Firing All Cylinders
Having performed some of the biggest stadiums and arenas around the world alongside giants of music The Killers and Coldplay, Howling Bells have evolved from unassuming indie outfit to accomplished purveyors of rock. The band have returned to the studio to document this echelon transition, resulting in Killers-assisted production The Loudest Engine. Though originating in Australia, the outfit have since evolved into citizens of the world. Speaking while in transit in Berlin, guitarist Joel Stein lets us in on the creative bonds which led to the recording of the new album.
Having listened to The Loudest Engine, there’s this distinct sense of rawness and space. Does that come from a certain sense of freedom?
We just wanted to be a band, we didn’t want to be inhibited by production. We just wanted to get in and play, keeping everything as organic as possible. It was an unconscious effort, if you know what I mean. I guess the beauty of just walking into a studio and playing the music is that you don’t have to feel trapped by anything else taking over, or pushing your instrument or your sound somewhere else. There definitely was a lot more freedom than before.
You’ve toured extensively with The Killers, at what point did you guys line up [bassist] Mark for production duties on the new record?
We did a few tours with them, then we were in this crazy club in the middle of America or something, and that’s when we bonded over music. Mark’s taste in music was virtually the same as our band’s. We didn’t speak about production or anything, it was just a nice few drinks like you have with your mates, either talking about women or music. We happened to talk about music [laughs]. It was just really nice to hear someone speak exactly the same way you feel about John Coltrane, Miles Davis, all these artists that we love. That was a while before he produced the album. But when we were looking for producers, he just basically asked us if he could do it. We more than obliged. Sounds pretty simple I guess. It was nice how it happened.
What do you reckon he ended up bringing to the table?
He brought ideas, I guess. Really nice ideas. Sometimes with our band there are too many cooks in the kitchen. I guess with mark he restrained that, but not in a bad way. It was nice to have a set of ears that were outside the four people in the band, you know? He gave us clarity, and for me that was very important. You kind of feel like you’re spraying colours everywhere and you can’t see what’s going on, you kind of feel blinded in a way. It’s nice to have an outside voice saying, “Well no, this red doesn’t go with this green.”
What was your guitar arsenal looking like in the studio?
It’s hard to remember because I’m always changing. I was using an old Fender from the ‘70s with a Vox. Both were fairly old. Then I ended up using two Fenders and a Gibson – this old Gibson from the ‘70s which I can’t really put down. There’s like this glue at the back of the neck just stuck to my hands, I can’t get rid of it [laughs]. I just turned everything up really loud, played really loud. It was fun.
You’ve been in two diverse bands over the past decade, have you built up a similarly diverse guitar collection?
I don’t have that many guitars, actually. I built my own, I have a Strat, I have my Gibson – that’s all I really have. I guess if I had the choice I would pick up a really old Les Paul and a really old Strat, but they’re going for something like fifteen thousand dollars.
Doing shows alongside these massive acts in suitably massive venues, did you find it was ever difficult to adapt to that environment?
It’s funny because different bands adapt in different ways. It’s hard for me to say how we adapted, because I guess the four of us in Howling Bells just believe it doesn’t matter who you fucking are or what you do, it’s all about the songs. If you have a great song you can fill a hundred-thousand-seater stadium. I guess that’s the best way I can put it [laughs]. I guess if you have yourselves a good sound guy, they can help you adapt. I just think it’s about the song.
By Lachlan Kanoniuk
The Loudest Engine is out now through Shock Entertainment.