21 September 2011
"Recently I put my iPod on shuffle, and it decided that it would find three Waikiki songs within twenty minutes. My initial thought was ‘this is kinda better than I thought it was.’ At the time, I was so hard on myself, thinking ‘this isn’t good enough,’ and I listened to it and thought, ‘this is pretty good.’”
Juanita Stein seems to always have been tough on herself. Perhaps it’s a result of growing up in a creative household - her mother is an actress, her father a musician. Or perhaps it is born of a ceaseless need to react against type. Regardless, this perfectionist streak has driven some of her most thrilling and well-received music, as well as the numerous left-turns that have punctuated her career so far. Seated in TMN’s office discussing her third Howling Bells album, the dark, ethereal The Loudest Engine, Stein admits that kicking against outside forces drove the band’s sound back to the sinewy shoegaze of their debut album, which they initially left behind for similar reasons.
“It’s never really intentional, it’s just the ebbs and flows of making music and being in a band,” Stein explains of the band’s many stylistic shifts. “The first album is always a long, long leadup; it’s just years and years of writing and you are not conscious of what you are writing. I think what happens is you become aware of what you are because of the press; they bottle it really well. They put you in this category, saying ‘this is what we think you are.’ We have a tendency to wanna react against something, so we say ‘no, we can also do light instead of dark, and we can do less shoegaze things’, and we just reacted and went for something completely different. Then [Radio Wars] came out and the press said we were really, really bright and we were like ‘fuck you, we wanna go back to being dark and groovy.’”
The album was recorded with The Killers’ Mark Stoermer in Las Vegas. The bands toured together a few times, and despite The Killers’ glitter- spun Orbison-meets-Springsteen sound sitting a million miles from that of Howling Bells, Stein and Stoermer soon discovered they shared “the exact same taste in music... You don’t have to play the same music to love the same music.”
Taking influence from Syd Barrett and various Krautrock bands - “Joel [Stein, Juanita’s brother and Howling Bells’ guitarist] moved to Berlin,” she offers by way of explanation – the band tracked the album in Vegas, and absorbed some of the culture that exists away from the famous strip. “There’s this entire spooky, suburban life that goes on,” Stein almost whispers. “We really enjoyed that.” This feel is carried over onto the striking cover art, a shot taken upon completion of the album by a friend of Stoermer’s.
“Heather Hyte, she was just a really cool chick we hung out with a lot, and at the end of the session we asked her to come out to the desert with us and take a whole lot of photos,” Stein explains. “Luckily for us she was really good at post-production and washed everything out and embellished the psychedelic vibe that we were going for.”
With this interview taking place prior to the record’s release, Stein is expecting their stylistic shift to again be highlighted by the media. However a few Mazzy Star comparisons (“They were embedded in my childhood,” she offers) are nothing compared to the pressure she felt when breaking up successful band Waikiki one album into their career.
“It literally was a situation where I found myself on stage singing all these songs and just felt like it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. It just wasn’t. We all have those lightbulb moments at some point, you’re working a dead-end job, or you’re in a relationship and you’re not very happy and you wake up one day and go ‘this is not where I want to be’ and that’s what happened. So I did everything in my power to change that.
“Like everything in life, it’s really comfortable to stay put, you don’t have the courage to change,” she continues. “It was really important to me to change, I wanted to break out of the comfort zone, which was a big reason why I moved to London, because I really wanted to break out of the comfort zone.” This move to London could have sunk a lesser artist, but Stein was determined to throw herself in the deep end.
“For the first two years I hated it,” she admits. “It’s just challenging, it’s not easy to live there and it’s not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. It’s a little brutal. If you are not good, people will let you know. You can be under the illusion that you are a good band for a while in Australia, but in London they will just annihilate you. It’s extremely artistically driven as a culture, which is why I wanted to get there and immerse myself, because it’s something that I really missed. Because it’s a serious job over there, if you are a musician they take it really seriously. That’s the biggest difference; there’s more weight to it”
Although she remains relentlessly driven, she is aware of the limitations of constantly trying to avoid being categorised. “I get really intent on bettering myself and I don’t know if this is true, but I feel part of bettering yourself is proving you can do something else. That shouldn’t be the case. If you do something, you should do it well. But you can’t be everything. I love Radiohead, but I can’t write songs like that. I fucking love Jay-Z, but I can’t do a hip hop album.”
The Loudest Engine is out now (SHOCK)
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