With last year’s ‘All These Countless Nights’, Deaf Havana finally became the band they wanted to be. They found peace in their struggles, sounded comfortable in who they were and laid their demons to rest. The band had been through a lot, and you could tell.
Their debut album saw them as a screaming, hardcore mob until their then lead singer left. ‘Fools and Worthless Liars’, their first with James Veck-Gilodi upfront, was a fizzying mix of frustrated storytelling and brit-rock enthusiasm, while ‘Old Souls’ had more in common with Bruce Springsteen than Lower Than Atlantis or You Me At Six.
After triumphing on the Main Stage of Reading & Leeds in 2014, they disappeared. In the silence, they almost broke up. Two years later and the roar of ‘All These Countless Nights’ saved them.
What happened next, “was just the best year we’ve ever had as a band,” beams James. “It was just incredible. We toured more than we’ve ever had.”
“But they were worthwhile tours,” adds Matt. “Everything we did came off well. We wanted it a bit more, as well.”
Their new album ‘Rituals’ isn’t about safety, though. It’s not the next step. It’s not a bit more. ‘Rituals’ is something entirely different.
When the band came home from tour last November, James knew he had to write an album. “All I had were two demos which were not good,” he says, and the feeling that “there’s no way I’m going to be able to it. I wrote thirty songs over four years for the last album. It was four years of experiences.”
Phil Gornell, the band’s front of house technician, invited James up to his studio for three days to do some demos and see if that sparked anything.
“I ended up staying for three months,” says James. The pair sat in front of a computer and learnt to build songs that way. “It was so bizarre. It was totally different from how we’ve ever made an album before. I wouldn’t recommend writing a record that way, but it sorta worked out I guess,” he ventures, uncertain for just a moment.
Matt doesn’t waver. “Everyone says this when they have an album out, but it is the best thing we’ve done. Yeah, it is slightly more poppy, but it’s also the most creative thing we’ve done.”
“We took a lot of influence from hearing stuff, then asking how it was made and trying to recreate that sound, as a challenge to ourselves more than anything,” explains James. “It’s something we’ve never done before. We’ve always just been a two-bit rock band. The demos I was writing before sounded like shit Weezer b-sides.”
And that just wasn’t exciting enough. Not content with simple steps, ‘Rituals’ is a giant leap in an odd, unexplored angle for ‘Deaf Havana’. They’ve never had A Sound, but they’ve always stuck to their guitar-led lane. From the opening choral welcome of ‘Wake’ that quickly falls into the stomping jubilance of ‘Sinner’, through the shapeshifting shuffle of ‘Hell’ and the driving horizon swing of ‘Saviour’ until ‘Saint’, the record sees the band full of daring and direction.
“If something started sounding a bit bizarre and made us ask, ‘Is this a bit too far?’, instead of saying ‘Let’s not do it’ we decided if we’re going to do it, we have to go for it,” starts Matt. “And go for it wholeheartedly. You can hear that we haven’t given it any half measures. We’ve thrown ourselves completely into it. It might sound different to what people might expect from us, but really, it’s a better record as a result,” he promises.
Deaf Havana never once get defensive about ‘Rituals’, their shiny new direction or just how different things sound. It’s another rock band gone pop, but it isn’t cynical or calculated. The band have once again stumbled forward, but there’s a commitment to the change. A confidence in the charge.
“If we didn’t fully back this record, we’d feel a lot more worried,” starts James. “If we sat down and said, right, we need to make a pop album, then we would be defensive about it because it would be fake but this, so weirdly, just naturally ending up sounding this way. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just happened.”
For any other band would sound unbelievable; ‘Rituals’ is so deliberate, so sure of itself. But Deaf Havana have been turning accident to triumph for their whole careers now.
“We don’t need people liking it to validate us thinking they’re good songs. We’ve already got that feeling. If our fans like it, which I think they will and I hope they will, that’s the bonus. Also, who are we to act that way? If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. ‘This is what we’re doing so fuck everyone else?’ Nah. It’s arrogant to be so defensive. I fully understand people might not like it. If they do, brilliant. If they don’t, well, I like it.”
