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.

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