Heidi Pett talks to Howling Bells lead guitarist Joel Stein about their latest album, touring and listening to trash.
“I think I was just feeling lucky,” Joel Stein laughs as he explains why he’s contributed more songs than ever before to Howling Bells’ new record, The Loudest Engine. “You don’t really plan, whoever writes or whatever is the most appropriate or whatever we think is the best will end up on the album.” It’s a mature sibling relationship of the kind parents can only hope for, instead of the masking-tape-down-the-middle-of-the-back-seat approach favoured by most on long car trips. Instead, Joel and sister Juanita form a close-knit band with bassist Brendan Picchio and drummer Glenn Moule, and have created an album out of their experiences on their travels.
Parked in a campervan by the side of the road in Paris, the band are in the middle of a European tour with Elbow when I speak to Joel about the process of writing and recording their latest album, which they’ve consistently described as their “grown up record.” Produced by Mark Stoermer from The Killers and recorded in Las Vegas, it marks a departure from the more electronic sounds of second album Radio Wars in favour of psychedelic-tinged folk rock, and is considered a follow-up to their debut self-titled release. Having toured and played quite extensively with The Killers, Joel says the decision to work with Mark was one born of familiarity and good timing. “It was very, very underground, actually. There were no record labels and no red tape involved. It was all very easy.”
Choosing to step away from the drum machines and electronic feel of Radio Wars, Joel knew, “we just wanted to go in and get the engineer to press record on the tape machine, we just wanted to play as a band.” For an album written on and about the road, it makes a great deal of sense to record it the same way it would be played live. “Lyrically it’s very relevant to us being on tour, which is why we called it The Loudest Engine. It’s more mature in sound and we had the most clarity in recording this album, more than the other two. It’s two years between albums and you do a lot of growing, especially on the road.”
Despite producing a record very clearly inspired by a touring lifestyle, Joel says, “If I had the chance I wouldn’t leave the house without a piano and a guitar because sometimes I feel like writing 15 times a day but I don’t have anything to hand.” Having relocated to Europe several years ago, Joel currently lives in Berlin and finds the vibrant community to be, “an extremely creative place, it’s buzzing at the moment. It’s very interesting and there’s a lot going on. I think Berlin’s still in the 70’s which I really like.” Asked whether it’s in any way affected his sound, Joel pauses for thought, and eventually chances at “It’s subliminal I guess. Your brain does what it wants and you figure it out a few years down the track.” The latest album definitely has a slight 1970’s vibe, the familiar sounds of their first release coloured with flashes of psychedelia.
I bring up a favourite Howling Bells lyric which never fails to fill my dining room with shouty jumpy people at occasionally raucous house parties - “you listen to trash but it’s not rock ‘n’ roll” - and press Joel for his preferred type of trash. He stalls, “I don’t know if it’s bad, see, you’re going to judge me now...” then seems to take a breath, letting the word “house” tumble out in an embarrassed mumble before rallying. “There’s a particular kind of house music that I like: this guy from Sweden called The Field, and everyone I play it to looks at me like I’m nuts.” Perhaps we’ve found the sticking point for tour bus disagreements, though it’s clear that the four piece are not only democratic in the writing process, but treat one another as family. The strong sibling bond between Joel and Juanita hasn’t proved a problem for the other members, as the guitarist explains. “All four of us know each other inside out so there’s no difference, really. It’s the same with Elbow, they’ve been together so long that you get to a point where it really doesn’t matter. You have a fight and you laugh about it five minutes later.” While some bands find the tour bus a breeding ground for bickering, Howling Bells seem to quite enjoy the experience, making friends and albums along the way. Joel points out, “If you love doing something you want to do it all the time,” despite not being able to take a piano with them in the campervan.
“I have no fucking idea,” Joel laughs when I ask what’s next for the band. “Absolutely none. It’s the most elusive business on the planet. We could be in China, we could be in the studio recording another album.” He asks me what I think they should do, and when I tell them to keep releasing albums I’m congratulated for picking the right answer. It seems a fairly obvious choice for a band who so clearly love the experience of making and sharing their music. Joel jokes, “Obviously if [our management] say we’ve gotta tour in Afghanistan we’ll think twice about that,” when I ask if they get much of a say in where they tour, before deciding, “Actually, that could be fun.”
Fortunately, you don’t have to hike to Kandahar to see them just yet - Howling Bells are playing at the Standard in Sydney on Saturday 10th December and Patch in Wollongong on Sunday 11th.
Interview by Heidi Pett. You can check out her own blog here.