Howling Bells - Heartbreak and a primal howl

The Sydney band have abandoned lyrical melodies for a darker edge, says Elisa Bray

A survey claims Britons are emigrating to Australia in record numbers, and our gloomy weather and troubled economy are to blame. But Howling Bells, who left Sydney back in 2004 for England, are staying put. With their eponymous debut album of intoxicating folk-rock country and blues melodies they had no trouble establishing a dedicated fan base here; their upcoming tour has sold out faster than any of their previous shows. Not surprising, then, that their singer Juanita Stein does not regret the move. "Staying in Australia wasn't an option for us. We had set our collective hearts on something. The artistic climate [of London] suited us at the time and still does."

So strong was the collective consensus on relocating to England that they moved despite having no record and no money. Today, as we meet in the plush surroundings of London's Shoreditch House, their faces crumple in horror recalling their early days as a band when all four members – Juanita and her younger brother Joel, bassist Brendan Picchio and drummer Glenn Moule – shared a room. It's understandable that they gladly went on a tour spanning two years following their debut release.

"The tour bus was of better quality than where we were living," Joel recalls. "Touring for us was like heaven for a while – we couldn't wait to get out of the house and into the bus." The London house where they lived, they say, is still there. But, Brendan grimaces, "We like not to talk about it. Every time we drove past it we wouldn't look at it."

They took up jobs to make ends meet; Glenn at a car workshop, Joel on a farm, gathering geese eggs and tending to the gardens. "The only song that was going through my head was Bob Dylan's 'Maggie's Farm'."

How did they get through it? "With a lot of difficulty. We struggled a lot," Juanita recalls. "I felt possessed by some kind of musical demon and the tougher it was almost made me more driven to stay there. At that point we were confident about going on with an aim of making a record. A lot of the things we've done haven't been easy. Perhaps collectively the four of our energies put together make this one human being who likes to make things very hard for themselves. Challenging, perhaps, is the right word."

Their collective decision about where to record their new album Radio Wars, out on Monday, is another case in point. Rather than choosing a place matched to their noirish take on Americana and country folk, they opted for the plastic world of Los Angeles.

"Sun and plastic" says Joel, while his sister is quick to add sweetly: "Which melts. Which is why it's such a disaster. We learn the hard way, that's for sure. We like to inflict pain on ourselves."

"LA is not the most creative place in the world. It's where people go to lose themselves. There's something dirty, dangerous and exciting about that place. It was a collective thing – let's do it somewhere we wouldn't think of doing it," explains Brendan.

The need for challenge also saw them revamp their entire song-writing process. Not content to make an album similar to their critically acclaimed debut, which was mostly composed by Juanita at home on her guitar and resulted in the collection of gorgeous intoxicating melodies showcasing her velvet vocals, Radio Wars was more of a collaborative effort. They each brought songs they had written to a listening party at Juanita and Joel's parents' house in Australia, democratically selecting the tracks that they would pursue. The result is a heavier album, full of dark synth sounds and juddering guitar.

"You think the album's heavier?" Brendan is surprised. Juanita replies to him directly: "Oh, it is in a sense. It's more primal." While Joel puts it into perspective. "I think we consciously want to do what we haven't done before. The first album was instrumentally very simple, it was very stripped back. You can hear the band on this album. There's a lot more other stuff going on. Me and Brendan played a lot of keys and Glenn tried a lot more percussive stuff. A lot more ideas were put into it." You can feel the democratic nature of the band from the attentive way they respond to each other's thoughts – key to the chemistry that has seen Juanita, Joel and Glenn play in bands together since their teens, with Brendan completing the Howling Bells package in 2004.

The newer, expansive, bolder sound may not please long-standing fans of their early melodies such as "Setting Sun", "Velvet Girl" and "A Ballad for the Bleeding Hearts" – which captured the haunted dreamy sound of Mazzy Star with a similar Gothic sensibility to Australia's own Nick Cave and the Dirty Three – but it will certainly attract a new audience. Juanita's personal broken heart ballads have been replaced by the wider themes of technology and innocence. Except, of course, for "Nightingale" which retains that haunting lilting melody carried by Juanita's vocals, and her familiar imagery: "broken branch/ My love has not set sail".

"I know there are a lot of artists that can lay themselves dry over an entire career and talk about themselves in their 23 albums, but we get bored very easily. I don't think these guys could deal with another song about broken hearts and lost love. For now there's too much going on in the world to ignore. I don't think we could escape it. When we recorded the album, Obama had just been elected into the running race and there was a writer's strike in LA at the time. It felt like a very political, socially aware period."

It must be a refreshing break from laying bare her emotions; exposing her personal tales of heartbreak onstage must have dragged up some memories. "It was therapeutic. A lot of people were very surprised at how quickly I moved on from certain relationships, but now that I think about it, it was like a therapy session every single night on stage. I was singing about all these personal things, I didn't need to talk about them. I get off and I'm healed and that's it."

But broken hearts are not on the agenda at present. At their London gig, Juanita dedicated a new song "to the one I love" – with whom she has a current and happy relationship. "These guys get scared that if I'm too happy I won't be prolific enough."

There were other changes for the band, too. While they sought out Ken Nelson, Coldplay's producer, for their debut album, the new album was produced by Dan Grech-Marguerat "We needed someone who could take on something new. We had a whole new bunch of songs and the same producer wouldn't do it justice. That's why we went to LA."

They also moved from Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde's revered record label Bella Union to another independent, Independiente. This could have been their chance to sign with a major label, but they weren't convinced. "It's car salesman syndrome. I feel as though I'm being sold a car and, as soon as someone talks about touching me creatively, I start gnarling and my hair starts to bristle up like a cat," Joel says. "The cliché you see in movies is true. Can you do this for us? No!"

"They said 'Keep writing 10 more songs that sound like "Setting Sun"'," Juanita says. "Yeah, we love this album but we want you to change nine of the songs on it," adds Brendan, unimpressed.

They pressed ahead with their new sound, which has a more positive edge than their debut. "Treasure Hunt" may be sonically dark, but not lyrically. "We wrote it very much in the mood of how we were feeling at the time, which was very optimistic and hopeful and on the whole note of trying to create something a little more insightful and futuristic than what we had done before, which felt very grafted, earthy and tangible," says Juanita.

But for now until they start their UK tour, they are stocking up the reservoir of inspiration – going to see bands (Glenn is a massive fan of Magazine after watching their reunion) and watching as many films as they can, which capture moods and atmosphere that feed into their songs. The film which most influenced them stylistically is Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, and Juanita's taste for 1960s films is seen in their slick rock band look. And cinematics seem to bleed into their songwriting.

"It's like some songs are a mood and if you can create a sound for that mood it will be that song. What's that with colour, synaesthesia? That's how I feel about music," explains Joel. "And a great song is a song that doesn't lie to you. Instinctively you can feel how that person's feeling. You can think 'It's possible, I want to be part of that'. That's why we can relate to movies so well, because a great movie pulls you into the screen; you're part of it. You want people to share the vision. You want people to see things though your eyes. You just want to be one big unit that people can relate to."

When asked if they want to be famous, it's an affirmative answer from the four.

"Who in their right mind strives to be average or unrecognised as an artist? Who wants to strive for mediocrity?" says Juanita. With an outlook like this and their two albums as proof, Howling Bells will always be anything but mediocre.

'Radio Wars' is out Monday on Independiente. The band are on tour in the UK next week (www.howlingbells.net)

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