Deaf Havana finally got a win on ‘All These Countless Nights’ after years of being a bit unlucky, a bit glum. All the pieces fell into place, so it makes the risk of Going Pop even greater.
“At this stage in our career, it’s what we needed to do,” starts Matt. Not for the business of the band, but for the mates who are Deaf Havana. “We could have very easily come out with another record that was just slightly different but much more in keeping with what we’ve done before.”
“It still would have been good,” continues James. “But it would have been a follow-on to ‘All These Countless Nights’. That wouldn’t have been shit, but for me, it would have felt the same. I needed a risk. It either needs to go up or down. I need a radical decision to be made because I can’t keep plateauing and playing average emo music. I need something to happen.”
It’s why the band were so open to doing something different.
“It’s important to take those risks, otherwise why are we doing it?” questions Matt, before James reflects with a grin: “I remember when I sent you ‘Hope’ and you said, we can’t use that. You said give it to someone else.”
“At the start, I didn’t get it,” admits Matt.
He wasn’t the only one. The first song finished for the record was ‘Sinner’, so James sent it to their manager. The reply was that this wasn’t going to work. Two days later though, and he’d come around. It was the same for Matt.
“And that’s the thing; it might take a bit more work for some people.”
That initial doubt led to James questioning himself a lot, but “it’s not like I sat down and said, right, this record needs to be pop. It just ended up sounding like that. What we listen to now is all pop. I don’t really listen to music with guitars in, and that’s an evolution over the past four years. We’ve changed. It’s a natural progression.
“All the elements of our band are still there. Regardless of the format we present music in I’ve always written in a very pop way. I’ve always written verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus because I’m not that intelligent. Prog rock makes my brain explode. I’m very simple, so that’s how I’ve always written.”
“All the songs are about stupid fucking rituals that we do to make ourselves feel better,” offers James. “It just felt fitting. I was worried because I didn’t know if people would think I’m an arsehole after listening to the lyrics, but it’s what’s coming out of me. It’s what feels right. The record is about me. It’s a semi-fictionalised version of me being an arsehole in the past.”
About 70% of the record is pure truth. The rest is exaggerated for dramatic effect and because that’s what happens when you’re left alone with your head. The religious titles are a metaphor for that struggle for absolution. They were also written before the songs, to try and help speed up the writing process.
“It didn’t work. It was still difficult. I thought it would give me something to write about. It just made it harder.”
On ‘Worship’ Deaf Havana sing, “I’m still the fucked up kid I was from the start.” It’s something James always thought he’d grow out of.
“You always want to. I always assumed I’d reach an age where I did but I’m 28 now, and I haven’t yet. I don’t know if it ever happens. It’s a conscious decision though, isn’t it? I always assumed it would happen naturally, you’d reach an age in your life and suddenly realise ‘Alright, I’m not going to be a prick anymore and I’m not going to drink all the time’, but it doesn’t happen like that.”
“This record is about owning your mistakes. I needed to get it out,” admits James.
While the titles sound absolute, ideas of heaven and hell, saints and sinners, the record isn’t so sure. It’s still trying to make sense of those ideals, and where you draw your own lines. Confessions rain down. It’s all very unfiltered.
“That conflict and tension is very important to a lot of art,” continues Matt. “Having lyrics as a form of catharsis is an essential piece of what we do. Every single band I listen to is incredibly miserable as well. That always just chimes better with me. I don’t know whether we’d be able to write a song about how good we were feeling.”
And for good reason.
“We don’t feel good all the time,” shrugs James. “We’re still poor. It’s a battle to get there, so why make out that it’s any different? I don’t want to listen to a song about how good someone’s life is. I like the lowest points. I love miserable lyrics I don’t know how else to write.
“I can see why you’d think this album would be optimistic though. It surprised us, as well. I wasn’t expecting to write this album; it came out. The most extreme parts are a bit elaborated, but it’s mainly me,” he continues, before pausing and losing any remaining pride in his past.
