Reason to Believe - the Hartheim interview
It was one of those nights that stays with you; a night that might just stay with you forever. Liverpool's Bird were in town promoting debut (and final – RIP) album My Fear and Me and had assembled a smart undercard of three lesser known Manchester acts. Or, in the case of main support Hartheim, not really known at all.
Setting up their stage with barely a word between them, they unfurled a backdrop that bore the legend: 'Your God Has So Much to Answer For'. Oh, and named after a Nazi euthanasia camp, to boot. It was difficult to catch their intent that night. Did they want us with them? Or were we merely a distraction - a barrier to their ultimately grander intent? Either way, they won over with ease a room full of strangers who warmed to a set of influences (later Joy Division; the scuffed elegance of Crime and the City Solution) some way beyond the crusty norm. (I tell singer Mike Emerson – an intense presence that night, pacing like a condemned man prior to going onstage; seemingly unable to release and relax after it - months later that I'd not dared approach him to introduce myself that night. He looked like the kind of bloke who might hit you just for offering him a pint. "Seriously?" He's shocked. "You fucking idiot." Difficult to argue.)
But that was then – last July, in fact - and it seems a long time ago. Since then, the band has continued to play and to cement their growing live reputation. They supported Bird at their farewell show in November. But the main focus has been on writing and recording. We meet up to talk at Strangeway Studios, where they're rehearsing ahead of their forthcoming debut headline show at Manchester's Soup Kitchen.
They roll in as a watery early evening sun casts long shadows around the waste ground and abandoned mills of this stretch of the Manchester-Salford border. As they set up, solving minor technical hitches (drummer Conor Lawrence shatters his bass pedal almost immediately, but gains kudos with a spare in the car) and arguing over food and drink ("You've brought one bottle of beer? Brilliant. One bottle! Nice one."), Emerson, George Heaton (bass) and Gaz Devreede (guitar) ponder the changes of the past few months and their plans for the future. (Hartheim – initial idiot impressions go hang - are the best kind of company: articulate, funny, generous.)
At the start of the year, the focus was on the release of a debut EP, recorded late in 2014. Since then, they've released online videos for two of those tracks. Emerson takes up the story: "We got the EP ready but we sort of only put out 'When Did Your Last Rose Die?' and 'Strange Fruit' (the Billie Holiday cover that forms the centrepiece of their fiery live show) because we felt they were actually a better reflection of where we're at," he begins.
"Whereas, with the other two tracks, in the time since we'd recorded them, we'd grown out of them. It felt like a step backwards. They may appear at some point… but then again probably not, you know? Because we're not interested in putting out anything that feels like it's behind what we're trying to do now." He pauses to consider. "So now, for the moment, it's all about playing live. We've come to realise we need to get out there and show people what we think we can do, and broaden our live experience a bit. So we're doing that. And then we're recording an album soon, and we've got that pretty much ready to go. So we need to go in, demo all that, get that going. The songs are written – we just need to act on them now."
Hartheim are a complex and fascinating group of individuals. They’re not a gang, though they’re clearly close. But their camaraderie is built on trust rather than banter and they demonstrate always an implicit acceptance of their differences, the way in which they each contribute something unique to the whole. Also, for a band not yet in their mid-twenties, they carry old heads on young shoulders. Emerson is the figurehead, no doubt, but no-one is here in a support capacity. As we talk, and explore the nature of Hartheim, what being in this band means to each of them, the vision is both clear and shared. A question as to whether Hartheim might ultimately become a quest without resolution, one that buries supposed notions of creative development and progress pale beneath the reward of the searching and the striving, animates Devreede: "Yes, that's probably it," he agrees. "We'll probably still be looking in thirty years. It's a healthy artistic process." His eyebrows are only slightly raised.
Heaton takes up the theme: "It comes back to what Mike was saying. We've put tracks together and then it's come to actually recording them and we've thought, We don’t want to put those out now. If anything, creatively I think we have progressed." Is it perhaps, certainly as far as the actual songs are concerned, that they're still living and breathing? They're still waiting to be tamed? "Absolutely," says Emerson. "I mean, it's the biggest cliché, this idea that your art is never finished but it's completely true. Who are you to say it's finished? You have to let it go and let it be what it wants to be. But also, there are also times when it doesn’t work for us. It's not like we're constantly re-inventing things and making them better. Sometimes it's like: right, that doesn't work anymore. So there are songs that get dropped from the set. I think we know when to cut our losses."
