“There is a lot of stigma around rock bands who make something poppy…” - Deaf Havana talk new beginnings with new album Rituals
Deaf Havana are a band who have become accustomed to making big changes in their sound. They began in their native Norfolk as a post-hardcore fivesome, making music that owed much to Funeral For A Friend and Taking Back Sunday, powered by the dual vocals of James Veck-Gilodi and Ryan Mellor.
They toured hard, releasing a series of EPs and a debut album Meet Me Halfway, at Least. But, by the end of that touring cycle, it was time for their first big change. Mellor departing the band, leaving Veck-Gilodi to take over as sole vocalist.
Next album Fools And Worthless Liars saw the band take advantage of the fresh start and completely rework their sound, returning with an LP that owed more to Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young that did it to the screamo sounds of their early days.
The band built on this with the follow-up Old Souls, which debuted inside the Top 10 and built themselves a rock-solid fanbase. The tours got bigger and more ambitious, with the band at some points performing with a brass band and a gospel choir!
Deaf Havana's next LP, the rockier, more straightforward All These Countless Nights charted at Number Five and gave the band another boost and sold out shows all over the world. Now though, with new album Rituals, it’s time to start all over again.
Searching for inspiration, James Veck-Gilodi journeyed up to see Phil Gornell in Sheffield. Gornell has been the band's live sound engineer for some time, balancing stints with Deaf Havana with similar duties with All Time Low and 5 Seconds Of Summer. Together the pair set about finding some sparks to set Veck-Gilodi off on his way to write the new album. The strategy worked, so much so that Veck-Gilodi wound up staying for almost six months and writing and recording a whole new album.
Rituals is another sonic reinvention, the guitars are pushed to the background, with the focus instead on synths and programmed electronics, the songs are built and constructed, written more in the way a pop producer would work rather than the traditional guitar, bass and drums.
As the album comes to shelves (you purchase it on the right-hand side of the page), we spoke to Veck-Gilodi about this big sonic shift and why he’s not sure the band has much more road to travel...
It’s fair to say the making of this album has been very different from any album you’ve made before, was that a planned move?
“No, it was definitely not planned. I had no idea that we’d make an album this quickly and certainly not this way. I was trying to write stuff in the normal way on acoustic guitar and nothing would come out, it was more trying to open myself up.”
When did you realise that you had an album in the offing?
“Not until we’d almost finished recording. We recorded all these songs and I was so in the groove. I was speaking to the rest of the band and friends and they’d say to me ‘Are these songs good?’ and I couldn’t tell them, I was so close to it. I didn’t realise we had a record until a week after we finished and I listened to the songs again and I realised we had everything we needed.”
Can you talk us through your relationship with Phil Gornell? Did he have a big impact on the record?
“We’ve been friends for years. He does our front of house sound. We’d like to have him full-time, but he works for 5 Seconds Of Summer and other big things who pay him a lot more than we do. We were on tour in November, I told him I was struggling and he’s got this little studio up in Sheffield. He said to just come up and record some demos, no pressure or anything. I ended up staying for three months.”
Did you ever think about taking the songs to someone else?
“I didn’t. We’d be trying to think of other producers we wanted to work with and I couldn’t think of any. Phil was the last person I’d have thought of, there was no dynamic that’s typical of producer and songwriter, it just felt like messing around, until it didn’t.”
When did you tell the rest of the band that you’d accidentally made a new album?
“I’d done about three songs and I told them that I wanted to do the record with Phil, just because it was coming so easily. They hadn’t heard half of the record until after we finished recording it, we had to get everyone to come back up and do their parts and they didn’t know what it sounded like. That was interesting.”
Did you get any resistance from the others?
“Kind of. The songs are very different. It wasn't resistance, it was more them asking me if this was a phase, something I’d do for fun and not something for Deaf Havana. Then I asked them to listen to the songs and they fell in love with them. I sent ‘Holy’ around, which is pretty poppy and I remember my brother (Guitarist Matt Veck-Gilodi) replied and said ‘We can’t use this. It’s way too poppy.’ I told him to give it two weeks and if he felt the same, we wouldn’t use it. He did it and he admitted I was right. I think it’s still got the same miserable lyrics and I feel like I’ve always written in a pop song structure. These songs just have different instruments.”
Had you talked with the rest of the band about what you might do next?
