Dave Donnelly spoke with Halves‘ Brian Cash & Tim Czerniak about their recently released second album Boa Howl.
It’s been the guts of three years since Dublin three-piece Halves released their first full-length album, It Goes, It Goes (Forever & Ever), a subtle and intricate record that added a great deal of personality to the accomplished but not particularly original EP releases. Released on their own Hate is the Enemy label, It Goes, It Goes (Forever & Ever) was rewarded with a nomination for the 2010 Choice Music Prize. Though they ultimately lost out to radio rock favourites Two Door Cinema Club, the standard had been set.
Second time around, Halves took an altogether different approach. While early EPs were recorded as most records now are – to computer – the trio are more assured of what they want and more confident in how they approach recording. Deciding that they would settle for nothing other than recording to tape, they committed to a week and a half at Svennska Grammofon Studio in Gothenberg, Sweden and let the process take care of itself. The result is a much more coherent and expressive album: Boa Howl.
Dave Donnelly caught up with multi-instrumentalists Brian Cash and Tim Czerniak ahead of the first album release show in Dublin’s Button Factory on July 13th.
Are you happy with how Boa Howl turned out in the end?
Tim: Yeah, I think so. When we finished the first album, we had nothing left so we started from pretty much a blank slate – and that’s the first time we’ve done that because with the first album we wrote it over the course of the first three or four years as a band. It was nice to see how we dealt with having nothing and coming up with something.
Brian: Looking back on it, I think we’re really proud of having to work from a clean slate and seeing what we come up with. When people are expecting something – because the first album did fairly well for a small album – we’re very proud of it.
Having had a few EPs before the first album release, how do you feel you’re getting used to the album format now?
Brian: It’s a nice format. With EPs, it’s not as stressful coming up with a track order. When you’ve a three-track EP, it’s like you put the loud one first and so on. With the first album, we spent a lot of time crafting this fluid order, and this time around it was really easy. There was no real argument – it was very clear that what is track one had to be track one because it is an energetic start to the album. We knew the second Tim brought in the song Let Them Come, it was like ‘that has to be the closer.’ It was very easy to put together.
Tim: The thing about an album is you start getting used to the format, because EPs are not enough time to do anything more than just have the songs, whereas an album you have the time – and I hate using the word – to have a ‘journey’ and some sort of flow to it. On the first album we just kind of just figured that out, whereas this time we knew a bit more about how it would work.
Brian: Putting stuff out on vinyl as well – we have had to think of both albums in three parts and make three distinct parts so that people can physically listen to something that makes sense in side A, and to get from side A to B to C in a smart way. That’s not just a playlist on shuffle where any song can come on, but like I said it wasn’t that hard to sculpt. It was harder to make it.
Brian: We like making an album – it’s a tool under our belts.
I’m surprised to learn it’s been almost three years since the first album came out – a lot must have changed in the meantime.
Brian: With the first album, we were surprised – the reaction was really good and we got things like the Choice nomination. We weren’t expecting any of that. We didn’t consciously go ‘we need to make a second album’ – we looked at the calendar and said ‘if we are going to make a second album, we have to make it in August.’ It was fairly relaxed – there was no pressure.
Tim: At that point we had started writing, but we realised that one of the guys was going away for a year so we had to physically have it recorded by the time he left. We had a natural deadline to work to, and that helped.
Brian: We got it done fairly quickly. By the time this one comes, it will be two and a half to three years. When the first album came out, everybody was asking why it took so long to put out your first album, but we had to write songs. We put out three EPs and a single and did lots of touring and then started writing songs. We had the live album in between, so I think in two and a half years we did alright.
What made you decide to record in Sweden – was it a matter of recording with the people you wanted or did you just want to get away.
Brian: To get away.
Tim: We wanted to work with tape, which kind of limits your options for place because very few if any in Ireland do that. Also when you’re working on an album, the atmosphere you’re in bleeds into what you’re doing, and it’s nice to pull yourself out of your everyday norm. I think that brings something extra to it because if you go somewhere you’ve never been before, you have all these external influences that you’ve never experienced, and you’re trying to do something where you know what you’re trying to do but then all the other nine senses bleed into it. It gives it a unique flavour. It’s hard to tell whether it works or not, but I feel it does.
Brian: If we made the album in Walkinstown, we would’ve overthought it. When you’re in a foreign country for eleven days, there’s no messing about. Everyday there was a list of things to do and we got them done, but the difference was we were somewhere where all the microphones were great, the tape sounded great, so it was going to sound good as long as we didn’t overanalyse anything. If we’d been recording in Ireland it would have been to ProTools, and the temptation there is to overanalyse everything and reach for perfection. There’s loads of little imperfections on these album, but we like those imperfections.
Your preference for tape, why is that?
Tim: Tape has – to get a bit technical – has a particular response to sound. It has a particular way of recording things and it kind of naturally compresses things and we really like that. It gives it a particular quality and it really, really works with things like drums and more dynamic instruments. We like the quality of that – given the choice, we’re going to use it.
