The first time I saw Howling Bells play was a blustery Sydney evening a few years back when I’d gotten the word from singer Juanita Stein’s brother — Ari — that an ‘event’ was going down and I was to do whatever it took to get in to see it. Tired and feeling unsociable, I scrubbed up nonetheless and made my way down a winding Oxford Street to a small club just before the red light district of Darlingurst.
The swelling posse of expectant punters that lined the entry to the venue were perhaps more aware than I was of the buzz that had built up on this group since they’d cast off their pop sensibilities (well, some of them anyway) and metamorphosed from the glistening radio friendly strum of their Waikiki days into the decidedly more somber and introspective sound that their early demos hinted at.
Finally they took to the tiny stage, lead by frontwoman Juanita Stein, ebullient and compelling, who steered the rest of group (brother Joel on guitar, drummer Glenn Moule, and bassist Brendan Picchio) through a dynamic and exciting set.
Only, something was different about the way Howling Bells performed. What was it? Oh, wait. Juanita didn’t move from her spot, which was front and centre. No, she just stood there, distracted yet animated, and riveted to the floor. Still, even then, you could see the potential dripping off them as they ran through what would soon be radio hits such as Velvet Girl, Night Is Young and Setting Sun.
Fast forward a few weeks and Grant Thomas (ex-Crowded House manager), who was overseeing them at the time, was banging on my door at Hotpress magazine, where I was enconsed as the editor. He had an album for me. And I had to listen to it. Now!
So I did, with Thomas sitting beside me — two grown men, silently tapping our feet to the lush and luscious sounds that prevailed.
I remember being captivated by the first song, Bell Hit, in particular; this epic, free form narrative that built and built before suddenly collapsing in a wash of cymbals and guitar licks, courtesy of Joel Stein, influenced no doubt by Johnny Marr and the other seminal UK guitarists of the early 90s, where Howling Bells seem to have drawn much of their influences.
The self-titled debut album, which I heard an advance version of that day, was produced by Ken Norton, who had previously worked with Coldplay. Such is life when you’re stars in the making. It resonated with class and depth, possessed of a poignancy, both musically and lyrically, which immediately set it apart from anything else I’d heard.
Today, Howling Bells are not much bigger in Australia than they were when they first set off on their overseas sojourn. Europe and America is where it’s at, and it’s where they’ve been almost constantly since Norton pulled the last fader up on that sparkling debut.
I caught up with Juanita Stein as the band were preparing themselves, and the rest of the world, for the release of their second — as yet untitled — album.
You’re in LA recording. How will the mood of the second album differ from the first?
‘We wanted to experience something different this time. Ironically, it sounds more English I think than the first record, which was done in Liverpool. It’s a lot more upbeat, I think. However, it doesn’t really lose that haunting and introspective quality that made our debut album quite special. This record is being recorded with Dan-Greco Margaret. We decided to explore a different avenue this time, which for us meant experimenting with everything from instruments to studios, cities and, of course, producers. Ken was awesome and we loved working with him, we just wanted to try something new. Dan has worked with a lot of my favourite artists, along with Nigel Godridge, such as AIR, Radiohead, and Beck. It’s been a riveting experience thus far’.
It’s been a meteoric year for you all. And you’ve hardly dipped your toes into Australian waters. Are you a band of the world now, or still a group of four Aussies taking it to the world?
‘Um, I dunno man! I kinda feel like everything all at once. Aussies always, traveling the world, but based in the UK’.
What’s been the highlight of 2008 so far?
‘Getting to record our second album. Oh, and a group of us passionately singing along to ‘I’m so in Love With You’ (by Al Green) with a crazy fucking homeless guy in downtown LA. Utter joy! It’s the in-between moments, I tell you’.
Do you get a chance to check out the art scene much?
‘Recently I was in France and literally stopped in my tracks when I saw this poster outside a local art gallery for a French artist named Georges Briata. He’s amazing! Really colourful and inspiring. 60’s Jazz meets Art Deco. Alphonse Mucha is also a huge inspiration to me. I feel something really wonderful every time I look at his work’.
Finally, is there any truth to the rumours that your other brother [and Lost At E Minor contributor] Ari Stein will be joining the Howling Bells as the touring keyboardist? [wink wink]
‘He he! Actually, Ari just inspired a new song that Joel and I wrote this week, as yet to be titled, but it’s gonna be REAL special. I can feel it!’