Foundations: Howling Bells

Juanita Stein reveals five influential albums…

Howling Bells are back, and it’s a pleasure to have them. The Australia-formed, London-based foursome’s new album, ‘Heartstrings’, marks the dark rockers’ return after a three-year gap between LPs. In that time, there have been changes: a bassist has been replaced, the band has moved to a new label, and vocalist Juanita Stein has become a mother.

It’s to Stein that Clash turns for some Foundations selections: five albums that have influenced the way that she walks, talks and breathes music in the here and now. ‘Heartstrings’ marks a high in its makers’ catalogue to date – a set recorded in less than two weeks, it sparks brightly with concentrated energy. So what comprises the catalysts behind it? Over to Stein.

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Howling Bells, ‘Your Love’, from ‘Heartstrings’

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Stevie Wonder – ‘Innervisions’ (1973)

“We grew up in a smallish house in Sydney, and my dad, who was a musician, built himself this attic, this cave full of his old music, and stacks of vinyl. Whenever I could I’d crawl up there and trawl through his collection, and the cover of ‘Innervisions’ just got me. It’s the most miraculous cover. I didn’t know what psychedelia was then, because I guess I was eight, but I put the record on and just went to town on it.

“This album is a mainstay in my life – the songs have revealed more about themselves as I’ve got older, and I’ve realised a lot more sympathy for the struggles and challenges that are articulated in them. I learned a lot about him as an artist, and am deeply in awe of how politically motivated he was but without ever letting that overpower his lyrics and his music. The bridges, the choruses… to this day I can hear ‘Golden Lady’ and it just makes me cry, it’s incredible. He’s untouchable, really, when you consider the adversities he’s overcome.

“He was really productive at the time, and I think that ‘Heartstrings’ is really a response to us not being like that, not being so productive for a while. We wanted it to be urgent.”

Stevie Wonder, ‘Golden Lady’

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Nirvana – ‘In Utero’ (1993)

“I was playing guitar by the time I heard this, and Nirvana definitely greatly affected my songwriting. Literally, they affected the shape of my songs, as to me these songs are very jagged, and very left, I feel that everything I do does eventually turn that way too. It’s a weird analogy but it sort of makes sense in my head. They had an energy, and these ingenious melodies. They’re timeless, really.

“I never got to see them, which is a crying shame. I feel like if I were to see them somehow today, it wouldn’t connect in the same way as they did with me back then. It was so f*cking profound, and insanely incredible. Maybe it’s best left as this mirage in the desert of indie rock.

“I think if they were together today, they’d sound like the Foo Fighters now. I mean, there’s only so long that you can encapsulate so much rage. It’s a 20s thing, and very relevant to age. When you grow out of that, which is inevitable, then you do become a little compromised. You settle down. But compromise means peace for a lot of people – it’s exhausting to fight for your entire life. We’ve been a band for 10 years, and we’ve had our share of metaphorical fist fights along the way.”

Nirvana, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’

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Portishead – ‘Dummy’ (1994)

“This is a very British album, but I think nowadays it can be very difficult to decipher which bands are from which places. Like, take Australian music. I wouldn’t immediately know that Tame Impala were Australian from just listening to them. They could be a psychedelic grunge band from anywhere in America. But definitely in the 1980s, and the ’90s, this was different. From Australia you had Midnight Oil and The Go-Betweens and The Birthday Party, and these were specific to Australia. They sounded like the landscape. They were special.

“It’s a different age now. If you’re starting a band in Sydney, you have access to whatever you want, and you’ve probably seen 100 bands already. You’ve probably travelled. There are no limitations. You have access to anything you want, through the internet. That’s changed the musical landscape.

“But I have a very specific memory of when I first heard Portishead. I was in Prague, on this epic family holiday that we went on with my grandma, who was going back to Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, for the first time since she escaped during the Second World War, when she was 14. It was pretty emotional. I was in someone’s house and turned on MTV, and my brother Joel (Stein, Howling Bells guitarist) and I were sat there and ‘Glory Box’ came on. And it was literally like nothing else we’d heard before. All these feelings that I try to access in anything I do, that band captured them. I guess that day we started a band. I think hearing that pushed the two of us into starting a band. This dark, gloomy, exciting, beautiful music, it had such an effect on us.