Brian: It sounds amazing and it also feels special doing it. It’s reliving this big warehouse with these big machines that have been tried and tried and tried. The pressure is on us to play well because we can’t go in and quantise things. We do a take, run upstairs and listen to it and we all wait for three nods, and if it’s good that’s the one that’s on the album – we can’t change it. There’s something really amazing about that, like you can hear a fingerslide in there and that’s all you’ll hear forever, but that’s the way it is.
Tim: It’s what happened rather than a perfect representation of what may have happened.
Brian: When you listen to the album, it sounds a lot more traditional. It sounds like people in a room. Nowadays, the problem is that people are cut up to absolute perfection but when you go to see them they can’t play that well, so I think it’s good to have a few mistakes on your album and then try and play better live. If we were so polished, how would we get away with that live? Your drummer isn’t that good in real life. I’m not that good a drummer and there are mistakes on the album, but I’d rather have them there than be hitting the wrong things on stage. We did our first two EPs on ProTools and we had bad experience – like on one song we spent three hours replacing the snare sound, and it was like ‘this is ridiculous.’ The only experience we’ve had recording to computers is spending four hours going ‘is it fixed yet?’ when we could have recorded another song in those four hours.
Getting to the album itself, what inspired the title, Boa Howl?
Brian: It sounded cool! There’s no real meaning to it, it’s just something I stumbled across when I was looking for titles. It is the peak of a mountain in China that I saw once on the internet, and then accidentally when we were looking for front covers we found what is now the front cover, which is this family portrait taken 20 years ago on a mountain in China, so there’s one weird cosmic link there. We wanted something short for the album title, because that was the plan for the first album and for some reason we ended up with this really long album title.
With brackets and everything…
Brian: It was ridiculous. The one thing we wanted for the first album was a really short title but ended up with a longer thing. This time around we wanted something small but also that people would go ‘oh, what does that sound like?’ The album doesn’t sound like those two words but hopefully it will pique people’s interest.
Your press releases lists as influences – I have to admit, I didn’t pick these out myself – everything from the Flamingos to Malian folk music. How do you work to condense all that into your sound?
Tim: It’s funny: they’re more production influences than song influences. We write the songs and we don’t think about what we’re writing, but when we think about how it’s going to sound we think about what we’re listening to at the time. We tend to take production ideas from songs we’ve heard or soundtracks and think it’d be really cool to have a song with that sort of sound to it. And of course we’ll take that to a song that sounds nothing like that.
Brian: The funny thing is that we tend to get inspired for production ideas by stuff that isn’t normally our go-to bands. I mean you listen to Soundgarden [gestures as Black Hole Sun plays in the background], but there’s nothing in Soundgarden’s music or the Cardigans or the Deftones that makes us go ‘we love the band,’ but the production doesn’t suit us. But I was listening to Fifties doo wop stuff and I was like, Jesus, I’d love to get something like this on our album. That’s what inspired a little sound on track nine, and we just tried to recreate mic techniques from the Fifties and get that kind of sound. The release reads really weird, but it’s all production techniques as opposed to songs.
Tim: The songs come out without us thinking about them – it’s the production we really think about.
Brian: Our favourite bands you could pick out of the songs, but what inspires us is weird production styles, if it’s hip hop or weird world music, only we can trace it but it’s definitely there.
What I interpreted from some of the songs was a Sixties kind of psychedelic feel, but it makes sense with the folk influence and the doo wop crossing over…
Brian: A lot of it was trying to pitch vocals and try to make things a little bit trippy – some of the songs are upbeat rock songs or upbeat folk songs, but we never wanted to do an upbeat rock song or folk song, we wanted to put in something a bit trippy.
Tim: If you do something that sounds just like one thing, it’s boring, right?
Brian: That’s where the Joe Meek thing comes from – he used to have all sorts of whacky shit as well.
There seems to be a bit more of an emphasis on acoustic instruments this time.
Tim: There’s harp and a dulcimer and finger harps and acoustic guitars.
Brian: Even the electronics, all the glitches and beats. For the first album, a lot of them were organic but some of them were still computerised things, whereas [this time] with Ellis, who does the majority of the electronics, we spent a day out in a forest recording songs. The start of track 3 is basically me and Tim jumping on this giant boulder and he took the sound of that, slowed it down and made a beat out of it. It suits the acoustic guitars and harps well, as opposed to going to Reason and pulling up some horrible drum beat, so he had us jumping on rocks.
On the other side, you seem more confident incorporating the electronics too.
Tim: There are still some electronic sounds, but with that stuff we felt if you’re going to do it, make it a feature rather than just having it… there are songs where electronics are very much part of it. I mean, there are no drums on track 3 – it’s all samples of various sounds and drums. On other songs, there are no electronics.
Brian: Nowadays, if they’re included they have to be very good.
Tim: They have to be worth it.
One of the things that sticks out from the titles and the ambience too – and I think it feeds into going out to the forest and recording sounds – is that there’s a natural imagery to a lot of the songs.