“We had absolutely no idea. I had a couple of budget rock songs, they were proper poor man’s Weezer and that was it. I had got the sense that people might listen to the new record and think I’ve contrived this sound, gone after something. It was the complete opposite, I had no idea I wanted all these synths. Maybe that’s what happens when you go in with no idea. So many of the songs started out as jokes, pushing it as far as we could go, being ridiculous, but we ended up getting attached to them.”
Is this record more reflective of what you listen to day to day?
“It’s not just me, it’s the other guys in the band too. When we’re on tour no one ever puts rock music on, certainly nothing that sounds like our old stuff. It’s upbeat pop and hip-hop. I don’t know if that’s why we’ve done this though.”
Are the mechanics of making an album like this completely different?
“Absolutely. Previously I’d write the chords on my acoustic guitar, put down a voice note for a melody and we’d translate it to instruments. This time we would find a weird sound we liked for the intro or come up with a drum loop. There’s a song on this album that has one guitar on it, it’s barely there, it’s all vocals and synth pads. We spent a lot of time challenging ourselves. Working this way was completely alien to me, but it works.”
Is it much more like making a collage?
“It is. I was totally out of my comfort zone. I was doing some programming, Phil was teaching as I went along. I learnt so much and it’s more technical. I know how to make a guitar sound good, I’ve been playing the guitar for 10 years, but manipulating synths and frequencies is so different. It was music tech 101 for me.”
Were you thinking about how you’d recreate these songs in the live arena as you recorded?
“A bit. It was at the back of my mind. I knew we’d need drum triggers and I’d have to play keyboards. We already have a keyboard player so he can multitask, but it’ll still be a challenge to do. I just liked the songs so much I forgot about that aspect.”
What kind of album is it lyrically? You said it’s miserable, is it miserable about anything in particular?
“This one is semi-fictional. It’s basically my years of touring, all the horrible stuff I’ve done, every time I was an a***hole, just elevated. When Charles Bukowski writes, he talks about a lot of stuff that didn’t happen to him, but he bases it on his own life. It seems like an anecdote. I’m doing the same, making myself seem like more of a***hole than I actually was. That’s new for me, I’m used to being completely literal.”
All the song titles are one word and themed around religion, ‘Sinner’, ‘Hell’, ‘Saviour’, it almost comes as a concept record...
“I don’t know why I did that. Everything about this record is backwards, I came up with the song titles first, I needed something to aim for first. We were coming up with melodies first, which I never do, it’s lyrics first then melody. I needed a goal.”
When did you decide on Rituals for the title?
“‘Ritual’ was the first song I wrote. It’s a good one, it can mean boring things, the same thing over and over, but it also has a real dark connotation. It can make you feel better when you’re away from home, or it can mean horrible things, drugs, alcohol, women. I think it fits, it’s all these horrible things I’ve done in the past.”
Do you kick lyrics around with the rest of the band?
“Less so with this one. They always say if they hate something. I’m quite different from the others, if I’m into something, it’s all I can focus on. The other guys have lives, Tom (Ogden, drummer) has kids, a couple of the others work as well, they can’t be up there all the time. I make the main decisions, but I want everyone to be happy.”
How’s your live set coming together? Are the new songs going to sit well alongside the old song?
“I don’t know yet. I’m not sure how to come up with a setlist, keeping everybody happy, without playing for two hours and no one wants to see that. Maybe some of the older songs won’t get played for a while. It all depends on the reaction to the new record, if people like it, we’ll put it more of those, if they don’t, we’ll have to balance it out.”
What’s the reaction been like so far?
“I was terrified of releasing ‘Sinner’ and I think I’ve only seen five bad comments and hundreds of good ones. People are much more open to change than I thought they were! That’s me taking our fans for granted and assuming they’d been stuck in their ways, it’s not been that at all, they’ve been great.”
It’s not your first big change of sound…
“Every record has been different, but there is a lot of stigma around rock bands who make something poppy. Abandoning your roots. My roots are miserable lyrics and pop structures, I’ve not abandoned anything.”
Were there any other bands you looked to for inspiration about making things poppier?
“Not really. It was so unusual and not what I thought it was going to be. I didn’t go looking for anything. There’s a band I really like called NOW, NOW, they’ve gone from being grungey to very poppy. Some of the stuff is quite similar to our record, I really respect what they’re doing. But there’s no one I’ve ripped off.”
Having done this sound now, do you think you might fancy something different? Back to your screamo roots?
“I’ve got no idea. We’re getting older, if this record doesn’t work, then I’m not sure how much longer this can go on for. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We’ll definitely change up the sound, if only for my own sanity, I get bored very quickly. But it won’t be screamo, I don’t know how to scream anymore…”