The Bells ring out
Howling Bells' Juanita Stein tells Chris Mugan how films and her songwriter father have influenced the band's music
Friday 22 September 2006
With renewed success for temperamental garage rockers The Vines and the imminent return of AC/DC's hedonistic heirs Jet, Australia remains in thrall to the heavier end of the guitar spectrum.
No wonder an outfit steeped in rock's more thoughtful roots of blues, country and folk should head to England to make their name. That would seem to be the story of Howling Bells; a group that came here to record their album and get signed. If that is the case, then the strategy has worked a treat, for the Sydney four-piece has developed an enviable reputation based on their bewitching, eponymous debut album and some beguiling live performances that culminated in a pair of show-stopping sets at this year's Reading and Leeds Festivals.
However, singer and chief songwriter Juanita Stein explains that there were more personal reasons for the move. She remembers the drive that caused them to swap hemispheres.
"We desperately wanted a new experience. I felt I had explored Australia as far as I needed to and so many of our favourite bands are English, so it was a territory we wanted to explore. And we were set to record in Liverpool, so that pushed the move along."
So rather than a career move, the band merely took the same route as many Aussies in their early twenties. Except that rather than find a bar to pull pints in, they recorded their debut album with the guy that had shaped the sound of Coldplay. It is a brave way of doing things: rather than seek out support from a label or manager, the Bells sent their demos to producers they admired. Among them was Liverpool's Ken Nelson, whose reputation rests on all three albums of Chris Martin's band to date.
"We weren't a hundred per cent sure he would record the album when we left home, but we sent him 15 or 20 songs and he was one of the first people to get back to us. I think there's something warm and melodic about his style, and I recognise that sense of space. We tend to overdo things left to our own devices. We wanted to work with someone that could strip us down."
It is Stein's songwriting, though, that is key to the Bells' success. She combines a searing honesty in tales of relationship pains, as on previous single "Low Happening" and more mysterious lyrics in the primal "In The Forest". All were written in a bedroom as the writer took time out from her previous band before the new outfit came together.
"The older you get, you develop your senses and I became more honest, I had been too scared before of being that naked in front of people. Falling in love, a broken heart and lost love really pushed me.
""Low Happening" was probably the first Howling Bells song and definitely about a dysfunctional relationship, grabbing the guitar in a classic manoeuvre to take out anger and frustration. They're all personal songs, it's just the way I express myself. I tend to respond strongest to extreme emotions."
There is a telling line on "A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts", "Love isn't love 'til you bleed". Elsewhere, Stein's striking imagery - bones and stones, the wood and the sun - suggest someone with a strong visual sense, something she happily admits to.
"Everyone in the band is really influenced by films. They are the perfect medium in the way they combine imagery, music and expression."
Stein is a fan of Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda in the Seventies conspiracy classic Klute - "I like strange films, they're like pieces of music" - and Luc Besson's twisted thriller Léon.
"I adore French films. It's this very ethereal energy and I really want to create that in my music."
There is certainly a lot of energy in forthcoming single "Setting Sun". On first listen, the rousing chorus gives it the feel of a life-affirming anthem. Closer inspection reveals an admission that the world is crap and not worth doing anything about. "Patience is all you need/That and the courage just to be" would be the key lyric. "It's the only song where I'm not singing about a personal experience, it's more a general feeling about the universe. Trying to deal with the gravity of all the world's problems."
Quite a Zen way of looking at the world.
"I was feeling Zen when I wrote it," she laughs in surprise. "I'm fascinated by that kind of thing. I went to a very religious Jewish school and that affected my outlook. It's a lot to deal with at an early age, a hell of a burden all those emotions and laws."
Just as important is the chemistry between the group's members. Stein and her brother Joel had been in a series of bands with drummer Glenn Moule since their teens. It was only when they found bassist Brendan Picchio they realised that they had found a quartet of like-minded people. "We had a shared love of music and knew exactly what we wanted."
They left Sydney for a country house outside Melbourne to spend a month honing Stein's songs and recording their demos. "We wanted to let the music breathe and get away from our urban environment, so we tracked down this beautiful house. Glenn was brought up in the outback so was familiar with space, but we're not so it was very special. I wouldn't want to walk around there at night; I do get kinda scared."
I wonder if this was crocs or poisonous spiders. Pleasingly, Stein describes them as "monsters and creatures you dreamed about as a child", chiming with the album's classically Gothic sensibility, especially on "In The Woods".
Another family member has a deeper impact on the album. Stein is happy to admit the influence of her father Peter - a songwriter in his own right - in where she has ended up. She was 11 or 12 when she first picked up Dad's guitar, locking herself in her bedroom with the Beatles songbook. Even before that, he had taken her into a studio when she was five to sing a part for one of his songs.
"I vaguely remember even standing on phone directories to reach the microphone. From then on, innately I knew that's what I would do."
Stein returns the compliment by having the band perform her father's song "I'm Not Afraid" to close the album.
"He is a very spiritual, inspiring man, so we've learnt a lot from him. I feel a lot more connected to old music. The most modern music we heard was Tom Waits."
When Stein turned 16, she discovered pop, though even then her interests were tasteful: Juliana Hatfield, Lemonheads and Nirvana.
"I struggled because there wasn't a lot to rebel against, my parents were cool and listened to cool music. Dad told me about his drug experiences, so I couldn't rebel by doing that."
Like a lot of her peers, she was into mainly American and British music. The closest Australian comparisons to the Bells are Nick Cave and Melbourne's Dirty Three. Stein has only just come to the latter who are signed to the same label, Bella Union, though Cave's Bad Seeds made little impression when she was growing up.
"There is a real romantic notion in Australian music: The Church, The Go-Betweens, stuff like that. These are bands I've come to appreciate recently. After being in England for a few years how special it is and how similar those bands are in their spaciousness. You can really feel that in their music."
As one of the few Aussie female artists around at the moment, Stein feels the weight of expectation and the attention on every move she makes. So the band have a striking image, though not one to overshadow the music.
"I'm really attracted to aesthetics, it really helps a person express themselves. Not to become too obsessed, but it helps you connect with your audience. We want them to know we're comfortable and don't need to go to extremes."
Maybe not in their look, but their album remains one of the most emotionally satisfying to emerge this year. Howling Bells can rest easy and let the music do the talking.
'Setting Sun' is out on 18 September. The band tour the UK in October
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