Tim: I think that all happened subconsciously. I don’t think we thought about too much.
Brian: In a lot of titles, there’s nothing to be read into. Best Summer is a joke title. The reason we called it Best Summer is because it’s such a shit title.
Tim: It’s just such a nothing title. There’s no meaning.
Brian: It’s just sounds like a really crap pop song – we gave it a crap pop song title. We only recently realised when we got the CDs back that we’re not sure anybody else will get that it’s a joke but we find it really funny. It’s the same with titles like Hug the Blood – to me that’s hilarious. It’s something that made me chuckle. Then there are ones that are more serious, like Tanager Beak, and a lot of Tim’s lyrics would be landscape-based and to do with nature.
Tim: Even Hug the Blood does have somewhat of a nature theme. I always find that I’m a lyricist but Brian is much better with titles, and we kind of work together quite well and that I’ll find meanings in his titles.
Brian: I’ll come up with things that make me chuckle…
Tim: … and I’ll be like ‘that makes sense!’
Well Best Summer being a joke sort of ruins my next question.
Brian: Well the song is sincere as hell! It’s just our version of a shit title.
Well I was listening to the album properly for the first time recently and it just fit with that lazy summer evening vibe…
Brian: It’s brighter than the first album. The first album is kind of a spooky autumn album, which is when it was released, and it’s not intentional.
Tim: There is more light in it. There’s less clutter as well and a bit more space to it.
Brian: Going back to the Fifties and Sixties thing, this is kind of – and it’s weird to say – our version of this is our way of making poppy-ish songs that aren’t poppy. The way that we can make pop songs is to make them kind of trippy and mad. There’s better melodies on this album, there’s more subtle production, and there’s more stuff you’d enjoy listening to in the sunshine as opposed to the first album which we tried to be really intense about. It’s more our version of…
Tim: … a lightweight pop album.
Brian: Yeah, if we travelled back in time and made our album in the Sixties, we’d make this crazy, trippy weird joke – it’s not a joke – don’t put that in. It’s not a joke.
The guest performers on the album, like Carnival Moon and Gemma Hayes, how did those come about?
Tim: Carnival Moon… Elaine is just a mate of ours. We do a lot of stuff with her, and we play a lot on her stuff, and actually one of her members now lives in Toronto and plays with her so it’s a natural thing. With Gemma… you’ll explain it better.
Brian: It’s funny, we know when we write the songs that, here, we want to get a guest female vocalist in. We like getting guest vocalists in because we like collaborating, but we like getting female vocalists in because it’s only three blokes in the band and it’s a different mixture of voices. For the first album, we had a list of three and we got our first choice. For this album, we had a list of one and I heard through a mutual friend that Gemma really liked our band, so I sent her an email.
Tim: She came down one afternoon and banged it out. She’s really fantastic to work with, very easy to work with.
Brian: We always really enjoyed her stuff, but when she’s there in front of you singing one of your songs you sort of go, ‘fucking hell, that’s Gemma Hayes singing one of our songs.’ Her voice is so distinct and sweet, it’s very much out of context of what she does and I think it works really well. I’d like to do more stuff with her because both our voices work really well together.
Tim: It’s interesting how somebody who will usually do one type of thing does something else, because it always highlights what it is about their voice that fits. Her voice fits very well with what she does, but something about her voice really fits well with what we do, so it’s really nice to bring that out and try to fit her in that context. It really works very well.
Brian: We’ve been really lucky. We loved that track before she recorded on it, but it’s just a lovely part of that song and she wrote lovely harmonies that we didn’t think of, so it goes to show it’s nice to open your doors out to people and collaborate.
Would the song have been written with her in mind?
Tim: The original song wouldn’t have been written with her in mind, but as it took form you’d go, you know what would be really good with this – a female vocalist. It just naturally came to us that Gemma Hayes would work really well and it was just really amazing to work with her.
What are your plans and hopes for the release and the next year or god knows how long?
Brian: there’s no massive expectation other than having people say they’re interested by it and to play as many shows as possible. We’d like to get into the habit of not writing songs whenever we need a new album, but to exercise that muscle. We’ve got a bunch of stuff coming up in the autumn, then there’s stuff in the pipeline for the winter, but then we’d like to write something completely different. We’re not going to become really famous or really rich.
Tim: The reward is when you see someone who really likes it – that just brings home why you’re doing it. I’m doing it because I’m a music fan and I get excited about music, and it’s really nice when you see people get excited about your stuff.
Brian: When you’re an Irish band who have their day jobs and don’t have the big record deal and the manager, the little things like people getting excited about your record fundamentally should be the greatest reward – it’s better than anything else. When we get to play live shows we really appreciate it because it doesn’t happen every day. There’s nothing better than somebody listening to an album for the first time and going ‘holy fuck, I love this album.’ In the current situation, it’s the best reward you can get. We’re more than happy for people to just turn around and say I like it.