“We moved to Britain, initially, to become immersed in the culture. It’s that simple. Bands like Portishead, they’re what we grew up on. There’s something even about the climate here… it’s always overcast, and that’s rooted in the psyche.”

Portishead, ‘Glory Box’

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Björk – ‘Debut’ (1993)

“Again, I remember when this first made its impression. I saw the video to ‘Human Behaviour’, and it was just a delight. She was cute and charming and everything all at once, and somehow very cliquey too. ‘Debut’ definitely changed my musical landscapes.

“This is a very fearless album. You feel that she’s having a go, even regardless of consequences. Which is what we were doing on our second album (‘Radio Wars’, 2009), after feeling a little boxed in after the first. We wanted to feel that fearlessness. Björk kind of warbles on a bit now – I’m a lot less interested in her more recent material. But those earlier albums, they really did something mind blowing.

“I look back at our own debut (‘Howling Bells’, 2006) very fondly, though. A lot of things were happening – we’d just moved to England when the record was fresh, and we were working with some great people. We were a bunch of starry eyed kids, walking into a studio and seeing Coldplay recording there, too. Although they weren’t quite so big then. I was a big fan of ‘A Rush Of Blood To The Head’.

“So that whole first album period was brilliant, even though I don’t think we really knew what sort of band we were, or that we were going to be. I feel that the years after that marked the journey of us chasing our tails a bit – but now with the new one, we’ve caught up with ourselves, and it feels great. I’ve had a long time to think about all of these experiences, and I’m in a place where I’m grateful for what’s been, but I’m very sure about what makes our band special. We’re presenting exactly who we are on the new album. I don’t think anyone’s expecting us to shoot off to playing arenas on it – but it’d be cool with connect to an audience in a new way. We supported Elbow a couple of years ago, and it was great to play to these new people.”

Björk, ‘Human Behaviour’

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The Jimi Hendrix Experience – ‘Electric Ladyland’ (1968)

“Again, this is one from my dad’s record collection. I bought a compilation called ‘Cornerstones’, too. For me, listening to Hendrix is the ocean. I didn’t strive to play like him – I think Joel did. But I think Hendrix is misunderstood as an artist. On the surface he’s this fun, ’60s, ‘Foxy Lady’ guy. But he’s deeply… I don’t know what the word is. He’s beautiful, and serene. I feel that comes through in his music. He was notoriously shy, not that you’d know it.

“Hendrix doesn’t sound like Australia to anyone but me, I’m sure, but hearing him reminds me of the ocean, of growing up by the sea. Of sitting by the cliffs, by myself. This was my youth, my teenage years. Whenever I hear this, wherever I am, it sits me down and grounds me. It makes everything okay.

“I think Hendrix quashed a lot of stereotypes – not just musically, but in terms of society, because he wasn’t just playing Muddy Waters. He invented something. He didn’t seem to know what it was, all the time, but everyone was getting a feeling for it. I love how Eric Clapton was so intimidated by Hendrix – that’s such a great story.

“He had too much energy to contain, though. He just combusted. When I was younger, loving both Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, they both seemed so old to me. Like, Kurt could have been 100. Jimi is ageless. But when I passed 27, it struck me how much they’d created to that point in their own lives. I can’t fathom how Jimi Hendrix managed to create this body of work at such a young age.

“I often think about what these artists would be doing now. It’s sort of disheartening to see Bob Dylan continue to play awkward versions of those songs. They’ll always have their time and place – but that can’t be recreated. The body of work becomes bigger than the artist, and when that happens you can’t expect any one person to carry it. It must be exhausting. You’re carrying countries on your back. Better that it remains this star in the sky.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Crosstown Traffic’

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As told to Mike Diver
Photo: Erik Weiss

‘Heartstrings’ is out now on Birthday Records. Find Howling Bells online here

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