Howling Bells Interview

The Aussie rockers talk internet habits...

With their second album ‘Radio Wars’ out this week on Independiente – read our review HERE – Howling Bells have been doing the promo rounds, chattering to those of us brandishing Dictaphones and crumpled pieces of paper marked with testing questions.

Thankfully, the Australian four-piece also found time for complete amateurs, whose only line of questioning revolved around the group’s relationship with the internet – the thing you’re looking at right now. So, here we have the first in a new series, of sorts: Net Nattering. Or Web Words. Or URL Place Or Mine. Or… basically, it’s some Q&A about Google and stuff. But up there it just says ‘interview’. We’re so non-committal.

But URL Place Or Mine… pretty good, eh?

(NB: For ease, while all four members of Howling Bells were present, all answers are treated as a group effort.)

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Howling Bells – ‘Cities Burning Down’

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Okay, so straight in at the deep end – do you ever find yourselves Googling yourselves?

Yep! Well, some of us have done it, but not for a long time. It’s the only way, really, you can see how people perceive you, as you don’t want to go out an ask: Hey, what do you think of me? That approach might work, with maybe one out of ten people. But it’d be odd.

Do you like to be kept abreast of what’s being written about you then?

It can be dangerous, and you can’t make a habit of it. The whole ethos, though, that you’re only as good as your last gig is one of the worst things for any artist to believe, because it’s just not true. Because you’re only as big as the hype surrounding you at the time – like, later this year there will be nothing written about us because we’ll have moved on, and somebody else would have come up. And then someone else, and then someone else…

I guess you’re seasoned enough to recognise the cycles the industry moves in…

Oh, no. You can’t ever get seasoned to that. It can be like quicksand, man. When you reach that point, you quit.

How do you guys keep yourselves outside of the business mechanics… How do you keep sane?

Well, you allow yourself to read some reviews, in order to have feedback about what you’re doing. But we’re never going to go searching for the inane crap, for the people who write about what Juanita was wearing at this show, or whatever. We Google for music blogs a lot, rather than music websites, as they’re a lot… fiercer. They’re the real honest kids – these aren’t journalists who’ve been writing for 30 years, who have other concerns. Blogs are interesting, and have good shit to say.

And is it via these blogs you’re hearing, or downloading, motivating new music?

Yeah, there’s a lot of new music out there. And MySpace is still good – you can see influences, and then click to their ‘friends’ and suddenly you find all this great music. Surfing the web, man…

I see you’ve got all your social groups – MySpace, Facebook and so on. Do you update these yourselves?

These things make it easier for everyone to access their favourite bands, and if you don’t have them, you’re a step behind. They’re sort of the industry standard, and since day one we’ve been working on our own sites, and reading every e-mail that comes in. On tour it’s a lot harder. It’s so much work, but you have to give a fuck. You can respond to people, which is what you couldn’t do with old-fashioned fan mail. Now you have more contact – sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s bad, but it’s certainly… different. You do get used to the content after a while though – instantly you can tell if they like the band, if they’re full of shit or have ulterior motives. You can tell, all the time. There are a lot of genuine fans out there who access you via MySpace.

The distribution model has changed a lot, too. Do you guys download a lot of music, rather than pick up physical releases?

Yeah, we do.

You don’t feel that downloading fractures the ‘art’ of the album, when someone can take three tracks rather than a full LP?

The idea that downloads are universally cheaper doesn’t exactly ring true, as the stores have to compete. You can buy new albums for £5.99…

But nobody cares, do they? It’s strange that the same hasn’t happened to films – to go to the cinema can still cost more than ten pounds. Maybe they’ve learned from music. It looks like they’re in a healthier state than we are, than music is. Like, you want to go to the cinema to see a film; you don’t want to watch it on your laptop. You want that experience, the smell of the popcorn…

I don’t think people get together to listen to albums anymore.

That’s true. It’s all sharing between faceless internet friends.

Are you not bothered if people only download three songs from ‘Radio Wars’?

Obviously it’d be ideal if people bought the album – it’s a complete piece of work and it is something of a journey. But then again, if you’re just going to listen to a song then that’s cool, but it’s not the whole story. It’d be like watching select scenes from a film – like, I want scenes three and eight, but I don’t want the rest. And nobody does that – you buy the whole film.

There’s a lot to be said for context in an album, like one track can sound perfect on an LP, but not work so well as a standalone piece…

Oh yeah, that’s true. It is an art that is becoming a bit dead, listening to a whole record.

I don’t know if the need to fill CD space almost detracted from the listening experience – some records are too long. How long is ‘Radio Wars’?

The album? It’s about 42 minutes.

There you go, perfect. That’s one side of a C90.

Yeah. We do actually put a lot of thought into the duration of our records, because we have short attention spans. We wrote a lot of songs, but we wanted to produce a concise, condensed story.

You want it to be absorbed in a sitting, too…

It’s like going to see a band – after an hour your head can start to hurt.

(Here, we talk about Bruce Springsteen for five minutes, before bringing the topic of conversation around to bands that blow up on their debut album, and how Howling Bells’ self-titled made an impact without becoming a defining statement release.)

You guys did well with your first album – it made its mark, and provides firm foundations from which to build with this new one…

We wouldn’t change the way the first record worked for anything in the world. When you see the bands that do blow up fast, they can just fizzle out, because that level can’t be maintained. The brighter the flame, the shorter it burns.

When you stopped working the first record, was there concern over how long the gap between albums should be?

The right amount of time is what fate dictates, and it’s out of our control. It’s not an organised occupation by any means – whatever happens, happens! If we had it our way we’d have released ‘Radio Wars’ sooner; but having said that, who knows if it’d have had what it has in it now?

The first album seemed to build and build…

Audience wise we went from two people to two hundred, and then more, and our profile rose through touring, touring and touring. It happened very traditionally, and we worked hard. That’s almost against the grain these days. We wanted the instantaneous, but it didn’t happen that way, so we went through a lot to get things done. I think if we’d stopped touring at any point, this would have all fallen apart. I think touring kept us together. It kept us going. But you get to the end of a tour, look in a mirror and you’ve faded – you look like a vampire. That’s the time to take a break.

So are you hitting the road hard for this album?

Well, for the first album we bought the truck off the back of touring, so we were holding ourselves up. Our old label, Bella Union, was helping, but they could only do so much. They did everything they could, and you can’t ask for what’s not there.

(And here we end up talking about Fierce Panda, until this writer suddenly realises there’s only a few more seconds left on the ‘tape’, and just like that: ping, done.)

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Howling Bells – ‘Low Happening’

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‘Radio Wars’ is out now. Find Howling Bells on MySpace HERE.

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