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Interview: Howling Bells

We talked to Juanita Stein from the Australian indie-rockers

14 May 2009

Interview: Howling Bells

With Howling Bells set to open for Coldplay at all the North American shows from May 15th to June 21st, we called up the indie-rockers’ frontwoman Juanita Stein for a natter.

Hello Juanita, how are you?
I’m good, thanks. I’m in New York. I got here a few days early to catch up with some friends and hang out in New York for a bit, before meeting up with the guys in Florida.

Have you had fun in New York?
Yeah, it’s been great. We had a really good morning yesterday, where we grabbed a coffee and then walked through Central Park for a couple of hours. They happened to be filming Philip Seymour Hoffman’s new film on the lake. It was really cool.

Are you excited about the Coldplay tour?
Hell yeah! It’s a phenomenal opportunity for us. I think it’s gonna be wild to play to that many people every night. And also from an artistic perspective, just to watch a band of that stature and see how the logistics of a show that huge go down every night.

Have you played many support tours like this?
Yeah, we’ve done a few. Essentially you are warming up the crowd and in a positive light you can see that they’re not going to be as gracious and overwhelmingly communicative as they would be with the main band. Or, in a more negative light, you can see that the punters have been saving up for a lifetime to go and see their favourite band and to some of them you’re just an obstacle in the way of seeing them! So you keep level-headed and just try to connect with the audience as much as you can.

But you can have a good support slot show?
Oh, absolutely. It can also depend on the band. Every band attracts a certain nature of fan. There have been some big supports we’ve done where the fans have been really, really disrespectful – not just to us, but to any support band. And then you get bands whose fans are lovers of music and they’re open-minded – and I suspect Coldplay fans will be more like that.

So, for those Coldplay fans who haven’t heard of Howling Bells, can you tell us a bit about your band?
Sure, we’re originally from Sydney, Australia and we moved to London about five years ago. It was a really big risk for us, because we didn’t know anyone and we didn’t have a record deal or an agent or anything. But we’d all grown up in very musical households listening to a healthy diet of British pop and we thought we should head to the source of all great pop music. And we’re still there.

Which British bands were you particularly inspired by?
Our folks were into the Stones and the Beatles and the La’s and all the classics. And then we discovered our own bands, like the Smiths, the Stone Roses and Pulp. There’s just something in the UK waters that I don’t pick up anywhere else, and that’s what really attracted us.

You made your first album with Ken Nelson, who produced the first three Coldplay albums.
Right. I feel like we’re destined to be connected with Coldplay somehow! We heard Rush Of Blood To The Head and that’s exactly what made us want to work with Ken so much. I thought it was such an astoundingly warm and beautiful record. Sonically it was magnificent and the songs were beautiful and it was really powerful and lush. So we were like, “Why don’t we make a record that sounds like that!”

So you got in touch with him?
Yeah, we sent him a whole lot of our demos and he got back to us really quickly saying that he loved the demos and would love to try and work with us. So that was a big deciding factor in us moving over to London, even though we didn’t know when we’d be able to work with him, because he was still working on X&Y. We hung around for eight or nine months and got really shitty jobs in London pubs and then eventually went to Liverpool and recorded our first record.

Did you make it at Parr Street studios?
Yes. Coldplay’s equipment was still in the studio when we first walked in. We were like, “Oh my God!”

So, it’s fair to say that you’re fans of Coldplay?
Of course. There’s just such an overwhelming, sonically lush, pop energy about their music. I did an interview with a college magazine the other day and they asked why I think Coldplay are so big. And I instinctively felt that it’s because they have the ability, especially with Chris as the frontman, to connect with the greater public. Millions of people can find some truth in what he has to say. And there’s not many artists that can achieve that.

How did you come to be on this tour?
Y’know, that’s a good question. I don’t actually know! But when we were told there was a chance of us doing it, we didn’t ask any questions, we just said, “Make it happen”! So other than jumping up and down and shouting, “Yes!” I don’t actually know how it came about. I hope it’s because they like us. I’ve never met the band, but I remember Ken talking to our guitarist, Joel, and telling him how Chris Martin had heard a song of ours called Setting Sun and had mentioned how much he really liked it. So, hopefully they’re fans!

Have you ever seen them play?
Not a full show, but I did go to the War Child show they did with the Killers recently. That was a very exciting evening.

You’re doing 24 dates with the band. Are you guys used to tours of that size?
No, that’s a huge tour for us. It’s really good timing, though, because we’ve just signed a US deal, so our second record, Radio Wars, is getting an American release over the next couple of weeks. So, if there are any fans that want to buy our music, they’ll be able to.

Tell us about the new album.
Well, it was recorded in Los Angeles last January with Dan Grech who is the assistant producer with Nigel Godrich, who we’re all fans of. We thought it’d be a great leap to work with somebody who worked on a few more electronic-sounding records. I think we’ve made a much more colourful album this time. And whereas the first one was pretty much written by me in my bedroom back in Australia, this one was written by all four of us all around the world.

It seems to have gone down very well with critics.
Yeah, it’s had a great reaction. And a very different reaction too, which is always delightful for a band, because you don’t want to be stuck in the same boat for every album.

Will you be on a tourbus for the whole tour with Coldplay?
Yes. Tourbuses can be fun, but sometimes you do wish you could stop for a few hours and sleep in a proper bed. But I cannot complain at all. Apart from the fact I’m doing what I love, it’s like a giant road trip with a bunch of friends really.

You’re going to some quite little-known places. Will you get to look around?
Yeah, I hope so. We did one tour of the States before, with the Killers. When you follow these huge bands around doing arenas, you actually get a little bit of time to yourselves. I always, always make the effort to get off the bus and just walk around the town, nomatter how deserted or isolated it is. There’s a few places on this tour I’ve never even heard of. I can’t wait to see them.

You’re going to Hershey, home of the chocolate.
Yeah, the first thing I thought about was how good the rider will be at that one! In fact, maybe the whole dressing room will be made of chocolate…

When you’re supporting a big band, do you tend to watch them every night?
Actually, most nights you do. Even though it’s the same band, on the same stage, with the same setlist, every single night is different and every audience reacts differently. And you begin to learn the really personal quirks of every band member. In a sense, it’s like getting to watch a great invention at work every night.

Finally, what’s your favourite Coldplay song?
I was thinking about this last night, because I had a feeling you’d ask. And I’ve decided on Politik. That was the song that made me want to go and steal their producer and make a record that had some kind of similar essence about it. I think sonically and lyrically it’s just a stunning song.

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