Howling Bells Interview
Having seen them live twice before and being so blown away that they automatically fit the tag 'new favourite band', I was something mighty giddy - and nervous - before my scheduled fifteen minutes with Howling Bells last Thursday (17/08/06). Would I come across as too fanboyish? What if the English (me)/Australian (them) divide was somehow huge? And, most importantly, how would I be able to talk to a band that are so immensely good-looking? Thankfully, the band had only just arrived in Wolverhampton and were too busy soundchecking for all four to sit down with me. They were kind enough to spare guitarist Joel Stein (the one who likes sitting on trees, below) and, parked outside the Little Civic venue, myself and Joel had an illuminating chitchat in the band's dim and cramped tourbus.
How are you finding the general response in the UK?
Good, it’s moving and getting better slowly. It’s definitely progressing. So far this year, we’ve done one tour with Editors and one tour by ourselves, where we’d have fifteen to thirty people watching us per night. Now we’re on our third tour and we’re selling most of the venues out which is great. I think it’s because the album is a grower; it’s not a Christina Aguilera pop record even though it is still pop.
Do you enjoy the touring aspect of the job?
I do enjoy touring but, to me, it’s a case of everything in moderation and the tours we do aren’t in moderation. They are in each town – you’ll play one night per town, and that night will be the first time people living there will see you in two or three months. Then, though, you’re in another town the next night and the next night, thirty nights in a row. I love playing, it’s just all the in-between stuff and travelling. Because Britain’s so overpopulated, it takes so long to get to towns because of the traffic. Sometimes we have a few days off. We played in Amsterdam and had three days off so we just walked around Amsterdam for three days and dabbled. Usually, though, the most of a town we’ll see is the hotel or club we’re playing in.
You’re playing this year’s Reading/Leeds festival. Is this your first festival, and what bands on the bill are you excited to see?
Yeah, it is our first festival. I’m looking forward to it, a lot of people have told me how amazing those festivals are and it’s just great being able to watch other bands. You don’t get time to watch bands on tour, you’re just strutting around preparing before and after you play. I don’t even know who’s on the bill, and I kind of don’t want to know. I just can’t wait to get there and wander around.
It has often been stated in previous interviews with the band how much your music is influenced by film. Are there any particular movies or directors you would cite as having a major effect on you personally?
I personally love Luc Besson’s stuff (e.g. Leon, The Fifth Element) and the way he uses colour and dark, it’s so creative. I also love Back to the Future, and I think Hayao Miyazaki is brilliant – he’s responsible for Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. I love Ghost Dog too by Jim Jarmusch.
Where does the band’s interest in film stem from? Did any of you study film?
No, we’re just obsessed with films. Juanita and I [Juanita being the Bells’ vocalist and Joel’s big sis], our mother used to be an actress so that might be a root cause. Generally, though, we just love films and the idea of being taken away.
Would you ever consider acting?
I know Brendan, the bass player, and Juanita would.
So we may be seeing ‘Howling Bells: The Movie’ one day?
Haha, maybe one day. You never know. That would be fun.
The song from the album that stands out for me is In the Woods. Do you have a particular favourite from the record?
I like A Ballad For the Bleeding Hearts, I really enjoy playing that. The same’s true of Broken Bones. That’s from the perspective of me playing the guitar in those songs but also applies to the whole thing, the whole groove. I just really enjoy the chug of those songs. It does change every night, though, I don’t ever have a concrete favourite.
Have you had chance to write new material whilst on tour? Also, when you do write, what is the process?
The only time we get to write is on the bus, we have two guitars in the back here. Basically, we don't have time to write on tour. Juanita's the main songwriter but the process is different everytime. She'll usually come up with a song or lyrics, and then the band will tear it apart. We build it. Brendan and I have written a lot of riffs, and sometimes we'll go into the rehearsal room and a song will come out of those riffs.
How did your and Juanita's interest in music develop during your early years as brother and sister?
She would sit in her room and learn old Beatles songs with the door shut until three in the morning. This was when she was about twelve. I would hear her voice at night. I started playing the guitar when I was about fifteen. We didn't know we'd start a band but we both knew we wanted to do something music-related. Eventually, we met the other two guys. Glenn moved from the country to Sydney and we met through a music paper, and Brendan was through a friend. We had a shared interest in the same bands, and we knew when we first played together that it was just the right combination.
What motivated the band to move to the UK in 2004?
It was a conscious effort to break the UK first. It's a boiling pot of music and we wanted to surround ourselves with good stuff, true stuff. It's harder in Australia because there is less of it whereas in the UK, you can open the back of a magazine and there's fifty shows on that night. It's even the little things that people take for advantage over here like at two-thirty in the morning, when we get home from most shows and go back to our shitty Travelodge, you can switch on a TV and there's music. It keeps you aware of what's going on around you, and Australia doesn't have that. You turn on the TV at two in the morning in Australia and one channel will be down because everyone's gone to bed, and the other three channels will be sport or a kiddy show or something like that. We have been touring Australia but England has embraced our music so we consider it our base. We're happy and proud that that's happening, and we enjoy playing to UK crowds so it's cool.
You supported iForward, Russia!, The Automatic and Boy Kill Boy on the recent NME New Music Tour. Do you have any particular favourite bands on the UK indie music scene?
Personally, I enjoy watching iForward, Russia!, I really enjoy the energy that they put out. I've seen them quite a few times. It's hard to remember all the bands that I've seen in the UK, there's been so many.
Regarding your style, who decided upon the black-on-black by way of cowboy look that you seem to have opted for?
Well, Glenn [the Bells' stetson-donning drummer] is a country boy and an actual cowboy. He grew up as a horse-riding and sheep-herding farm boy. The rest of us just like it, we're just being who we are. It's also a case of, you know, 'if your music could wear clothes?'. We don't exactly play kids' music so it suits our sound. Britney Spears gets her tits out and all that stuff, and it suits what she's doing.
Finally, where does the name Howling Bells originate from?
Our heads. It was just informed by the sound and the music, as naff as that sounds. We were writing the music and thinking 'what does the music sound like?' so we sat down and started brainstorming. We were like 'what about The Bells?' or just 'Howling?'. We came up with all these different names and, eventually, we put these two words together and it just worked.