It's tempting to view the Hartheim aesthetic – a sound that is deeply solemn, with little in the way of ornamentation, and built on an almost democratic distribution of instrumentation – as narrow. But don’t be fooled. As their song craft expands, already you can sense side roads being explored. "Well, to some degree, it almost doesn’t matter what it sounds like," says Emerson. "There's always a certain tone, but if it wants to be, oh I don’t know, an electronic hip-hop track and that suits, then that works. It has to. It has to serve the vibe. If you're writing a song about death…well, it changes depending, and we'll go with that." Heaton agrees: "If you’re limiting yourself to just a single style, then I just think that's ridiculous. We'll explore and we'll do what's right for us."
Watching them rehearse tonight offers further insight into their growing capabilities as a live act. The moment Lawrence counts them in, they’re on it. Just like when they're in front of an audience, they're transported. They don’t speak while playing, don’t acknowledge each other. Emerson doesn’t pause: "We don't need to."
Their focus is extraordinary. Don’t expect to see 'bassist saunters over to chat to drummer while keeping the beat' in the Hartheim script. "Yeah, that's just how it works for us," Emerson continues. "It's funny – I was chatting with Lauren Bolger (the Manchester poet who features in the Strange Fruit video, and who will perform with the band at Soup Kitchen) and we were talking about performance art and improve, and for me, I don’t like that side of performance. There's always going to be an element of improvising with our performances anyway, depending on how we feel at the time, but everyone has to know what they're doing. You said in a recent live review that you felt I could go out as far as I want to because I always know where the band are going to be, where the music is. And that's what makes it work. At times, seriously, it's like having a fucking great big backing track."
As Hartheim's audience grows, look out for how the relationship between the two fares. Here's a band presenting challenges and demands beyond easy consumption. "This is a song about Catholic priests fucking young boys" is how Emerson introduced 'Father the Son' at a recent gig. 'When Did Your Last Rose Die?' documents the scorched aftermath of divorce. 'Welcome to Hartheim' requires no explanation. 'Yellow' is based on the Nazis 'plan yellow' campaign. Covering 'Strange Fruit' is a responsibility the band takes very seriously indeed. (Emerson has lambasted Annie Lennox via Twitter after a recent muddle-headed interview in which she tried to reclaim the song as something more "universal" than the mere lynching of black people.)
You suspect there will be nights in the future where the band/audience dynamic could almost end up as a face off rather than a coming together. "That would be brilliant," says Emerson. "I wouldn't have it any other way. If that's what it eventually gets to, then that's ideal. It goes back to what you said – it's about asking questions: of the audience; of ourselves. I don’t want to be singing about fucking going down to the shops on a Tuesday and someone going 'Oh yeah, I did that the other day'. That's not what it's about at all. And do you know what – maybe that reflects badly on us and maybe we'll never make the kind of connection that will see us speak to a huge audience but if we connect with just one person who does get it, then that's very meaningful and that's very, very important to us."
"I write based on little touch points throughout the day," he continues. "I note things people say, stories I read. There was this story about Lizzie Lowe, a 14 year old girl who committed suicide in Didsbury a couple of weeks ago. She hung herself because she was a lesbian and was afraid of telling her parents but after it had happened, her parents were devastated; they said that they would have loved her and supported her. Just reading stories like that, it's heartbreaking - that's the kind of thing that feeds into the writing process. As time has gone on, we argue more than ever, we disagree more but we're also getting more involved as writers and learning how to come up with more and more things. It's just growing, you know?"
The name is still the core, then? "God, yes. I mean, with that comes new challenges but the core of what we do, what we want to do and who we are, has, if anything, just grown stronger. We've realised that we're not in this to be rock stars. We don’t particularly want fucking… yachts. But the longer we do it, the stronger that core belief in what it is that we're doing grows. As with any artist of worth, the prize shouldn’t be riches and fame – the reward should be seeing your art touch as many people as possible, seeing it get through."