The last time we heard from self-described “bohemian rock” outfit Howling Bells it was 2011’s The Loudest Engine. Yet in the three years between the subdued folk-inspired album, and the newly released hard rocker Heartstrings (their fourth), so much has changed for the U.K.-based quartet.
For one, the band took their longest hiatus to date to focus on personal matters and pursue other creative projects after working nonstop since forming in Sydney, Australia in 2004. For frontwoman Juanita Stein that meant starting a new family with the birth of a baby girl. Being a mother gave her the itch to create again. “I had started to build up this insurmountable creative frustration,” she says. So in between feedings and nap times, Stein would head to the secluded basement of her London home and write non-stop, every day, until she had what she believed would become the band’s best album yet, capitalizing on the doomy blues and psych rock comparisons to The Velvet Underground, Nick Cave and Mazzy Star. “I’m introverted and all my experiences get locked away. And then when I write they all come out at once.”
Once she had the material, Stein started rounding up the rest of the Bells— guitarist brother Joel Stein, drummer Glenn Moule and newly-acquired bassist Gary Daines—who likewise had ample inspiration from their time away and new experiences that was ready to be put on record.
“Every part of this record is informed by our maturity as people and as a band,” Stein says of the appropriately named Heartstrings that pulls more at the listeners’ attention in a way we haven’t seen from the band since 2009’s breakthrough Radio Wars, a poppier album that got them a gig supporting Coldplay on their European tour; over the years, they’ve had a long relationship with the Top 40 band, famously working with the mutual producer Ken Nelson who fit in work on Howling Bells’ debut while manning the boards for Coldplay’s X&Y. “The songs on Heartstrings are a culmination of all the experiences of the last decade, being on the road for years, turning away and starting families and then coming back to it. Lyrically it’s a very confident expression of where we are.”
As such, the album is an extremely unique interpretation, with every song ending and beginning feeling like a transition to a new emotion or scene in an intimate director’s cut. The soundtrack feel was done on purpose, Stein attests.
“We’re very influenced by film. It’s always been a dream of mine to write a score, and the closest I’ll ever get to expressing that might be through my band.” Two films in particular, the quirky 1984 drama “Paris Texas” and David Lynch’s signature “Blue Velvet,” were given to their production team to watch to have an understanding of the breadth Howling Bells was attempting to achieve in the studio where the band self-imposed a one-day rule to helm each song to completion. “I’m an impatient person by nature. I don’t like the idea of sitting around and mulling over a song for three days. Especially If what you’re going for is punchy and urgency.”
Even so, tracks like “Tornado” (written by the Steins’ father) don’t feel rushed but rather like the lonely sadness of a desolate Western shootout is unspooling before you. Other tracks like the title track or serenade “Your Love” cling to a more personal documentary narrative, the backdrop to a love scene or tragic break up. “A very fucked up one at that,” laughs Stein, underscoring just how much love is always there for the Howling Bells. Long breakup or not, we always keep coming back for more.