“If I’m honest, it’s not great. I’ve always thought that art comes from those dark places. Most famous artists are wankers. That’s why what they make is so great, because it comes from that horrible place. I do worry people will think I’m an arsehole, but I’d rather have a good end product than be liked. If I was really being an arsehole, it would be arrogant. It’s more, this is me, sorry. Avoid at all costs.”
‘Rituals’ bleeds and pours. It was written as a stream of consciousness, and hasn’t changed much since.
“Some of the lyrics, I don’t remember writing.”
The band had ‘Heaven’ for ages and, with one week to go until they had to hand the record in, they still needed lyrics. It was the day after James’ birthday, and he was still fuzzy from the night before.
“I just drank a bottle of prosecco,” he remembers. “I remember waking up from a blackout, and I’d written these lyrics, recorded these voice notes of melodies, so I went and recorded it. It’s my favourite song on the record, but I do not remember writing those lyrics. The whole thing was like that. It’s very in the moment. I know it sounds cliché, but it came from somewhere else. The lyrics I normally write, I spend hours agonising over. This was so natural. It might be an age thing. It might be subconsciously feeling more comfortable, because I do but it’s never really happened like that before.”
Deaf Havana aren’t exaggerating when they call ‘Rituals’ the most miserable record they’ve written. From the off, it’s pretty bleak, and there’s no glimmer of light at the end. Instead, it closes with James on a ledge, ready to jump. ‘Epiphany’ wishes things could start over but buckles knowing you never can. Fizzying and frantic, it’s final words are “I know at times you wanted to kill me, let me save you the trouble.”
“Again, I was drunk. I was in a really bad headspace. I just imagined my life if I could start again. Up until now, everything I’ve done has been the opposite of what I wanted to do. I don’t think I’m a good pillar of society. At my core, I don’t think I’m a good person. I ended up writing a list of all the things I wished I’d done. I wanted to turn it into a full song, but it ended up being okay on its own as an outro.
“I almost didn’t use it because the last lyric alludes to me killing myself. I was worried, ‘cos that’s a serious issue and I didn’t want to make light of it, even though it’s not. I don’t know how to talk about it,” he awkwardly laughs. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to sing it live.”
James is okay, he thinks.
“I don’t feel like that every day. At all. But at that point, I did. I imagine most people do. I know everyone in our band has done at some point.”
“In writing things like that, it can be so cathartic, it’s important,” starts Matt. “It’s not always easy to talk about but sometimes writing it down can make you own it a bit more.”
Deaf Havana are okay being vulnerable. Sure, it’s “less than I think, but I’m working on it,” continues Matt. “It’s difficult. It does require a bit of work, but it’s important.”
“I write the best when I’m at that vulnerable point,” ventures James. “It’s where the best art comes from. I know, it sounds horrendously cliché.”
From the bold steps of ‘Rituals’ to that big ol’ headline show at Brixton Academy later this year, Deaf Havana mean business.
“Everything about this record and where we are right now is trying to make that statement,” starts Matt, as James adds: “We fucking mean it. It’s the first time I’ve felt this way. I’ve never wanted to be in control of this band. I’ll do the music, everyone else can sort other stuff out, but now, I want to be in charge of everything. I want to do everything. And I have been, which is weirdly satisfying. I don’t know why that is but I back it. I want this record to be for everyone. I’d love people to listen to it and really agonise over the lyrics, but I also want people just to shut off and dance to it. I want it to be for everyone, but also, I haven’t really thought about it,” grins James, as he sums the band up all at once.
“It’s for people who like dancing and crying,” beams Matt.
Deaf Havana have always just gone with it and whatever happens, happens. 2018 has been no different, but for the first time, they’re not just seeing what happens. They’re hoping for the best.
“Well, that’s all you can do really, isn’t it?” reasons James, as Matt breaks out into a smile. “For such a miserable record, everything around it is really positive.”
Taken from Dork's Big Album Guide, out now. Deaf Havana’s album ‘Rituals’ is out 10th August.