track, Treasure Hunt, and become infused with a sense of something greater; something epic. But there is also a maturity to Howling Bells’ cinematic slices of acoustic vision, a maturity that must certainly be a by-product of their decision to base themselves in that epicentre of musical creativity, London.

“For me it’s completely burst open an entire universe of new music,” says Juanita. “It’s a different world of subtleties and feelings, instrumentation and mystique that we don’t really find anywhere else. As much as I love of a lot of American and Australian bands, there’s just something about English bands…”

“And that has made us work harder, given us a stronger work ethic,” continues Brendan. “One of our first experiences of being in London, which was years and years ago, is you play your gig and nobody turns up with equipment and they want to borrow yours. If you’ve got equipment they will try to sabotage you so they can get their shot, that changes you I guess. I feel like I’ve grown up in London more than I ever have here in some sense. I’ve had to mature because it’s a harder city, musically for sure”

Change was also facilitated with the help of acclaimed producer Dan Grech-Marguerat as they set about recording the album in Los Angeles last year. It was a challenging experience for the band as any productive creative process should be and certainly one endured its fair share of conflict.

Grech-Marquerat (who has engineered for Radiohead and Air to name but two heavyweight credits) was a passionate collaborator, pushing the Bells hard to hone an original sound. Says Juanita: “if at any point any part of the song sounded too much like anything else he would immediately erase it, no matter how good it was.”

None of this is to say Radio Wars is without the Howling Bells’ traits that captured hearts first time round. Certainly the album is newly steeped in a rich electronic-pop asthetic, no doubt thanks in part of Grech-Marquerat, but there remains that wistful, haunting other world of musical melodies propelled by Juanita’s hypnotic vocals.

Into the Chaos seemed a perfect choice for the first single from Radio Wars for this exact reason, bridging the gap between the old and new sound, says Juanita, “it was also a very clear indication of where the new album was heading, which was not as desperate. It was like we’ve mourned our lost love and now we’re looking forward to the future.”

Howling Bells haven’t left the past, it’s still there informing their music through experience, the difference is in the change of tone. Our coffee cups are empty and we’ve run out of time as Champagne Supernova on the stereo aptly bookends our interview. How do they feel about the future-

“Ecstatic,” confesses Juanita breaking into a giggle with Brendan nodding in agreement, “secretly ecstatic. I might not look it, but we all are.”

WHO: Howling Bells
WHAT: Radio Wars through Liberation / Play V Festival, Centennial Park
WHEN: Friday 6 March / Saturday 28 March